Historical Documents: their nature and quality

One problem that faces all historians is the archival and technical one of record loss. Even the best documented parish will have large gaps in most sets of records. One of the advantages of the multi-source work is that it makes it possible to gain some idea of the dimensions of the loss. For Earls Colne, the lack of the burial register entries for the years 1590-1610, and of the original court rolls for Colne Priory manor for much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is unfortunate. Like many other Essex parishes, the probate inventories have also disappeared. The fragility of what remains of the past is confirmed by the disappearance of documents we know once existed.

Another problem lies in the ambiguity of the records themselves, and often this arises from our own ignorance. Only as we continue to work on the material do we gradually come to know what many of the documents really mean. Often it is possible to resolve the ambiguities, for example we can perform various cross-checking tests to find out whether Hearth Taxes list those who own property or those who are resident. Much more difficult is the problem of the extent to which documents mean what they say. A notorious example of this is the whole area of 'legal fictions', whereby a completely fictitious account of an event that did not occur is devised in order to get round legal difficulties, as in the case of "common recoveries" in land transfers. In fact, all legal records pose problems. Since so much is at stake and so much is fiction, it is often almost impossible to be sure to what extent what is described as happening really reflected any events in the 'real' world in the past.

A separate problem is that some of the more complex documents, for example wills or manorial transfers, are themselves difficult to understand. The English language has a considerable capacity for ambiguity and it is often quite impossible to decide what a sentence means. For instance, if punctuation is not used properly, it may be impossible to decide whether in the statement 'John son of John the blacksmith', the occupation refers to the father or the son. The problem of ambiguity and meaning becomes especially critical when producing indexes.

A further limitation of the historical records is that they are mostly concerned with behaviour and events, rather than with the normative or cognitive level. We have a very large amount of information about how people behaved and interacted, but know far too little about what they thought or said they were doing. This means that we can generate very large quantities of statistical information, but the reasons why people behaved in certain patterned ways can only be inferred.

This is a reversal of the situation of the contemporary investigator. The sociologist or anthropologist has a great deal of material at the normative level, that is people's comments on how one ought to behave, how people are thought to behave, and the reasons why people are supposed to behave in certain ways. But often such an observer has little information about the way people actually do behave outside his own observations of a very limited set of actions. Thus present-day investigators are often forced to infer the statistical level from the normative data.

The position of the historian using past material may be likened to the famous metaphor of Plato's cave: we see the shadows on the wall, the surviving fragments of described events and partial comments on them; we then have to deduce what threw the shadows, the morality and mentality of the actors has to be inferred, projecting backwards from the shadows. We never observe people directly, but only through the creation of ever-subtler mirrors.

It will be obvious that the material that survives for a particular parish represents only a very small fraction of what happened in it. There are very large areas which are of interest to us and were of importance to those who lived in previous centuries that are completely omitted in the records. Unless we step back from a village study for a moment, we may forget that in England there were civil wars, scientific advances, the collapse of an established religion, the start of colonial conquest. Even such locally important phenomena as the weather or plague may leave no obvious and direct trace in the records.

The topics which never occur directly in the usual records are far more numerous than those which do and such omissions encompass most of what is really important. For Earls Colne this is vividly illustrated if we compare the account of village life we would get from the records with the account which, by chance, has survived in the diary kept by the resident vicar, Ralph Josselin. This diary provides a picture of a world of religious turmoil, political involvement, daily disease and illness which is almost totally missing in the records.

It is for this reason essential to understand very clearly what the records were created for and what, therefore, we can expect them to contain and what omit. It is extremely dangerous to assume that because something is not mentioned in the records, or not mentioned until late in the period, that it was not commonly widespread. We cannot assume, for instance, that no one believed in the Devil or witchcraft before the later sixteenth century just because there is no reference in the records to such matters until that time. Thus it is important to set parish records alongside other records of all kinds.

Another weakness of this material arises from the fact that it has been necessary to concentrate on a small, delimited, geographical area. By concentrating on a particular village, we tend to get fragments of peoples' lives. The well-known high degree of geographical mobility in England as far back as the records stretch means that economically, socially, intellectually and in every other way the village of Earls Colne was not isolated. Ideas, food, markets, government, kinship, all overflowed the parish boundaries. Although we may make some efforts to follow some of these chains outside the delimited area, we are bound to oversimplify and impoverish the past by adopting a village as the unit of study.

A further bias which needs to be made explicit concerns the under-recording of certain groups in the population of the past. Women, servants and children, as well as the poor and the old, are less well recorded than men.

The records for England as a whole are continuous and rich. Yet they also have a curious feature when compared to the records produced by Roman Law and inquisitorial processes on the Continent. In England there appears to have been little communication between the three major record collecting bodies, the State, the Church and the Estates, and even within each of these there was little cross-checking or identification. Each record keeper started from scratch and worked for himself. There is nothing, for example, to match the massive system of identification and cross-referencing produced by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for most European countries. The records in England were often produced by part-time or unofficial record-keepers, often members of the local or at least the regional community, they were not full-time bureaucrats with the systematized, standardized methods of their European counterparts. Much of the documentation was thus collected for particular needs or arose out of ad hoc decisions. Combined with the highly mobile nature of the population this makes it very much harder in the English context to identify specific people.

The difference was long ago noticed when comparing the fullness of French parish registers, which made the linking necessary for family reconstitution comparatively easy, with the much sparser English parochial registers. The phenomenon is a much larger one, however, and the difference which can be found there is inflated many times over when we consider the records as a whole. Thus the job of reconstructing a historical community in England is much more difficult than it would be in many other historical societies.