Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Litany of Complaint about Notarial Records

Someone tell me how to love notarial archives.

For those of you unfamiliar with this beast, these are (at least in my field) books of contracts. X acknolwedges a debt to Y, and promises to pay in Z amount of time. Q is giving R such-and-such an amount of goods of this kind to take to Far Away to sell and return with this other thing. Joe agrees to pay a dowry of this amount to Sue, and then 2 pages of legalese.

I know people out there who have written amazing books from these things. I have heard more than one say "there are treasures in there!" And I've been spending the last two and a half weeks going through them. I have to say, I'm not in love yet.

First there is the handwriting. For my late medieval era, what we have are these scribbles. They remind me of the stuff you're writing in the margins when you're grading the 18th paper of the night, and then the student comes back two days later and asks you what it says, and you literally have no idea, even though it's your own hand. Yeah, they look like that. Plus faded. And kinda destroyed by insects and moisture. One grad school professor described the records she was working with as: "like they had been written in champagne on a cocktail napkin." That's sort of how I feel about these.

I've seen better. But Ive also seen worse.

Then, there are the abbreviations. The notary is scribbling this all down in his book, and will make a fancy copy later, but right now, he's doing something for his own records, so whole words are apparently a luxury.

Also: reading contracts is not exactly exciting. I've worked in court records, and there every document has, if not drama, then conflict. Something to animate it. This? I'm just not seeing it. There are interesting patterns to be found when you stack them up, but individually, they're pretty dull.

And finally, about that pattern: it takes about a gazillion of these things to see it. And I think this is my greatest frustration. I'm going through these godawful books, and I don't know what I'm looking for because I have to look carefully at everything before I can figure out what the patterns are and truly focus in on the ones that are going to be important for me, which will allow me to speed up a bit. Eventually.

Upon rereading this, I realize that these are the same complaints that I could have written the very first time I encountered any archival documents ever, back when I was a wee slip of a grad student. This is that, times twenty. I never realized how good I had it.

So: notarial archive folks out there: teach me how to love these? Because it looks like we're gonna be together for a while.