Archival Practice and the Life Cycles of Records in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

AHA Session 226
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Adam Kosto, Columbia University

Session Abstract

The ‘archival turn’ in history may have already gone through several revolutions, but it surely has a few more to perform before we can discern a consistent direction. This session asks how recent work on crucial places and periods in the social histories of archives can be taken further by examining the impact of institutionalization on record-keeping, exposing archival practices and highlighting the growing diversity of the types of records in archives. The participants are concerned both with different kinds of records and with their different life-cycles, observing not only processes of preservation and loss, but also the attendant moments of hiatus and abrupt change that often defined the meanings of archives. The contributions therefore take their cue from works such as Warren Brown et al. (eds.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (2013), which criticized the notion of a step-change in medieval record-keeping after about 1100, largely by showing the extent and complexity of documentary and archival culture before that date, and Alexandra Walsham (ed.) The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe (2016), which, in uncovering the proliferation of the archival habit in early modern Europe, showed palpably how archives construct history.

The session aims to tease out the implications for the writing of history of our recognition that if social histories shape archives then so do archives themselves have social histories. It looks at ecclesiastical archives in new ways: it tries to identify how and why clusters of documents formed and/or were embedded within ecclesiastical archives, and in particular investigates the archival practices – re-use and discarding in the case of the Piacenza archives examined by Costambeys, annotation and copying in Hodel’s study of Königsfelden – that shaped the kinds of histories that could and can be written, whether about pre-communal Italian cities, late medieval monasteries and their patrons, or early modern city elites. It considers too the ways in which the types of records deposited in an archive change its meaning, just as their preservation and subsequent use might change the records themselves. Whether we consider monastic records or those of families like the Behaims studied by Murphy, their preservation in household settings – but perhaps not only there – indicates that distinctions between ‘archive’ and ‘library’ are not always, or often, useful. Similarly, having survived to this day, the apparently ephemeral memories of the Behaims’ calligraphy books have turned out to be anything but.

Commentary on three substantive papers will be provided by Adam J. Kosto, whose meticulous work in (especially) Catalan libraries and archives has borne rich and varied fruit, most recently on documents of safe conduct and on finding aids and research tools.

See more of: AHA Sessions