Word-smithing a Peerage Scroll in a Vernacular Language

by Ana Areces Keveney
(known in the SCA as Donna (Lady) Ana de Guzman, Troub., OM, Seahorse, QHD)


I was recently given the assignment of word-smithing the scroll for the Laurel ceremony of a much-respected and highly-regarded lady who specializes in things Iberian, particularly the clothing and material culture of 13th century Spain. Her friends recommended me because I have similar interests, but I concentrate on poetry and song. I was honored by their faith in my abilities, but was also somewhat daunted by the task. I am fairly bi-lingual but only in modern Castilian, and the “trade route” Spanish of Cuba at that. I had done a fair amount of reading of modern transcriptions of old Spanish poetry, but not as much of works using original spellings. However, I had sources both print and on-line to help me. Once I began the process, I requested feedback from those who recommended me for the project. I received useful advice along with the suggestion to write an article about the process of word-smithing in another language, so here you read the result. Obviously this article will not be posted until the ceremony in question has come and gone; I am leaving out specific names until I receive permission to use those.

What This is Not

This is not a hard and fast step-by-step set of instructions. It is only a description of one project done under some time constraints, since I had six weeks’ notice, and the calligrapher/illuminator would ideally need at least four of those weeks to put the words and images to velum or parchment. This article serves only to give a general idea of what was used to create the wording for the document and how different sources were used and why. Different writers will have different levels of expertise, and different languages will have their own sets of challenges.

Contact with the Calligrapher/Illuminator

If you are not the calligrapher/illuminator of this scroll, contact with said person is essential and crucial to the process. This gentle is going to be writing the words in an old hand and will be drawing around those words. He or she will need an approximate word count to gauge the size of the page and where to place those words.

Poetry or Prose?

In this case, I had written the words to the same lady’s Maunche scroll, and had done that in verse. I chose to go with prose this time, in the form of a royal decree. I thought it would lend more dignity to the ceremony. I learned from poring through my sources that by the 13th century, kings in the Iberian peninsula were beginning to use their respective vernacular languages over the Latin in their legal documents. [1]

To Seal or Not to Seal?

Another consideration is whether you want a seal on the scroll. A seal lends a more authentic flavor, but also entails getting the right wax, some well-made cords if you want a pendant seal, and the time to design and cast the mold. A seal pressed onto a page will also affect the number and placement of words on the page, and the kind of paper used.

Some kingdoms have ready-made scroll seals, but may not necessarily have the look you want to achieve. Most extant seals have Latin words listing the titles of the monarch, [2] and either an image of said king or his arms. One seal of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284) shows the king on horseback, with the horse’s barding depicting the arms of Castile and Leon. [3] A sealed scroll will also be harder to frame. The calligrapher/illuminator and I decided against using a seal for this project because of time constraints and the wish to avoid the expense of custom framing later.

In Search of Text

Most of my books deal with poetry and of the history of the times in which they were written. When I want to write poetry for a scroll, I learn all I can about the scroll recipient’s persona and culture, look up the poetic forms in use at that time, and get busy writing and re-writing for as long as I have to get it done. The result is usually in English (sometimes in Castilian Spanish) but in the poetic form matching a form used in that persona’s culture as closely as possible.

My next step in this case was to find the text of a legal document, either in the vernacular Castilian or in translation, to get an idea of the flavor of the text. I own a copy of the Cronica de Alfonso X, which uses the old spellings, but this is a history of Alfonso’s times that the learned king compiled, not a decree. What this book does have at its beginning are some facsimile pages of text in the original script, which the calligrapher/illuminator was happy to see, as it was in a hand she knew and liked. [4]

A good source website is the Internet Medieval Sourcebook provided by Fordham University’s Paul Halsall since 1998. It is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. [5] Keep copyright issues in mind when you use internet sources. In the Sourcebook, permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you reduplicate a document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Losing Text, Or How Many Words is This?

It was in the Iberia link of the Sourcebook that I came across an English translation of the Barcelona Maritime Code of 1258 of James (or Jaime) I of Aragon, a contemporary of Alfonso X and his father-in-law. There were several other documents on the site, but this one best conveyed the flavor I wanted. [6] The first introductory paragraph introduces the king, his many titles and the background for the enactment following. The 13th century was the heart of the “Reconquista” of Christian Spain, and Iberian kings were wont to list all of lands they ruled or had just conquered from the Moors:

