Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Historical Research

Realising how excited I felt about the idea of getting back to teaching history got me all enthusiastic about doing some historical research again - something I haven't done since I finished my doctoral thesis, back before Star was born. I wanted a project. Something big enough to get my teeth into, but not so big it would be overwhelming.

My background is medieval history, and my doctoral research was a study of twelfth and thirteenth century knights. When I finished I planned on starting more work in the same field, and decided to translate and edit a thirteenth century cartulary (book of charters). I even had it photocopied, at some expense. The copy has sat gathering dust, untouched for the past ten years. I thought rather guiltily about picking that up again, but decided against on two grounds: to produce an academic edition I would need to spend a fair amount of time doing research in London or Oxford-based libraries and archives, which isn't practical; and even if it was, I can't summon up the enthusiasm to immerse myself in medieval Latin.

So, back to the drawing board and a change of direction. Another interest of mine is local history, which has the advantage of being ... well ... local. Doing research in either the local library or the county records office twenty minutes away is far more manageable.  Rural history interests me more than the towns, as that is my family background - lots of Victorian farm labourers in my family tree - and I have a fair idea of what information is available from doing genealogy research. Once I started to thinking along these lines I realised I had an obvious subject - the parish where I lived in as a child, just a couple of miles away from our home. 

A few years ago I dabbled a little in house history, trying to find out what I could about the seventeenth century farmhouse where I grew up. I wasn't very successful, but in digging around at the record office I found an unusually detailed map of the area dating from the late eighteenth century. This thing is huge, measuring around six feet by four feet - table sized - and shows who farmed every single strip of land before the common fields were enclosed.  Add this map (and some other estate papers) to the more commonly available records like censuses and parish registers, and there is a lot of material to work with.

My plan is to put together a "prosopographical" study of the parish, starting in the mid-eighteenth century and ending after the First World War. Prosopography is a historical technique best explained as "group biography". It is a way of looking at the mass of people from the past for whom there simply isn't enough information to put together an individual biography. Collecting and analysing data about a defined group makes it possible to piece together a kind of collective biography that can then be used to answer particular historical questions. Similar methods can be used to look at very different groups, and it should work just as well for nineteenth century villagers as for medieval knights.

Although I am going to look at a specific local area, it isn't really local history as such, as the point of this type of study is eventually to be able to put the results into a wider historical context and answer - or at least help to answer - bigger questions. That means a ton of background reading to really understand the context. To start with, though, it means lots of nitty-gritty data collecting and organising. Which is why I have spent the past couple of weeks copying census records into spreadsheets. Although my family suspect borderline insanity, it makes me happy, in a slightly masochistic sort of way (2,500 entries down, another 1,000 to go, and that's just for starters).


Missus Wookie said...

On FB I giggle to read one Friend (Quaker acquaintance)'s status when she says, "has emerged from the 18th century" or "is hiding from the xth Century" I look forward to similar status reports.

Have fun.

Theresa said...

That sounds fantastic! Deliciously meaty but not overwhelming.What fun!

Elizabeth@Frabjous Days said...

How exciting! Really!