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Archives and Information in the Early Modern World$

Kate Peters, Alexandra Walsham, and Liesbeth Corens

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266250

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266250.001.0001

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date: 29 May 2020



(p.311) Afterword
Archives and Information in the Early Modern World

Ann Blair

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The afterword provides a critical reflection on the contribution made by this volume to the historiographies of early modern archives and information. It highlights the need for further exploration of archival impulses beyond state bureaucracy, pointing to their role as instruments of power in a wider range of contexts and environments. It also underlines the value of paying close attention to questions of materiality and the conditions of document survival and durability. It concludes by calling for greater collaboration between professional archivists and academic historians.

Keywords:   archives, state formation, power, survival, materiality, documentation

THIS VOLUME, ALONG with a number of other recent articles, books, and special issues of journals, attests to the excitement of early modern historians for studying archives, not primarily as sources for historical research but as the objects of that research. The chapters gathered here show how a focus on archives can contribute to many historical themes, including not only politics and diplomacy, but also social and economic history, religious and intellectual history, and the history of information and of writing. Archives were widespread in the early modern period: the times and places discussed here range from Portugal’s Torre do Tombo and Venice during the 15th century to cases in 18th-century central and North America, England, and Japan.

By using the term ‘archive’ in periods before the existence of the modern institutional and professional frameworks we associate with it today, this book challenges us to ponder how to define the term. At its most expansive it is used in some fields today to refer to any source original to its historical period, as opposed to a modern edition or electronic version of the source. In a narrower acceptation common among historians, archives are generated by bureaucratic or commercial record-keeping; by extension the archives of writers in any field comprise their working papers.1 Archives are thus typically manuscripts produced for current use rather than publication and then stored for the longer term for a variety of reasons, most often intentionally but sometimes inadvertently. The reasons for preservation are rarely preserved themselves, because, as the editors note in the introduction, the ‘transition to archival status’ is often unclear and undocumented.

About half the chapters here treat archives of a traditional kind, generated by some aspect (e.g. judicial, commercial, or administrative) of the operation of government bureaucracies, whether in republics such as Venice, monarchies in Iberia, France, or England, or imperial colonies in Latin America. But Randolph (p.312) Head insists that, even if European archives are traditionally associated with some form of dominion, we should not prejudge the forms of record-keeping and archiving. He cites the role of biographical dictionaries as archives in medieval Islam for example, which were disseminated in manuscript and carried with them the principal record of the activities of the elites. The chapters by Sundar Henny, Kiri Paramore, and Brooke Palmieri offer other unexpected examples of archival forms. In 17th-century Zurich carefully crafted manuscripts were designed to record the ‘piety, progeny and prosperity’ of their socially ambitious makers. Paramore studies the information order of the Tokugawa state in Japan. Given the destruction of archival repositories there, he focuses on the permeation of Confucianism throughout Japanese schools and Samurai leisure study, arguing that the colonial information network formed subsequently was grafted onto the patterns of the cultural Sinosphere that existed prior to European contact. Similarly, Palmieri focuses, back in England, on printed sources which the persecuted Quakers produced in order to record their travails and broadcast their success in spreading their views (to such good effect that fear of Quakers may have hastened the Restoration). These contributions suggest how new research on archives should continue to extend to a wider range of sources than those especially associated with European state formation and bureaucracy.

Studies focused on ‘documents related to dominion, possessions, and power’ in early modern Europe (to use Head’s terms) rightly occupy a large share of this volume. They offer a rich basis for gauging the principles and practices of early modern archives and also the gap between the two. Those who devoted resources to creating and maintaining archives typically hoped to gain control over the flow of paper of which so many early modern administrators complained. But notions of optimal control varied. In early modern Spain, Philip II envisioned Simancas as a central repository to contain as much information as possible from which it could be retrieved, according to detailed regulations about the cost and time associated with retrieval requests. In practice Simancas served mostly as a place to bury documents and conceal them from further use. Users could never know which documents were supposedly in the collection, and the few requests made to retrieve documents could easily be thwarted. As a result, government offices resisted sending to Simancas documents that they continued to use; instead documents were saved in private collections by courtiers and government officials whose death triggered a scramble for control of those papers. In Venice and other republican contexts, documents had to be shared among many members of committees whose composition also evolved over time. Archived documents and official summaries of them needed to circulate, so control meant developing formalised protocols, places of storage, and classifications that made retrieval possible but also guarded against unauthorised access. In Italian cities governed by princes, by contrast, secretaries played a crucial role as creators and guardians of paperwork, each forming idiosyncratic and personal collections of practices and documents.