Be it known to all that we, James, by the grace of God, King of Aragon, of Majorca, and of Valencia, Count of Barcelona and Urgell, and Lord of Montpellier, hearing the ordinances written below, which you, James Gruny, our faithful servant, have made at our wish and command and with our consent, and which you have drawn up with the advice of the honest water men of Barcelona and based upon the ordinance of the same, having heard, seen, and understood that the said ordinances were to be made in our honor, and for the use and welfare of the water men and the citizens of Barcelona, having confirmed the document by the authentic application of our seal, we grant, approve, and confirm all and each of the undermentioned ordinances, made by you and the said honest men on our authority. Wishing that the said ordinances may endure and be observed as long as it shall please us and the said honest water men of Barcelona, by commanding our mayors, and bailiffs, both present and future, that they observe each and all of the undermentioned regulations, firmly and strictly, if they hope confidently for our grace and affection, and that they see that they are observed inviolably, so that they do not allow them to be disturbed by any one. [7]

The East Kingdom, however, has 18 baronies and 28 shires, provinces and freeholds. If I were to list every single entity, the scribe, herald, king and entire court would never forgive me on the day of the ceremony, especially since the plan was to read it first in Spanish and then in English. So I listed only the five oldest baronies of the kingdom and the shire where the lady lives as well as the four surrounding ones where she often lends her services as artist or kitchen help:

Be it known to all that We, Gryffith, by the grace of God, King of the East, King of the Crown Province of Ostgardr, of the Barony of Carolingia, of the Barony Beyond the Mountain, of the Baronies of Bhakail and of the Bridge, lord and protector of the shires of Silver Rylle, Montevale, Owlsherst, Hartshorn-dale and Blak Rose, and of all other baronies, freeholds, provinces and shires within Our borders, together with Our most noble Queen Aikaterine, hearing the reasons herein, which Our loyal Order of the Laurel brought to Our attention and which were drawn up with the advice of the honest members of this Order, having confirmed this document by the authentic application of Our signature, now grant, approve and confirm all and each of these reasons why Lady _____ should be counted among the Laurels of the East, listed by said honest members on Our authority.

The original translated document enumerates the various provisions of the maritime code and why they are included, the first provision prefaced by In the first place: each provision following prefaced by the word Also:. By the time I listed every reason why the lady should be included in the Order of the Laurel, with the proper mentioning of her blazon as well, I had upwards of 562 words in English. The Spanish translation would have anywhere from 30 to 50 words more, given that language’s wordier syntax.

When I contacted the calligrapher/illuminator, she informed me that the text was lengthy. She also said that SCA scrolls were forced to sacrifice period wordiness for the sake of space and time spent in court. She then told me that average scrolls had 75 to 150 words and that peerage scrolls were upwards of 300 at most. Anything bigger would mean the scroll would be larger and that would mean expensive framing for the recipient down the line.

I took this problem to the friends and family planning the vigil. To a one they said, “Hang the expense, this happens only once! We’ll set up a collection fund for her frame if we have to!” The lady’s husband told me to tell the calligrapher for him that “my checkbook is hers.” In the interest of compromise, however, I trimmed some of the words and managed to get it down to 452. I had the poor calligrapher’s hand to think of as well.

Translation, Or What Gender is an Order?

I now set to translate this to Castilian Spanish, and where possible use older syntax and spellings. The Latin languages gender their nouns, so the adjectives, pronouns and other qualifiers surrounding those words are affected. A noun ending in “-a” is feminine, a noun ending in “-en” or “-o” is masculine, usually. The exceptions are tricky, so I spent a weekend with my aunt (a native speaker) and a modern translation dictionary going over the English text. Spanish syntax has gender; it also lacks possessive contractions. By the time we were finished, the Spanish word count was 480, but at least that was less than 500.

I then waited for the arrival of The Tentative Dictionary of Medieval Spanish, which I had ordered from the Hispanic Society of America when I learned I was to write the scroll (and as soon as I was paid). [8] I had put off purchasing this book because of the price (currently $95.00) and was not about to make the investment until I had a very good reason. It was the lady about to receive the Laurel who had told me about the dictionary, so it was fitting to order when I did.

Modern Castilian and medieval Castilian do not differ as radically as modern and Old and Middle English do. The greatest differences in spelling involve the evolution of the silent h in modern times from the f and g in earlier times, and the interchanging of the i and j, the x and j, the i and y, and the v with b or u. The nn also takes the place of the n with the tilde for the “enye” sound. This is a very bare bones list. It would take more time and space than is appropriate here to get into medieval Castilian linguistics. With these very basic differences in mind, I pored over the modern Spanish translation, as well as my copy of the Cronica de Alfonso X to get an idea of which words to tackle and re-spell, and then consulted the Tentative Dictionary.

