Scaling Up: Medieval Sources and the Making of Historical Contexts in England, c. 900–c. 1450

AHA Session 216
North American Conference on British Studies 2
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Katherine French, University of Michigan
Katherine French, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

This session brings together scholars of medieval English legal documents, ecclesiastical records, and seals with a focus both on placing small-scale source material in conversation with large-scale historical shifts, and on some of the rewards and challenges of combining traditional methodologies with new digital approaches. Individually, each paper examines in detail some aspect of medieval records or record keeping in England. Whether it be shifts in the formulaic phrasing of legal texts before and after the Norman invasion of 1066, the liminal place occupied by seals as both textual and visual archival artefacts, or the reconstruction of peasant communities from charters and manorial court documents, all papers in this session rely on the minutiae of medieval records to better understand historical and historiographical contexts that might, at first glance, seem far removed.

The question of historical scale pertains not only to time-span and geographical reach, but also to primary source materials. All historians must grapple with the fine details of the historical record, and those who study medieval records and record keeping are no exception. Yet attention to the small scale – the individual charter, the phrasing of legal formulae, the image left in sealing wax – must be met with awareness of the large scale – the larger shifts in legal practice, the changes in literacy and readership, the cultural and political loci of authority. Too often, however, individual records or localised studies are interpreted in light of large-scale truisms; an analysis of administrative practice in a single court, for example, is made on the assumptions that it must necessarily fit along the trajectory of long-term and large-scale administrative development, and that its relationship with these broader forces was uni-directional. In the Middle Ages this was only sometimes the case. One of the questions underlying this session asks, “How can historical details complicate established historical contexts?”

There is also a parallel connection to be made methodologically between the traditional practices of diplomatics and sigillography, which encourage a focussed, detail-oriented, small-scale approach, and the more recent opportunities afforded by digital tools, which permit broader questions to be asked of larger quantities of data. A second underlying question therefore asks, “How does the “scale” of our methodology shape our analysis of the relationship between historical data and historical context?”

This session will be of interest to historians interested in medieval English legal and administrative history, the fields of diplomatics and sigillography, and, more broadly, to those concerned with relationships of scale as they pertain to primary source data and the creation of large-scale narrative. It will also be relevant to scholars engaged in digital humanities research, particularly those concerned with the impact of DH methodologies on historical understanding.

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