Friday, 21 March 2014

In the archives

I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to Paris (thanks to Frédérique Lachaud and the séminaire Franco-Britannique for the invitation) and this seems like a good moment to try to start posting again on the blog… sorry for the massive hiatus!

As well as getting some great feedback on my work on fifteenth-century student misbehaviour from colleagues at the seminar, and spending some time showing my son and husband my favourite spots in Paris, it was an opportunity to go to the archives and gather some more material on the fifteenth-century University of Paris. 

I always get a little anxious before these trips that so much of the material I work on is published and available in wonderful and scholarly editions, that it is hardly worth looking at the originals.  This is emphatically not true!  Every trip reminds me that there is so much still to discover (a trip to Heidelberg over the summer was crucial in discovering that the Acta universitatis, the main records of the university, continue for years after 1451, the end date of the published edition), and, of course, there are often inaccuracies in the published editions.  

But going to the archives represents something more than this I think – something more intangible.  It’s partly to do with a sense of historical imagination – holding a 600 or 700-year-old document in your hand gives a sense of connection with the past which is inspiring.  It’s partly to do with getting a real sense of the size, quality and format of the documents to underline the purpose they were designed to serve.  And it’s also to do with the fact that these aren’t just documents with text – they’re objects in their own right.  In many ways, some of them were even historical agents of sorts.  The point was brought home to me particularly forcefully when I was working in the archives in Lille in northern France some years ago.  I was looking at evidence for a revolt in Saint Omer in 1306, and found that the rebels were much inspired by a letter written to them by a famous Flemish rebel named Peter Coninck (who had led Flemish weavers to victory in the Battle of the Golden Spurs) – whilst the letter provided inspiration for its recipients, it was discovered by their enemies who used it further to discredit them.  The letter itself became almost fetishized – it ceased to matter what it said in it – it was fought over and talked about and grabbed and stolen – the letter itself came to symbolise the protest and the struggle.  To see the document itself then, was to see not just a document which told me about the revolt, but something which had been part of the revolt itself.  A much more comical example is that of a quittance or receipt sent to the Count of Artois in the late 13th century – - it was sent from the court jester, known as ‘Fromage’, and the rather disgusting remains of his seal – a punning bit of cheese – linger greasily on the parchment.  Another example of a document which was something much more than a piece of writing – it was part of a historical process, a joke.

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