Beyond The Past And After Hours #Prosery

‘He existed once you know?’

Janet turned from her monitor, squinted into the gloom.

‘Who now?’ she asked. The hands on the wall clock glowed faintly. Half-seven, closing time was long past and James was still bent over the archive’s central table.

‘This,’ he said, and circled his hand over the papers in front of him, ‘this all belonged to someone who existed. Now all that’s left to mark his existence are cargo lists, household receipts, and half a letter to his land agent.’

‘That’s more than some have,’ Janet shrugged.

‘But how can someone be boiled down to so little? We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of time and know less than was once understood.’

‘We work with what we have.’

‘But it’s not enough!’

‘It must be. We can’t turn back time, only save what remains.’  


I’ve spent most of today going through history books, journals, and archive online materials to write a post about the history of witchcraft in Shropshire, so I’m feeling a little nostalgic for my time in archives among old letters and documents. For those of you interested in Early Modern history I’ve included the link here.

I do wonder what it will be like for historians hundreds of years from now. If blogs will help with reconstructing the past, or if the overload of information will cause more chaos that clarity. Perhaps something will happen to destroy all the electronically archived information, and we will return to a world of paper and ink. If we are remembered, will it be accurately?

31 Comments

    1. Historians get really excited by personal letters and diaries, because they show how the past impacted on the people living there. It’s very easy to overlay an anachronistic mentality on individuals from before, and make assumptions based on the facts we already know. Take for example Anne Lister. Her journals added a whole new dimension onto how we perceived women in her era.

  1. Well done. The same could be true for any of us. Imagine a future when all recorded history is lost, except for the mundane found among store receipts and tax returns.

  2. People who work in archives can’t help but inhabit the past and spend time with people who no longer exist. I quite liked it before electronic data storage, when I had to use a library to find the information I wanted, and a microfiche was still new-fangled. I also like the thought of trawling through ‘cargo lists, household receipts, and half a letter to his land agent’ to glean something about a person’s life.

    1. I do love spending time in the archive among the papers, however electronic copies have become vital with the current climate. I’m currently waiting on a scan of a seventeenth century court document regarding a witch trial that took place in Ludlow.

  3. Good story, Carol. I also wonder about what solely electronically stored history means for the future and how they will learn about what has come before. I am reminded of Terry Gilliam’s futuristic film, “Brazil” and fear it is a prophesy in many ways already come true.

    About archiving, I would love to dig deep in hands-on archives!

    1. It’s an odd experience, especially reading letters. Most tend to be quite formal, but I remember reading one in the Shropshire archives where Thomas Hill was telling his uncle that experiences investors wouldn’t touch South Sea stock with a barge pole. It was so human in the phrasing that I could just hear him saying it as he wrote the letter.

  4. A great use of the prompt, and the Telescope of Time: searching for fragments that remain of people’s lives, what was once so much condensed into so little.

  5. Great questions here – I found myself thinking about all those fragments of the past – Sappho – great poet – with 600 lines remaining; Homer who we know nothing of – but for the Iliad and Odyssey – your own studies of witchcraft fragments I’m sure. The past is a foreign country isn’t it?

    1. I’ve started reading Homer, and I’ve just had bought a book of Sappho’s fragments. Sappho especially as we’ve only got two full poems and not the sheet music that they would have gone with. However, we still know their names, which also amazes me.

    1. Thank you Sarah. I spent a lot of time in archives during uni, and history still holds such a pull for me. My dissertation involved trying to pull together an examination of a 17th century gentry family based on the letters written by Thomas Hill to his father.

  6. The internet tends to show either an idealized or dramatized existence. I’m not sure it will give anyone an accurate view of day to day life. (K)

  7. I like this very much….it’s archival work and seeing photos, letters, deeds, etc from the past are so often all we have left to see someone through. Going a bit personal from this, how I wish I’d interviewed my grandmother, mother and father to record their oral histories. Their voices and their life stories would be so meaningful to me and to future generations.

  8. Yes for some their footprint in history vanishes. I always found that to be a sad thing. I enjoyed this piece Carol, it made me think and it made me feel. Well written.

  9. My uncle said the dark ages in the past happened because they had computers and the computer systems were wiped out!
    He said this back in the early 90’s and I thought that was funny then. Now I just think 🤔 hmmm… could be…
    I still try to write paper and ink just in case.
    😂
    The beginning story was captivating. I loved it ❤️!

  10. Tantalising! How many threads run in and out of this moment? How many stories, genres, plots? Great inspiration! Thank you.

    Archives, however nuanced the surviving documents, are at least tangible and fixed. I wonder which versions of reality will survive a malleable digital record? Fake present, fake past, fake future? Are we all postmodernists now?

    If fiction can show a greater truth, can some facts tell a bigger lie?

    Jstor is great at the moment, or if you still have access via an institution. When it is behind a pay wall it can be frustrating or pocket emptying!
    Great post, many thanks.

    1. There is a fair amount of fiction in history. We spend a lot of time picking out the bias, and the make believe to get to the core, and even then we can’t be certain in some cases what happened. For example, the dark ages.

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