Diplomatics is the study of the characteristics of a particular type of document itself. By studying the form of a document, it is possible to judge whether it is a complete and authentic document.
The most obvious example of a ‘diplomatic’ feature of a document is a signature. Historically, seals were used in the way that we now use signatures. Anybody who did not have a seal and could not write would mark the document with a cross.
Take a look at the following examples, concentrating on their form rather than their content. You can tell a lot about diplomatics without actually reading a document.
This document is written in French but even if you don’t have that language, you can easily tell it is a letter. We know this because there is an address at the very top, followed by a date and the name of the addressee. At the end, it has been signed, then there is a post-script. These are diplomatic features familiar to us as associated with letters.
In this letter, Rupert Brooke uses fewer of the diplomatic features we associate with letters but we can still identify it as a letter, if only because it starts with ‘Dear St. John’ and ends with a signature. Brooke did not include the date, which was added in pencil by somebody else. It is also worth noting that Brooke starts the letter with an apology for using note paper, which suggests that there were conventions for the types of paper friends should use when writing to each other. Such conventions are diplomatic features.
The author of a document is not always the same person as the scribe. The author is the person who decided what the content of the document will be, whereas the scribe merely wrote the document. The author will usually approve the document using a signature or a seal, whether he specified the wording or not.
In the case of the Royal Letters Patent above, Henry VI ensured that King’s College, Cambridge, received a certain amount of wine each year. Although it is written in the voice of Henry VI, and his seal indicates he approved it, it is hard to imagine a king actually putting pen to paper for such a document but easy to imagine King Henry VI approving this gift to the College which he had founded in 1441 and ordering the document to be drawn up. A scribe put his orders into the appropriate form of words, and then wrote them out.
Do I need to read it all?
When you write a message to a friend, you might cover several topics, perhaps giving each topic a heading or a new paragraph. The same is true of archival documents. If a document is very long, you might have to decide whether you need to read it all or whether you can identify the important parts.
For example, we all know that new paragraphs can indicate a change of topic within documents such as letters. Medieval document often include a summary of the document on the back or at the beginning, which means you can extract the most important information very quickly.
Remember, context is important when reading archives so you need to decide whether you will risk mis-interpreting something if you choose not to read it all.