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Transforming Information: Record Keeping in the Early Modern World

Conference at the British Academy, 9-10 April 2014


  1. Between 1500 and 1800, documentary records proliferated on an unprecedented scale. Bringing together historians, literary scholars and archivists, this interdisciplinary conference will explore the incentives behind this surge in record-keeping in a range of global contexts. It will investigate not only the processes by which records and archives were created, preserved, managed and used, but also their relationship with the religious, political, intellectual and cultural transformations which defined the early modern era. The conference aims to encourage critical reflection on the ways in which these developments have shaped and constrained historical knowledge and scholarly interpretation.
  2. The first of our volumes based on this conference has now been published as a Past & Present supplement: The Social History of the Archives (edited by Liesbeth Corens, Kate Peters, and Alexandra Walsham). P&P also published a blogpost introducing the volume. A second volume is forthcoming.
  3. Table of Contents
    (click on the titles to go to the paper)

  4. Session 1: Archives: Formation, Practice and Care
    Randolph Head: Delineating archives around 1500: Information, state power and new forms of organization in the constitution of an early modern European cultural form
    Markus Friedrich: Turning local culture archival: French feudal records and the specialists who took care of them
    Filippo de Vivo: Power and conflict in the archives of early modern Italy

    Session 2: Official and Institutional Record Keeping
    Kiri Paramore: Knowledge, Records and the Information Order of the Early Modern Japanese State
    Jennifer Bishop: Ralph Robynson: patronage and record-keeping in the London Goldsmiths’ Company, 1557-1577’
    Jesse Spohnholz: Following the Paper Trail: The Divergent Tales of Two Documents from the Dutch Reformation

    Session 3: Information Management and Data Collection
    Arndt Brendecke: Missing Records and the Misuse of Information in the Early Modern Spanish World
    Jacob Soll: Notebooks and Industrious Knowledge 1500-1800
    Lauren Kassell: Medical Record Keeping in Early Modern Britain

    Session 4: Record Keeping: Creators and Creativity
    Arnold Hunt: The Early Modern Secretary
    Adam Smyth: Record Keeping and Literary Creativity in Early Modern England

    Public Panel Discussion: Archives and Society: Record Keeping in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

    Session 5: Record Keeping and Local Memory
    Frederik Buylaert and Jelle Haemers: Record keeping and noble identity in the fifteenth-century Low Countries
    Andy Wood: The contestation of the urban archive: elite histories and vernacular memories in English towns and cities, 1500-1730
    Judith Pollmann: Chronicling the local in early modern Europe

    Session 6: Recording the Self
    Jason Scott-Warren: Accounting for Selfhood in Early Modern England
    John-Paul Ghobrial: Arabic Diaries in Early Modern Europe
    Ann Hughes: ‘The Accounts of the Kingdom’: Memory, Community and the English Civil War

    Session 7: Record Keeping and the Experience of Rupture
    Tom Hamilton: Compiling histories of the French Wars of Religion: Pierre de L'Estoile’s collection in context (1558-1611)
    Kate Peters: Friction in the archives: access to the State Papers in the English Revolution
    Liesbeth Corens: Dislocation and Record-Keeping: English Catholic Collecting

    Session 8: Record Keeping and Material Culture
    Heather Wolfe: Family Archives and the Material Culture of Record Keeping in Early Modern England
    Mary Laven: Recording Miracles in Renaissance Italy
  5. Video, audiorecordings, and Q&A feature

  6. In the lead-up to the conference, the Cambridge University website published a Q&A with some of the speakers on the topic of 'How Archives make History': 
  7. The public discussion about 'Archives and Society' can be seen online via The British Academy's YouTube channel:
  8. Archives and Society: Record Keeping in Historical and Contemporary Perspective
  9. Audio recordings of all papers are now up on the Past & Present blog -many thanks to Anna Bayman for all her hard work to make this happen! 
  10. And here is a blogpost introducing the first volume based on the conference:
  11. Session 1: Archives: Formation, Practice and Care

  12. Randolph Head: Delineating archives around 1500: Information, state power and new forms of organization in the constitution of an early modern European cultural form

  13. Although record keeping and record using were widespread in Classical and early European societies, the medieval archivium and the early modern archive each represented a distinct form of practice and discourse, quite different from record-keeping practices that emerged after 1800. Using examples from across Europe around 1500, this paper will focus on the organizational and contextual features that distinguished early modern archives from other forms of record keeping. Some of these, like extensive reliance on codex technologies and the conviction that properly preserved records provided proofs at law, tied early modern archives to medieval practices; others, notably the belief that accumulated records could become political armories of information, pointed to later developments. Early modern European archivality took profoundly heterogeneous organizational forms, but archives always possessed close connections to juridical and state power, which attributed great value to stored records even as it silenced them or displaced them from view.