I sometimes wonder what outsiders think archival research is like.

The message blasting from mass culture is not reassuring. From the ‘archaeologist’ Indiana Jones to Dan Brown’s ‘symbologist’ Robert Langdon, audiences are told that archive work is exciting, and dangerous, that it’s ok to lie and steal to get the information, and that men always do it with female sidekicks. If you want to see perhaps the most shockingly outdated embodiment of this, I dare you to look for the recent McDonald’s advert which features a caricatured elderly male professor along with his young female researcher having an eureka moment. Do not watch it unless you are prepared to be angry.

But – and here’s the kicker – archival research is fundamentally quite boring most of the time. In fact, that boredom is part of what makes it exciting. I wonder how many other historians were keen on fishing in their childhoods, as I was? (Do not fear, animal lovers, the fish were well and truly safe from my inept efforts.)

Take my recent efforts.

This time, I came prepared. I knew which documents I would need to find relating to about 40 different criminal trials, all involving accusations of witchcraft, all of which happened in the départements du Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Seine-Maritime between the 1830s and the 1930s.

Armed with a list of specific dates, places, and call numbers, I arrived in the archives in Arras (the Pas-de-Calais) and voraciously set about finding nothing.

Nothing after nothing after nothing.

The problem is that it is impossible to tell in advance whether any records connected to a given case really exist. Archives often put very useful catalogues online, but the catalogues can’t tell me whether for whatever reason the dossiers of trial documents exist for these cases. And after three days, I’ve exhausted all the possibilities in two different archives and found not a single dossier.

For some I’ve found the court judgements, which is something. But very often the judgements tell me less than the stories I found in newspapers that led me to the cases. Their only advantages are that they confirm names and dates, and sometimes gesture towards other judicial records, such as appeals, or documents related to the prosecutions.

Meanwhile the local press – for which I held such high hopes – is hopeless.

 Like the judicial records, the surviving documents in the regional archives are incredibly incomplete. Where a catalogue lists the dates 1830-1930 for a weekly publication, there might only be 30 issues in the box. I have not found a single useful report on my cases.

And moreover I’m struck by how un-local the ‘local’ press is. 

No doubt specialists would laugh at my naivety, but here I was assuming that there would be lots of coverage of local crime stories in these newspapers.

This is inescapably boring. 

I got so desperate that I took to leafing through all of the available records in case anything jumped out at me. We’re talking hundreds of boxes stuffed with random papers, sometimes organised into cases, sometimes organised thematically, often written in indecipherable handwriting.

And then there it was. 

Winking at me from the middle of a page in a box of documents relating to criminal justice in the period of the Consulate (1799-1804): sortilège, witchcraft, or spells.


Suddenly I’m all eyes. At least one of the other dossiers in the same box, from the same period is another witchcraft case. I’ve stumbled on a jackpot.

They aren’t the cases I came looking for, but they are new cases to add to my list, and moreover they are cases from a chronically overlooked period. Without a free press, it’s hard to find criminal cases from this period without doing what I was doing, just leafing through records.

In fact, these two cases take the total number of new cases I have found in three days to three. While I was looking at the incredibly spotty press records, I just stumbled across another case of witchcraft reported in a local paper

I want to draw two morals from this story.

The first: historiography. For my project specifically, I find it hugely significant that when I am floundering I have just stumbled across criminal cases involving witchcraft. I know of almost 600 from across France from 1791-1940, and have always told people I think this is the tip of the iceberg. The ease with which I have turned up new cases suggests this is true. 

Witches, witches everywhere!

Second: method. While you can never be too prepared for the archive, you also have to be prepared to be unprepared. The fact is that all my best-laid plans came to nothing, and the best plan was least-laid.

Which is not to say that archive work is not hard work. 

If anything, what my recent experiences show is how much this kind of research is built on graft. And not just my graft: I’ve only been here three days, but the archivists who first catalogued, sorted and organised these materials laid the groundwork for me to ‘discover’ them. Their colleagues and descendants today helped me find the right tools and threw me buoyancy aids when I was drowning in paper.

I wish I had this conversation more often with different colleagues who work with archival sources.

I suspect there are as many shared frustrations and joys as there are differences. 

