Notaries in history since antiquity

An evaluation of the notary's functions in history, and suggestions on how to use notary deeds in genealogy research.

The rise of the notary's role since antiquity

The Notary Public, or just 'Notary' is not a familiar figure in the Anglo-Saxon Legal System. They originated as scribes - Latin "scribaÈ" - literate clerks who took notes of important events and decisions and made copies both of Public and Private documents. We have to remember that literacy is only a relatively recent phenomenon.

Notaries in Ancient Rome

Well before the time of Julius Caesar, scribes set out their stalls in the Roman market place, and they were called "tabelliones", probably from the "tabulae" - tables or plates covered with wax which they used instead of paper.

Under the ancient Roman Republic, the "notarii" were public secretaries who were shorthand writers. They developed a service in the public marketplace to draw up legal documents and other written instruments. Wax seals were used as signatures on documents. Later, ribbons tied together multi-page documents, and wax seals on the knots showed that no one had tampered with the knots. A distinction grew up between those who attended to monetary transactions - called "argentarii", and those who recorded and dealt with all other contracts who were called "tabelliones". There they conducted business for the Romans who needed written records for any particular purpose.

Over time this practice developed into a profession. The work of the ancient Roman Notary was concerned with the formal recording of private law matters, such as deeds, wills, transfers of property. In the last century of the Republic a new system of shorthand writing was invented. This Latin shorthand was called "notae tironinae", from the name of Cicero's secretary M. Tullius Tiro, by whom it is said to have been invented, for the purpose of taking down his Master's speeches. From this taking shorthand notes came the word "Notarius", therefore the origin of the term can be dated to around 100 AD. Although originally applied to the shorthand writer, over time the term "Notarius" became reserved exclusively to the Registrars, to the secretaries of emperors, and to the highest class of officials in the Roman Privy Council and the Imperial Chancery.

"Notarii" was also the name given to shorthand writers who in the early days of the Christian Church reported the examinations and trials of the early Christian martyrs and confessors. They were employed to take down in writing the whole judicial process of the Roman judges against the martyrs, and to write out the circumstances of their examination and passion. The early notary recorded the questions put to the Martyrs and the answers they gave, indeed everything that passed during their trials and suffering. These reports were called the Acts of the Martyrs.

The Middle Ages

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not extinguish the office of the Notary. The invaders from the north who demolished the ancient Roman Empire introduced their own laws and customs, but they frequently found it convenient to retain the customs and institutions of Ancient Rome.

By the beginning of the 9th century complaints of injustice were frequently made and the Emperor Charlemagne, in order to remedy the situation, appointed itinerant justices or royal commissioners - called "Missa Regii" - to hold Assizes four times a year. In AD 803 these commissioners were directed by the Emperor to appoint notaries to accompany them on their circuits and to see that "all bishops, abbots and counts were provided with notaries".

A notary public was appointed by the Emperor or the Pope or by someone to whom they have granted this special privilege, and could perform his office and draw up instruments anywhere - Thus here we have the beginnings of the present day Notary. A publicly appointed official, whose Acts and Records are acknowledged internationally. The main requirement of a Notary is that the Deeds and Records must have a high degree of authenticity. There must be no doubt over the document, or the person executing it, and once attested by a Notary it is recognized internationally and given the force of a Court judgment.

A codification of the Latin laws was drawn up in Bologna which placed great emphasis on the legal and technical qualifications of the Notary and drew up formularies to facilitate the production of notarial acts in correct form of law. It is to these mediaeval jurists that the status and accepted acts of the modern notary are attributed. Notaries were authorized to take the acknowledgements of deeds, conveyances of land, mortgages and other documents relating to real estate. It became the Notary's duty to identify the parties, witness their signatures, obtain the parties' acknowledgment that the agreement be in full force and effect and affix an official seal.

A Notary's Functions

In making a deed, the Notary, a citizen of high moral character and integrity, would perform other important functions:
  • To positively determine that the party to a written agreement is the party they claim to be - that is, they identify the signer.
  • To obtain the acknowledgment of the parties to an agreement, that they have signed the agreement and that they are aware of its contents - the notary must therefore assess the mental capabilities of the parties.
  • To apply and affix a distinguishing mark or seal to ensure that the original agreement cannot be altered, then preserve the deed in his office and inform the public Registrars' offices of land transactions.
  • To also behave as an advisor for his clients on the best ways to obtain their aim.
  • In more recent times, in Italy notaries have had other functions, such as to prepare the "atto notorio" (an official statement of someone, usually made in one's own safeguard), legalize copies of documents, receive and preserve in their safes important originals (as receipts of winning lottery tickets, or olographic wills to be disclosed at some established times), and so on.


The administration of notarial archives is a section of the Italian Ministry of Justice, with the following main institutional tasks:
  • checking the notarial function
  • the conservation of the deeds of the ceased notaries
  • the publication of wills
  • the issue of copies of the documents kept
  • the management of the general register of wills.

The deeds that a notary receives are kept in his office as long as the notary carries out his activity in the notary district where he can exercise his functions. When a notary definitively ceases from work or moves to another notarial district, the deeds, repertories and registers previously kept in that notary's office are deposited in the notarial archive of the district where he exercised.

After one hundred years from filing, all the documents kept in the Archivio Notarile are deposited, every ten years, in the State archives, which perform the tasks of custody of documentary sources for historical and cultural purposes.