I was explaining #medievaltwitter to my non-medievalist friend Steve the other day. Bless him, he was amazed to hear that anyone dealing in a period “so long ago” would use social media to seek help or share opinions (he’s a graphic designer by trade, so is firmly rooted in the here-and-now). Of course I don’t pretend for a second the hashtag’s vibrancy is something unique to medieval studies, but when it does come up trumps, it sure delivers. And the other day, it did so in a way with particular relevance to Surrey.
On 27th May, Dan Hinchen, an assistant reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote a blog post entitled ‘Pondering Paleography and Soliciting Transcriptions’. He’d found a document of considerable age (yet in remarkably fine condition), with later endorsements indicating it belonged to the first half of the 14th century, but couldn’t read it and therefore could only hazard a guess that it was written in Middle English. This quickly began to receive the desired reaction, particularly after it was given a hefty signal boost when the request and initial responses to it were the subjects of a Boston Globe online article that emerged on the same day (maybe it made the print edition, too?). Together, thanks in no small part to the awesome power of #medievaltwitter, these two pieces were shared far and wide, drawing more contributions (including full transcriptions and translations) as comments on the blog post.
By the time I became aware of the story (I’m not the most avid Twitter user, more’s the pity in this case), most of the pieces of the puzzle had already been worked out. The document was identified as a charter written in Medieval Latin, covering the quitclaim of 16 acres of land, and dated sometime in late May 1337 (opinions seem to differ over the quitclaim being made on Ascension Day or the following Thursday). Though different transcriptions of the names of the parties were proffered, the most convincing are ‘William, son of Agatha de Bromlegh’ (grantor) and ‘John de Bylingehurst’ (grantee). Taken with the other locative bynames found in the witness list, it became clear that the charter relates to land and people in the area of Bramley in Surrey. One comment author made the tongue-in-cheek observation that it was all to do with Dunsfold aerodrome – little did they know location-wise they may have been very close to the truth…
The byname (de) Bylingehurst/Bylynghurst can, in the context of a parcel of land stated to be in Bramley, be positively associated with High Billinghurst in what’s now Dunsfold parish (as I have suggested in a comment on the blog post). If that name sounds familiar to long-time readers of this blog, that’s because I wrote a post about it and other, similar Wealden place-names in the wake of handing in my MA dissertation almost two years ago. Dunsfold fell within the manor of Bramley, although the way in which the charter is phrased makes it hard to ascertain whether the land lay in the environs of High Billinghurst or Bramley (whence the apparent byname of William and Agatha de Bromlegh). I’m not convinced by the suggestion made in one of the translations that this was arable land – it could just as well have been pasture (the whole text strikes me as rather stinting in its prose).
Beyond its intrinsic value as a medieval Surrey document which no-one knew existed until a few days ago, the charter is of great interest to me because of the spellings of the place-name-cum-locative byname. The variant forms Bylingehurst and Bylynghurst cut to the heart of the debates revolutionised by John Dodgson in the 1960s over whether the medial element is Old English genitive plural -inga or an uninflected or inflected form of singular -ing (or alternating forms of both), and so whether it bears a tribal or topographical significance, that I revisited in my 2014 post. This charter adds precious closely-dated instances of spellings that could be used to support some interpretations over others, without providing conclusive grounds for preferring one in particular. In fact, they only add to the ambiguity that attends attempts to arrive at an etymology for (High) Billinghurst! One (Bylingehurst) is quite conservative for the year 1337, the other more commensurate with orthography of the time (here are some other medieval spellings of the name). Whatever, I’d much rather have the knowledge of these previously-unpublished forms than not. Nice work, #medievaltwitter.