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.


JJL said...

Right in my wheelhouse. So I work almost exclusively with notarial records, and spent nearly three years of archival work staring at them. Not gonna lie, they are often tedious and have all the problems you laid out (especially the handwriting and water damage, though the picture you posted is particularly grotesque--i've had to use things that were half-eaten by bookworms). But a couple of redeeming points:

1) They make for excellent databases. Where there is no narrative, it usually means you can count something, and if you have two hundred of something, you've got yourself a database. Modern historians will scoff at you for the tiny size of said database but medievalists generally think it is the greatest thing ever.

2) There are, at least in my notarial registers, occasionally stories but you have to reconstruct them. Guy wants to leave his religious order and so appoints court proctors; guy gets charged with treason and put on trial (wasn't in the court register, it was in a private notarial register); woman has to renegotiate her grandmother's legacy gift to a convent because raiders destroyed the houses whose rents were used to pay said gift; ships get hired to carry an embassy to Southern Italy, etc. It makes doing archival work feel a lot more like detective work. In many cases, they're the only time you GET the story. I study the history of one particular religious institution in a particular town. There are very few surviving documents for said institution, so the only way I could reconstruct the history of said institution was to sift through hundreds of registers to find it.

3) They give you the everyday and mundane. Are court records sexy? Absolutely. But, litigious as medieval people were, that's not where they live their lives. Look for the incidental detail in notarial registers like you do court records. The interesting thing is often what the contract, debt, ship rental, testament, house purchase, or dowry assignation tells you without meaning to. The way in which people thought about space and place, the words they used to describe things, inventories of their possessions, their motivations for doing things--some of that you can get in court records, but you get LOADS of it in notarial registers.

This may not be the most thrilling case for notarial records, but they're my bread and butter. Or maybe I've just developed Stockholm Syndrome.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

JJL, this is great. I think my problem is that I'm trying to get through a mountain of records without a mountain of time, so I'm skimming, and in skimming, I'm missing those juicy details. Or it's possible that I haven't read enough records to start seeing them.

The other issue is that I'm dealing with a very large city, so there's not a lot of chance that I'm going to see the same names coming up again and again.

But I did find *one* possible trace of something today. I'll save that for the next blog post.

Good Enough Woman said...

On a related note, when I read c18 Brit lit (which is my wheelhouse), I am always amazed by the record keeping and the shipping of goods, and the promises of payments, etc. I'm re-reading Moll Flanders right now, and I'm intrigued by the contracts, signed designations, and recording of transactions, etc. So much communication over such great distances among strangers, and yet it often sorts out as it should! Amazing.

I hope you find things to marvel at among the records. I must say, though, just glimpsing at that photo make my eyes hurt.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'd love to read scholarship on medieval and renaissance debts. But I have no time and/or money for archival work. Meh. I hate everything today.

But I'd definitely be interested in reading about it, so keep up the hard work! We're cheering for you!

Susan said...

I find it useful to think of types of records as genres. So there are conventions for each genre, and after a while you kind of skim them, unless you realize that people are playing with X bit of the formula. It's when you know the rules that you can see interesting Inge. And Beritish historians envy you notaries records.