(p.313) As Arnold Hunt emphasises, statecraft was a collaborative enterprise in which secretaries were portrayed as faithful extensions of their employers’ capacities, but in practice acted as individuals motivated by their own needs. Kate Peters tells of secretaries seeking compensation (e.g. because their pay was in arrears) who threatened to sell information, while some parliamentary clerks leaked information to be circulated in manuscript or print, whether for personal gain or to further a political cause. But she argues that the importance of archives for the greater number of Englishmen rested in the local records of ‘title, property, and wealth’ that generally proved resilient through the uncertainties of civil war. Jacob Soll reminds us of the centrally mercantile origins and nature of the vast apparatus of information gathering set up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, which was so crucial to his ministry under Louis XIV. In Sylvia Sellers-García’s analysis of three court cases in Spanish America we watch how geographical distance from the government centre in Mexico City generated temporal distance (from the travel time required for the circulation of persons and writings), but also bureaucratic and affective distance which could further extend legal proceedings beyond the remaining lifespan of the accused. These insightful case studies of governmental archives show how early modern record-keeping was supremely complex and variable—buffeted by the diversity of individuals and bureaucratic entities, often without clear distinction between public and private—and yet also remarkably functional.

Without doubt archives were perceived and served as important tools of statecraft—as sources of political, legal, or procedural precedent and of information (e.g. diplomatic or economic) vital to government. Archives were also put to use in other ways. Archives were consulted and cited as evidence by historians, particularly with the rise of historical erudition and antiquarianism starting in the late 16th century.2 Contemporary awareness that history would be written from archival records can be gauged from a rare example of tampering mentioned in this volume: when parliament voted to change the official record of events a few years prior to suit the conception it wanted to convey of them. A more general history of tampering would be fascinating, but will first require a greater accumulation of examples.3 In this volume many authors also point out how archives were effective, and perceived as effective at the time, as a source of psychological power. Whatever their defects in practice, archives gave governing agencies a sense of control, and projected an image of that control to their constituencies and to rival political entities. Early modern ideals for government archives often (p.314) involved a totalising ambition, to overcome geographical distance (within a jurisdiction or through diplomatic relations), to retain all the documents generated by state bureaucracies and to control access to them. In the non-governmental cases adduced in this volume the purposes of record-keeping and/or publication were also in part psychological: to create visibility and long-lasting memory of a family, a religious group, or a cultural elite. The interactions of memory, history, and archive could be studied for the early modern period as they have been for later ones.

Recent research, notably in this volume, has accomplished a great deal in reconstructing some of the material practices involved in archiving, thanks to the careful examination of a variety of evidence. Wolfe and Stallybrass pay close attention to surviving documents, noticing the holes that resulted from storing documents in current use on spikes and then using those holes to string the papers together in bundles for longer-term storage. The creases left from folding papers also provide clues about how the documents were treated before they were later bound in registers where one often finds them today. Henny highlights the quasi-sacred significance of the autograph manuscript among religious leaders in the Zurich Reformation. Soll has studied the call numbers added to the pages in Colbert’s archive which attest to sorting mechanisms, the details of which may escape us. Most of the storage devices no longer survive, though we have verbal or iconographic descriptions of pouches or bags or envelopes. In a few cases, nonetheless, official archives have preserved examples of abandoned storage systems, including boxes and trunks at the National Archives in London, as described by Wolfe and Stallybrass, or a box full of student stipend receipts each folded and tied with string which I encountered at the Universitätsbibliothek Basel. Only one such box was saved when most of these bundles were opened and the receipts unfolded and bound into volumes in the 19th century (see Figure 13.1). And we learn above (p. 205) that occasionally private furnishings were of such beauty and value that they facilitated the survival of the papers stored in them, in a reversal of the usual priority of the contents over the container.4 Inevitably many losses cannot be recovered, and it is typically impossible to tell how papers went through successive forms of storage (barring other forms of evidence); nevertheless it is heartening how much can be learned from paying careful attention to material features of surviving documents. We can hope that this kind of approach will prove valuable in other time/place contexts.

