I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks and haven’t had a chance to finish my review of 1776. One of the reasons I’ve been traveling is to do some research, and as I was doing it, it occurred to me that it might be worth posting about the work I was doing, because I think most people have only a vague idea of what it is that historians actually do. So in this post, I’m not going to talk about movies at all. I promise the next post will get back to my regular lamentations about historical films.


The Project as a Whole

My research focuses on violence at medieval universities, and I’m currently in the middle of writing a book about the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot, the most famous incident of town/gown violence in the history of universities. On February 10th, the feast day of St. Scholastica, two students from Oxford University got into a quarrel with a local tavern-keeper and dumped a pot of wine on his head. The incident spiraled out of control into a three-day battle between the students of the university on the one hand, and the townsmen and local peasants of the region around Oxford on the other. By the time the violence calmed down, about 40 people were dead; at least 20 buildings had been set on fire; one of the town’s gates had been battered down; the students, having lost the fight, had fled the town; and the townsmen had looted student housing. Why the quarrel at the tavern got so out of hand, what happened in those three days, and what the consequences of the riot were are the subject of my book.


The Immediate Research Issue

One of the documents that survives for this shocking event is the records of the subsequent trial in which more than 150 townsmen were found guilty of either felony or trespass or both. 14th century English trial records aren’t like modern trial records; they don’t contain transcripts. Most of the document is actually just a long list of names of the men (and one woman) convicted, sorted into conviction for felony or trespass. (The distinction between those two categories is that trespasses were crimes minor enough that a fine was an acceptable punishment, whereas felonies were major crimes whose punishment was, in theory, death.)

Last year, I was able to secure a digital copy of the trial record to transcribe. But the document is quite faded and discolored, and so I was only able to get about half the names off of it. So last week, I went to inspect the original document at Britain’s National Archives in London.


The National Archives in London


Getting Into the Archives

Professional historians spend a fair amount of time looking at original documents from the periods we study to learn whatever those documents can tell us. Many documents have been edited and published somewhere and so are easy for us to access, but the vast majority of all documents have never been transcribed, edited, and published, and therefore remain available only in their original form, which means that they have to be studied wherever the document happens to be.

That means we have to get access to whatever library, archive, private collection, or government office houses the original. These collections vary considerably in how easy they are to get into. My experience at the National Archives is a good example of how complex the process can be.

Unlike some collections, the National Archive is open to anyone who wishes to conduct research, so I didn’t need to submit a letter of recommendation from a fellow scholar. I just had to go online and register with them. I could have done that the day I showed up, but I did it ahead of time. As part of the process I had to watch a short video about how to handle various types of old documents to avoid damaging them.

Wednesday morning, I went to the National Archives, which are conveniently located at the same London Tube stop as Kew Gardens, which gave my ex-horticulturalist husband something to do while I worked. First, I had to go get my Reader’s Ticket, which is basically the National Archives’ version of a library card; I couldn’t get access to the collection without it. To get the Ticket, I had to show two forms of ID and get my picture taken. That was pretty routine. (At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had to swear a 400-year-old oath that I wouldn’t burn the building down.)


My ‘library card’ to the National Archives

Then I had to check my bag because I was only allowed to take a few things into the collection with me. Among the things I could take in were my laptop, my cell phone, my wallet, a pencil and some paper, and (fortunately) a portable battery to recharge my cell phone. Among the things I wasn’t allowed to take in were pens (so I couldn’t write on the original documents), my pocketknife (thieves occasionally cut pages out of old manuscripts to sell on the black market), my water bottle (don’t want to spill water on old documents), or my lip balm (actually I was just assuming they wouldn’t allow that in). Everything I was going to take in had to be put in a clear plastic bag.

Then I had to go to a computer to order the document. In most archives, scholars aren’t allowed into the actual storage stacks where the documents are kept. Instead, I had to request that document be brought up to the reading room from the stacks. So I had to wait about 45 minutes before I could get into the reading room and collect my document.

As part of that process, I was assigned a seat number, which confusingly isn’t actually a seat. In the reading room I was allowed to use any available desk I wanted. The seat number is really more of an ID number. But I needed that seat number to get the document I ordered.