I took the liberty of translating from English to Spanish the names of some of the baronies and shires so that the different names would not sound so jarring to the ear when the scroll is recited. The closest translation for “shire” in Spanish is “condado”, which is also the word for “county,” which might confuse some, but it was the best I could do. The word for “freehold” was also a problem, as no direct translation exists. I then looked up the word for “holding” and found “dominio” which serves the purpose. The resulting first paragraph now looks like this in older spellings:

Sea conoscido por todos que Yo, Gryffith, por la gracia de Dios, Rei del Oriente, Rei de la Prouincia Reial de Ostgardr, de la Baronía de Carolingia, de la Baronía Tras de la Montanna, de las Baronías de Bhakail e del Puent, Patrón e Protector de los condados del Río Plata, Montevalle, Reposo de la Lechuza, del Valle Cuernociervo e de Negra Rosa, e de todas las distintas baronías, dominios, prouincias e condados entre Nuestros limites, junto con Nuestra mui noble Reina Aikaterine, tomando en consideración lo que Nuestra leial Orden del Laurel nos comunico, e de acuerdo a los conseyos de los onestos miembros de esta orden, auiendo confirmado este documento por medio del aplicación autentica de Nuestra firma, agora dispensamos, aprobamos, e confirmamos todas e cada una de estas razones por las cuales Donna ______ debe ser incluida entre los Laureles del Oriente, enumeradas por los dichos onestos miembros con Nuestra auctoridat.

Word-smithing Time Line

March 9 – Received assignment from Tyger Clerk of the Signet to do the scroll, along with the name of the calligrapher/illuminator. Also received contact from the lady’s Laurel endorsing me for the project.

March 12 – Received copy of the lady’s recommendation from said Laurel so I could have more to work with. Downloaded copies of Barcelona Maritime Code and heraldic royal styles.

March 14 – Looked up seals, discussed with the calligrapher/illuminator and decided against using. Starting drafting words.

March 15 – Finished writing original draft of 562 words in English. Pared it down to 452.

March 16 – Ordered The Tentative Dictionary of Medieval Spanish.

March 17 – Spent day with aunt translating into Spanish. Word count for this totals to 480.

March 22 – Received Tentative Dictionary and spent the evening revising spellings.

March 24 – Gave both the English and Spanish wordings to calligrapher/illuminator.

Date of event for the finished scroll to be given: April 28.

There was probably more that could have been done with this scroll, but time was at a premium. My endeavor intends to produce a scroll that at least captures the flavor of a 13th century royal decree, as closely as possible, to honor a lady who has done so much to bring that wonderful epoch in Spain’s history to life today.


Escolar Sobrino, Hipolito, ed. Historia ilustrada del libro espanol: Los manuscritos. Madrid: Fundacion German Sanchez Ruiperez, 1993.

Gonzalez Jimenez, Manuel, ed. Cronica de Alfonso X. Murcia: Real Academia Alfonso X, 1998.

Halsall, Paul, ed. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html , 1998-2006.

Kasten, Lloyd A.; Cody, Florian J., comp. The Tentative Dictionary of Medieval Spanish (second edition, greatly expanded). New York: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 2001.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Peers, Edgar Allison; Barragan, Jose V., eds. Cassell’s Spanish-English, English-Spanish Dictionary. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

Valdeon, Julio. La Espana de Alfonso X: La epoca. Cuadernos Historia 16, No. 81. Madrid: Informacion e Historia, 1997.

Velde, Francois R., ed. Heraldica. http://www.heraldica.org , 1995-2003.


[1] O’Callaghan, Joseph F. The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, p. 135.

[2] See http://www.heraldica.org/topics/royalty/royalstyle.htm for a general description of royal seals and their wordings.

[3] Valdeon, Julio. La Espana de Alfonso X: La epoca. Cuadernos Historia 16, No. 81. Madrid: Informacion e Historia, 1997, pp. 8-9.

[4] Gonzalez Jimenez, Manuel, ed. Cronica de Alfonso X. Murcia: Real Academia Alfsonso X, 1998, pp. lxv-lxiii.

More examples of the hand and accompanying illuminations can be found in “El Libro en la Baja Edad Media: Reino de Castilla.” Historia ilustrada del libro espanol: Los manuscritos. Madrid: Fundacion German Sanchez Ruiperez, 1993, pp.189-193, 196.

[5] See http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html for a variety of translated texts from several countries.

[6] See http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1258barcelona4.html for the exact wording.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Go to http://www.hispanicsociety.org to download a .PDF list of publications from the Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, and order from that list.

Used by permission.