Tuesday, 18 December 2012

History for Writers: Making Sense of Charters

Getting back to the idea of writers using historical research, what if you want to go the whole hog at your local archives and research some old charters, grants or other documents relating to a specific event? How do you get the most out of them? What possible use are they? Shouldn't you just be reading a general history of the time and making up the details instead?

Well you could, but sometimes single documents can give you real insight into tiny moments of history. I've been playing around with a short story based on historical events, and the documentary evidence is crucial to it. In fact, without my primary source research, I wouldn't know about it at all. I'm going to use that experience to suggest ways of going about this.

First, the task generally isn't as daunting as people think. Charters, wills, grants, legal procedings and other documents, even back to the Anglo-Saxon period in the UK (please don't call them the Dark Ages) are frequently collected together, and generally translated for those without much Latin. Even when they aren't, charters in particular tend to follow standard forms, making them relatively easy to translate. Specific institutions tend to have collections of all their various documents, often published, while governmental ones are usually available in suitable libraries (usually university ones).

What can you get from them? You'll be looking for a description of a key event as a starting point, probably. Generally, if it's recorded, it will have been done either as a 'history' of events, or as part of a legal proceeding. The one I've been playing with shows up in an account of legal proceedings kept by Ripon's canons.

What can it tell you? Well, first, it can give you a rough idea of what happened. Usually only a rough one though, because either it will be perfunctory and legalistic or it will be skewed by the writer's prose in the histories. It just seems to be the way these things work. But it can give you a rough outline of events, where they took place, and crucially, who was there. Look at the witness list at the bottom to see who was present at the signing. You now have at least a potential cast of characters.

Now look for other documents around it. Look for continuations of the same problem, or precursors to it. Look at the documents relied on by the one you're researching. In my case, the story only gets interesting when you realise that the canons relied on one of a pair of matching charters to prove their claim (the other being held by Beverley) and that those charters were forged. They did that rather than relying on previous grants by the Archbishop. So suddenly we have a story. We have the canons wanting to push away from the control of their boss, and using any means to get it.

But that isn't the whole story, because we haven't gone out to look at the wider context. The context of a charter is crucial and can often come down to looking at the lives of the people in the witness lists in more detail (where it is available, it often won't be). Looking for other documents with their names can tell you a lot (or just look in a big book of prosopography for the relevant period, like biography, only much more limited). For example, looking at other charters featuring Geoffrey de Lardare, the hero of my tale, tells me that he must have been around in 1216, and that he was still there a whopping seventy years later in 1286. It tells me that he was pretty active between those points too, to the point where we get the sense of him being the dominant personality in the place.

We know that the King was there in 1228, too. So what do we know about Henry III at that time? Well, he wasn't married by then, despite being around 30, and his general concern in life seems to have been the way the barons and others took power away from King John, his predecessor. So we can see that his involvement in all this was probably to get back a measure of control from the Archbishop of York. Because he was king, we have descriptions of him and his actions through his reign. We have some pretty good descriptions of the things Archbishop Walter Gray did too, among them plenty of grants to Ripon in the past and a general programme of rebuilding churches.

So suddenly, behind this one event, we have these two big characters. A king trying to build his powers, and an archbishop trying to exercise his for what he sees as the good of the Church. In the middle, we have this community of priests prepared to use forgery to gain a little autonomy, and a single figure among them sufficiently memorable to show up in the sources. We have the beginnings of a story, in other words.


Susan Fields said...

I've always avoided historical fiction because research scares me. You make it sound interesting, though!

stu said...

The fun bit is that people only know if you're wrong if they've done just as much research.