HOW TO READ A DOCUMENT
There are an emormous variety of
documents available to the historian, whether in print, manuscript or other
media. Anything written in the past can constitiute a historical document
or 'text' -- literary texts are as much historical sources as shopping
lists, letters, charters, or acts of parliament. The form and content of
each of these texts will differ, but there are certain questions that can
be asked of any one of them:
The form and content of the text are
the clues here. Different kinds of document are set out in different ways.
Thus a will may begin with the formula 'In the name of God. Amen.', a letter
will invariably begin with a greeting (e.g. 'Right worshipful husband,
I recommend me to you'), and a tax record may contain a list of names each
associated with a sum of money. Some kinds of source are more uniform and
formulaic than others. Wills, for example, vary enormously in detail, but
are remarkably consistent in terms of their basic structure. Tax records,
on the other hand, vary considerably according to the nature of the tax.
Two points follow:
What is the nature of the text?
1. The form and content of the
text allow the nature of the source to be determined.
2. The nature of the source to
no small extent dictates what is (and is not) recorded. Thus a will may
record the testator's parish and will invariably name his or her executors,
but need not record all members of the testator's immediate family and
may well omit any words of endearment. To use wills as a source for the
composition of the coresident family group or for evidence of affectivity
would, therefore, be a hazardous exercise.
A 'must' for the historian, the question
of dating is not always easy to resolve with confidence. Some documents
are, of course dated, though in the case of chronicles, for example, may
be much more recent that the events they describe. Historically a variety
of dating conventions may be found. A useful guide here is C.R.Cheney's
of Dates. Where documents are undated, then there may be a variety
of clues that allow an approximate date to be determined. These clues include
names and events mentioned (and not mentioned), the form of the document,
the style of the handwriting, and the language / phraseology used. Sometimes
it is possible to say that a text must have been written after a certain
date (terminus post quem) or before another date (terminus ante
quem). Often it is possible only to say that the date is approxiamtely
or around such and such a date (circa written as c.).
When was the text written?
Since the form and nature of different
kinds of documents tend to change over time, it is important to keep the
dating of the text firmaly in mind when reading it. Conversely the form
and nature of the document can be a clue as the date.
This question is important on a number
of levels. Quite often you may be working with a translated text, so it
is important to be aware of the original language and that you have access
only to something of the meaning of the original, not to the actual words
used. The language used may be dictated by the nature of the document.
For example, in England legal texts tended to be written in French and
clerical texts in Latin. Departures from the 'expected' language are thus
worth noticing. Language also has implications for authorship and for readership.
To state the obvious, documents written in Latin could only have been compiled
by someone with a training in the language and could only have been read
by the like. A Latin-literate writer is likely to have had a different
outlook from someone lacking such an education. Thus the monastic chroniclers
of the Peasants' Revolt (1381) described the rebels as 'rustici' and 'vilani'
(rustics and villeins), whereas most scholars would now find this to crude
a generalisation. Where texts purport to record the words of specific individuals,
the language of record may provide a crucial clue as to how far this may
have been the case. Clearly witness statements, wills or petitions not
written in the vernacular must at least translate the actual words used.
It follows that the 'translator' may have played a significant role in
shaping or even determining what is reorded.
In what language(s) is the text written?
This question follows directly from
the last. Every author will have some sort of agenda to follow and this
will shape the content and tone of the text, but authorship and writing
do not necessarily coincide unproblematically. Sometimes it may be that
the text is negotiated between more than one party. Thus a will is usually
written by a professional, whether a cleric or a lawyer, who knows how
a will should be set out and may have their own sense of what may or may
not be done in a will. On the other hand the testator may have their own
ideas and priorities. The eventual text represents a negotiation between
these (sometimes conflicting) agendas. Similarly a letter may be written
by a scribe on behalf of the sender, who may or may not be illiterate.
It remains, therefore, an open question as to how far the sender represents
the author or how far the scribe in fact intervenes in creating the final
text. Here it can be helpful to have knowledge of the appearance of the
original document, something that can be lost when working from a published
edition. Thus an unpractised hand or an unconvenional layout can sometimes
reveal that a will or a letter is actually the work of the person in whose
name the document is written.
By whom was the text written?
This again follows from the questions
already posed, but it is a crucially important question because it determines
the content of the text. To use a metaphor, if the text represents a block
of wood to be worked by the historian, the purpose represents the grain
of the wood. The historian must try to work with the grain in order to
achieve the most satisfactory result. The problem is that the historian
is invariably asking questions that differ from the purpose of the documents
interrogated. Letters, for example, may appear a good source for family
relations, but it needs be remembered that letters were only written when
the correspondents were apart and invariably with a particular objective
in mind. For example, Margery Brews's famous valentine (from the fifteenth-century
Paston letters) is not primarily, as it appears, a naive and touching expression
of romantic love, but rather a carefully crafted instrument in her family's
strategy to engineer a 'good' marriage. (The point is reinforced when is
remembered that the letter was written by a scribe who no doubt played
a substantial part in its composition.)
For what purpose was the text written?