Monday, March 02, 2009

Question from Joan - More on historical research

I will call this questions on historical research part B.

Would a good historical researcher of the Tudor era use primary sources plus works of previous historians? For instance, if someone was a respected authority would you go ahead and use some of their material? (no use in reinventing the wheel type of thing) or- would you feel you must verify what they have written? Is there a general consensus on who is a "respected authority"?

How likely do you think it is for new (new to us that is) Tudor related documents to be discovered? I'm imagining a written documents version of the Cheapside Hoard. Also, are there known materials in existence that researchers are not allowed to access?

Sorry for going on about this topic. There seems to be such a fascination and much debate about what did and did not really happen during the Tudor time period. I know there are good and bad resources out there and I'm trying to understand the process that leads to the reliable resources.

[ed note - accidentally cut off the end of Joan's question... fixed now!]


PhD Historian said...

I congratulate you on your inquisitiveness, Joan. I sense a future professional historian in the making!

Do history researchers use works of previous historians in addition to primary sources? Absolutely! Works by previous historians are secondary sources rather than primary ones, but they are invaluable. For one thing, they provide an excellent starting point. The bibliographies of secondary works are a rich source that historical researchers “mine” for the little “nuggets” of guidance toward useful primary sources, just to name one use. The works of previous historical researchers also help new researchers decide what avenues of research on a particular topic they want to pursue. Is there some aspect of the issue that previous historians did not tackle and which now needs investigation? For example, numerous historians are backtracking and filling in a HUGE gap in the traditional historical narrative by revealing the part played by women in the politics and culture of the Tudor period. Older written histories tended to ignore the presence of women, usually assuming they had no influence because they could not vote or hold office. More recent historians are now revealing the many ways in which women shaped their world from behind the scenes.

Historians do often cite the work of previous researchers. Sometimes they simply state that Historian X revealed a certain point, then build on that previous point. Others argue against the earlier point, or present a new “twist” on the point. And some do occasionally seek to verify what the previous writer found. Good historical writing always “engages with the existing historiography” (a fancy way of saying that new writing should always be built upon the old).

Consensus on “respected authorities” – yes, in some cases their is, even when their findings have been amended by subsequent writers. GR Elton is still considered to have been an “authority” on Tudor politics. Eric Ives is still an “authority” on Anne Boleyn. Both have been challenged, but neither has been toppled from their position as a “respected authority.” There are other respected authorities in other areas of Tudor history.

“New” (previously unknown or under-appreciated) individual documents and document collections do still surface, occasionally. In her recent book about the Grey sisters, Leanda de Lisle re-discovered a long-ignored set of Tudor-era documents on Katherine Grey’s funeral tucked away in the College of Arms. A colleague of mine has been granted access to a particular prominent Tudor family’s surviving papers by that family’s descendants, when almost no other researchers have been. Such discoveries are becoming increasingly rare, but they do happen. Nothing of as much importance to a specific area of history as the Cheapside Hoard has surfaced in recent memory, however (or at least not that I can think of off the top of my head).

Materials to which researchers are not allowed access – yes, and no. There are a lot of materials in the UK to which even “respected authorities” are allowed only very limited direct access. One very prominent example is the State Papers. The originals are locked away in the vaults of the National Archives at Kew and very rarely seen “in person” by any historians. Instead, we rely on microfilms of the originals, or the printed Calendars (abridged summaries representing a fraction of the total). There are similar documents with extremely limited access at the British Library and other archives in the UK. William Cecil’s papers stored among the Salisbury Manuscripts at Hatfield House is one example of the “other archives,” in fact. They are available on microfilm at (I believe) only two libraries in the world (the Folger Shakespeare Library in the US and the British Library in the UK) and more widely as a multi-volume printed “calendar” just like the State Papers, but the originals are still privately owned by the Marquis of Salisbury, and he very rarely grants access to them.

Thanks for the questions, Joan. I think it is important that people know what it is that historians really do and how we do it, and your questions give us the opportunity to explain.

kb said...

One more note about 'newly discovered' Tudor documents. The limited access that PhD Historian very accurately described has created an 'unknown' mystique about some documents.

There are stacks of documents in various archives that have not been properly indexed or cataloged. So, there's a box of papers labeled 'Documents from Mary I, box 3' in the National Archives int he UK for example. Inside is a large stack of documents tied together with a fading pink flat string. You untie the pink (silently musing on the gender connotations) and then realize there are over 50 documents in the box, none of them named, described or cataloged.

It's a matter of hunt and seek. There might be some amazing nugget in there, if you can read the writing, that changes some part of the Tudor narrative.

And this is at the National Archives. I have a colleague who does a great deal of work at Chadwick House in the archives of Bess of Hardwick. He has special permission from the current owners of the house, the Duke and Duchess, as well as their private archivist. He describes wandering through the shelves discovering all sorts of not-yet-cataloged papers.

At the British Library several documents are not properly identified yet especially as relate to women. I worked with documents described as authored by Elizabeth Leighton of the mid-1600's when they were by Elizabeth Leighton of the late 1500'.

A few years ago, a grad student in Edinburgh stumbled upon a document in the attic of his flat that is purported to be from Mary Queen of Scots.

Lots of treasure hunting to be done for the researcher.

PhD Historian said...

Coincidentally, KB, I was informed just this morning of an entire collection of documents recently deposited with the Cambridgeshire Record Office in Cambridge. They include the Tudor-era records of the Huddlestons, a prominent Roman Catholic family of the Elizabethan period, specifically the records from their estate at Sawston. The records are in several boxes and have not yet been catalogued. For historians researching the treatment of Catholics during Elizbeth's reign, the collection may prove invaluable.

So, Joan, new records and materials do indeed still surface!

kb said...

I know of the Huddlestons. How exciting! there's a doctoral project waiting for someone.

Papers like that are also useful for researching property disbursement, tenant/landlord relationships and all sorts of stuff....