The Medieval Title Deeds Project

05 November 2014

In the 1990s the Oxford Conservation Consortium started to monitor the environment in the Muniment Tower. This has three unheated rooms, accessed by a spiral staircase from the chapel, and contains our collection of medieval title deeds. The central room where the medieval deeds are stored had vents in the windows and was affected by external weather conditions more than the other two rooms. To control the environment in that room, which also houses important medieval wooden chests, we used the National Trust’s system of raising the temperature slightly with radiators, to lower the humidity. High humidity increases the activity of insects and catalyses damage to organic materials so it was important to improve the relative humidity.

Medieval deeds and their original wooden box

The chests had been damp and showed evidence of insect attack, and dehumidification had been tried in the past. Gradually conditions improved in the room, but as the furniture, in particular the deeds boxes, dried out, the frass or material from old insect activity also dried and dropped out. This was unexpected and we suddenly worried that we had an active wood infestation problem. In order to asses this, we decided to decant all of the deeds into archive boxes and with the help of several college librarians, over a week or so this was done. Insect and environmental specialists Bob Childs, David Pinniger, and Bob Hayes were brought in to advise, and luckily the opinion was that we were pest free and it appeared that the beneficial drying of the room had caused a false alarm. As a precaution we did treat the boxes with a water-based pesticide.

Deeds in an archive box, decanted during the pest scare

This was good, but we were left with the difficult decision as to whether to put the deeds back in their boxes, or to plan a major project for their conservation and rehousing. The scale of the project was the principle consideration, with 12,000 individual items to be treated. In 2001 and 2002, we carried out a few trials to see what condition the documents were in, how long it would take to clean one archive box, and what sort of housing system would be possible. We considered the importance of the deeds remaining folded in their wooden boxes, and decided that providing each deed or small groups of documents with an archival envelope would limit handling, protect the seals from damage, make it easier to find documents, and would permit us to put the deeds back in their boxes.

Manpower was another question, as we could not dedicate all of the college’s conservation time to one project, and needed to find the most effective use of the conservation team’s time. The question of maintaining momentum of the project was another consideration, as was resources. Finally in 2003 we decided we would definitely be able to complete the work cleaning, repairing, and rehousing the deeds, and the project began with library, archive and conservation staff working together on budget, materials, training and supervision of the deeds workers, as well as tracking and retrieving the deeds.

Accurately tracking a large number of medieval deeds sometimes posed a challenge

The library and archive trainee spent one day/month cleaning loose surface dirt from the deeds, and put aside material that needed remedial treatment to support areas of damage, to be done by the conservation team. This was an excellent opportunity for the trainees to handle and examine a large number of medieval documents on paper and parchment, and to spend time in the conservation studio learning more about preservation and basic cleaning and handling. In addition, over the ten-year project we organised 17 teams of conservation students or new graduates to work on the material, usually during their summer vacation, and often for a two-week period. This worked well as the students also benefitted from examining, documenting and repairing a large quantity of material. Students received careful instruction about the level of repair, importance of retaining the original format, and the need for a high degree of accuracy in tracking a large number of small items, in order to ensure security of the material over the project lifespan.

Maintaining consistency between the teams in terms of level of repair and documentation was challenging. A simple list was developed for tracking material as it moved from the trainees to the OCC conservators, and on which the conservation students could record items repaired, in addition to the usual documentation forms. This list proved invaluable for making sure deeds could be traced as they moved from the MT to the studio, to an individual’s bench, and back to the trainee. The first task was to count and carefully record the contents of a box, so that any questions about missing material could be easily answered later.

Conserved medieval deeds put into paper envelopes and then back in their box

5000 small and 1500 large envelopes were ordered and as much as possible, the deeds were put back in their wooden boxes. All items were left folded as they were originally intended to be, except if they were too damaged to withstand folding after repair.

An original box and its overspill boxes

The deeds had been tightly packed so some overspill was inevitable, this was put in archive boxes, and an oversize box was made for badly damaged material that had to be stored flat. Deeds with large royal seals were stored in a separate box with polyester material to cushion and protect the seal.

A small box, lined with Tyvek to protect deeds

When the wooden boxes were too small to take even the small envelope size, the box was lined with Tyvek and the deeds put in without envelopes.

Deeds pre-conservation

The deeds were largely in good condition, but were dirty, had been damaged by insects, rodents, water, and mould, resulting in losses, softened areas, staining, and there was mechanical damage such as split folds, tears, and creases. The inks used for writing were stable with little corrosion. The most common writing support was parchment, sometimes of high quality and very well prepared but mostly of lesser quality, thin with holes, and flanky areas. Deeds were either folded or rolled and came in a range of shapes and sizes. Again, as much as possible the original format was retained, and long items were rolled and wrapped in Tyvek.

15th century paper

Paper was also used as a writing support, quite often full untrimmed sheets sewn together to form a long roll. In the image above of some 15th-century paper, note the distinctive watermark.

Different materials on seals - a bit of leaf, a textile cover for a seal, and ties

The variety of materials found in the deeds was sometimes surprising, with leaf and cane being found within the seals, as well as decorative textile covers for seals, various narrow ties and braids used to attach them, and in some cases coloured varnish found on the seals.

Lead papal seal, showing Peter and Paul

This is Brackley 6, a papal bull issued by Urban IV at Viterbo in 1261. Examples of this kind of papal document are relatively rare among the deeds collection. In this bull, Urban is confirming an agreement made between the Hospital at Brackley, Northamptonshire and a monastery in Perthshire, regarding the settlement of a dispute over tithes. Pope Urban is the final arbiter in a regional administrative dispute. On this side of the lead seal are the heads of the St Paul (left) and St Peter (right), whilst Urban’s title is on the other side. Lead was common for papal seals, but because of its softness, the impressions are often damaged over time. This seal is in extremely good condition.

In total eight library/archive trainees, and 14 conservation students worked on the project over 10 years. Without these deeds workers, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the project and our sincere thanks go to them.

Dec 2002 Silvia Boroweic
Jun 2003 Ben Buchanan, Frances Lunn
2003/4 Claire Baker
Jun 2004 Martina Luskova, Maria Kalligerou
2004/5 Tracy Wilkinson
Aug 2005 Tracy Wilkinson, Sara Ribbans
Nov 2005 Sonja Schwoll
2005/6 Jennie de Protani
June 2006 Matt Brack
2006/7 Emma Burgham
Apr/Aug 2007 Matt Brack
2007/8 Richard Hunt
Apr 2008 Matt Brack
Aug 2008 Matt Brack, Eleanor Johnson
2008/9 Julie-Ann Vickers
Feb 2009 Matt Brack
2009/10 Emily Brown
Jan 2010 Eleanor Johnson
Jun 2010 Matt Brack
Feb 2011 Arthur Green
2010/13 Sean Rippington
May 2012 Yuri Nomura, Mari Watanabe
Aug 2012 Laura Hashimoto
Feb 2013 Clare Goulbourn

691 documents required remedial treatment by conservators of the Oxford Conservation Consortium, as well as the student teams, and our thanks go to the team for their work and assistance with planning, supervising, and managing this project. It is unusual in a conservator’s career to work through a collection of 12,000 items, and the OCC was happy to have had the chance to work with this material and help secure its preservation for the future.

Jane Eagan
Maria Kalligerou
Katerina Powell
Victoria Stevens
Celia Withycombe

More deeds from the collection can be seen in the Illuminating Magdalen article here.