Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from Paul Dryburgh of The National Archives.
The National Archives (UK) has one of the largest collections of medieval records anywhere in the world, which it holds as the successor archive for English, and later British, royal government. (For our purposes ‘medieval’ constitutes everything between Domesday Book, the first ‘public record’ (created by or for the crown), and the creation of the State Paper Office in 1509.) Broken down, say, to the level of the individual writ or warrant – those tiny strips of parchment on which royal orders and instructions were written, the engine room of government – the medieval archive, constituted principally of the records of Chancery (the secretariat), Exchequer (financial office), and central and local law courts, dwarfs all other non-digital collections. The collection’s richness and diversity of content is such that it can inform almost any aspect of research into the Middle Ages to some degree. One of the aspects that exercises me and my colleagues within the Medieval Records team is what we often call ‘the mechanics of government’. This takes us beyond the informational content of the record and examines the processes, linguistic and material, behind seeking, expressing and executing the royal will. Language played a critical role in administrative process; government in medieval England was therefore at the core of the nation’s multilingual culture as more sections of society came into contact with the centre. However, the role of language, its continuity and mutability, is not always prominent in studies of medieval administration.
We are all aware that throughout the medieval period – and, indeed, as far as 1733 – the principal language of record in government and the church was Latin. As written record culture matured and the communities by whom government was staffed and with whom it interacted diversified, Anglo-Norman French, the vernacular of the nobility, gentry and urban elites, proliferated from c. 1220. The language of correspondence and of legal pleading (if not initially recording), French expanded over a century or so not only to become the language of supplication and of parliamentary debate but also embedded itself into the internal written culture of government. A vast number of warrants in Chancery, mandating the composition of letters, for example, under the great or privy seals (the ultimate royal authority for grants, awards and commissions to office or to try legal cases) were couched in the vernacular. After the 1362 Statute of Pleadings, which permitted litigants to plead in English in courts of law, English gradually seeped into bureaucratic language. Indeed, the use of English to record the proceedings of the court of Chancery, an equitable jurisdiction based on evidence and fairness, brought wider comprehensibility to the legal corpus. By the reign of Richard II (1377-1399), and certainly for much of the early fifteenth century, the administration of English royal government was operating in a complex multilingual world, where linguistic choice mixed with formal (not to say formulaic and legalistic) modes of expression.
Language use and language choice in context can add an extra layer to a record’s history and interpretation. But for me as a historian and archivist rather than, say, a historical linguist or lexicographer, and being the primary member of the Medieval Records team at TNA to deal with French in our collections, gaining a better understanding of linguistic and orthographic choices, the politicisation of language, the mixing of languages in single documents, the adaptation of vocabulary and the use of loan words from other languages within formulaic text and the adaption of formula into different languages will sharpen my knowledge of scribal and legal culture and practice within government.
My interest in the Medieval Multilingualism network, then, is twofold: firstly, to bring innovations from other disciplines into my own research, and to share my knowledge of the archive and of record making and record keeping; and, secondly, to broaden the disciplinary base of the research community using government records. It is becoming evident within the wider archive sector that the skills required to interpret and describe pre-modern records are, for reasons of resource and the multiplicity of demands made of professionals, somewhat on the wane. Similarly, the teaching of the traditional skills of linguistic and palaeographic analysis within the academic sector does not always fit graduates with the breadth (if not depth) of knowledge and experience to cope with the range of material they might encounter within the archive. At The National Archives, we have developed a programme entitled Postgraduate Archival Skills Training (PAST) which aims, over three stages, to: (1) introduce academic researchers of any discipline to archival collections, archival research and navigating online and legacy catalogues; (2) give instruction in some of the skills and methodologies vital to researchers; (3) go more in-depth on a particular theme (Legal Records, Material Culture, Religion and the Church, etc.) Check out the webpages and do sign up! While there is some focus on language and linguistic culture, there is, I’m sure, more we can do.
The opportunity to collaborate with scholars across a number of fields to open up our collections in exciting new ways is a key aspect of the Multilingualism network. Do please get in touch and let’s explore how we can work together.