So after 45 minutes, I was allowed to go in to the reading room. I had to swipe my Reader’s Ticket through a scanner, and then let the attendant go through my clear plastic bag to make sure I wasn’t trying to bring anything inappropriate in. I needed to bring in my Dictionary of Latin Abbreviations, which wasn’t on the list of approved items, so I had to get a special form filled out giving me permission to bring in the book to help me with my work. (When I left for the day, they searched everything again, to make sure I wasn’t trying to steal any documents. So I had open my laptop and let them page through my dictionary to make sure there wasn’t anything hidden in them.)

Once through all that, I found a desk, and then went to the room where the requested documents are held to claim my document, which came in a very large heavy cardboard box that turned out to contain about a dozen parchment documents, one of which was my target, PRO KB 9/98B, the records of the trial of the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot. Finally, I was ready to actually look at my document.


The first page of PRO KB 9/98B


The second page of PRO KB 9/98B


Working with PRO KB 9/98B

My document was two long strips of parchment bound together between two modern cloth covers to protect it. But as I noted, it’s very faded and discolored. So simply seeing what the author wrote is a challenge. The author in this case was an anonymous scribe attending the court and making a record of who was convicted.

To read the document, I had to lay it flat with the help of a weighted cord. Then I used a sheet of paper to cover the part of the document I was working on; as I worked, I slid the paper down slightly to expose a new line of text. In addition to helping keep my place in the document, the sheet of paper helped me not touch the document directly, which is generally a big no-no when working with old and fragile documents. (When I was a graduate student and doing some work at the ‘Secret Vatican Archives’, I made the mistake of touching the manuscript too often. I get yelled at in Italian, which I don’t speak, so I was terrified they were threatening to drag me away and torture me or something.)

As I exposed a new line of text, I’d check my transcription from the digital copy to see what I had initially thought the line said. Then I’d look at the document with my eyes to see if I could read it. If I couldn’t, which was the case more often than not, I’d use my cell phone’s magnifier app and study the line on the highest magnification to see what I could see. If I still couldn’t read it, I’d turn on the magnifier light to see if that helped, which it often did. On the second day, I got talked to by a very polite attendant (“we don’t use the flashlights on our phones, sir,” which seemed a very British way to yell at someone), so I had to stop doing that, even though several other researchers were doing exactly the same thing.

And if I still couldn’t read the line, which was frequently the case, I had to resort to using a hand-held UV light, which can be remarkably useful in making black ink stand out. Frequently text that was simply too faded to read popped out plainly when exposed to UV light, and sometimes I’d discover the line was longer than I thought because there was text that is now completely invisible to the eye but which UV brings out easily.


That white rectangular box is the UV light

Of course, UV lights are the same thing used in tanning salons, so I had to be really carefully how I used it, because I didn’t want to give myself a sunburn or screw up my eyes. So normally I’d turn the light on, read the line as best I could, and then turn it off. Then I’d transcribe whatever part of the line I had figured out, and then go back with the UV light and do it again. It was long, tedious work, going line by line. It took me about 8 hours over the course of two days to work my way through both parts of the trial record. And even with all that, there were still parts of the text too damaged for me to be able to recover.


Other scholars working at the National Archives


But Wait! There’s More!

The challenges of working with the document don’t end with the physical challenge of making out what’s written on the page. 14th century English court documents weren’t written in English. They’re written in Latin (mostly). As a medievalist, I’ve had to learn to read Latin simply so I can read the documents from the period.

But the real challenge is not the language that the document is written in, but the script. The simplest way to explain the concept of a script is that it is to handwriting what a font is to typing on a computer. Historically, the Latin alphabet itself has not changed too much over time (other than the addition of the letters ‘J’ and ‘W’), but the way the letters of the alphabet have been written has varied enormously. The most obvious example in modern English is the difference in letter forms between cursive and printed letters, which are technically separate scripts. The difference between lower case and upper case letters is another example. Some scripts are easier to read than others, and while the script used by the scribe in this document is not the most challenging I’ve ever encountered, it does present some difficulties.