After all, almost all of my experience is in regional French archives. The départemental, or even communal archives are quite odd places to work. Some of them are tiny, empty, and quiet, staffed by archivists who are pleased to share their time with someone who cares about their local histories. Others are huge, dauntingly official, and busy, and archivists just don’t have the time to help lost rosbifs.

(For Francophiles: I once spent a morning in the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal but have never even set foot in the the AN or the BN. Should I even admit that?)

How different are your experiences in different places? The size and openness of French regional archives come with their own problems and opportunities. Because of the French laws on access to historical records, I don’t face many political obstructions. Archivists tend to assume and behave as if I am entitled to do the work I’m doing.

(And the 19th century materials I work on are a kind of midway between early modern and modern archives. At the start of period, everything is handwriting, lots is missing, and many of the documents are crumbling. For that reason digitization or the dreaded microfilm play a large role in what I can access, especially in archives who were well-organised and well-funded when microfilm and digitisation became possible. By the end of my period records are often typed, and the cases are generally much better documented, with fewer gaps in what is available. On the other hand, for reasons of privacy and data protection, access to these documents is sometimes restricted.)

These differences of political access and material conditions aside, I suspect that my experience of unlaid plans is probably quite typical of what many historians find in the archive.

That, and hidden conspiracies by shadowy organisations determined to kill the Pope, or something.

8 thoughts on “Floundering

  1. A great post that touches on some really important issues. In a recent article I included a footnote that simply said that nothing on the subject was to be found in Westminster Diocesan Archives, in spite of a note in another archive saying that it could – a negative result like that (and noting that negative result) is actually really important for future scholars, and my ‘wasted’ day in Westminster may actually have been saving future scholars the trip. Good history has to deal with and accept negative results, just like good science. Having said that, my experience of archives has generally been accompanied by a lot of good luck and I have rarely been completely stumped; usually, the problem I have is that I find more good stuff I didn’t know about in advance and then don’t have time to work on it in the limited period I have. But helpful and dedicated archivists are absolute heroes, especially when they go scrabbling in the dirt (quite literally) for documents you confidently assure them exist but they have never heard of…

    I’m also very interested that some of the later documents you study are restricted for reasons of privacy and data protection; I recently came across a document from the 1970s in a public archive containing sensitive information about people who are almost certainly still alive – for that reason I won’t be publishing the details, but there were no restrictions or warnings on the file and scholars without a sense of ethics could get themselves into trouble. As an early modernist I don’t usually face this dilemma, but my current project goes up to the present day. I’m not sure of the best way to highlight this ethical issue to historians.

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  2. I have not found anything in the newspapers about Annie Shields, my great great grandma who was supposed to be in service for a doctor and the father of my great grandma, Mary Ann Shields. Everything tells me to check the Assize Records. Annie does not appear convincingly on the 1881 census. Mary Ann is looked after her grandad in 180 Abbey Street, Derby. Where do I look now?

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    1. Beats me I’m afraid! I would (heresy!) say that the thing that *always* surprises me is how much better google is getting. Sometimes, just sometimes it can lead to really good leads…


  3. A certain feline friend pointed me towards this blog post because I’m just beginning to wade through a marshland of stuff on 1930s earthquakes in the British Library. Here, there problem is the proliferation of information, but I’ve done plenty of work in regional archives in Pakistan and India where finding anything is a challenge. I once blocked out two weeks to work at the Punjab State Archive in Chandigarh, India. After almost a week in which I found almost nothing, I decamped to Shimla for the second week, where I went for long walks in the hills and wrote a conference paper. On other occasions, regional archives in Lahore, Karachi and Mumbai eventually disgorged wonderful sources, but only after days and weeks of work (and lengthy tea-and-chit-chat-with-the-chief-archivist sessions; archivists in South Asia commonly function as gatekeepers, and size you up before helping). The National Archives in Delhi and the National Documentation Centre in Islamabad are well-organised and have enthusiastic, helpful staff, so it’s possible to work pretty fast there. Still, it’s a badge of honour for South Asianist historians to have spent months in the ‘field’, mining the archival seam – perhaps something that helps us relate to our ethnographer colleagues in South Asian Studies.

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