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Bottom of filing cabinet yields top-drawer discovery Add to ...

It's not exactly the Magna Carta, although it was penned around the same time, in similar Latin script, on English parchment.

It's a simple document, in the legalese of the day, by which a low-to-middling noble named Robert de Clopton granted land to his son, William, in the 13th century.

Apart from its age, its most intriguing aspect is how it resurfaced all these years later: in a filing cabinet at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., during an office reorganization last summer.

For all the expertise Brock historians have since brought to bear on determining what the document says, when it was written and by whom, they still don't know the contemporary history of how it wound up in their hands.

"That's the funniest thing," David Sharron, the university's archivist, said yesterday. "We're still trying to track down the mystery of how it got to Brock."

The story of its discovery is as mundane as they come. Mr. Sharron and co-workers were rearranging the office to make more space and opted to store microfilm in a filing cabinet.

"A co-worker of mine, Edie Williams, was emptying a drawer and came across this nice little document," sealed in a plastic bag, he said. "She could have easily just put it in a regular box and done away with it, but she recognized that it was a little different than anything else that we normally have in here."

What Brock usually has is a lot of Niagara-related material from the past 200 years; the document came with a note saying it was likely from the 15th century and that it came to Mr. Sharron's special collections department in 1976.

With other work occupying him, the archivist set the item aside until March, when he met with university colleague Andrew McDonald, a medieval historian, for a routine coffee break. After a chat about taking their kids to Walt Disney World, they commiserated over Brock's limited collection of artifacts.

The talk fresh in his mind, Mr. Sharron returned to his office and e-mailed a photo of the old parchment to Dr. McDonald, and to André Basson, a Brock expert in Latin.

"They were up here the next day saying, 'You don't know what you've got, do you?' " Mr. Sharron said. "They were like kids at Christmas when they were going over this thing."

The men correctly suspected that the well-preserved parchment - a touch bigger than a business envelope, folded into a smaller rectangle and affixed with a seal of dark green wax - was much older than its accompanying note suggested. They sent a photo of it to a colleague at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who dated it to the mid-13th century, a theory Dr. McDonald has since bolstered by viewing similar documents from the U.K. National Archives, including other mundane land dealings by Robert de Clopton and his kin.

While they have yet to translate its Latin text fully, Brock experts are confident it describes a common transfer of property, including "all appurtenances," meaning everything on the land, whether buildings or peasant villages.

Commonly called a charter, the legal record was handwritten by "Nicholas the Clerk," whose Latin skills suggest he was likely a priest, monk or member of a religious order, Dr. McDonald said. A distinct minority of the largely agrarian English population, perhaps less than a quarter, would have been literate then, and the printing press was still 200 years in the future.

"In broader terms, politically speaking, it's coming from an interesting time in English history," he said. "It probably dates from King Henry III," part of whose long reign, from 1216 to 1272, was dominated by civil wars with his barons.

Dr. McDonald has yet to unearth clues of any role Robert de Clopton played in the upheaval of his day, but for now, he is happy enough to be able to show students a genuine artifact from the period.

"It's not very big, it's not very fancy," he said. "It's just a very interesting little piece of history that has ended up here, and the thing that really makes it remarkable is that it's so old, and that it turned up in this storage closet."

 

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