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!