Parchment in the collections of the Tallinn City Archives

Tiina Kala

Charters and law codices

Over the years, the parchment found in the collections of the Tallinn City Archives has been used for writing very different types of texts. The specific rules related to the use of parchment were rare. The choice of writing material was based on practicality, and only thereafter on the need for prestigiousness, although the two are often related.  Parchment has been used as the writing material in Tallinn or in documents issued for Tallinn from the 13th to the 19th century. The oldest parchment document in the City Archives, and also Estonia’s oldest written record, dates back to 1237 (papal legate Bishop William of Modena’s charter, which confirms the right of the church to donations of real estate, TCA (Tallinn City Archives), f. 230, n. 1-I, s. 2), the newest is from 1870 (the honorary citizen’s certificate issued by the Tallinn Town Council to Aleksander von der Pahlen, TCA, f. 230, n. 12, s. 4a ).

Parchment can be found in the following collections of TCA historical records (f. 230, n. 1-I): [1] the parchment letters of cities (f. 230, n. 1-II), professional and birth certificates (f. 230, n. 1-IIIa) and wills (f. 230, n. 1-IIIb). If the collections of charters as well as professional and birth certificates (n. 1-I and n. 1-IIIa) include both paper and parchment documents, then the two other collections (n. 1-II and 1-IIIb) are all comprised of parchment records. A few 15th-century parchment charters can also be found in the Brotherhood of Black Heads archive (f. 87, n. 1).

Before the art of printing was introduced, parchment was the preferred material for law codices. Of the five copies of the Lübeck Law that have been preserved in the city archives, four (f. 230, n. 1, s. Cm 5, 1257; Cm 6, 1282; Cm 10, 1282 (?), from the early 16th century; and Cm 19, from the mid-14th century) have been written on parchment. Only the newest code, dating from 1511 (Cm 20), was copied in Tallinn onto paper. A copy of the code that includes Middle Low German translations of the Latin privilege charters from the period of the Danish rule (1219/1238–1346) in addition to the Lübeck Law (Cm 19) may also have been copied in Tallinn. At the same time, additions to one of the three 13th-century codices (Cm 10), which may initially have come from Lübeck or Denmark, were made locally in the mid-16th century.

The statutes of the guilds, some of which are written on parchment, can also be treated as types of legal documents (in the collections of the Tallinn magistrate (f. 230), the Great Guild (f. 191) and St. Canute’s Guild (f. 190) archives).  Guild statutes were in use for a long period of time, and additions have been made to them over the decades or even centuries.

Register books

In addition to charters and other important single documents, or ones requiring prestigiousness, parchment was also used for register books, especially when they were intended for long period of use. Parchment record books from the 14th century, which were in use for shorter periods, have also survived. In this case the choice of material may have been influenced by its availability – in the Middle Ages, paper had to be imported into Tallinn, and the possibilities for obtaining it, not to mention the knowledge for making it, were apparently more limited than for parchment. Thus, parchment was used in the oldest Tallinn real estate and pledge registers (f. 230, n. 1, s. Aa 1, 1312–1360) and the oldest town council notebooks (f. 230, n. 1, s. Aa 2, 1333(?) – 1375). Paper became the predominant material used for the town council’s administrative books in the second half of the 14th century and 15th century. Parchment was used mainly for heavily used register books and ones that were kept for long periods of time, primarily the real estate registers (f. 230, n. 1, s. Aa 3, 1382–1518; s. Aa 35b, (1450) 1466–1636; s. Aa 35c, 1490–1805; Aa 35d, 1627–1802; s. Aa 35e, 1732–1807). However, in addition to durability, parchment was also used for volumes requiring a dignified appearance, such as the book (f. 230, n. 1, s. Aa 109) into which all important privileges granted to the City of Tallinn (including the earliest ones dating back to the Danish era) were copied between 1543 and 1827. The price of large volumes became very high. They also weighed a lot and thus, the use of parchment for administrative records started to slowly diminish. In a few cases, the administrative record sheets of parchment were reused on new purpose. Thus, in 1537, Johann Sulstorp, the Secretary of the Tallinn Town Council, reused the parchment record book of the St Mary Guild at Tallinn’s St Olaf’s Church, which had been donated to the guild by the brothers Hermen and Hinrik Drost in 1513. Apparently, the volume had ended up in the hands of the council during the Reformation in the course of the Catholic Church’s assets being confiscated. The pages with the guild’s entries were removed but Sulstorp copied the appellation matters that were sent to Lübeck between 1458 and 1515 into the empty sections (f. 230, n. 1, s. Aa 9a).