Sunday, 6 February 2011

Adjusting one's aim

Six years ago when I began transcribing, and consequently engaging with, the 200-plus pages of a local sixteenth century manorial survey, I began to entertain the notion of producing a book about it. The source material compared favourably to the subjects of other published commentaries; I had a growing confidence in my academic skills; more importantly, I felt that, if I could attempt a competent analysis of the text, it would add to the existing body of documentary knowledge about Suffolk – and others might want to read it.

My self-belief drove me onwards as I proceeded to record the entries in the survey. In all I took several hundred digital images of its pages. I worked on these at home, zooming in on the unfamiliar scribal hands and scribbling furiously as I unpicked the language of Tudor England. There were some pages in formulaic Latin – not too many, thank goodness, as Latin is not one of my strengths – and I'm proud to say only a handful of lines escaped translation. Really, once you have 'got your eye in', the idiosyncratic letter constructions and spellings soon became as manageable as things one's grandparents might have written in a shaky, elderly hand.

Analysis of the content gradually developed through my physical contact with the book. A mental image of the sixteenth century community began to emerge, and thus questions formed themselves as to the nature of land use, or the functions of particular characters – the tanner, the miller, the local gentry. Finally, with the textual analysis complete, I pulled together five years of research, note-making and imaginitive reconstruction into a novel-sized whole. I was not done, however.

To keep my work focused I had frequently referred to The Field-book of Walsham le Willows (K.M. Dodd, SRS 1974), using it as a model of good practice. But I was hoping to produce something broader by adding illustrations and maps, as well as imitating Dodd's chart of tenants and holdings, and three indexes. Even with all this effort I still felt the temptation to go on tweaking, to overdevelop some aspects of my study. But eventually I had to be satisfied that I had created something worthwhile and stop 'fiddling'. 'By metes & boundes' was ready to walk unaided.

History writing is one thing – seeing it in a proper published form is quite another. I had approached Suffolk Records Society quite early on, shortly after completing a basic transcription of the manuscript survey. It was from them that I received my first kindly rebuff, on the grounds that my study was too similar to other SRS publications, my unvoiced response being that my source was what it was and I couldn't change that. Then I submitted an article to the Suffolk Local History Council Review outlining my work to date, and was gratified to at least see that in print. I also knew that it would be reaching something like the right audience. And so I worked on until the last stages of indexing, when I began to apply to other publishers, five in all. Thank you Boydell & Brewer; Manchester University Press; The History Press; Carnegie Publishing and the University of Hertfordshire Press. At least you didn't rubbish my efforts, but you did all reject me. 'By metes & boundes' was either too academic or not rigorous enough for their requirements. Ah well, time to adjust my aim!

What have I actually achieved? I have uncovered a long-hidden view of my community as English society was still wrestling with questions of the Reformation. There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of me disseminating my findings amongst local historians for myself. I have let it be known that I am available for lectures. So far three history groups have invited me to give illustrated talks. Speaker's fees won't cover my expenses of the past few years – time, travel, paper, postage, printer ink etc. - but it's a start.

1 comment:

  1. I wish you all the luck! It's a great adventure, eh?