A Civil Law Notary by Quentin Massys, 16th century.
Most of us, from time to time, have occasion to have a document notarized, or to have our signature witnessed and verified by a Notary Public holding a commission in our state or jurisdiction. Few of us, however, have probably stopped to consider the history of that public office and branch of the legal profession.
In his A treatise on the office and practice of a notary of England, published in 1838, Robert Brooke notes the following about the Notary in the opening seven pages of his massive work:
"Notaries appear to have existed as public officers, from a period of remote antiquity, and to have been anciently scribes, who took notes, or minutes, and made drafts of writings and other instruments, public and private. Notaries, and also other officers whose duties were of a nature somewhat similar, and who were called Tabelliones, were employed during the period of the Roman empire, and the difference between the functions of the two classes of officers, seems to have been, that the Notarii procured the information and materials, and drew up rough drafts or notes, of the writings or instruments, which were transcribed and authenticated by the Tabelliones.
Both of those appellations were used during the middle ages; but it does not appear very clearly whether the duties of the two officers were then kept distinct, or whether they were blended together; and the appellations notary and tabellion, in comparatively modern times, were applied without distinction to the same officer; the latter designation, however, is at present nearly gone into disuse.
Notaries were officers known in England as early as the year 1237, but it appears that there were parts of England where they did not then exist; and it is stated that there were not any tabellions here, in the 22nd year of the reign of Henry the 3rd (1237), or at least that they were very rare; but, however that may be, there cannot be any doubt that notaries existed, and were commonly employed in England, in 1347, as they are more than once named in the petition of the Commons, of the 21st year of the reign of Edward the 3rd...
In England, a notary is a public officer of the civil and canon law, who derives his faculty, or authority to practice, from the Court of Faculties, of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in London, the chief officer of which is the Master of the Faculties, to whom applications are made, for the admission, or the removal under any special circumstances, of notaries...
Amongst legal officers, a notary takes precedence, after solicitor or an attorney; it does not appear that a notary was ever privileged from arrest on mesne process, and unless he is admitted as an attorney or a solicitor, he cannot practice in any common law or equity court in England; but if in other respects, he is competent, by legal knowledge and experience, he is authorised to draw or prepare deeds, relating to real or personal property...Notaries in England, are also employed in noting and protesting bills of exchange, preparing acts of honour, authenticating and certifying examined copies of documents, and preparing and attesting various instruments going abroad, and granting and solemnizing all other notarial acts...
The expression notarial act is one which has a technical meaning, and it seems generally considered to signify, the act of authenticating or certifying some document or matter, by a written instrument, under the signature and official seal of a notary, or of authenticating or certifying as a notary, some fact or circumstance, by a written instrument, under his signature only."
A Municipal Seal of Narbonne, mid 13th century.
This site presents a few examples of medieval notarized documents:
Of course, the Old Catholic Encyclopedia has an interesting entry on the Notary, an office which varies a great deal between countries in its authority and responsibilities: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11122a.htm
In England, notaries continue to be appointed, officially, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. For more on the Notary Public of England, visit here: http://www.thenotariessociety.org.uk/the-notarial-profession. Ireland has, owing to its historical circumstances, a related history, which you can find out more about here: http://www.notarypublic.ie/history.html
In the United States, the Notary Public varies a great deal in his responsibilities, the origin of his commission, and the requirements for the office. In Louisiana, for instance, unless one is a licensed attorney, a notarial examination must be taken and passed, and a commission lasts for life. (http://www.sos.la.gov/tabid/198/Default.aspx). In Georgia, notaries receive their four year commissions from the Clerk of the Superior Court of their county of residence. (http://www.gsccca.org/projects/npapp.asp)
In Virginia, the Notary Public receives his commission from the Governor for a period of four years. The Code of Virginia specifies five acts which a Virginia Notary Public may do:
1. Taking acknowledgments
2. Administering oaths and affirmations
3. Certifying affidavits or depositions
4. Certifying “true copies” of documents
5. Verification of fact