The most basic stroke in Latin calligraphy is a simple vertical line, technically called a minim. The letters ‘I’, ‘M’, ‘N’ and ‘U’ are all comprised of minims: ‘I’ is a single minim (usually undotted, as it is in this script), ‘N’ and ‘U’ are two minims, and ‘M’ is three. ‘M’ and ‘N’ are theoretically minims joined at the top, while ‘U’ is joined at the bottom, but a scribe writing in a hurry is often careless about this. So picture a word like minimum. It’s composed of 15 minims that may or may not be clearly joined at top or bottom, and it’s up to the reader to figure out which minims belong together as letters. Is it ‘minimum’? ‘iminimum’? ‘imnuniim’? ‘unumum’? Are they all one word, or two words run together? Fortunately, only one of these is a Latin word, but you get the idea. And minims aren’t the only challenge. ‘L’, ‘S’, ‘T’ and ‘H’ can all look quite similar, being made with long strokes. So simply transcribing the correct letters is a challenge.

Additionally, because this scribe, like many others, was essentially taking dictation, he had to write as quickly as possible. So the scribe resorted to a variety of strategies to allow him to write faster. He employs ligatures, a device in which two letters are run together. A modern example of this is the ampersand (you know, the ‘&’ symbol); that’s a ligature for ‘E’ and “T’, or ‘et’, which is the Latin word for ‘and’. The scribe also abbreviates a lot, particularly with first names. For example, instead of writing ‘Robertus’ he writes ‘Robtus’ and makes a quick mark indicating that he’s dropped a few letters.

The one that I really struggled with an abbreviation I hadn’t send before, and which isn’t included in my Dictionary of Latin Abbreviations. It is a man’s first name, and occurred about a dozen times over the two pages. Here’s a picture of it. It’s the first word in the third line. (Ignore the thing that looks like a funky ‘A’; it’s a ligatured “IT’, short for ‘item’, meaning a new entry on the list.)

IMG_2552.JPGI initially read it as ‘Piais’. But I quickly realized that the first letter was an ‘R’; note that in the previous two lines, he makes the ‘R’ in ‘Robertus’ this way. But Riais wasn’t much better. Notice the line drawn over it; that’s a contraction mark, so he’s dropped a few letters (the Robtus also has a contraction line, running through the ‘B’). I knew it wasn’t ‘Robert’. What about ‘Richardus’? Well that almost works, but there’s only one ‘I’ in ‘Richardus’ and it would be a weird abbreviation that dropped all the consonants. So I was stumped. Finally, a fellow scholar pointed out what should have been glaringly obvious to me. That third letter probably isn’t an ‘A’, because the scribe usually (not always) adds a second chamber to his ‘A’ by extending the last stroke of the letter upward and curving it to the left. Instead, this scholar suggested it was a ligatured ‘CU”, meaning it was ‘RICUS’. I had subconsciously been reading as “AI” because it looks like a modern lower-case cursive ‘A’. ‘RICUS’ is a pretty obvious abbreviation for ‘Richardus’. So the man’s name is Richard Dyere.


Where Did the Rioters Come From?

The fun doesn’t end now that I’ve transcribed more of the document. Some of the lines were still too faded for me to read, even with UV light. I’ve gotten more of the document, but not all of it, and I’ll just have to be content with that. But one challenge I have to finish is identifying all of the place names, because I’d like to know where these men came from and often the document tells me. Some of them are pretty easy to work out. ‘Oxon’ is ‘Oxoniensis’, or ‘Oxford’. It makes sense that many of the rioters were from Oxford. However many of them are identified as coming from other communities, and it would be good to map that out. But trying to identify modern places from medieval spellings of medieval places gets a bit tricky, because medieval place names didn’t always have standardized spellings, especially not when they were small villages.

The scribe identifies several men as coming from a town he variously spells as ‘Hengey’, ‘Hengesteye’, and ‘Henyate’, all of which seem to be the modern Hinksey, a small village just outside Oxford. Clearly, without a standard Latin form, he was unsure how to write the town’s name and made a different choice each time the name came up. Three men are identified as coming from ‘Cornewalle’, which I initially read as ‘Cornwall’. That’s a long way from Oxford, but maybe they were there on business. But after looking at a map, I realized that they were much more likely to be from the small manor of Cornwell, which is only about 40 miles from Oxford, still a considerable distance, but not as far as Cornwall. Since Oxford is the nearest major town to Cornwell, it would make sense that these men might have gone there to sell goods or produce or buy something.

