Like many historians, I have more than once discovered that the published version of a primary source is incomplete or even misleading when checked against the archival source. One of my first missions as a graduate student was locating the archival court records for a New England colony whose records were published except for some cases of adolescent boys and young adult men who were convicted of sodomy. (The sensibilities of the Victorian-era editor of the town court records were too delicate to include the details of those cases, and those cases only.)
Indeed, the intimate details of historical documents–the marginalia, the burn holes, the water stains, the ink splotches, few of which are reproducible in published form or legible on microfilm or even in digitized versions–are some of the greatest pleasures of being a historian, archivist or librarian. I have long felt that intimacy with the documents is not just desirable, but necessary–not just to be sure that published records haven’t introduced errors in my research, but because I like to touch things that the people I write about have touched. I like seeing whose handwriting is clear and the product of an educated hand, and whose handwriting is crude and full of non-standard or phonetic spellings. The rare letter from a desperate Anglo-American woman on the Maine frontier looks a lot different than an official dispatch from Governor Dudley, and those differences are flattened when the documents are published in books or transcribed digitally. That stuff matters to me.
The immediacy and sheer volume of historical materials available on the world wide (and as it turns out, not peer-reviewed) internets demands our continued scrutiny and vigilance. Here’s a recent lesson by Sister Agnes, who spent some time in a European archive recently and discovered that the compiler of an on-line series of summaries of medieval monastic charters provided false or incomplete data:
My recent trip to the archives reaffirmed my belief that you have to look at the documents in their original form, if possible. The regional archive that I have been working at off and on for the last ten years finally went on-line in 2006. Since getting to the archives has been difficult lately, I welcomed the change. The monastic charters I’ve been working with number in the hundreds for some abbeys, and going through them individually and transcribing them can be very time consuming. Fortunately (or so I thought) I could still proceed with my work from the U.S. because someone had posted on the archival website summaries of each of the charters, including the date and place they were issued and a brief synopsis of their contents.
It turns out that these summaries are very misleading. I had been trying to determine the sex ratio among donors to various monasteries, using the summaries. However, once I looked at several of the original charters, I realized that often a donation attributed in a summary to a man was often made by a couple-a man and his wife. In addition, reading further into the document revealed that her presence was necessary because the land in question was her dowry–and this is a much different picture than what the summaries revealed. So unfortunately, I have to scrap a lot of quantitative work I did based on the on-line summaries, but fortunately, I think my results will now be much more interesting. So I guess it ended up being worth the time and money spent on a trip to Europe!
Archival material and published sources that are available digitally and on-line are wonderful–and as a historian who lives in Colorado now whose primary sources are about Eastern North America, they are truly invaluable. (I regularly praise the powers that be that bring me the Digital Evans series, and Canadiana.org!) But Sister Agnes’s story should stand as a warning lest we become completely reliant on published or on-line primary sources. I think it’s highly revealing that both anecdotes here–my sodomy cases and Sister Agnes’s charters–involve omissions or distortions of the historical record of gender and sexuality introduced by the sensibilities and assumptions of nineteenth- and twenty-first century antiquarians and archivists. Sister Agnes’s experience is another verse in a song many of us were singing last June at the 2008 Berkshire Conference in Minneapolis, in (to name just one example) Terri Snyder’s panel on “Researching and Writing the Lives of Unfree Women,” where one of the takeaway messages was to get into provincial and local archives because many more discoveries await us there.
I have a feeling that most women’s and gender historians, historians of sexuality, and historians of people of color have tales from the archives that are very similar to Sister Agnes’s story. It’s summer now and many of you lucky duckies may have the opportunity to burrow into an archive or two just to read, think, and dream. Do you have any stories of discrepancies discovered in the archives, nos amies?
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