Tuesday, 9 August 2016

[#43] ‘Latin Documents from Westminster Abbey Muniment Room’ transcribed in Vivian D. Lipman, The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London, 1967), pp. 187-312.

Academic Entry:

Transcriptions of the Latin Jewish documents relating to Norwich contained within the Westminster Abbey Muniments collection.

General Entry:


A few weeks ago I spent two days in the Westminster Abbey Muniments, looking at the acknowledgements of debt to Jews. It was when I was confronted with the first document, which happens to be one that Lipman transcribed in this collection, that I realised the value of his efforts. The document in question was one of the most heavily abbreviated that I’ve ever worked on and it was little short of a trial by ordeal to work through the document – though given that I looked at nearly 300 such documents over the course of the week, it’s fair to say that I quickly got the hang of it. In comparison, Lipman’s transcriptions are a thing of beauty, written in perfect Latin and, being typed, there is no need to decipher handwriting. Moreover, Lipman generously provides a brief overview of the content in English (including modernised by dates). So, ‘What’s not to like?’ I hear you cry. Well, as you ask so nicely I shall enlighten you, the short answer is ‘Quite a lot actually’. Now I don’t mean to go all historiany but quite a lot can be learned from the way in which a text was abbreviated, yet Lipman makes no attempt to denote where the abbreviations have been made. Equally, if you show me the original document, I can tell you who wrote it and where in under a minute, but there is so little detail Lipman’s volume that one would struggle to work out whether the record was even written on a chirograph. Incidentally, that’s not me being boastful, as I shall shortly be submitting an article, ‘The Materiality of Debt in Medieval England’, outlining my methodological approach. Finally, a document is more than a convenient method to convey text, but can actually be analysed in and of itself (again something I do in my article) – the details which would facilitate such an analysis are, however, omitted from Lipman’s study. So to the recommendation, for students and those with a general interest this is a reasonably good source. For those historians working on these records professionally, make the trip to Westminster Abbey yourself – if an idiot with a degree and a mediocre grasp of Latin can end up making a plethora of ground-breaking discoveries, imagine what a you, as a proper historian, could do!

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