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When is Research Worth it?

By Matthew Tibble

Matthew is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching religious counsel during the mid-Tudor period.

I have been studying history for the better part of four years, yet it was only recently that I managed to fulfil the archetypal ambition of making an original ‘discovery’. Like so much of modern historical research, it began by persistently trawling through online resources, flicking through digital facsimile images of countless early printed works, and noticing a small peculiarity. Laurence Saunders, a clergyman who died on 8th February 1555, had purportedly written a book that described in great detail the trial of two Protestant martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who had later been burned at the stake by Mary I. The trial is known to have taken place in October, eight months after Laurence Saunders’ death, inherently undermining his contention that, ‘I was there presente at the doing of thys…and heard al for the most part with mine eares’.[1]

It was the phrase ‘Attributed, doubtfully, to Laurence Saunders’, written in a general note on the British Library’s online database of early printed works, the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), that first caught my attention.[2] Closer examination revealed that the book, A trewe mirrour or glase, had no formally attributed publisher or confirmed geographical provenance, merely a ‘conjecture’ that it was printed in Wesel, Germany, by a man called Hugh Singleton.

I began my investigation with the secondary reading and noticed that many of the older articles discussing A trewe mirrour or glase attributed it to Laurence Saunders, following the ESTC. The more recent scholars who had written on the subject, however, had abandoned his name and instead deemed it to be of anonymous origin.[3] Had no one attempted to determine the true author of this work? Spurred on by the thought that I might be able to locate a new voice within the political literature of the Marian regime, I decided to examine the original book located amongst the special collections at Emmanuel College Library. There, I imagined, amongst the old tomes and dusty parchments, I might, like a ‘real’ historian, make my discovery.

At first, I was denied entry. I needed a letter of recommendation from my supervisor and required a formal appointment in order to view the book. My mistake, I think, was turning up in a scruffy tracksuit without any identification and asking to get my hands on a document nearly five hundred years old…Undeterred, I returned later that week slightly better dressed and armed with my letter of recommendation. I was prepared for an unremitting session examining the minute details of my book, extracting all the potential clues from its pages. Five minutes later though I was finished.

The type used in A trewe mirrour or glase matched numerous texts known to have been produced in Wesel during the 1550s (a distinctive Schwabacher 63 for those of you interested in typography), and there was a printer’s signature on the final page that matched one often used by Hugh Singleton. There was nothing relating to Laurence Saunders anywhere in the document. In fact, a large set of initials, ‘P.N.’, marked the final page of the booklet.[4] Cross-referencing with a list of exiles known to be living in Wesel during this period led me to the name ‘Philip Nicolls’, a religious controversialist known for writing a number of polemics during the reign of Edward VI.[5] Embarrassed that I had come to a conclusion so quickly, I lingered for another hour, attempting to look studious as I consulted the document further.

I proudly revealed this ‘discovery’ to my supervisor, accompanied by two lengthy paragraphs on the document’s provenance. I explained, in minute detail, the evidence behind my claim and then proceeded to incorporate a discussion of A Trewe Mirrour or Glase in to my dissertation. The whole process, from the initial internet search to the final write up had taken two weeks, a considerable amount of time given the fleeting length of an MPhil course. So what had my ‘discovery’ yielded? I had not proved that the document had been produced in a different location, or at a different time, and whether it had been produced by Laurence Saunders or Philip Nicolls was largely irrelevant to the questions I was posing in my dissertation. After all, both men were protestant clergymen, and whether it was one or the other made little impact upon the wider questions I was asking.

Ultimately, my findings were relegated to the footnotes of my dissertation, awaiting rediscovery at a later date. The scenic detour does pose an interesting question about a historian’s approach to research though; perhaps my time would have been better spent if I had considered what rewards the elucidation of this little oddity in the ESTC would have reaped before I embarked on the enterprise. As every historian knows, however, it is often in the nooks and crannies other people have overlooked that the most interesting gems are to be found. My novice mistake, whilst frustrating, nonetheless led to a new piece of information that may well be used in the future. I have come to realise that it is often the amalgamation of numerous discoveries like these that ultimately forms new ideas and approaches to a particular period. After all, it would have been far too easy if I had made enough of a discovery in two weeks to fill a decent section of my dissertation…

 

[1]    Anonymous, (Laurence Saunders?), A trewe mirrour or glase wherin we maye beholde the wofull state of thys our realme (Wesel?, Hugh Singleton?, 1556).

[2]    For the ESTC entry, see STC 21777, http://estc.bl.uk/S100967

[3]    Kermode, Lloyd, Edward. Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama (Cambridge, 2009), p. 26; Grabes, Herbert. Writing the Early Modern English Nation: The Transformation of National Identity in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century England (Amsterdam, 2001), pp. 56-7.

[4]    A trewe mirrour, sig. Ciii.r.

[5]    Gerrett, Christina. The Marian Exiles (Cambridge, 1938, reprint 1966), pp. 354-356.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. great stuff

    January 27, 2016

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