Would a Medieval Prince Have Had an 'Office'? - Sarah Woodbury

Would a Medieval Prince Have Had an ‘Office’?

A reader asked me this the other day, and I thought it worth a post because we think of ‘offices’ as being a modern invention, with computers and fax machines and secretaries.

And yet, a medieval prince or king–any ruler, from a sheriff to a thane for that matter–must have had a place for conducting business.  Where were papers kept? Where did he upbraid his inferiors for shoddy work? England in particular has been known for its government system of record keeping back to the Middle Ages. Where did the king keep all that? I chose to use the word ‘office’  because it does, in fact, have ancient roots in the English language and because even if a Welsh prince wouldn’t have used the word ‘office’ (which he actually might have, see below), he still would have needed its function.

The word ‘office’ is derived from the Latin word:  ‘OFFICIUM’ meaning “service, duty, function, business”.  We have ‘divine office’ which was the schedule of prayer services in a monastery, ‘office’ as in a formal  (often appointed) position, and then from Etymology.com:

office (n.) Look up office at Dictionary.commid-13c., “a post, an employment to which certain duties are attached,” from Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. ofice “place or function; divine service” (12c. in Old French) or directly from L. officium “service, kindness, favor; official duty, function, business; ceremonial observance,” (in Ecclesiastical Latin, “church service”), lit. “work-doing,” from ops (gen. opis) “power, might, abundance, means” (related to opus “work;” see opus) + stem of facere “do, perform” (see factitious). Meaning “place for conducting business” first recorded 1560s.

  • Offices in classical antiquity were often part of a palace complex or a large temple. There was usually a room where scrolls were kept and scribes did their work. Ancient texts mentioning the work of scribes refer to the existence of such “offices”. These rooms are often called “libraries” by some archaeologists and the general press because it is associated with the scrolls literature. In fact they were true offices since the scrolls were used to record records and other management functions such as treaties and decrees, and not for writing or poetry or other work related to fiction.  http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oficina
  • The High Middle Ages (1000–1300) saw the rise of the medieval chancery, which was usually the place where most government letters were written and where laws were copied in the administration of a kingdom. The rooms of the chancery often had walls full of pigeonholes, constructed to hold rolled up pieces of parchment for safekeeping or ready reference, a precursor to the book shelf. The introduction of printing during the Renaissance did not change these early government offices much.Pre-industrial illustrations such as paintings or tapestries often show us personalities or eponyms in their private offices, handling record keeping books or writing on scrolls of parchment. All kinds of writings seemed to be mixed in these early forms of offices. Before the invention of the printing press and its distribution there was often a very thin line between a private office and a private library since books were read or written in the same space at the same desk or table, and general accounting and personal or private letters were also done there. It was during the 13th century that the English form of the word first appeared when referring to a position involving duties (ex. the office of the …). Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have first used the word in 1395 to mean a place where business is transacted in The Canterbury Tales.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office

In addition, medieval lords definitely had secretaries. Many noblemen couldn’t read or write, many could read and not write (viewed as a separate task), and regardless, again, someone had to keep track of all that paperwork!  These secretaries were more than scribes. Many of them kept the household accounts, helped the lord manage his lands, and acted as castellan when he was absent.

2 Replies to “Would a Medieval Prince Have Had an ‘Office’?”

  1. An interesting post. Must admit I had never considered this. I always supposed that any administrative tasks that involved writing or record keeping were the exclusive preserve of monks. But could the medieval royal or baronial courts afford to outsource these functions to the monasteries? Monks in those days could be a shifty crowd 🙂

    1. They most definitely didn’t outsource. Especially not in Wales where most monasteries were designed specifically as retreats from the world, or to proselytize, and not intended for service to any earthly lord, prince, or king. Certainly for the Welsh princes, the two Llywelyns kept much of what was important to the throne of Wales at Garth Celyn (Aber), which is why it was so disastrous that Edward took the castle after the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. In so doing, he confiscated the treasury, all the official records (most of which he destroyed), and the crown, scepter, and piece of the true Cross.

      Garth Celyn is also from where Llywelyn wrote his last letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Edward, asserting the independence of Wales. There’s a story told by the current owners of Aber that one of the former residents found a stash of papers hidden in a wall, but because they were written in Latin, she burned them! Aaaaaahhhh!

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