St Clement by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1730-1735
For the lover of the picturesque and the Romantic – that is to say, the Medieval – one’s imagination may be captured by the traditional liturgies of the Church in her various Rites, or by the Monarchical or Knightly ceremonial surviving in Britain and the Commonwealth Realms, Scandinavia, the Benelux Countries, or Spain. Even in our republics, academic ritual in the bigger colleges owes much to the Catholic and pre-modern origins of university education; the robes and chains of office, the scraps of Latin at a place like Harvard or Yale hearken back to when education meant something.
In the United States, however, such origins can be found for relatively humble public servants such as sheriffs and coroners – even the Grand Jury (which we retain, while the British have abolished it) has deep roots in legal history going back long before Henry VIII. But perhaps the humblest position with paradoxically the richest history and most Catholic of origins is that of the Notary Public.
Known to most Americans as mere official witnesses to the signing of documents (which are then “notarized”) – and in similar state in most common law jurisdictions across the Anglosphere – they are far more important in systems derived from the Roman Law. Thus, notaries in Louisiana, Quebec, and parts of South Africa have more in common with their European or Latin American counterparts, and far wider duties than those in the rest of the United States, Canada, and the Commonwealth. But Common Law or Civil, all such have the same basic origin.
Official witnesses and authenticators of documents are known from ancient Egypt and China – to say nothing of both Republican and Imperial Rome. It was during the early persecutions of the Church, however, that Pope St. Clement I (A.D. 88-98/9) appointed seven notaries to record the acts of the martyrs in each of the seven sectors of the city. When, in time, the Empire converted, Notaries as such took the place of similar figures.
As the barbarians erected their own Kingdoms on what had been Roman territory, the role of Notary was codified in Roman Law by Justinian in his famous code.
Literacy being in those times a primarily clerical endeavor, priests were the majority of the notaries – as they were chancellors and other such officials of the early Christian Kingdoms (St. Thomas More would be the first layman to occupy that latter role in England). As these Kingdoms coalesced and the study of Roman law revived during the 12th century, the post of Notary returned to the importance in the West it had ever maintained in Constantinople.
It became — like the Counts Palatine of the Lateran and the Knights of the Golden Spur — an office that both Pope and Holy Roman Emperor made appointments to. But this process meant that in time the demand for notaries outstripped the ability for either elevated personage to maintain an adequate supply – especially given the difficulties of travel to Rome or wherever the Emperor might be. To make up for this, the Pope deputed his Legates in the various realms to create Notaries. In 1279, this power was further invested by the Pope in the Archbishop of Canterbury, as it was in various national Primates by successive Pontiffs.
The Reformation and the Age of Revolution saw Notarial appointments taken from Ecclesiastical authorities at different times according to country. But not in England. In 1533, an official act removed the making Notaries from the Pope, and invested it in the King, who in turn reinvested it in “his” Archbishop of Canterbury. There this power has rested ever since, although the Archbishop in turn deputed his Court of Faculties and Master of Faculties, the latter of whom handles notarial appointments in His Grace’s name.
This jurisdiction expanded with the Empire; although most of the Australian States have taken control of the power to appoint to themselves in recent decades, notaries in both Queensland and New Zealand still receive their appointments from Westminster.
When the Thirteen American colonies were settled, they too needed notaries.
As there were no bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury deputed the Royal Governors as their Commissaries in this as in other areas. But the Governors themselves were often very busy officials, so they in turn passed their role on to that very hardworking official called the Secretary of the Colony. He had custody of the seal of the colony, and was often an extremely important power in his own right.
When the American Revolution broke out and the colonies became independent, the Secretaries of the Colony were transformed into Secretaries of State – the very office that to-day retains control over the appointment of Notaries Public in each American State.
So the next time you get a paper notarized, know that you are benefitting from this long and fascinating chain of history.