Unusual Sources by Jess Dyde


Unusual Sources by Jess Dyde

Historians rely heavily on written material for research purposes.

In fact, one definition of the beginning of the "historical' rather than "archaeological' periods is that writing exists. We are used to the idea of using things such as Hansard, Parish records, Wills, Census reports, and court records to help us reconstruct the past. But many other forms of writing exist that can help the historian.

These are less official records. Letters, diaries, literature and so on are a rich source of historical material if used with care.

Even account books, which can seem to have little in them but lists of figures, can be fascinating and illuminating.

What people include in their personal accounts often sheds light on more than they intended. I was reading the diaries of a country doctor, writing in the late 18th century, and was struck by the number of his patients who died.

It wasn't unusual for 3 to have died before lunchtime! Of course, in those days the doctor was very much the last resort as they were expensive, but if you didn't read the diaries in that light, you wouldn't have rated his skills very highly.

What is missed out of these accounts is also illuminating, if irritating. He doesn't describe his instruments, as he didn't need to – he knew what they were and it was a private diary. You might write in your diary that you had toast for breakfast, but you wouldn't describe your toaster as you know how to make toast.


Look for ancient engravings and carvings that tell a story and may reflect the views and opinions of the day.

Another interesting diary was written during the 1645 Jacobite rebellion, by a young man.

He was far more interested in chasing the girls and drinking with his friends than in the war, which he barely mentions.

On one occasion he and his friends find a severed head by the side of the road as they walk home, and a long discussion ensues.

But there is no expression of horror, or disgust, and no attempt to run to report the find to the authorities. Instead the discussion is about whether or not to bury the head, seeing as they can't tell whether the original owner was Protestant or Catholic!

In the end, to be on the safe side, they bury it right there by the side of the road, and he never mentions it again.

A lot can be deduced about social and cultural norms, and the attitudes of ordinary people to the war, from this little diary entry, especially if we compare it to a similar event nowadays.

Historical information can be gleaned from many sources of course but the purpose of the writing must always be borne in mind.

Personal writing gets rarer the further back we go. And political or religious writing has always got an agenda.

George Fox's journal, although a quasi-religious document, is extremely disparaging about the Church, as he was a Quaker.

Even apparently innocuous material, such as a travel book, will have an underlying purpose.

One such, from the late 16th century, purports to describe Britain, but is attempting to show the country as united and prosperous. Consequently much is left out regarding poverty and injustice, and the author simply ignores the fact that at the time Scotland was an entirely separate Kingdom! Some great houses are ignored as being too politically sensitive.

Letters can be a very useful source, but again, who is writing and who is being written to must be considered. Writers such as Elizabeth I were very careful about what they said. Her letters to Mary Queen of Scots were masterpieces!

In fact, very casual letters are rare, even recently. Phones and texts tend to be used for casual correspondence today, and most of that material disappears into the ether.

We always think before we write, consider words and phrasing, chew the end of the pen a bit. The process of writing simply isn't casual. When speaking casually, it just seems to come out.

Pictures can be a huge source of information. Military pictures and battle scenes were often painted from first hand descriptions of events. Uniforms and clothing were painted from life.


Account books can reveal a great deal more than they were originally intended to. For example, if My Lady suddenly orders seven yards of blue velvet, we can deduce that a great event such as a wedding was looming, and also that My Lady was wealthy enough to afford velvet.

We can discover a great deal about diet, by looking at how much of different food types were ordered. If there is a sudden drop in the price of a particular spice for example, we can investigate the idea that a new source of that spice was supplying Britain, and that could be as the result of a new trade route or a war.

In other words, the implications go far beyond the household accounts of an individual house. And we can get some idea of the standard of living of various professions and occupations by looking at how much people were prepared to pay them. A peasant wouldn't keep written records, but a great estate might note that they paid 16 pence to 8 additional labourers at the harvest, for a day's work. So twopence a day would seem to be the going rate.

If the account book also mentions extra food, we might deduce that the labourers were not expected to provide their own food for that day. So they get twopence plus lunch. However if the estate's inventory doesn't include 8 additional scythes we must assume that the labourer must provide his own tools, which is a big chunk out of his wages. We begin to get some idea of the standard of living for that labourer.

Literature can be the most problematic Primary source for historians, as its very nature skews the material.

Shakespeare sets many of his plays in foreign or magical places. The beginning of Othello is set in Venice, and there's no evidence that Shakespeare himself ever visited Venice, so what can we learn from the play?

Essentially, we can construct a picture of how the Elizabethans viewed Venice, whether accurate or not. And Venice was seen as a city of vice, so for Shakespeare to say that someone was Venician or acting in a Vencian way meant a great deal more than it would nowadays.

Historical information helps us understand the literature and vice versa.

Even mystical poetry can tell us a great deal. The Dream of the Rood is an Old English poem – we aren't sure of the exact date of composition.
Our earliest version written in English is dated to the 8th century, but fragments of the poem are carved in runes on a stone cross, which dates from earlier. However we can tell that the poem must date from the 6th or 7th centuries (from the language), and the poem itself tells us something about Anglo-Saxon attitudes to life.

The poem is written in the persona of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, and in it, Jesus strides up to the cross and mounts it himself. This seems rather odd, as the Bible portrays Jesus as passive, choosing not to use his power to release himself from his captors, and submitting to the execution. He has relinquished control.

But in the Dream, he is very much in control, appearing almost as a warrior. And this shows how Anglo-Saxon society was converted to Christianity, using imagery of figures they must have seen as strong.

We must assume that they would not have accepted a meek Christ, as the poet produces a strong warrior-like Christ who overcomes his foes, in order that this new religion will appeal to the Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo-Saxon poetry also adds to knowledge we have from other sources – that most people could not read. It is very obviously designed to be recited, relying heavily on easy-to-memorise constructions.

Poetry in general is much easier to remember than prose, and lends itself to public performance. With a few exceptions, prose as a literary form does not really come into existence until the 18th century, when reading became more widespread.

Poems designed to be spoken aloud can be compared with Charlotte Bronte's "Dear Reader', which underlines that she is expecting her work to be read by an individual, not spoken aloud to a group of listeners.

So when conducting historical research, remember to investigate the less official material too. Some fascinating nuggets of information can come from the most unlikely sources.

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