Archival Wonders

By Lisa Smith, W&M Contributor

Cut foliage in Bridget Hyde's book (c. 1676-1690): Wellcome MS 2990, image 150. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Cut foliage in Bridget Hyde’s book (c. 1676-1690): Wellcome MS 2990, image 150. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

A few days ago, a friend of mine mentioned on a certain social media site that she had just found pressed flowers in an eighteenth-century recipe book. Nothing unusual in that—there are lots of bits and bobs stuck into old papers.* But it is always a delight for researchers.

Here is my top five list of unexpected things that I’ve found:

  • a doodle of a strange turtle man holding an envelope, at the bottom of an eighteenth-century love letter (Wellcome Library).
  • two crumbling blue pills in a small packet attached to an early nineteenth-century collection of family medical letters and recipes (Dordogne Archives).
  • several recipe clippings, with hand-written notes, stuck into an early twentieth-century cookery book that I found at an Oxfam shop.
  • a burn mark that goes through half of a seventeenth-century recipe book (Wellcome Library).
  • the scent of tea leaves wafting through a series of eighteenth-century medical consultation letters (British Library).

We might handle old texts and piece together stories all the time, but somehow such surprises tease us with the sense that we’ve directly encountered the past. The burn mark evokes a busy woman who had been cooking while keeping the book a little too close to the hearth where a stray cinder landed upon it. Or perhaps, she was scratching away in the book by candlelight and accidentally knocked the candle over onto the open book… We can imagine the woman’s consternation as she beat out the fire on her book.

Epicentre of the burn in Wellcome MS 4051. (Thanks to archivist Helen Wakely who told me about this book!) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Epicentre of the burn in Wellcome MS 4051. (Thanks to archivist Helen Wakely who told me about this book!) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Our fragmentary link to the past, however, is not straightforward. As my friend pointed out, the biggest mystery is what century the flowers are from. Just as there is no evidence to indicate who pressed the flowers, or when, the true circumstances of the recipe book damage will never be determined. The blue pills don’t correspond to any specific references in the family’s papers. The recipe clippings are undated and the tea-scented letters might have been put in a chest over a hundred years later.  The only definitive evidence for my list is that the turtle man doodle was in the same ink as the rest of letter.

These moments of archival wonder may not offer much in the way of facts, but they are nonetheless important. They remind us that the manuscripts had users other than us: people who read the books, failed to take their pills and stored letters in safe places.

And they give us an excuse to let our historical imaginations run rampant before we get back to business…

Have you found any surprises in the archives?

*  The medievalfragments blog , for example, frequently discusses textual curiosities in medieval manuscripts. My favourite post is on “Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts”.

Lisa Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800) and blogs at Sloane Letters Blog and The Recipes Project. She tweets as @historybeagle.

  • Kat

    I called up a book once only to discover it had been damaged by shrapnel during the Blitz. This warped, blackened, shredded book was delivered to my table and I about fell over in shock. Needless to say, I brought it to the attention of the archivists… don’t think that one’s in circulation anymore!

    • Lisa Smith

      Wow… that really was an unexpected encounter with the past! I’ve always wondered about the books in libraries listed as ‘war damage’.

  • Eva Stachniak

    In the Potocki archives in Kraków I found an envelope with a silver thread in it. And a note inside: “A thread from my child’s coffin.” Broke my heart that day…

    • Lisa Smith

      That is truly heart-wrenching. Was there any other information about the child in other documents?

      • Eva Stachniak

        Not this one, probably a small infant. I also found a letter a sick mother wrote to her baby daughter. It started “I will not see you grow up, but I want to tell you of my love for you.”

  • Elisabeth

    Around the time of celebrations for 150 years of Italian Unification in March 2011 while working in the Vatican Archives, I found a rudimentary, mud-splattered paper ‘tricolore’ (the name given to the flag of the newly-minted Kingdom of Italy for its red, green, and white stripes) in a file of documents pertaining to papal police operations in the countryside outside Rome. This was a time when the ‘garibaldini’ were closing in on papal forces in a effort to wrest Rome from the papacy and bring the papal states into the new, unified kingdom. The police report referred to the flags’ being strung up under cover of night – night after night – as fast as the police could pull them down. Beyond the courage of those “first Italians” who risked papal incarceration, I was profoundly in awe thinking of the risks citizens – through all times and places – have taken for the hope of more freedom

  • Terry Kuny

    I was working in the Glenbow Archives about 30 years ago and tripped across an unpublished story by Rudyard Kipling. He had been doing a tour of Canada during or shortly after the First World War and told a story to wounded Canadian soldiers that were recuperating in a local hospital or infirmary. A nurse at the hospital had the presence of mind to do a dictation of the story and this was captured in her typescript of it and later filed in the archives. I still do not know if it was ever published or noted by Kipling scholars. It was a lovely accidental find…although I cannot recall anything about the story itself!

    The same summer in those archives also led me to hold on too a nondescript leather flight log of a pilot in that war. It was dirty and somewhat beaten up. I casually flipped through it only to discover some notes about an encounter written in red pencil. The flight book was Captain Roy Brown’s and he had ever so briefly and nonchalantly described his shooting down of the Red Baron in this, his flight diary for that day.

    Archives are great…