Introducing “The Social History of the Archive”

By Liesbeth Corens (Supplement co-editor)

A new supplement has been published: a collection of essays called The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe. It is one of two volumes arising from a conference held at the British Academy in April 2014.

Pieter BRUEGHEL Ii - The tax-collector's office - Google Art Project

Pieter BRUEGHEL the Younger, The Village Lawyer, Pieter Brueghel the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger adorns the cover of the volume. We did not just choose it because it is pretty, but also because it captures so much of what we are trying to achieve in this volume.

For instance, the confusion about the title of the piece is very telling. Most commonly known as The Village Lawyer, it also goes under the name of The Payment of the Tithe, The Tax Collector’s Office, The Notary’s Office, and The Lawyer of Bad Cases: five names for one painting. The confusion over the title is symptomatic of the diverse nature of records and paperwork. In the centuries that separate us from the time of Brueghel’s painting, the various administrative and legal occupations may have diversified, crystallised, and professionalised, but we should not lose sight of the broader interconnecting thread of information management. This entangled set of meanings and broad remit of record-keeping is what we seek to capture. We are answering Eric Ketelaar’s call for a social history of archives; we endeavour to draw attention to the lived practices that underpin the formation of archives rather than simply focusing on them as static repositories. Therefore, our volume looks at the wider cultural practice of record-keeping not only in emerging and expanding official archives, but in the daily life of individuals, families, and communities. Managing information through recording, ordering, and preserving it was crucial; the early modern period seems to have been transformative in this respect. The dynamics of the age — expanding global trade, burgeoning state bureaucracies, advances in technology — necessitated documentation and information management. Our volume explores this apparent evolution and proliferation of record-keeping practices between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The social life of archives is captured in the variety of titles given to the Brueghel painting as well. The different titles highlight different elements in the record-keeping process: Place (office), Action (payment), Topic (bad cases; tithe), People (lawyer). None of these are strictly about the room itself, but are rather about the people, their lives and their relations to each other. As an approach, the social history of the archive tries to capture the bustling life of documents. The paper or parchment now in our reading rooms lay once at the heart of transactions and relationships. Therefore, the contributions all focus on process over product: the practices which brought the documents and collections into existence, rather than their eventual outcome. Perhaps it is telling that our contributors are not all strictly historians of archives and record-keeping. For many, it was their research on other topics that drew their attention to the ways in which documents and record-keeping were a part of processes and relationships. A conversation with many scholars from various backgrounds seemed the most fruitful way to capture the richness and complexity of the topic.

Like the rich detail that characterises Brueghel’s paintings, our contributors provide telling case studies of specific practices and places. These serve as entry points from which they open up very rich insights into the early modern period. Together, the essays turn the archive from an object into a subject of enquiry. The volume’s four sections each highlight a particular aspect of record-keeping that has implications for the documentary material that has come down to us.

The first section, Creation, Curation, and Expertise, highlights the people at the heart of record-keeping, and discusses how some built a career around writing and record-keeping. The records under discussion in this volume were never abstract, detached texts, but part of past people’s livelihoods and creative output.

The essays in the second section, Credibility, Testimony, and Authenticity, discuss records that helped built arguments and through which credibility was acquired. The instrumental nature of these documents alerts us to their rhetorical power and how this shaped their content.

The meaning of repositories is further explored in the third section, Collecting, Compiling, and Controlling Knowledge. All four essays discuss in depth the reasons for gathering, ordering, and preserving information when dealing with the past, making sense of the present, and envisaging a future. They encourage us to look more directly at the structures through which the documents we study have reached us, and what these structures might tell us.

The impact of forgetting and remembering during the period runs through most of the volume, but is most explicitly discussed in the final part, Memory, History, and Oblivion. Deliberate early modern practices of creating, manipulating, and silencing the past show us very directly how archives mediate and construct our perception of it. All the essays show that the collections and documents we rely on in our work not only reflected communities but also shaped them, and continue to bear the mark of that lived past.

In our own time, digital transformations and a rising consciousness of the power wielded by those who can access and utilise information are making historians increasingly aware of the power of information. In just the last couple of months, a number of volumes about early modern archives have appeared, including Rethinking the Archive in Pre-Modern Europe, Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World, and Archival Transformations in Early Modern Europe. This Past & Present supplement, and its forthcoming twin, move the discussion beyond the archives themselves towards wider cultures of record keeping that permeated the society more broadly, and the question of how documents were woven into the fabric of past people’s lives. We hope that many other scholars will reflect on the impact of this renewed attention to the social history of the archive, and we look forward to continuing this conversation for years to come.

The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe is part of Past & Present’s supplements series. It is available online, as well as in print. Previous supplements can be viewed and accessed here. 

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