Detective Fiction in the Archives: Court Records and the Uses of Law in Late Medieval England
By Shannon McSheffrey
History Workshop Journal, Vol.65:1 (2008)
Introduction: Historians are often compared to detectives, searching for clues and uncovering connections until at last the truth is found and the mystery is solved. The fictional detective works the streets and the historian works the archives, but the process of building a case and of making logical inferences from scattered clues is sometimes remarkably similar. Historians, however, are no longer permitted the certainty that marked the conclusions of classic detective fiction: we are rarely, if ever, sure anymore about who dunnit (whatever ‘it’ might be) or why.
This constant epistemic doubt can be disorienting. On the one hand, many archival detectives, myself included, have, like our progenitor Jules Michelet, an essentially romantic sense that we can virtually see the dead through the dust of the document. The piece of parchment or paper, in some cases actually held by the hand of the person whom we are investigating, seems to create a literally tangible connection. On the other hand, both theory and the practical problems of research warn us continually that this vision of the dead is a mirage, or at least a highly refracted image: each new clue can throw all previous evidence into completely new light, effectively changing the direction of the narrative running inside our heads.
My goal in this article is to explore two issues. The first is a problem in legal and social history: how did late medieval Londoners use the legal and archival powers of governing authorities in order to negotiate their lives? The second is a problem in historical methodology: how can thinking about the archives as historical agents rather than as inert repositories of evidence refine the way we use historical documents?