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Do you have you an attic ? If so, and if you come of an old Jersey family, there is a strong probability that in it there is a box of some sort containing old documents, the "contracts" of your ancestors.

Earliest documents

Documents of the 12th and 13th centuries do exist, but the earliest in private hands are perhaps some of about 1360, concerning Vinchelez Manor. You will be fortunate if you find originals as old as this, but you could easily find some dating from the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.

If they are older than about 1650 they will he written on parchment, somewhat discoloured and probably folded in three, and in three again, and held in place by a tiny strip of parchment, a most durable, indeed almost indestructible material.

After that date they are likely to be on paper, and this has withstood time less well. In some cases, particularly if a document has got damp, it may be so frail as to be impossible to hold or read, for portions of a page may fall away, or indeed have disappeared. But paper from, say, 1700 onwards, is usually in quite good condition.

The writing changes through the centuries, Going backwards, that of the 19th century is very good indeed, usually far better than modern handwriting. In the 18th century it is generally easy to read, though sometimes unfamiliar words may baffle one, and naturally some writers are less careful than others.

In the 17th century, if the document is in good condition, it should not be too hard to read, once one becomes accustomed to the vagaries of the particular scribe; earlier than that it can be very difficult, particularly when the witer indulged in many abbreviations, as they so often did, and when the writing is very small and close-set. But they are seldom impossible to read sufficiently to grasp the sense,

In Jersey, though early examples may be in Latin, and some coming direct from England are in English, particularly those concerned with defence, by far the majority are in the French of France, with occasional words of local significance, but never in Jersiais.

Now, what are these documents likely to say? Well, a great many are "rentes", that is when someone needed to raise a sum of money, and paid the interest on it in wheat rentes, calculated annually according to the current price of wheat.

The purchase of land or a house was often made by the same method, and property you bought was usually similarly mortgaged. Such documents are not of especial interest, unless they mention some land by name, when it is often possible to identify a field; usually the parish and the fief in which it is situated are mentioned, which greatly assists identification, and it is always interesting to notice the fief concerned.

To whom it may concern

Most official documents start with the words “A tous ceulx qui ces presentese lettres verront ou orront ", the equivalent to "To whom it may concern." The name of the reigning sovereign is often mentioned, and always the Bailiff and at least two Jurats, who sign the original.

If one is in doubt about the date, and it can be the trickiest bit of all to read, one can ascertain the operative dates of those officials as crosspchecks, always assuming one can read their signatures.

The Bailiff’s seal is appended to an original document. This bears, on the one side the island seal, given to us by Edward I in 1279, and on the other the arms of the Bailiff himself. If he had no arms he made a thumb-mark in the wax.

Some of these seals are still in a perfect state of preservation. But a word of warning: do not ever wrap the seal in cotton wool, as people often do, with the best of intentions; it draws the oil out of the wax and the seal then crumbles.

Personal papers are really more interesting than official ones. You may well find Militia commissions which belonged to our ancestors, or their will, letters or accounts.

Perhaps diaries are the most human and revealing of all. In them we can see our ancestors as people like ourselves, preoccupied with the same joys and sorrows. They speak of anxieties about wars, their concern over health, their crops, the weather, the welfare of their animals, repairs to their houses, purchase of household articles and clothes, news from relatives overseas, and arrangements for their children's education.

Accounts are most interesting, not so much for the value of the articles bought, for money values change so much with economic factors that it is hard to assess the true relative value of an object, but more to see just what things were available and considered desirable.


Let me give you just a few examples through the ages. In 1409 a small whale boat from Quimper (Kempercorentyn) was washed up in bad weather on the coast of the fief of Vinchelez, whose Seigneur claimed the right to wreckage, and to their cargo of bolts of cloth.

In 1510 ratification of the sale of a house in St Martin was passed before the Royal Court; the sale had taken place in 1490 by Ouie de Paroisse (in the hearing of the parish) that is by a verbal transaction before witnesses.

A will of 1680 bequeaths "the chest in the kitchen and a young cow" to a granddaughter, and another granddaughter, who has nursed the testator during his illness, gets some money, a cow, a young bull, and a stove, a bed, two pairs of sheets and a bed cover, a considerable inheritance at that period.

In 1739 the congregation at St Clement was scandalised, and the service interrupted by a commotion caused by Jeanne Collas, wife of Helier Dumaresq, and a Louis Bureau, who were annoyed to find Jean Dumaresq had closed his pew with lock and key.

They were condemned to pay the legal costs of the action, and forbidden to enter the church for three months.

In 1837 a father sending his daughter to school in England gave her £7 cash and her passage to Southampton, which was 15s.

So if you have never examined that old box in the attic, you may find that it contains matter of far greater interest and importance than you ever imagined.

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