Cost: Free

Hands Across Time: Medieval Fingerprints on Wax Seals

Hands Across Time: Medieval Fingerprints on Wax Seals

Lecture by Dr Elizabeth New, FSA, and Prof Philippa Hoskin, FSA

Medieval seals are miniature time-capsules, and one of the very few personal items owned by many men and women. They were the equivalent of modern-day credit cards and passports in legal and administrative terms but, unlike signatures, the combination of image and text enabled their owners to present themselves in different ways, projecting something about individual or corporate identity. By the later thirteenth century men and women across society owned and used seal matrices: some were bespoke and some were bought off the shelf, but all were necessary to validate and secure documents. The wax into which these seal matrices were pressed also often retain impressions of finger and palm prints, and new imaging and analytical techniques enable the exploration of the implications of sealing practice for revealing new evidence about networks of power, exchange and authority; the ‘performative act of sealing’, ritual and administration; sealing practice in relation to legal and administrative developments; the creation of proof and misuse of authority; and, from a forensic perspective, the viability of prints over time, technical challenges of identifying overlaid prints on uneven surface, adding to the body of evidence to support the uniqueness of prints. This lecture will include a demonstration of the cutting-edge forensic imaging techniques being used by the AHRC funded Imprint project, along with the latest findings from the project team.

Dr Elizabeth New is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Co-Investigator of Imprint: A Forensic and Historical Investigation of Fingerprints on Medieval Seals (visit the project blog). She works on aspects of the history and visual and material culture of medieval England and Wales, with a particular interest in seals and sealing practices. Recent publications in this field include ‘Text and image: the language of seals in medieval England and Wales’, in Multilingual Networks in Medieval Britain. M. Carruthers ed. (2015), ‘The Common Seal and Civic Identity in Medieval London’ in Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power, S. Solway ed. (2015), and (as co-editor and a principal author) Seals and Society: Medieval Wales, the Welsh Marches, and their English Border Region (2016).

Professor Philippa Hoskin is Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She is general editor of the British Academy’s English Episcopal Acta Series and Principal Investigator of Imprint: A Forensic and Historical Investigation of Fingerprints on Medieval Seals. She works extensively on administrative documents, including their relationship to seals, and recent publications in this area include Robert Grosseteste as Bishop of Lincoln: the episcopal rolls 1235-1253.(Woodbridge, 2015); (with Jeffrey H. Denton) English Episcopal Acta 43 and 44: Coventry and Lichfield 1215-1295 (Oxford, 2014).


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