On Being a Crappy Historian

Earlier this week I was sitting in an archive staring at a big fat pile of nothing.

I had travelled a long way to research a specific case of witchcraft in Normandy in 1831 which particularly interested me. In fact, I’d emailed the archive many months before to ask if they had any information about the case, or could confirm they held the records. They told me nothing survived.

Like the idiot I am, I did not believe them.

So, having lugged a rucksack full of clothes and books on an ill-fated train-bus-bus-taxi journey to the overnight ferry from Portsmouth, here I was, sitting with my sweet FA.


So I did what I often do when frustrated, and took to Twitter to talk about this.

And people said lots of sensible things, not least Christina de Bellaigue, who suggested there might be some value in historians publishing their negative results, as scientists do.

‘Great’, I thought to myself. I even began sketching an essay about what not finding the documents I wanted meant.

And I jokingly talked about myself as a crappy historian, and chuckled to myself about what a failure the trip was, and thought about how I could write clever things about missing sources.

The only problem is: I did find the documents.

All it took was a little more care and attention, working out how a name had been mangled, how documents were filed in slightly the wrong chronological order, what the difference between two sets of records were.

Like any kind of research, archive work takes practice, and earlier in the week I just wasn’t in the habit, having not had an opportunity to do this for a while. And the records I am looking at are also largely new to me.

Note to self: not being able to find a document does not make you a crappy historian.

That is a part and parcel of what we do, and I full intend at some point to write about the things we cannot find. What makes me a crappy historian at the moment is giving up before I’ve methodically thought through a problem, before I’ve fully understood how the documents I’m looking at work.

But hey, I got there in the end.

3 thoughts on “On Being a Crappy Historian

  1. Thanks for sharing Will! In fact this sounds like a classic case of what I call ‘archive blues’ – the first day in the archives when you are (a) completely overwhelmed by the material, or (b) finding no material. Scratching about, taking a few incomplete notes you know you can’t really use for anything…in my experience the first day is often a great big zero. As you indicate, a big factor is the time and cost involved – you have travelled (perhaps a very long way), you are paying for a hotel room, the archive is only open 4/3/2.5 days that week, so there is a lot of pressure for you to be ‘productive’ and the trip to be ‘fruitful’. As you say though, once you take stock and reflect you (a) come up with a strategy/system/selection process, or (b) painstakingly follow up leads/realise you have more than you initial thought, and then you get your head down and get on.

    Is our problem that we romanticise our halcyon days in the archive, when the reality is always more messy, fragmented, monotonous and frustrating? (as well as positive).

    Liked by 2 people

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