I Could Do an Entire Course on This!

This term my senior seminar tackles the early modern life-cycle in England. We start with childbirth and end with death. Well, actually, we go beyond death, so to speak, and spend the very last week of class on wills (and probate records in general).

Wills are a great research resource for early modern social history. I know I’m not saying anything new there but it’s especially true these days with improved access to digital versions of many probate records. The National Archives (UK) has an excellent introduction to research with wills and includes a wonderful selection of sample wills from the 14th-19th century (PDF links) which includes Jane Austen’s will. (For more fun with pre-modern wills, GENUKI’s website has some wonderful resources such as Leslie Mahler’s transcriptions of Early Gloucester Probate Records while over at Medieval Genealogy we have an exhaustive list of links for medieval (and early modern) probate records.)

Looking at these sources, you can formulate all sorts of interesting research questions that touch on matters of religious, legal, intellectual, social and economic history, just for starters. You can also gently introduce students to the practices of paleography with relatively brief and formulaic documents to ease the pain. We could talk intelligently about regional differences and the impact of important national changes (the Reformation or the Interregnum) with concrete materials to examine for clues. What fun, eh?

Sometimes providing context is the hard part. I’m fortunate in that there’s lots of great material out there to explain how wills are made, how they are proved and what the probate records represent. Last month I nabbed a copy of When Death Do Us Part, a great anthology of articles about interpreting wills and other probate records. Several of the chapters are articles I’ve regularly assigned to my seminar students but there are so many more useful chapters in this collection (particularly in explaining the entire probate process and how to approach inventories, say) that the collection is worthwhile adding to my shelves. Between this book and the wealth of primary material that’s now available in digital form, one could conceivably teach an entire course based on probate records. But I’ll settle for one really fun seminar session — at least this term!

6 Responses to “I Could Do an Entire Course on This!”

  1. Bardiac Says:

    Oh, that sounds like a fascinating class! Will your students be reading Cressy?

  2. sharon Says:

    There are more transcripts of wills at TNA’s community site. (A lot of them are 19th century, but quite a few are 17th/18th.)

  3. ancarett Says:

    Bardiac, of course they will read Cressy — I just love that big book!

    I used to also assign Mary Abbot’s “Life Cycles in England, 1560-1720″ until I became frustrated at our bookstore’s inability to get the book in stock until we were at least halfway through the course. This year I’ve assigned Alexandra Shepard’s relatively new book, “Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England” as many of the chapters follow the aspects of the life-cycle. We’ll see how that turns out.

    Sharon, thanks for the additional link — there’s a lot of useful tidbits there! I will pass some of the modern history links onto my colleagues who work in the last two centuries to spur on their interest.

  4. Barb Says:

    What a great seminar! “Death do us part” is a terrific book - I’ve been trying to find a way to use it in a class myself. I tend to do politics and gender in EM Europe, but I could certainly fit this in, especially with the primary materials. And thanks for providing the links, too! While the French digital archives are terrific, there isn’t much there that I can assign to my students :)

  5. Susan Says:

    I so love wills and inventories. Though both are decidedly complicated documents, in terms of what’s included and what’s excluded, and what that might mean. But even with their difficulties, they make things so real. And it seems to me it’s a way to make students see how complicated it is to figure things out.
    And Shepard’s book is terrific.

  6. sm Says:

    If one really loves history or literature, the number of things that one could do a whole course on is near infinite.

    Once it occurred to me that someone should do a course based on the fact that “1984″ and “That Hideous Strength” were written at almost the same time by two heartfelt critics of the post-war world. When I wrote that to some scholarly e-list the guy who’d already done it sent me a note!

    Glad to hear that something that really appeals to you is practical!