Wednesday 18 May 2016

Revealing the Registers: thoughts of an indexer

Our Marc Fitch Fund Project Archivist, Helen Watt, gives us some thoughts and reflections following the completion of initial work in indexing one of our Archbishops' Registers and attempts to answer and old indexers' question - can you ever really be sure when using a previous index? 

Having worked on the pilot for ‘York's Archbishops’ Registers Revealed’ in 2012, generously funded by the  Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is excellent to be able to put the theory devised during that pilot into practice. Thanks to funding from the Marc Fitch Fund, since October 2015, work has been underway on Registers 31 and 32 using the newly-developed indexing tool. This period covers 1576-1650 and includes the tenures of Archbishops Edwin Sandys (1577-1588), John Piers (1589-1594), Matthew Hutton (1595-1606) in Register 31; and the archiepiscopates of Archbishops Samuel Harsnett (1619-1631), Richard Neile (1632-1640) and John Williams (1641-1650) in Register 32. 

Since the examination of Register 31 was completed last month, it is now possible to reflect on the process of indexing a register of the Archbishops of York of this date and, crucially, the kind of material found within it. To put them into some context, none of the registers for this period have been subject to any previous indexing work - unlike their medieval predecessors where various published and indexed versions have been created since the 19th century. 

First of all, the quality of images of the registers produced during the Mellon project is excellent, especially for remote use, The images may also be greatly enlarged, so that even the smallest, faintest penstrokes may be read with ease.

Thanks to the quality of the images, we were able to discern this date as being the 'xvth day of febuarie' (Reg 31 f 76v)
The schema of subject headings compiled during the pilot has been integral to indexing subjects found in register entries, although some amendments have had to be made to cater for the post-reformation matters found in this register, as well as for matters to do with probate and archbishops’ visitations.

When indexing persons, there are two methods of dealing with personal names in the tool, either by inputting details of an individual straight into an entry, or by populating the Persons List with details before indexing. Using the second method, it was possible to draw on the work of several other projects, such as the Clergy of the Church of England Database, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae (via British History Online), the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, particularly for parish and higher clergy, to build up the required information and so streamline input of persons.

Similarly, to speed up the indexing of places, not only could the project draw on lists of places compiled during the Borthwick Institute’s previous work on the Cause Papers, but also automatically harvest place-names from the Digital Exposure of English Place-names (DEEP) and the online Ordnance Survey.

As regards the contents of the register, these have mainly comprised probate of wills and grants of administrations, confirmations of elections of bishops and archbishops’ visitations, and guides to the procedures involved in all of these topics will be made available shortly. Wills copied into the register are mostly those of clergymen and although there is an existing index in the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series vol. 93 (1937), comparison between this index and the original wills has allowed small errors to be corrected, mostly concerning dates of wills and probate - understandable when you consider the quality of the images we are working with now!

Notification of the Vacancy after the death of Abp Sandys, 1588 
Even though these wills are well-known through that index, the new indexing tool has made it possible for them to be searched and explored online, making them so much more widely accessible and available and opening up their contents for research, so that many aspects of clerical life could now be studied. 

For instance, the pious preambles of wills, often not simply formulaic in nature, but long and involved, together with the titles of books left as bequests, may reflect the doctrinal inclinations and learning of these clergymen. We might also see the clergyman as farmer, and father of his family as well as shepherd of his flock. We can sometimes see far-reaching connections with the Universities, with court, members of London Livery Companies, and relationships with gentry and noble patrons. 

Long preamble in the will of  Ralph Kay, vicar of Topcliffe, 1613

With the commencement of work on Register 32, all these topics and more are bound to be further illuminated, so, as they say, watch this space!