This post was inspired by a question asked by a facebook friend: How do I manage to research the 15th century, and the Nevills in particular, from the other side of the world?
Twenty years ago (or thereabouts) when I first started using the internet, I was delighted to discover this site. It’s called The Labyrinth, and it’s an absolute trove of material – even more now than it was then. I was finishing my linguistics degree with two units of early English and finding the Paston Letters online (among other things) had me dancing with joy. I didn’t even come close to imagining then what a rich vein of research gold the internet would become. References in secondary sources I’d have despaired of finding twenty years ago are just a search away – sometimes quick and sometimes not so quick! The Coventry Leet Book? It’s there! The Fight at Clyst? Here it is! Letters & Papers Illustrative of the Reign of Henry VI? At your fingertips! And just about every 15th century chronicle you can think of; Rolls of Parliament; collections of sumptuary laws, royal household accounts and – of course! – Paston Letters by the thousand. Google it! If you don’t find it on the first try, don’t give up. (But maybe after three missed meals and hungry children/cats/dogs milling around your feet, you probably should.)
I can’t always easily access material in local records offices – which can be more than a little frustrating – but some can be very helpful and generous. Googling is always worth a punt. There are times when I’ve thought “I won’t be able to find this, surely!” and – lo! – I have found it. I’ve still needed to buy hard copies from time to time – Gregory’s Chronicle (though I did find that online after I bought the book); Benet’s Chronicle (in Latin, but I can usually get the gist); and (irony of ironies) volumes 3 & 4 of Gairdner’s edition of the Paston Letters – available as ebooks but it’s very difficult to match the citations – sometimes paper is better than bits.
Being a member of my local state reference library is enormously helpful when it comes to accessing journal articles for free, as well as ODNB articles. (And my thanks to Dorothea Preis for her help and advice in this.) I reckon I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this way – more money to spend on books!
So, if you have an internet connection, there’s no excuse! No need to choose just one or two authors of secondary texts as the basis for your understanding of history. It’s sometimes difficult to choose if you have a limited book budget (as most of us do) and you can end up inadvertently choosing a writer with a particularly strong bias, or who cherrypicks their facts to fit a predetermined conclusion. How can you possibly know this if you haven’t gone back to the primary sources? Even the very finest historians make errors, or interpret things one way when there’s a perfectly viable (and logical) alternative. (One (undated) letter, three historians – three perfectly plausible dates, all determined from the context and clues in the letter itself. They can’t all be right, and maybe they’re all wrong. The letter was obviously written on a particular date, we just don’t know (for certain) when that was. If one of the dates makes sense, go with it. if you change your mind (as I did) then change it. If you think there’s a fourth date that makes even better sense, go with that! I guess if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from my earlier fairly typical shallow research of the keen-but-busy-with-other-things history lover and the deeper research I’m doing now, it’s that keeping an open mind is hugely important. Being wrong is a step along the road to being right – but only for those who are prepared to lift their foot and actually take that step.)
I’ve also benefited (and benefited others) from a sharing of sources, links, articles &c. Other writers and researchers can be enormously generous. I’d beware, though, of those who demand sources from you and habitually refuse to share their own. When a request for a source results in silence and a temporary disappearance, you can be pretty sure they don’t have a source to share. There’s a surprising number of people who read or hear something, take it as an article of faith and never challenge it. While I am pretty much always happy to share my sources, I am now at the point where I’m a little more hesitant to share with people who won’t (or can’t) reciprocate. (Anyone who caught the rather peculiar spate of trolling on my last post should be able to work out why I’ve come to this point. Nasty is nasty, however the trolls try and justify their behaviour. And any troll who expects a blogger to put the kettle on and break out the Timtams is delusional.)
So, in summary: there’s lots of stuff online (lots of stuff, lots and lots and lots of stuff) from primary sources to journal articles. All of it can be accessed, some more easily than others, and it’s all valuable stuff to read. If you have a particularly strong bias, some of that stuff will challenge it. Go with it, I say! Allow yourself to be challenged. If you’re right, you’ll stay right. If you’re wrong, you might learn something new and be one step closer to being right. Being right is great, but sometimes it’s a bit of a journey to get there. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world, unless the thing you’re wrong about is the thing your world is built on. Then you might be in a bit of bother!
Oh, and one last point about wikipedia. It can be quite useful as a jumping off point, or a quick reminder of the names of someone’s children or when a king was born, crowned or died, but only after that’s all been corroborated by other sources. I use the wikipedia entry on Ralph Nevill, for instance, to jog my memory when it comes to the names and titles of his children. I don’t use the earl of Salisbury’s entry to jog my memory when it comes to the order his children were born in – that seems to be something of a mystery to everyone.