Chirograph (Cyrograph)

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The chirograph was a legal document held between two parties and used for authentication purposes. Written on a piece of vellum or parchment, a chirograph would be used for various medieval, papal or notarial document which was then irregularly cut apart and divided among the parties.

History and Use

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A Chirograph

Supposedly originated in Ango-Saxon England, the chirograph was developed from the notarial culture used to authenticate documents. Used for a variety of reasons, the chirograph is prominent in tales of manuscripts, codiocology, diplomatics, and notaries. The chirograph was not used for any one specific purpose; instead, it could be used for any legal exchange of trade, property as well as any legal agreement. Two parties were the main participants in the creation of each chirograph: "an actor or originator of the act (a ruler, a merchant, a landowner, a moral person such as a cathedral chapter), and a destinatarius or the one to whom the act is directed (a subject, a tenant, a buyer)" (Powell). They, however, were not the only ones responsible for the document; scribes, notaries, and witnesses were all, "in one way or another, responsible for the making of the act and for the drafting, composing, witnessing, or writing that went with it" (Powell).


The text on the chirograph was copied twice on the same sheet of vellum or parchment and written between the two sections was the word “cirographum.” The copies were then cut through this lettering, usually in a wavy or irregular manner in order to avoid forged copies. When the two copies were brought together, it would prove the document authentic and free for ratification between the two parties. It would be hard to fake these documents, as the lettering itself was unique as well: "Written in round court-hand, with heavy main-strokes; the strokes below the line drawn out into a point or a hair-line; those above, looped or turned over to the right. In line 2 a transposition of words is indicated by double oblique strokes" (Bond).

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The Grant of Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham A.D. 1305. British Museum, Harley Charter 43 D. 12. - A.D. 1305. Series II., Plate 138

Whether they were drawn up by courts or by two willing participants, the chirograph was effective and sealed in front of a jury of witnesses. Not only would the halves serve as authentication, but the witnesses would verify by testimony as well; there were no signatures on a chirograph. The authentication process was intricate. "The critical examination of any record. whether literary or documentary, and whether in an authentic form or in a copy, or as reported, must take a full and firm account of the substance of the document and of all tee circumstances surrounding that document. Only when a document has been examined with all thoroughness, externally as well as internally, can its witness be evaluated properly, circumstantially, and fully" (Powell).

Key Properties

Identity in the Public vs. Private Spheres

Identity was a key characteristic of the chirograph. Because they were used in both the public and private sphere, it was utilized in varying degrees of importance. When used in private cases, "it may not be possible to identify the parties beyond their names, occupations, and localities, unless one is dealing with an area where local records are plentiful, with a cartulary or manorial pledge book in which their is a continuity over a number of generations, or with a series of notarial registers from a closely knit area" (Powell). However, in the case of public acts, "the actor at least will be a persona authentica or a person meriting fides publica - kings, emperors, popes, bishops, local rulers, etc., and moral persons such as chapters or communes" (Powell). These people are usually easier to find records of, requiring less research because they have left behind an easier trail to follow.


Time was important to the chirograph in two ways: identity and language. Because chirographs were used by all classes, "the quality or title which is assigned to the parties or persons in records of all kinds is of particular importance" (Powell). In knowing the time period it was written, we can determine the exact conditions of the time and place of the act, or at least be able to create a general picture of the situation at hand.

The Language of Business

As previously mentioned, because the passage of time was a key consideration, they language of a chirograph was very specific. Because this was a legal document, important dates in which transactions were to be made were important to remember. Similar to today, the chirograph informed the parties of expected dates of payment or exchanges.

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British Museum, Harley Carter 84 D. 45. - A.D. 1251 Series II., Plate 118
The translation of the image at left reads: "The abbey undertakes to pay to Roger and Floria thirty mares, twenty at 'Hokeday' [2nd Tuesday after Easter] and ten at the Nativity of St. John the Baptist [24th June]. Under the penalty of twenty mares to be paid 'in subsidium Terre Sancte'; to deliver to them six oxen and two plough-cattle ('affri'), six cows and six yearling calves, from the abbey's manor of Preston [Preston-Bisset], and twenty quarters of suitable wheat, in compensation for the winter sowing of their land at Thornborough; and to set up their gates from Thorenborough at Preston; also to build, at the souther end of the hall at Preston, a 'solar' room, measuring thirty by eighteen feet, with fireplace and wardrobe, and two sufficient windows in the hall; and a kitchen with an oven, and in it a stable for six horses; and to sow with the Let sowing the manor of Preston, to the use of Roger and Floria. They, on the other hand, grant to the abbey their land of Thornborough, with its winter sowing and all appurtenances, to hold in frank almoign. Movable goods on either property to remain with the original owners. Dated, Sunday before the Purification of the Birgin, 1250[1]" (Bond).

The language used in the chirograph also followed "the basic style of writing employed by medieval chanceries and notaries [which] came out of an Ars dictaminis, or manual of correct usage" (Powell). However, each scribe or notary still had their own personal style of writing, "and there is usually enough that is singular in the productions of chanceries and notarial studios to allow one to distinguish one product from another" (Powell). This becomes helpful in determining identity and the details these officials' lifestyles, providing a broader and more complete picture for scholars.


What is problematic about this dead media is its subjectivity to natural catastrophes. Aside from the fact that vellum and parchment are delicate media, "the dismal hazards of fire, damp and thoughtless destruction to which medieval manuscripts are prey" (Pulsiano) were also some of the challenges it had to combat. Their importance as a communication tool was the reason for their perservation, "whether they be contracts in double chirograph or examinations grades in triplicate. And it is because they are still capable of communication are they examined, transcribed, edited, studied, and subjected to critical scrutiny by researches, scholars, and editors" (Powell). Disappointingly, both halves of a chirograph are rarely found. Because both halves are kept by their respective parties, there was rarely a case in which a central record of the document was kept. However, in a movement to learn history, there is often an attempt in which manuscripts such as a chirograph are "pieced together from extracts and transcripts in a variety of sources ranging from other medieval chronicles to transcripts by early modern antiquaries, which may differ radically in their treatment of the original source" (Pulsiano).

Modern Interpretations

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A papal chirograph

Today, the chirograph refers to a specific document that is issued by the Pope. According to the website of the Secret Apostolic Archives of the Vatican, "It is written in Latin or vernacular on plain paper and lacking of any solemn character. Contrary to what one may deduce from this noun, this document is not entirely written by the pope himself; the pope intervenes directly (at least in the first period) only with his signature, consisting of the pope’s name followed by the ordinal number." Written on plain paper, it is differentiated from other papal documents because of its length or formality as well as whether or not it contains the papal seal.

Works Cited

  • Powell, James M., Medieval Studies. An Introduction. Second Edition, (New York : Syracuse University Press, 1992).