Lead image ‘Well-Behaved Women’ by Barry D Bulsara
Available to buy: https://www.edinburghart.com/product/well-behaved-women/
Ah, the archive… That reliquary of truth and unbiased historical fact.
This week’s ‘fun fact’ is one of those research moments when another researcher points out a solution to your problem that actually should have been obvious from the beginning: if you’re looking for hidden histories, do not look at ‘official’ records, such as those kept by licensing guilds or at published works, nope. Look at court documents. Fines, punishments, incarcerations—executions. That is where you are going to find the true stories of what historical people—who were not White Christian Men (WCM)—were actually up to.
The trouble with archives is not a new problem to me; but when you step away for awhile you have to remind yourself of the pitfalls of working within them. When I was researching for my PhD thesis, I came across an incredibly helpful book about the trouble with archives by Carolyn Steedman, called ‘Dust’.
One of the key takeaways from this book, for me, was the concept of the ‘seduction of the archive’. The archive really gives us so little. As Steedman so succinctly puts it, you’re trying to weave a life story from the receipt for a nutmeg grater. The seduction lies in the historian’s desire to flesh out these stark, emotionless facts into a meaningful narrative; and we have to be careful. How much is actually contained in the archive and how much is wishful reading?
But another key takeaway from this book is something I had forgotten, and just been reminded of this week—the archive is itself an archive. It tells a story as well. It’s a tricky, changing, subjective, breathing thing. The archive is decidedly not a reliquary of truth and unbiased historical fact. There are many steps along the way that prevent it from ever being that. There is, of course, The Archivist. The person(s) who chose what was worthy of going into the archive and what wasn’t. This is a subjective editing process that most likely tossed out years ago the very nuggets you’re carefully mining to find. The archivist of yore (and honestly, not even that ‘yore’ at that) was mostly likely an overeducated White Christian Man (WCM). The perspective of this particular demographic of archivist is not normally one that would preserve any of the ‘alternative’ stories you’re hoping to discover.
And that’s just road block #1. The second problem is what is available for this archivist to archive in the first place. Who are the people writing these records? They, too, are making choices.
I went to an historical Christmas pudding cooking class a couple years ago given by food historian Annie Gray, author of ‘The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria’ and she pointed out something rather marvellous I hadn’t thought of before: cookbooks are aspirational. Think of your cookbook shelf at home and compare that to whatever you cobbled together last night. Yup. I rest my case. Looking at historical cookbooks doesn’t give us much of an idea at all of how real people actually ate themselves, or even fed their guests. These cookbooks are records of how they hoped to cook. Like an historical Nailed It.
If we look back at published works from the Early Modern period on the variety of sociological problems that concerned them at the time, these are written as idealised guides of how society should function and behave, written once again from our WCM perspective.
Then if we go back even further to mediaeval texts, these are mostly written by WCM of the Church—monks who had sequestered themselves away from society to pray and write tracks about how society should function and behave. In Latin. Now we have several layers even further removed from anything resembling a text that actually documents how real people worked, prayed, caroused, loved, and lived—like an entire sociological Nailed It.
So, I leave you with this (and yes, you learned everything you need to know from this post already from a meme) — well-behaved women seldom make history. The women who who obeyed mediaeval and Early Modern societal norms would never find their names listed along with the ‘great men’ of the age in guild ledgers or have their works widely published. The women who made it into archives of old are the the ones in the historical pillory.