Legal records use special forms and language and other devices to attest to the authenticity of documents, preventing challenges and preserving their evidential value. Signatures and seals of witnesses and signatories are examples of early authentication devices. Seals, involving a unique matrix pressed into warm wax, authenticated documents and, in the case of letters, kept their contents private. By the early modern era, small personal seals in the form of a signet ring had become quite common and inexpensive.
Marriage in the early modern period was a tool used to organize society and economic resources. Through marriage, families forged alliances, expanded their fortunes, and created systems of patronage that were expected to endure for generations. Marriage was intricately tied to church, state, and community, and served important social and religious purposes. Marriage contracts solidified the marital bond and protected each party's material interests.
Marriage contracts offer insight into the economic and legal ramifications of marriage such as the types of property exchanged or transferred, the agreed management of joint wealth during the relationship, and what would happen to marriage resources on the death of one or both spouses. From a social perspective, marriage contracts can provide insight into less-easily observed aspects of society such as gender relations, cultural traditions, and family tensions.
Below is a French marriage contract between Jacques Mouvet and Francoise de Lounducourt dated February 16, 1594. Some of the typical elements found in a marriage contract include the declaration of mutual consent, the exchange of tokens (such as rings), an exchange of vows of affections, provisions for the costs of the marriage (such as banquets or wedding clothes), and an accounting of the assets brought into the marriage by each party.
Written in Latin, the document to the left is a marriage settlement from Suffolk, England from July 1560, relating to the marriage of Thomas Heyward and Margaret Bryan of Sudbury. Similar to marriage contracts, marriage settlements were drawn up before a union and focused on the division and management of marital property.
There are two primary types of marriage settlements: a strict settlement and a trust settlement. A strict settlement “entailed” property, so that it would be passed on to a sole heir, usually the eldest son of the union and his heirs. This prevented estates and wealth from being divided among multiple heirs. A trust settlement, on the other hand, was drawn up to preserve a woman's separate estate. Since English women could not write their own wills without the permission of their husbands before 1882, this type of settlement protected a woman's interest in property or a source of wealth. Trust settlements served many important functions such as protecting property for a woman's children from an earlier marriage and securing a woman's source of income for her own use after her husband's death.
Probate records are court documents which validate and prove the last wishes of the deceased and settle their estate. Wills, testaments, and codicils are all types of probate records. These records are an invaluable source for historians and other researchers as they provide information such as the names of heirs and family members, familiar relationships, the localities associated with individuals and families, and inventories of properties and household goods.
In order to avoid court costs, wills were occasionally not submitted to the probate courts. Wills and related documents would be kept among family and estate records to be probated at a later date if the disbursements were contested. The records below were found among the Parsons family’s records, and include the wills of two family members and a family register which tracks births, deaths, and marriages.