Wednesday 16 December 2015

Revealing the Registers: some personal highlights

Gary Brannan, Access Archivist, takes a personal look at some of the highlights and questions from the York’s Archbishops’ Registers Revealed project

We’re now coming to the end of a project which started life in October last year to conserve, digitise and make available online the Registers of the Archbishops of York 1225-1646. The project - generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation - will also develop new tools and resources to allow us to add index data to the Register images, opening the content of many of the Registers for the very first time.

When I came back to the Borthwick in June 2014, I’ll admit that my direct experience lay more with old title deeds, Police records and local authority minute books than the day to day dealings of an Archiepiscopate.

The oft-quoted description of the Registers is that they are an ‘administrative record of the business of an Archbishop’, which - let’s face it - doesn’t immediately sound like the most exciting source on the planet. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t agree with that description - they’re a largely unexplored record of how we came to be who we are;  filtered through the eyes of the church. They’re the evidence of attitudes to morality and immorality, life and death, love and hate, war-making and peace-making.

I’ve spent some time over the last couple of days considering what some of the highlights of this project have been from my own (entirely selfish) point of view. In no order whatsoever, I’ve settled upon:

Register 1 unrolled
Register 1 (split into parts A + B) doesn’t take the form of a bound volume  - they’re both rolled examples and a crucial first step in the process of developing Episcopal Registration at York. They’re also very, very long - over 21 metres in length (or 70 feet), when taken together. Being able to stand at the top of the Reg 1A, seeing it unravelled into the distance and knowing that not many people will see (and will have seen) a sight such as this was one of those moments of ‘temporal vertigo’ that we’re lucky to experience on occasion when working on projects such as this.

Reg 1A and 1B unrolled

The story of Thomas de Whalley
As part of the preparation for the Summer Institute held in July, I spent some time searching out interesting - and challenging - content for our students to work on.  came across a visitation of Selby Abbey by Archbishop Wickwane, dated January 1279/80. I have honestly never had a more entertaining working afternoon than the one I spent translating the various misdeeds of Thomas de Whalley (the then-Abbot of Selby). He didn’t teach, didn’t preach, didn’t observe the rule of St. Benedict; was never out of bed to hear Matins (a service before dawn); as well as having a predilection for the gatehouse keeper’s daughter. The final straw was, it seems, the fact that a brother’s body was found in the river Ouse, and de Whalley tried to remedy this via the use of a ‘Wizard’. He was, as you may expect, excommunicated.

Visitation of Selby, 1279/80, Abp Reg 3, f. 27 r

Summer days (and nights)
The whole of the Summer Institute was a highlight for me. The Borthwick hadn't run anything like this for some time and I could fill a whole blog post with individual moments of brilliance. One that always springs to mind was seeing the students (who were all experienced researchers on their way to a PhD) really enjoying working with the texts, seeing how they could link them to their research interests, and seeing them really dive into the possibilities in the source. At the end of the course, one student outlined how he’d been encouraged not to apply at one point, but had done so anyway. Later in the Summer Institute we shared a moment of discovery when he happened upon an entry relating to the person he was researching - a special moment, illustrating the potential in the records we were working with and his own development of his skills in reading medieval handwriting which I'd been teaching him the week before!

Students working with the Registers at the Summer Institute

The unstitching debate
An afternoon spent with the Keeper of Archives, wrestling with a fundamental dilemma - to unstitch, or not to unstitch? In some of the earlier Registers, supplementary documents are either stitched or bound in, giving some folios the appearance of a flip-book of small parchment items. As part of the preparatory work, we had to consider strategies for dealing with these along with the Project Conservator and ask ourselves, carefully, if we had the justification to undertake this kind of invasive work. It took thought, careful consideration and time. Was it right to interfere, in this way, with a document? By doing this, did we change its meaning? How much did the fact an item was in a particular position mean, and if we moved it, would we change the interpretation? Did it need to be done, or was there another way? In the end, we made the decisions we needed to make, but the time we spent really considering the ethics of this kind of digitisation was a really valuable part of the process.

Parchment inserts, Abp Reg 4 f 18 v

Questions, answers and discoveries
This, I think, has been one of the ongoing highlights - challenging what we think we know about the Registers. Even something as simple as looking at the ordering of the original quires within a volume has raised so many questions about the order and creation of the volumes - were they always in that order? Did it change? We’ve worked with projects looking at the DNA and protein structures of the parchment in the Registers - does the nature of parchment give us an idea of where the folios were created and used? Working with the Canterbury Registers at Lambeth Palace raised a question - were they opened from the front, or the back? Who decided what content went into a Register, and why? Allied to that question - can we work out what was left out? To me, it has been a case of picking away at the threads of what we know, and divining useful, vital research questions for the future.

13th century hunting scene found in the margin of Abp Reg 4

The future
In some ways, I now need look less at what’s been done and more at what’s to come - seeing and hearing about people using the Registers, getting out on the road in 2016 to talk about them and advocate for their use by a whole range of researchers; and in developing the projects ahead to make use of the tools, techniques and experience we’ve developed. We already have two projects on the go that will provide index data for the Registers 1570-1650, and 1304-1306, with more projects under development.

The fantastic images we have created will be available online (and free of charge)  from the end of the year, with index data being added as 2016 progresses.This feels like a long first step. The combination of the tools we’ve developed and systems behind it have laid the ground for an exciting journey into our shared past - and we’d love you to join us along the way.