Autographs. Autograph (Gr. αὐτός, self, γράφειν, to write) is a term applied by common usage either to a document signed by the person from whom it emanates, or to one written entirely by the hand of such person (which, however, is also more technically described as holograph, from ὅλος, entire, γράφειν, to write), or simply to an independent signature.

The existence of autographs must necessarily have been coeval with the invention of letters. Documents in the handwriting of their composers may possibly exist among the early papyri of Egypt and the clay tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, and among the early examples of writing in the East. But the oriental practice of employing professional scribes in writing the body of documents and of using seals for the purpose of "signing" (the "signum" originally meaning the impression of the seal) almost precludes the idea. When we are told (1 Kings xxi. 8) that Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal, we are, of course, to understand that the letters were written by the professional scribes and that the impression of the king's seal was the authentication, equivalent to the signature of western nations; and again, when King Darius "signed" the writing and the decree (Dan. vi. 9), he did so with his seal. To find documents which we can recognize with certainty to be autographs, we must descend to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history, which are represented by an abundance of papyrus documents of all kinds, chiefly in Greek. Among them are not a few original letters and personal documents, in which we may see the handwriting of many lettered and unlettered individuals who lived during the 3rd century B.C. and in succeeding times, and which prove how very widespread was the practice of writing in those days.

We owe it to the dry and even atmosphere of Egypt that these written documents have been preserved in such numbers. On the other hand, in Italy and Greece ancient writings have perished, save the few charred papyrus rolls and waxen tablets which have been recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. These tablets, however, have a special value, for many of them contain autograph signatures of principals and witnesses to legal deeds to which they were attached, together with impressions of seals, in compliance with the Roman law which required the actual subscriptions, or attested marks, of the persons concerned.

But, when we now speak of autographs and autograph collections, we use such terms in a restricted sense and imply documents or signatures written by persons of some degree of eminence or notoriety in the various ranks and professions of life; and naturally the only early autographs in this sense which could be expected to survive are the subscriptions and signatures of royal personages and great officials attached to important public deeds, which from their nature have been more jealously cared for than mere private documents.

Following the Roman practice, subscriptions and signatures were required in legal documents in the early centuries of our era. Hence we find them in the few Latin deeds on papyrus which have come to light in Egypt; we find them on the well-known Dacian waxen tablets of the 2nd century; and we find them in the series of papyrus deeds from Ravenna and other places in Italy between the 5th and 10th centuries. The same practice obtained in the Frankish empire. The Merovingian kings, or at least those of them who knew how to write, subscribed their diplomas and great charters with their own hands; and their great officers of state, chancellors and others, countersigned in autograph. The unlettered Merovingian kings made use of monograms composed of the letters of their names; and, curiously, the illiterate monogram was destined to supersede the literate subscriptions. For the monogram was adopted by Charlemagne and his successors as a recognized symbol of their subscription. It was their signum manuale, their sign manual. In courtly imitation of the royal practice, monograms and other marks were adopted by official personages, even though they could write. The notarial marks of modern times are a survival of the practice.

By the illiterate other signs, besides the monogram, came to be employed, such as the cross, etc., as signs manual. The monogram was used by French monarchs from the reign of Charlemagne to that of Philip the Fair, who died in 1314. It is very doubtful, however, whether in any instance this sign manual was actually traced by the monarch's own hand. At the most, the earlier sovereigns appear to have drawn one or two strokes in their monograms, which, so far, may be called their autographs. But in the later period not even this was done; the monogram was entirely the work of the scribe. (See Diplomatic.)

The employment of marks or signs manual went out of general use after the 12th century, in the course of which the affixing or appending of seals became the common method of executing deeds. But, as education became more general and the practice of writing more widely diffused, the usage grew up in the course of the 14th century of signing the name-signature as well as of affixing the seal; and by the 15th century it had become established, and it remains to the present time. Thus the signum manuale had disappeared, except among notaries; but the term survived, and by a natural process it was transferred to the signature. In the present day it is used to designate the "sign manual" or autograph signature of the sovereign.

The Anglo-Saxon kings of England did not sign their charters, their names being invariably written by the official scribes. After the Norman conquest, the sign manual, usually a cross, which sometimes accompanied the name of the sovereign, may in some instances be autograph; but no royal signature is to be found earlier than the reign of Richard II. Of the signatures of this king there are two examples, of the years 1386 and 1389, in the Public Record Office; and there is one, of 1397, in the British Museum. Of his father, the Black Prince, there is in the Record Office a motto-signature, De par Homont (high courage), Ich dene, subscribed to a writ of privy seal of 1370. The kings of the Lancastrian line were apparently ready writers. Of the handwriting of both Henry IV. and Henry V. there are specimens both in the Record Office and in the British Museum. But by their time writing had become an ordinary accomplishment.