Lost Leet Records Rediscovered

Mostly I post here about medieval documents and what they reveal about the history of information design, but I will stretch the ambit today to tell you about the remarkable rediscovery last month of a set of early modern documents, the records of the court leets of the three manors of Elvaston, Thurlston and Ambaston in England for 1687-1697. Documentary preservation anywhere is something worth celebrating.

A court leet was an organ of local government, meeting twice yearly to re-appoint officials such as the parish constable and farmland regulators, enact temporary by-laws and punish those who did not repair the fences, clear drains or take part in the common work of a rural economy.

Their records only rarely survive but give us an extraordinary insight into real-life social relationships. What behaviour annoyed the villagers? Did they have the courage to punish rich, powerful people who flouted the rules?The minutes of these meetings, written in various handwriting that suggests the recorders had only limited education, give us some fascinating answers.

It was regarded as cheating to put your cows out to grass on the common before sunrise (your cattle would eat the best grass before your neighbours got up). People were annoyed if they had fixed their allocated sections of fences and gates, or cleaned silt from drains, but neighbours did not do their own share of the task. Letting your animals create trouble on common land was bad, and freeing your livestock after it had been impounded was even worse. The villagers did penalize the most powerful family, the Stanhopes, just as freely as they punished wrongdoers of humble status, so the idea of cowering, subservient, ignorant peasant farmers is not an accurate picture of English rural freeholding.

We know all this, because the papers record the decisions and the fines imposed at community meetings that were an impressively effective form of 17th-century democracy.

The 60 documents have a rather dramatic history of their own. J. Charles Cox, an Anglican clergyman and doctor of law, had the run of the old Derbyshire record room and its priceless collection of quarter-sessions archives in the 1880s while he compiled his two-volume book (full title: Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals as illustrated by the Records of the Quarter Sessions of the County of Derby from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria, London and Derby: Bemrose and Sons, 1890).

Cox states that the court-leet records were left among the papers of a criminal court, the quarter-sessions, by John Adderley, a contemporary official, although communal farmland administration had nothing to do with criminal justice. The quarter-sessions collection is now in the custody of the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock. In March 2008, a Record Office archivist, Mark Smith (I'll give you a link below to his blog), undertook a search for the leet records for me, and advised that they were lost.

This led to a very plausible fear, which I wrote about on my family history website, that the papers had been destroyed, lost or stolen during one of the record collection's various relocations:
We can only speculate on the reasons for this. Cox conserved and catalogued many ancient documents, but other people were not so careful. Until the 1950s or 1960s, the archives were not well cared for, and the legacy of the great antiquarians like Cox was neglected. It would seem today as if the Elvaston court-leet records have vanished.
Last month— six years later— Mark contacted me out of the blue with some welcome news: the series of manorial records had been rediscovered. They were in fact still where Cox had found them: among the quarter-sessions records, but it turned out they had been given what Mark called a "rather unhelpful" archival location reference. His colleague Neil Bettridge, who had been working on the Manorial Documents Register for Derbyshire— part of a national project— and had come across them. Mark writes:
Cox was quite right in saying the papers did not belong among the Quarter Sessions records. With that in mind, I have created a new collection number for it, D7687.
A reference to the records can now be found in the Record Office's online catalogue. Liz Hart of England's National Archives tells me that the revision of the Derbyshire section of the Manorial Documents Register is due for completion in late 2014 and will then be made available as an online MDR. I hope the Elvaston court-leets page there will link to my account of the papers on the Piggin.org website.

This lucky find is excellent news for anyone interested in European social history. The court leet records are unusually valuable for their insight into how people 300 years ago conducted collective farming, probably more effectively than in many a Soviet kolkhoz of the 20th century.

The rediscovery also brings a major addition to the documentary record for the charming English village of Elvaston (where there is currently a major dispute going on over the use of a stately home).

And amid the drumbeat of depressing news about archives burning or rotting, it is important news to hear that anything lost for so long has been found again. Mark Smith writes a blog: perhaps he will tell us more about such finds.

And since you are reading about this on a history-of-information-design blog, what do the papers tell us about that topic? Although Cox sneers at the "uncouthness of the handwriting" (John Adderley merely signed them in his capacity as steward and kept them), they seem to be drawn up by "uncouth" people with a solid sense of good layout.

Everything is set out on a neat grid. Wide indentation from the left is employed in consistent fashion (useful to guide the eye). The amounts of the fines imposed are set flush right and connected to the offences by leader dashes (both as guides to the eye and to prevent fraudulent alteration). From all of this, we see that even recorders of modest education in the late 17th century understood perfectly the need to employ modular design and "waste" some blank space to make a document easy to read.

No comments :

Post a Comment