During the Medieval period, seals were widely used in trading to ensure the authenticity and security of a document or letter. Bronze and copper seals were a possession of the wealthy or of those in authority, since they cost more to produce than lead seals, and had a longer life span on account of the metal’s hardness. The social status of the owner was reflected in the size of the seal, with the combination of motif and text providing further insight into the owner’s identity, such as their place in a family. An intaglio made in relief is the most traditional form of dry seal used to make the impression on the paper. The common design of a seal comprises a graphic emblem in the middle surrounded by a text, which is called the legend, around the perimeter.
This seal’s legend refers specifically to its owner; John De Messingham. Messingham is a small village, situated in Lincolnshire. It is located 25 miles from the find site, the village of Louth. Little is known of John de Messingham other than he was most likely a monk in a position of authority. Remains of an Augustine priory and convent still exist near Messingham, known as Thornholme. Another known Cistercian abbey also existed near Louth and this could have also been the residence of the owner.
Regardless of his residence, it is unusual for monks, who have taken a vow of poverty, to have their own seals except when called upon to act as a witness or for matters of importance. His name, John De Messyngham (variant spelling) appears in a few charters from the early 14th century.
The short legend inscriped around the matrix shows signs of skill, especially in the rendering of the Ss’ and Ms’, which respectively have been given a double bar and are very narrow. Due to the size of the matrix and shortened legen has been used but the full inscription would stand for S[IGILLUM]’IOH[ANN]’ISDEMESSINGHAM, ‘The Seal of John of Messingham’ in latin.
To find out more about intaglios and seals, please see our relevant blog post: Seal Rings – Intaglios as Signatures.