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Working as Research Assistants on the 'Middling Culture' Project

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

MA graduates from the University of Kent's Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS), Amilia Gillies and Laura Romain, are back for more having recently started their PhDs with MEMS. They have been working at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone as research assistants for the 'Middling Culture' project. In this blog post, they talk about their experiences, some of the practicalities of the job, how they became involved, and how working with such documents has equipped them with a more vivid and intimate understanding of the period that they both study.

Image courtesy of Amilia Gillies

A ‘little table and a smale cubborde’, ‘[two] pewter candlesticke[s], two chamberpotte[s], Sixe spones, sixe pewter dishes [and] two salt sellers’ were just some of the items which Thomas Wilson had in his home in Canterbury at the time of his death in October 1610.[1] This mere glimpse into Thomas’ inventory invites us to begin to imagine what his home looked like. How did he and his family use these items? Where were they placed in his chamber? To what extent were these items cherished?

In this blog post, we would like to talk a bit about our experiences working as research assistants on the 'Middling Culture' project, for which we located and photographed approximately 1,060 fascinating listings of inventories which belonged individuals who lived in Canterbury, Sandwich, and Faversham in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, like Thomas Wilson. The project's investigators will utilise our photographs to produce transcriptions of the inventory lists for future works which we are excited to see!

To clarify, 'Middling Culture' is a fascinating and important project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which endeavours to enrich and transform how the lives of ordinary people who lived in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are viewed. These people were the ‘middling’ sorts, who in social hierarchical terms, were situated between the aristocracy and the poor. This sizeable proportion of early modern society – which included the households of physicians, lawyers, writers, clerics, tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, and urban administrators – was hugely significant and influential; however, the stories of these people and their everyday lives have largely remained untold.[2] The bulk of traditional historiography on early modern domestic life focused on the homes of the elites, and this only really began to change in 2017.[3] It was an honour to work with documents which were hitherto largely neglected, yet so rich.

As well as having identified and provided valuable information for the project, our experiences working hands-on with documents, which we would not necessarily consult for own PhD research, has hugely enriched our understandings of the reality of the early modern period which we both study. We even came across doodles and folios on which the scribe appears to have practised their lettering! Thus, while we were becoming acquainted with the individuals who owned the inventories, the scribe’s personality was also shining through.

For me (Amilia), many of the sources which I will be consulting for my PhD research concern ‘high’ politics, and my more ‘popular’ sources are usually in printed rather than manuscript form. Working with the inventories bought the vitality and personality of some of those who lived in early modern Kent into reach.

As for me, (Laura) many of the sources for my burgeoning research are found in the Marlowe Boxes compiled by William Urry during his tenure as archivist of the Canterbury Cathedral Archives. The documents within the boxes largely consist of court records, jury lists, petty sessions, as well as the odd inventory and probate record. Taking part in this exciting project is paying dividends to my own research as the documents within the Marlowe Boxes range between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, as such, are written in a form of secretary script. This experience allowed both of us to apply our understandings of the inconsistent idiosyncrasies of early modern secretary script to a plethora of examples of the script, as many of the records were naturally written by different hands.

Furthermore, in a way that vouches for most prosopographical research, this project is founded on the study of human life, to infer and analyse the way one might have lived by learning of their possessions and the items they were surrounded by when they died. This information we were finding and corroborating, alongside the individuality of each scribe, really demonstrated that the research we were doing was vital, not only in relation to the project, but also in the sense that it was belonging to life.

The nitty-gritty

For those MA and PhD students whose curiosity has been piqued, here is a little more practical information about what we did. To access the relevant manuscripts (PRC/10/18-PRC/10/63), we travelled together to the archive at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, where we would work in the archive from 9am until 5pm – taking a break for lunch. At the time, we were writing our MA dissertations rather than attending weekly seminars, so we could visit the archive on days convenient for us. We enjoyed working at the archive and we are very grateful to the archivists for enabling our visits to run smoothly.

Teamwork made the dream work on this project! Working together on the same manuscript boosted our efficiency as one of us could search through the manuscript and read the name of the owner of the inventory to ascertain whether we had found the relevant folio, while the other took the photographs on their phone. Organising, storing, and transferring huge numbers of photographs has also equipped us with a valuable skillset. Sometimes, our phone storage reaching maximum capacity was to blame for the one – albeit very minor – practical difficulty!

If you are keen on getting involved in a project, our advice would to be to keep an eye and ear out for such opportunities, and to ask your supervisors and seminar leaders if they know of any projects on which you may be able to assist. These opportunities can be advertised via word-of-mouth, and students who would be great fits for projects can be recommended by those who teach them. We became involved in the project, as MEMS MA students and budding early modernists, due to the project’s connections to our areas of research. It would build and hone practical and palaeographical skills that we would eventually apply in our PhD research. We are hugely grateful for Dr Rory Loughnane having recommended us, and the project’s Principal Investigator, Professor Catherine Richardson, who was keen for students to take part in the project.

As we hope that we have conveyed, assisting on a project provides fantastic experience in preparation for your own future research and projects, and can enable you to view your own period of study from new angles.

[1] Maidstone, Kent History and Library Centre, PRC/10/36/362. [2] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 5. [3] Ibid.

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