Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Into the archives

Today, finally, I got my hands dirty* on some original documents and started to feel like a 'real' historian. It was my first day in the UK National Archives, and today's work involved looking at some miscellaneous 14th and early 15th century records from the Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty, and some other docs relating to treason cases under Richard II and Henry IV. I admit that as I was about to enter the 'holy of holies' (the second floor reading room, where they provide all the pre-17th century stuff), I got just a little bit emotional. I guess students of history in places like the UK and Europe probably get a bit blase about having easy access to all this material. (Case in point: I arrived this morning at the same time as a bus-load of school kids.) But for we antipodeans, who have no indigenous written records older than about 18-something, it is pretty special to see and touch something written by someone living 600-odd years ago. The problem is, much of the material I'm looking at exists in piecemeal form. That is, a 'file' may contain numerous separate papers and documents, some of them only tiny slips of parchment maybe two or three inches wide. There may be 20 or 30 such pieces in a file, of which only one little slip is of interest to me. But I cannot resist the temptation to look at all the others! Uh oh. I'm sitting in a pub looking out on Kew Green as I'm writing this, and some caravans have started parking up for a fair this coming weekend. One of them carries a large sign saying 'Victorian Fun Fair'. What does this mean? Clowns?! (nooooo! Clowns = creepy enough, but add Victorian underworld nastiness to the mix and I won't sleep for a week.) Or, could it be that great Victorian family entertainment, the freak show?  * My hands were not literally dirty. That would have invoked the ire of the blue-coats (security peeps. They have to wear these kind-of-naff bright blue blazers that make them all look like school prefects.)


Janice said...

It is exciting! I'm so glad you're getting to dive into the archives.

Oh, and you will get dirty if you work with rolls. I'ts plainly impossible not to so don't wear a light-coloured shirt on those days!

Bavardess said...

Yes, I was a little surprised at how grubby the rolls were. Much more robust than I expected, too. One of them was quite recalcitrant when I was trying to work my way through it - it kept trying to roll itself back up again, even with the weights on it. I felt quite awkward trying to roll one end, unroll the other end and maneuver the weights around, and all the time I was thinking , 'this never happens to David Starkey!'