But what about the two men identified as coming from ‘Salesbury’? I can’t find any community with a name like that in Oxfordshire. Is it Salisbury, the cathedral town in Wiltshire? Salisbury is about 50 miles from Oxford as the crow flies, but closer to 70 miles by modern roads. It’s not inconceivable that two men from Salisbury might have had business in Oxford, but it’s more of a stretch. But perhaps these two men were originally from Salisbury but moved to Oxford a long time ago. Demonyms (“of Cornwell”) were a common way to identify people in the Middle Ages, especially in the period before surnames became standard. But they could indicate current place of resident, place of birth, or sometimes even just a former residence. So Richard of Salesbury might have been born there and left decades before, or he might currently reside there or maybe even just have some important connection to that place. And the same is true of the men from Cornwell. Just because they came from somewhere near Oxford doesn’t mean they had just made the journey.

What’s clear, however, is that the rioters weren’t all from Oxford proper. Some of the accounts of the riot mention that peasants from the countryside got involved in the riot, and the trial records allow me to confirm that.


Who Were The Rioters?

One of the most valuable details from the trial records is that it often, though not always, identifies the rioters by occupation. Sometimes it uses Latin, for example when it identifies someone as a sutor (a shoemaker) or a pastor (a shepherd). Sometimes it uses English; almost a dozen men are identifies as a “bocher” (butcher) and several others as a fullere (fuller, a type of cloth-worker); one is a shether, which I take to mean a sheath-maker. But what do I do with several men identified as cister? The ‘er’ ending suggests it’s an English word, but cista is the Latin word for a box or basket; is the scribe saying these men are box-makers or basket-weavers?

Several men are listed as being a serviens, which can mean a servant or a serf; since they are always listed as being the serviens of another man, I’ve concluded that they are probably domestic servants rather than peasants, but that’s an assumption I can’t prove. A number of men are listed as being a famulus. The term can mean an apprentice or just a laborer employed by someone. And one man is listed in the trespass list as a serviens and in the felony list as being a famulus, which suggests that the scribe was using the two Latin words interchangeably in their general sense as someone who is subordinate to an employer. However, I can’t eliminate the possibility that there was a technical difference between the two.

The most startling thing in the trial records, however, is this entry:


It reads “John de Bedeford mayor ville”. That’s right, the mayor of Oxford was convicted of trespass in the riot. And he wasn’t the only member of the town government to be convicted. Both of the town’s bailiffs (who were basically the mayor’s assistants) were also convicted, as were several other men who had served in town government or who had represented the town as a member of Parliament. In fact, nearly everyone who had played an official role in Oxford’s political life in the past decade was convicted in the riot, sometimes right along with their servants.

(But there is a mistake in this entry. The scribe confused John de Bedeford, a former mayor of Oxford who was convicted of both felony and trespass, with John de Bereford, the current mayor, who was convicted only of trespass. That wasn’t the only time that mistake was made; several months later, the Crown issued an order to release Bedeford from prison, but some official seems to have accidentally released Bereford, because he was later recorded as being absent from the prison without permission.)

Before I looked at the trial records, it was already clear that the Edward III blamed the Oxford government for the riot. But the trial records seem to suggest that the town leadership did not just permit the violence but actively participated in it. The mayor, the bailiffs, the former mayor, and other leading citizens in the riot were personally involved in attacking students, looting their property, or other related crimes.

Even though most of the people mentioned here are just names on parchment, looking at the social make-up of the rioters, we see a wide cross-section of the townspeople and nearby peasantry engaging in violence of the most extreme sort against the university. That’s why this document is important and why I needed to study it so closely. It reveals the scope of the violence and raises intriguing questions about how the town and university related to each other. Whatever grievances drove this riot, they were clearly ones felt by most segments of the town population. So as I finish my book, I’m going to have think a lot about what factors might have united such a wide range of men in violent opposition to the institution that made the town famous.

Hopefully this very close look at one small research project (or piece of a project, really) will give my non-historian readers some insight into exactly what it is that historians do and some of the various challenges that the work involves.


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