Get It in Writing

Promissory Note Thought to be Earliest Handwritten Document in Britain

Archeologists in London announced the discovery of a promissory note, which just happens to be the oldest hand-written document in Britain ever discovered. The find was announced June 1, 2016 by the Museum of London Architecture as part of a group of 405 Roman writing tablets unearthed during the excavation of the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters. Many of the tablets relate to legal and financial matters.

The “promissory note”, dating from London’s time as a Roman city, is dated January 8, A.D. 57 and contains the promise “I, Tibullus, the freedman of Venustus have written and say that I owe Gratus, the freedman of Spurius, 105 denarii from the price of merchandise which has been sold and delivered …”

It is not at all surprising, at least to us lawyers, that the earliest handwritten document in Britain would be a legal document involving a financial transaction. This is because most disputes involve money and because the best way to prevent and resolve disputes is to put it in clear writing! This discovery is an interesting piece of trivia, but also a useful reminder that the maxim “get it in writing” applies today just as it did in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago when Tibellus and Gratus were doing business.

Promissory notes can come in different forms, but are in essence, an unconditional written promise to pay. They are a type of negotiable instrument like cheques, drafts and certificates of deposit. In Canada today promissory notes are governed by the Bills of Exchange Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. B-4., which states that:

“A promissory note is an unconditional promise in writing made by one person to another person, signed by the maker, engaging to pay, on demand or at a fixed or determinable future time, a sum certain in money to, or to the order of, a specified person or to bearer.”

It’s unclear if the Roman document specified whether Tibellus had to repay the debt on demand or at a certain time, but otherwise, the document has the classic hallmarks of a promissory note. Generally promissory notes differ from simple “IOUs” which are often just a record of a debt, without a specific promise to pay and consequences. Promissory notes continued to grow and evolve through the renaissance, and are related to the development of paper currency, cheques and other paper instruments. However all these types of documents have their origin in a simple written statement of a promise to pay such as this Roman British example from old Londinium

While the basic principle of recording a promise to pay remains the same as in Roman times, the law continues to evolve and there are several types of promissory notes as well other documents that may be appropriate in different circumstances. Having a written record of a debt or obligation will already put you miles ahead in terms of enforcement, but consulting a lawyer ahead of time will give you the best chances of recovering money owed.

Promissory notes can be useful tools by themselves, or working in conjunction with other forms of security, such as a mortgage on land or a personal property security agreement. Money owed is generally classified as “secured” or “unsecured”. When a debt is secured, there are additional mechanisms to enforce payment beyond merely suing on the debt. Secured debt may also have priority over unsecured debt in certain circumstances, such as a borrower’s insolvency.

We have extensive experience in drafting security packages, including promissory notes, as well as enforcing security for the repayment of debts. If you have any questions about promissory notes or other issues regarding loans or debts owed, please contact us.

For more information on this archeological discovery, see:

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