The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
Posts tagged ‘research methods’
As I come to terms with the fact that I will soon no longer be able to call myself a first-year PhD student, I want to give some advice to those starting their doctoral research. Things I wish I knew when I started, some things I’ve learnt and others that I am still working on…
- Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. This is completely normal. Moving to a new city and a new university, everything felt quite overwhelming at first. With post-induction information overload, it took a good couple of months for me to settle into a research routine. Read more
As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive. Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database. For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites. World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it. One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.
One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned. Read more
By Clemency Anderson
Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from? These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.
By Zoe Farrell | @zoeffarrell
At first glance, a map is a simple entity. It is a tool through which towns and cities can be organised so that people can gain knowledge of places, roads, waterways and significant buildings. However, maps are often in fact complex objects of state building, propaganda and identity formation. J. B. Harley described cartography as ‘inherently rhetorical’ and it is exactly within this rhetoric that historians can search for clues to the past.
Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more
Aliens? Illuminati secrets? Devices that can see into the future? It seems that no conspiracy theory is too far-fetched for those who speculate what may be hidden within the vaults of the Archivum Segretum Vaticanum.  Indeed, the Vatican’s ‘secret’ archives are perhaps unique in their ability to fire the popular thirst for tales of mystery and machination – think, for instance, of their recent appearance in the 2009 film-adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which saw an ill-fated Tom Hanks trapped in a bullet-proof reading room, slowly being deprived of oxygen. Read more
Bias is a fundamental problem encountered by historians studying all time periods, using all methods, and at all stages of their career. The conveners of a one-day workshop on Facing the Challenge of Bias in History, to be held on Sunday 15th May 2016 at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, therefore invite papers from historians in all sub-disciplines. Whether your work has confronted selection bias, bias inherent in a source, researcher bias, or any other form of bias, we would like to hear from you. By bringing together researchers from disparate areas of history, who might never usually come across each other’s work, we hope to explore a common problem and to collectively discuss ways of confronting this problem. Read more
By Fred Smith @
The British Library is overflowing with young, frappuccino-supping undergraduates more interested in checking Facebook and watching Netflix than carrying out ‘serious’ research. At least this is the impression one might take from reading an article in The Times newspaper last month. Several prominent academics, including former professor of Renaissance literature at the University of Leeds, David Lindley, have voiced concerns over the overcrowding of an institution they believe should be reserved for individuals with a genuine research interest – individuals who currently struggle to find a seat and face ever-increasing waiting times for books. They believe that the once-exclusive library has become a trendy meeting place for London’s students to socialise over a cup of coffee and take advantage of the free wi-fi.
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’. Read more
Thomas is an MPhil student in Early Modern History. He is currently researching sixteenth-century Italian heretics and their use of the printing press.
I spent the morning putting in a comma; I spent the afternoon taking it out – Oscar Wilde
Writing history remains something of a dark art. From the beginning of your degree in history, there is a great deal of focus on how to do research: that is, how one should approach sources and analyse historical arguments, covering a wide range of different methods and theoretical approaches. Read more