Like just about everyone who writes about the early history of the common law, I am a heavy user of the digitised manuscripts on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website. They were especially valuable during the worst of the pandemic, of course, but many of us had been using them regularly long before that. Even for people living in the UK, it is often not feasible to get to the National Archives (ludicrously expensive and time consuming getting to central London by rail, and then out to Kew) and that is as nothing compared to the fun and games which researchers from other parts of the world must encounter. That being so, easy online access has been an enormous bonus. I realised just how much I had come to rely upon it, when AALT was unavailable for a few days last academic year, and I felt decidedly panicky. This morning, I have been doing a bit of leisurely searching in AALT plea rolls (I know it’s Saturday, but I definitely need a distraction from the ominous sounds of offspring packing for imminent departures to university… ) and, in best Carrie Bradshaw fashion (if the ever-profound lead of Sex and the City had been a legal historian), ‘got to thinking’ about the changing experiences of legal historical research which I have had, since I started out in the 1990s.
My first real encounter with medieval manuscripts came as a PhD student – up to that point, it had mostly been transcribed and translated things in the Selden Society volumes and similar publications, with a few early modern bits and pieces to do with the Bank of England when I had a job as research assistant at the Law Commission, including working on the repeal of parts of the early legislation regulating the Bank. I designed a project for the Ph.D., making the somewhat arrogant assumption that I would be able to just bowl up to the Public Record Office (as it then was) and read eyre rolls, to locate presentments and prosecutions of usurers and offenders against price regulations. Obviously, it soon became apparent that it would take quite a while to get to grips with the great and contrary membranes, the script and the abbreviations (not to mention the springiness of some of the tightest rolled ones, and the fear of handling some of the crumblier-edged ones). It is odd to think that just about everything I traipsed down to Chancery Lane to examine is now available with a few clicks on the AALT site. Just as well for the state of the records that present day versions of Ph.D.- me can have their clumsy hands kept off precious pieces of legal heritage to a great extent.
The experience of looking at the rolls online is, of course, not quite like ‘the real thing’. There is something special in making physical contact with the work of long-ago clerks. But there are also positives in using the scans. It is possible to expand the picture, to help make out more obscure words (or make a better guess, at least…). It is easier to go back and check something than is the case when using physical records. And then there is a certain charm in the online site itself. I am sure that others could add to the list, but there are two things that strike me about it, quite regularly. The first, and more trifling, is a by-product of frequent use of the site – the odd misfire in searching for the site means that I have become unusually well acquainted with: (i) Aalto University in Finland and (ii) a Dutch serial killer nicknamed ‘Aalt’. The second is to do with hands.
‘Hands’ can mean different things to people in the nerdy manuscript-fancying community, of course: perhaps first of all we’d think of writing styles and individual quirks. A lot of puzzle-solving entertainment to be had there, for those who like that sort of thing. Then we might think of manicules – the little pointing hands we see in the margin of manuscripts, indicating cases or things that the clerk thought might need to be found again, or which should be noted. What I am mostly thinking about, though is actual, present day hands: the springy nature of the rolls sometimes makes it necessary to hold them down whilst they are photographed, with the result that the AALT shots contain numerous images of the hands of those creating the digital archive – shots like this one. That is going to be a sort of manual immortality one day, isn’t it? (Especially if the MSS themselves become more frail and less accessible). It certainly gives an inkling of the general effort involved in making these images available to anyone who wants to see them, and I find it a really interesting additional piece in the story of the handing on (!) of the information contained in the rolls, from one generation to the next.