Vast distances and a huge amount of material were two sizeable difficulties that Dr Neal faced when working on her new book. Here we learn how they were tackled and how Dr Neal went about recording, archiving and analysing the rich resource of documents her work is based on.
Specialising in medieval European history from a base in Australia is every bit as challenging as you might imagine. To make a Melbourne-to-London flight typically requires me to be travelling for 25–30 hours, and costs an awful lot of money into the bargain. So, when I embarked on my study of thirteenth-century political communication, it was imperative that I knew as much as possible about what I might need to do and see before I made the long trip across the globe. I spent almost a year acquainting myself remotely with the nature of the collections of The National Archives (TNA) and its cataloguing, which was only available in hard copy at that time. I also gathered copies of all the published letters I could find, and read as many as I could before I laid eyes on a single one ‘in the flesh’.
I know that some purists see the advent of photography in archives and libraries as a retrograde step for scholarly standards, but for me it was a sine qua non. I couldn’t have hoped to complete my project without the capacity to create my own digital archive of materials that could be consulted, repeatedly, once I returned home. I remember my first visit to TNA vividly. In particular, I recall the sinking sensation as I browsed the first volume of correspondence I had called up, that my time would be inadequate if I wanted to read all the letters before deciding which ones were worthy of my digital record. The Ancient Correspondence series alone contains many thousands of letters, arranged in sixty-four bound volumes of around two hundred letters each; and there are many, many other series where relevant correspondence can be found. In the end, on that first extended visit I did almost nothing but photograph letters, front and back, carefully cataloguing the images so that I would be able to relocate specific items with relative ease.
When I was returned home with my treasure trove, it took me months to work my way through them. As I did so, I sometimes found that my initial records were inadequate. While digital photography enables some manipulations that can’t be achieved in any other way – spectral analysis to recover faded text, for instance – it can’t easily capture all of the detail that the human eyeball, armed with a UV lamp and the chance to hold the parchment up to the light at different angles, can see. Occasionally (with much cursing of my past self), I found that my original photo was out of focus on a particularly important and indecipherable section. By great good fortune, I was able to make a few, shorter, repeat visits to check on the reading of letters that turned out to be critical examples, especially in the numerous cases where the original is faded, stained or otherwise damaged. If I wasn’t already, this project gave me ample opportunity to become envious of colleagues who can hop on a train to Kew with relative ease whenever they need to.
The system I developed for managing all of this digital information involved generating a Word file for each letter, into which I recorded the catalogue information and matching image details, along with the text as I transcribed and translated it, and notes on any existing published version or calendared reference, in translation or original Latin or French. I was also lucky enough to secure some top up funding that helped me appoint research assistants to help me wade through the thousands of letters that needed transforming from pictorial to verbal information. These files I gradually cross-referenced by keywords or themes, originally on manual lists and later using NVivo software to make patterns easier to locate. The thrill of finding relationships between them, seeing the correspondence flow backwards and forwards, noticing the echoes of phrasing and common references points; all of these insights emerged slowly, like a flower from a bud.
Finding subtle meanings in the formulae of official correspondence requires attacking the problem from two ends. It means reading a lot of individual letters, one by one; delving as deeply as possible into the context of this moment of exchange, and thinking about how these contingencies shaped both intention and reception. But at the same time, one must keep an eye on broad patterns. It is easy to misattribute significance to a phrase or concept in isolation, without realising how genre, legal, or rhetorical standards governed its use. One of the core arguments of the book derives from this observation: that we need to combine these ways of reading, and move iteratively between them, in order to grasp how letters worked as political communication.
The effort that went into collecting and cataloguing my own private archive of medieval correspondence makes this a particularly precious resource for me now, and all the more so since COVID-19 made international travel a near-impossibility for Australians. So, although my next project doesn’t connect directly to royal correspondence, I’m sure it won’t be long before I am lured back to draw new ideas out of these materials. Luckily for me, there is still plenty to be said, and new questions to be posed about royal diplomacy, administration and family relationships that these letters are primed to answer.
This guest post is written by Kathleen B. Neal, Lecturer in History at Monash University.