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Making sense of old handwriting

Notarial Records


The Notarial System

The European Civil Law tradition prevailed in France and her colonies, meaning that transactional law and functions involved with the preparation and authentication — and even the preservation—of legal documents developed as a separate system from the functions of the courts and its advocates or attorneys. Under a legal tradition that valued the introduction of written evidence over oral testimony, notaries were responsible for preparing those legal documents and authenticating them for use by parties to an infinite variety of legal transactions, as well as for presentation to the courts.

Spanish historian Agustin González de Amezúa captures the unique ways notarial documents can offer intimate views of the past:

"How much and how many peculiarities and rarities can be read in these long documents, unburying innumerable lost or today unused objects, revealing genuine practices or customs; apparently silent witnesses, but eloquent and expressive as few others, of the social condition of the parties, of their way of life, of their opulence, of their necessities, tastes, and whims. [In those pages] it is as if the hours had remained petrified, distilled in the symbols and genuine representations of thousands upon thousands of existences."

Protocols As The Means Of Recordation And Preservation: Physical Arrangement And Indexing

In addition to preparing and authenticating documents, the notaire publique also had full responsibility for recording his transactions in a format that would preserve them for future reference by the parties, courts, and other elements of society. The result was the creation of the permanent notarial register or protocol. In some parts of France, at the end of each year, the notary arranged for the binding of the individual documents he had prepared into a single volume arranged in chronological order, often adding a cover sheet and table of contents. In other parts, the documents were arranged in chronological order and stored in tied bundles. In larger notarial offices (Etudes), certain documents, such as testaments, were placed in separate books or bundles.

Here are examples of various kinds of notarial documents:

Le rôle de taille
(The role of size)
Le partage
Décès d'un collecteur
(Death of a collector)
Contract d'apprentissage 
(Apprenticeship contract)


Paleography Introduction