England vs. Italy in medieval records. Do we need a winner?

This evening’s joint session of late Medieval and early Modern Italian seminars at the IHR was one of those rare occasions where historians leave behind their scholarly shell and show what historical debate is all about. This meeting’s agonistic element lay in the provocative title ‘England and Italy: Which holds the Record for Records?’, which had us all expect a winner. The two polities were represented, respectively, by Trevor Dean and David Carpenter. Trevor is head of humanities at Roehampton University and expert on the social and political history of the princely state of Ferrara in the later Middle Ages as well as on the history of crime and justice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. David is my doctoral supervisor and, for those new to this blog or English medieval history, he is the authority on England in the thirteenth century, with a focus on the emergence and development of the parliament state. Trevor opened the session by emphasising the Italian notarial culture, drawing attention to the importance of the written word in all matters of state in the Italian republics and principalities. He then moved on to something a lot more pugnacious, featuring figures and figures of Italian surviving records from the whole of the medieval period. The Italian supremacy was everywhere discernible. For instance, while comparing English and Italian extant letters, he concluded that we only have some eight hundred English letters as opposed to more than 160,000 Italian business letters preserved in the buste, the Italian archival unit. Contrasts between English and the Italian records came as a snowstorm. Trevor concluded that the Italian records, while far outnumbering their English counterparts, are ‘unique in type, quality and quantity’.

David, on the other hand, was careful not to parallel Trevor’s exercise with similar lists of quantitative data, which he openly scorned. Instead, he raised the question of archival survival, the usefulness of keeping records of government business (that is, its usefulness to them and to us) and of what really defines a record. These three points shaped the debate which followed the two rather short presentations. David pointed out that there was so much loss in the English records in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that one cannot at all assess the volume of what must have been the whole of government output in this period. Strangely enough, no-one mentioned king Henry I’s only surviving Pipe Roll for 1130 which shows the extent to which such records were being generated by a busy administration at that point. Neither did any, except for Katie Har’s insightful question, reflect on the importance of chronology, acceleration and innovation in record-keeping and bureaucratic practice in England and in the Italian states. The question of survival actually begged the whole idea of the usefulness of records, not so much to us as historians, but to those who interfaced with them first-hand. The reason why the English government produced such an enormous amount of documentation, sometimes in duplicate and triplicate, that appears to have had a very limited lifespan, is not clear. Perhaps our understanding of how the English government worked needs more work, in order to account for something that appears to have been useless. The value of keeping records, David suggested, was something that historians should address more vigorously. He even argued, much to Trevor’s displeasure, that the amount of government records is in inverse ratio to the efficiency of a given state bureaucracy. Lamenting the high yet apparently superfluous volume of English records is not something that Trevor Dean readily swallowed, especially having just given a triumphalist vision of medieval Italian bureaucracy.

The subsequent roundtable discussion involved pretty much the concepts that Trevor and David introduced and there was a serious tendency either to defend the English front, or to assert the futility of comparing such entities. Nevertheless, the discussion, with its many valuable observations and comments, raised awareness to what often may constitute the historian’s subservience to the tyranny of the written record, perhaps less alert to the fact that, as Serena Ferente astutely observed, the past is constructed from the perspective of the ‘record-generator’, be it the English government or the chancery of an Italian polity. Perhaps we could go even farther than that and remember Gabrielle Spiegel’s injunction that the text opens the way to the past, but that the text is itself constitutive of that past which it reveals. There were interesting insights on methodology and the conceptualisation of documentation, which again, argued for a more critical approach to this seemingly benign mass of government output.

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  1. Intriguing, and I’m sorry to have missed the chance to see Professor Carpenter in open combat, always worthwhile. The issue of limited lifespan intrigues me: my own research relies on records effectively not being discarded, what I call preservation by neglect, and this compares very sharply to areas like al-Andalus or Fatimid Egypt where each change of administration seems sometimes to have meant a sweeping of the archives. Julia Smith has a concept of ‘document-mindedness’ that sets up a kind of continuum for readiness to use and preserve documents but discussions like yours above suggest that those are not actually the same issues… Thankyou for the report! (I hadn’t noticed your blog was active again, I must add it back onto my blog-roll.)


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