Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bloody Good Trials

One of the harder aspects of writing about those outside of elite circles is that because most people could not read - and even fewer could write - they leave only a scant mark on the historical record. The challenge the becomes finding these people in the archives. Where can we "hear" those who have left behind no historical record?

To my mind, the best answer to this is in court. You did not need to be rich to be charged with a crime (indeed it could help!), or to be called as a witness, and the records of England's religious and secular courts are full of fascinating descriptions of ever day life. Social historians have been mining these archives for years and have made amazing discoveries.

This is all well and good if you happen to live in England, and have the time to head to the archives for a few days. But what if you're not?

The answer (or at least one answer) is the Old Bailey Online. It is a collection of criminal trials running from 1674 to 1913. The search function is nothing short of amazing - you can search for crimes ranging from "Breaking Peace" to "Violent Theft" with many others in between. You can pull up all the cases resulting in whipping (public or private), execution, branding, or anything else the Court could dream up.

The amount of detail varies widely, from a summary of the case to detailed testimony, but with a little digging you can find some fantastic material with which to work.

(As an aside, my favorite case is of a midwife who, in order to satisfy her husband's desire for a child and to shake off rumors that she was barren, sneaked a dead newborn into her bedroom and pretended to give birth to it. Her cunning ruse soon was discovered.)

1 comment: