Thursday, February 26, 2009

Question from Joan -Research with primary sources

My question regards how good historical research is done for the Tudor period. I've seen references to "primary research" which I assume means material actually written during the 1500 or 1600's. Does this mean you must have access to the original or is a copy acceptable? I'm guessing many original documents are not readily available to the general public.

Also, when doing primary research does that mean that you sit down with the original (or copy) and read it exactly as written? Have a lot of original materials been "translated" (for lack of a better word) from the old English style to modern English? I know the Tudor spelling was not standardized and they used different terms than we do. Perhaps deciphering illegible handwriting would be a challenge too. Do researchers ever come across a word, term, or reference and have no idea of its meaning?

Weren't some communications of Henry VII, Elizabeth I, Catherine of Aragon etc. written in other languages such as French, Latin, or Spanish? With this being the case,has some prior researcher helpfully translated such documents in to English?-or does the researcher do this themselves (if able) or hire someone else to do so?

In addition to the writings of royalty other people would have written reports or letters. I guess one of the puzzles with everything written would be to put it in context based on any bias or agenda of the writer. Is it difficult to determine the accuracy of some writings because of this?

Sorry this is so long. I actually have more questions about this topic but I've restrained myself.

The process of trying to determine the most factual picture of Tudor times is fascinating to me-a bit like a treasure hunt.


PhD Historian said...

Excellent question, Joan. Yes, the process is very much like a treasure hunt! And just as much fun!

Taking your questions in order:

Originals are always preferable, but copies are also acceptable. "Copies" can include photocopies, photographs of the original, microfiche photographs, microfilm, and transcriptions of the original that have been confirmed as accurate. For example, on my own website I have a photograph of a portion of an original proclamation of the accession of Queen Jane in 1553. Even though it is a photograph and on a website, it is still a primary source. Similarly, I have posted transcriptions of several jewelry inventories. Those too are primary sources.

The highest quality research in primary sources does indeed mean sitting down with the original and reading it as written. That often means reading old-fashioned handwriting, non-standard spelling, and multiple foreign languages. Why is this necessary? An example: In my research on Jane Grey’s date of birth, I found that a printed and published English language translation of a letter written in 1553 said that Jane was “about 14 years of age” when the letter was written. But when I double checked a photograph of the actual letter, written in Latin, I discovered that the translator made an error. The English should be “now 14 years of age.” The difference between “about” and “now” made a big difference in what I concluded about her date of birth. Errors do happen in translations and transcriptions, so the original is always the best source.

Yes, many documents have been published in modern English rather than their original “old English” or other, foreign languages. Thousands of volumes of them, in fact.

“Do researchers ever come across a word, term, or reference and have no idea of its meaning?” Oh, yes, absolutely! In 2002, I came across a strange word in a lawsuit from 1553. Seven years later, I still have not found anyone who knows what the word means! Even seasoned old researchers are mystified. Fortunately, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains the meanings of a lot of old words.

“Perhaps deciphering illegible handwriting would be a challenge too.” Oh, indeed it is! One of the most difficult challenges researchers face is reading old handwriting! I was very lucky, so that when I was working on my PhD, I was able to take a course on paleography, or the skill of reading old handwriting styles. Yes, PhD students often take entire university courses on how to read old documents!

Most serious researchers can read at least one, and usually two, foreign languages. It is a requirement for most students seeking a PhD in History that they read two foreign languages. For people studying Tudor England, those languages are usually Latin plus French or Spanish. It is also possible to pay someone to do the translation, but this is usually frowned upon (and expensive).

Bias and personal agendas: An excellent insight on your part! Yes, researchers usually try to discover as much about a source as they can so that the biases and agendas can be considered. For example, if you know that a person writing an account of the reign of Queen Mary actually lived in exile during her reign because he was Protestant and feared being burned at the stake, you know not to trust everything that person wrote ... at least not at face value. Part of the job, and art, of doing historical research is the process of getting as much input and evidence about a specific event, issue, person or whatever as you possibly can, then weighing all that evidence together to create an account or interpretation that either contains as little bias as possible or that explains clearly why some bias is present. Some historians do this very well; others less so.

“Is it difficult to determine the accuracy of some writings because of this?” It can be, yes. And not only do we, as researchers, have to be concerned about dead people’s biases, but we have to be concerned about our own biases and agendas as well. For example, witchcraft in Tudor England is a very popular topic, and research on it poses exactly this kind of problem. In the modern world, very few people believe in witches, spells, etc. So it can sometimes be difficult for a modern researcher to fully understand how and why people of the Tudor era believed it existed and feared it so much. We have to set aside our own bias of non-belief and try to understand the issue through the eyes and mind of a Tudor person. It’s not always easy.

Joan said...

Thank you PhD Historian for your very interesting and informative response.

I never imagined there were thousands of volumes translated from the old English. I thought the amount was much more limited. I didn't know there were courses on paleography and I didn't know PhD history students required at least one extra language-but of course that makes total sense-with only one language you would lose the ability to read many primary sources first hand.

Thanks again, I have a much better picture of the process of historical research. I have a couple more questions but I will post them through the proper channels.

Anonymous said...

PhD Historian

What is your website?

Lara said...

PhD Historian's site it:

(I've told him before, but I'll say it again... that's such a clever name!)