Monday, June 28, 2010

Times A'Changin', but Same Old Complaints

In my ransacking of the internet for old books of specialist interest, I recently downloaded a book by one A. Wright entitled Court Hand Restored. It is so old that even Google was happy to let me have it, and I wanted it because it has loads of useful information relating to the reading of English legal documents, such as Latin versions of surnames and placenames, abbreviations and strange piggy Latin words found only in English legal documents.
While it was trundling along printing, I read the introduction, which proved to be a little piece of history in itself. The book was originally written not for historians, but for lawyers. The author grudgingly admits that there is probably some sense in legal proceedings being recorded in English, a relatively recent development when the book was first produced, rather than the traditional Latin, but this had resulted in a whole generation of legal clerks who had neither the linguistic or paleographical skills to read and present the primary source material for historical cases; necessary given that the English legal system is based heavily on precedent. The author suggests at the end of the introduction that some historians might also perhaps find it useful.
Now it seems that the English legal system has not actually collapsed under the weight of ignorance, but now historians are complaining that deskilling in these kinds of historical disciplines means that political and social decisions are being made from a position of historical ignorance, and even the curators of the evidence, archivists, are rarely adept in the language and paleography of the oldest of the documents they are curating.
This is happening just when there is some increase in popular interest in ransacking old records by folks interested in their family history, and in the collection of antique memorabilia. There does seem to be a lack of awareness of how recent some changes to things such as legal systems have been. I have been sent images, and seen other examples for sale, of 17th and 18th century documents that people were sure were medieval. I even bought one just for fun.
It is an enigma that the faster things change, the less people want to believe that change has happened in the recent past, and they less they believe that we can cope with change in the future. But what would I know? I'm so old I can remember when there was no such thing as the internet. My granddaughters think it is hilarious that when I was at school we didn't have smartboards, we had inkpots.

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