The conditions for the survival of archives more generally seem an important topic for further study. These might be studied through their absence, by considering the nature and extent of losses to the extent possible. Lost libraries and lost books were lamented as early as Conrad Gessner in the 16th century, who (p.315)


13.1 Amerbach slips. Universitätsbibliothek Basel, C VIa 96. This oval box contains receipts for student stipends established by Erasmus in his will in 1536 and administered by his executor Boniface Amerbach (1495–1562). Each document is folded and tied in a bundle which is inscribed on the outside with the student’s name and field of study. This box was saved as a record of how the documents were stored until most of them were unfolded and bound into volumes in the modern period.

compiled his massive Bibliotheca universalis as a guide to recovering lost ancient writings. Bibliographers have only occasionally focused on lost books, but book historians have begun to examine the topic of loss in recent years.5 What has come down to us is inevitably is only a fraction of the original written record. Andrew Pettegree has estimated at 1 per cent the average rate of survival of printed books. The most expensive books survived the best—one-third survive of the copies of the Gutenberg Bible that were printed—but we only have a tiny fraction of broadsides and cheap print. Unique copies of hitherto unrecorded ephemera are still occasionally discovered today and no doubt we are simply unaware of many publications which have been completely lost.6 How could we try to estimate (p.316) the survival rate of archives? It would of course be highly variable by time and place according to the political and physical stability of the intervening periods. A history of the survival of archives would include stories of destruction—both accidental (through war, fire, flood, or simple neglect) and intentional (e.g. to destroy records of a hated regime). The survival rate for medieval English documents has been estimated at about 1 per cent.7 ‘Interestingly, about the same proportion of modern departmental records is today selected for permanent preservation’, noted one author in a volume of 1990 on the history of the Public Record Office.8 Setting aside the question of what digital record-keeping will preserve for future historians, we can wonder how the survival rates from the explosion of archives in early modern Europe would compare.

Recent work on archives highlights their durability in the face of many threats. Parchment continued to play a role in early modern archives—for example, as the medium for the most solemn documents but especially in bindings and in the ties used to hold papers together—but paper was crucial in making possible the explosion of document-making at reasonable cost and the preservation of those documents even in the absence of significant conservation efforts beyond binding and storage. Historians of books can rely on a near exhaustive catalogue of incunabula and a robust account of imprints before 1600, with a further continuation to later periods under way. Might it be possible to devise a collective catalogue of early modern archives, alongside a catalogue of archives lost? It would open up possibilities for more rigorous quantitative and comparative work, for tracking the circulation of archival practices and documents from one context to another. Any such achievements would be deeply beholden to the recent research gathered in this volume and elsewhere on the history of archives.

The history of archives holds special promise, finally, as a collaborative enterprise for scholars today, that cuts across many of the usual definitions of expertise in the academic landscape, as this volume illustrates so clearly. Specialists of many different contexts, in Europe and its colonies but also in Asia and the Middle East among other places, can learn from one another about both the direct transmission and the parallel independent development of ideals and practices of record-making and record-keeping. And let us hope that the professionals in all these archives, especially those with historical interests, will be crucial partners in continuing research in the history of archives.


(1) M. Hunter (ed.), Archives of the Scientific Revolution (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1998), played a key role in drawing attention to these kinds of archives. In literature ‘genetic criticism’ focuses on the working papers of authors, but these rarely survive for major literary figures before the modern period. See R. Chartier, The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind, trans. L. Cochrane (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2014), chapter 5.

(2) See the classic study of D. Kelley, Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship: Language, Law, and History in the French Renaissance (New York, Columbia University Press, 1970); and more generally A. Grafton, What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(3) See Peters, pp. 169–70. For a few other examples of tampering, see A. Grafton, ‘Matthew Parker: The Book as Archive’, History of Humanities, 2 (2017), 15–50, at 28–32; or G. Sternberg, ‘Manipulating Information in the Ancien Régime: Ceremonial Records, Aristocratic Strategies, and the Limits of the State Perspective’, Journal of Modern History, 85 (2013), 239–79. Interestingly Soll reports no signs of tampering in the archives formed by Colbert.

(4) Wolfe and Stallybrass citing R. Glen, ‘Lines of Affection: Dorothy Osborne and Women’s Letterwriting in the Seventeenth Century’, PhD thesis (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 2007), pp. 43–7.

(5) One of the first such bibliographies appeared in 1873, compiled from the notes of Joseph Marie Quérard by Gustave Brunet: Livres perdus et exemplaires uniques (repr. Sala Bolognese, A. Forni, 1984). Recent book historical studies include J. Raven (ed.), Lost Libraries: the Destruction of Great Book Collections since Antiquity (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and F. Bruni and A. Pettegree (eds), Lost Books: Reconstructing the Print World of Pre-Industrial Europe (Leiden, Brill, 2016).

(6) A. Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 333–4.

(7) M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, England, 1066–1307, 2nd edn (Oxford, Blackwell, 1993), p. 59.

(8) E. Hallam, ‘Nine Centuries of Keeping the Public Records’, in G. H. Martin and P. Spufford (eds), The Records of the Nation: the Public Record Office, 1838–1988, the British Record Society, 1888–1988 (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1990), pp. 24–5. I am grateful to Alexandra Walsham for this reference.