Peter Foden

Unlocking the Codes of the Past

I Interpret

Archives can be boring. They’re not always attractive to look at, and they don’t easily come to life or tell  their stories without a bit of help. Sometimes it’s the language: Latin remained an official administrative language in England and Wales until 1733, while French has at different times been the language of Lawyers, of the Gentry, and of international Diplomacy. Welsh is sadly largely invisible in most legal and administrative documents even in its heartlands. 

Handwriting is the next problem. Where we choose fonts on our computers, early modern professional scribes were adept at writing in two or three different hands for different purposes or languages. English was usually written in a Secretary Hand, laborious to write and to read, while Latin used Italic letterforms, much easier on our eye and brain. These clerks or scriveners also used an elaborate system of abbreviation, which didn’t necessarily save time, ink or paper, but can flummox a new reader.

Jevan ap Adam, reeve of Tregrug, has been unable to collect rents because tenants have left 'because of war' and their houses have been burned down. Was this perhaps retribution for them supporting Owain Glyndwr? He asks for the debt of seven pounds to be written off, but it is disallowed in 1409, as it was the previous year, because he refused to name them. Comparative value today might be about £55,000. [Abbreviated latin account roll, UK National Archives SC 6 928 19]

Now known as Lyveden New Bield, but I discovered the name Thomas Tresham gave it in a Latin journal at the British Library - Lanterna Livedinensis

Asked to look at manuscripts in the British Library, which Gunpowder conspirator Thomas Tresham had hidden in a wall in 1605, using my knowledge of abbreviated Latin I discovered that he was designing a building which he called ‘The Lyveden Lantern’. We now know it as Lyveden New Bield, an unfinished cruciform summer house preserved by the National Trust. Tresham intended it as a kind of Beacon, symbolising a resurgent Catholicism in the heart of Protestant England.

Have you ever marvelled at the ease with which celebrities on ‘Who do you think you are’ can read anciently atrocious handwriting about their ancestors? I’ll tell you their secret: those transcripts they’re reading are sometimes mine. It’s fun being part of a conspiracy: the production team never divulge whose family I am working on, and our whole family enjoy spotting my work when broadcast. It doesn’t have to be very old: one of the more modern transcriptions I did was of letters written in the fifties by Claire Balding’s father to another man who may or may not have been his lover. Close reading of every letter and penstroke can be important. 

My translations of the Norton Manorial Court Rolls 1244-1539, were published by the Hertfordshire Records Society in 2014 after a three-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. They illuminate the lives of ordinary mediaeval people living on this St Albans Manor, now part of Letchworth Garden City. 

At Variance: the Penrhyn Entail (Welsh Legal History Society, volume xiv, 2019) includes my transcriptions and translations of key evidence in the saga of a troubled uchelwyr family in North Wales between 1415 and 1559, alongside historical analysis by Dr Gwilym Owen of Bangor University Law School.

Me helping David read court rolls in the reading room at Hertford

My published translations of the Norton court rolls

More often, I am sent digital images of wills, court rolls, charters, and other documents which people have come across in their own research, and asked to provide translations and transcriptions. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the language a handwritten document: whether it is Middle English, Early Modern English, French, or Latin, please come to me for help understanding it.

Transcription and translation services:

  • Transcribing handwritten documents
  • Translating from Latin, Middle and Early Modern English, and Mediaeval French into Modern English
  • Explaining legal documents composed in these languages