Using Local Histories for SCA Research

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

There is no other type of source that opens up the true character of daily life in the Middle ages as does the local history. Local history is history focused on a regional level or below, most Commonly on the county, city, or village level. In Great Britain, upon which I will focus in this article, almost any town of any size has a local history society. A trip through the English countryside will reveal a wealth of local museums and archaeological sites useful to anyone interested in the tiny details which are the icing of historical research. Since, however, many of us do not have the means to hop the next plane to England, I will focus on sources that many be found in large public or research libraries in major cities. I give Library of Congress numbers throughout to further assist you in your search.

At the county level, there is the superlative Victoria County Histories (VCH) series, which, as the name suggests, was originally commissioned by Queen Victoria. You will find it in the Library of Congress classification DA 670's. The VCH is a fascinating multi-volume work detailing the geology, agriculture, industry, flora and fauna, politics, and people of a particular county in England. (Unfortunately, it is not yet complete for every county). You can discover who the major lords were, where parish churches were located, and how civil unrest affected the county. Need a place to live? The VCH will tell you where the castles and manors were located and whether they are still standing. You can also follow the growth of towns and watch other towns disappear. The authors have already done the extensive checking of wills, charters, archaeological information, parish records, and other documents for you (though some of the older volumes do not incorporate recent finds). There is also an excellent (though somewhat out-of-date) guide to the VCH, which lists pertinent manuscripts (published and unpublished) for each county, along with names of journals published by local history societies. This work, A Guide to the Victoria History of the Counties of England, edited by A. Doubleday and W. Page (London: Constable, 1948) will not be found by the rest of the VCH, but rather at DA 1 D6.

If you are in a library on the Library of Congress numbering system, you will find other books relating to local history on the shelf by the VCH. These may include studies of specific towns and villages, as well as published cartularies (collections of public documents detailing land transfers). But do not assume that what you see on the shelf is the entirety of the information out there. If you've looked in the VCH, you will know the names of towns, prominent churches and monasteries, and names of significant personages. Information pertaining to these will probably be shelved elsewhere, so check the catalogue.

Feeling adventuresome? You may wish to venture into the documents themselves. Many of these are now available in English translations. An examination of these sources can often give you a good idea of the social status and everyday life of various people, including peasants, merchants, clergy, and nobility. You will find sources such as feet of fines , which are records of land transfers in the royal county court; parish records, in which you will find wills and similar things; and manorial records, which give a picture of the everyday functions of an English manor. Also useful are the various "rolls": The Pipe Roll, which is the record of the Royal Exchequer, and the Liberate Rolls, from which you can learn how much the royal household spent on various items; and the Patent and Close Rolls, which are records of the public and private records of the king, to name just a couple. Most of these rolls are broken down by king and regnal year. We also possess guild rolls, university rolls, and records of officeholders in various towns. It is worth looking at some of the London records if you are at all interested in town life anywhere (check the London Record Society volumes and the Middlesex County section in your library -- DA 670's, under "M"). Finally, Domesday Book is an invaluable source. If you know Latin (even just enough to get by with a dictionary) an even broader range of sources is open to you.

For a good basic introduction to local history in England, try Local History in England by W.G. Hoskins (London: Longmans, 1959--DA 1 H6), which will give you a good idea of all the avenues available for research. A more recent guide is English Local History , by Kate Tiller (Wolfesboro Falls, NH: Alan Sutton and Co., 1992 -- DA 1 T55) which has some nifty diagrams.

If your interest is piqued, a large variety of publications which even a good research library may not have are available directly from England. The British Association for Local History publishes a journal, The Local Historian; their offices are housed with the Phillimore Bookshop, which specializes in titles of use to the local historian. A catalogue is available on request: Phillimore Bookshop, Shopwyke Hall, Chichester, Sussex PO20 6BQ United Kingdom.

Each locale presents its own particular difficulties and surprises. My own research has been on the county of Leicester. The VCH is not complete for this county, but five volumes do exist, and they gave me a good deal of useful information. Local history for Leicester, however, is immensely aided by the 1971 republication of John Nichols' classic 1795 work History and Antiquities of Leicester (DA 670 L5N62, four volumes in eight books). Nichols was one of the pioneers of local history, and his two hundred-year-old work is still useful today. Here I found descriptions of every parish in Leicester (with drawings of the churches), including lists of their parish priests; the Leicester section of Domesday Book, lists of holders of knights' fees for several different reigns (William I, John, Edward I, Edward II, and so on); depictions of the arms of anyone above the rank of knight; pedigrees of major families; lists of Lord Mayors of London who were from Leicester; along with surveys of landholders too numerous to mention. If this is not enough for you, there are sections pertinent to Leicester in all the major rolls I mentioned earlier, as well as feet of fines, records of court pleas, and so forth. My Leicester research has also taught me to pay attention to what bishopric a county was in: I was initially frustrated in my attempts to find Leicester material pertaining to higher-level church activities until I remembered that Leicester was not the seat of a bishopric in the Middle Ages, but rather was a part of the huge bishopric of Lincoln, for which I then found more than ample material. It also helps to pay attention to major noble families. The absolutely fascinating household accounts of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester (wife of Simon de Montfort) for the year 1265 still survive and may be found in Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, edited by H. Turner (Roxburghe Club, London, 1841). These, incidentally, are the earliest such accounts extant.

If your persona is not English, do not despair! Though you may be hampered if you do not know the local language, local history is well developed elsewhere as well, especially in France and Italy. Even if you lack reading skills in other languages, there will probably be a wealth of maps and such, which will give you good place names; if you bring along the appropriate dictionary, you can probably figure out more details. For important towns like Paris and Florence, you may find useful sources in English translation.

A final note: Local histories can tell you some amazing things. I found out just the other day from the VCH that Earl Simon is going to sell the Forest of Leicester to the borough of Leicester this year (1239). I think my brother may be out of a job soon...

Copyright 1992,1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.