Parchment, Planes, and Pain au Chocolat: A Guide to Travelling for Historical Research
Elena Rossi | Magdalen College, Oxford
One of the most exciting parts of a PhD is seeing primary material. Whilst digitisation projects continue to increase the amount of easily accessible material, it is never the same as viewing the document in person. I have very much missed looking at gothic script written on parchment, full of wormholes and frustrating abbreviations, so I was very excited to plan two big trips for my PhD. Drawing on my experiences of planning my trips to Paris in September 2021 and Bologna in January 2022, this piece will help you learn about the various steps to consider when preparing for archival research.
A research trip includes a lot of work and planning. Where do you even start? Consider the costs of your trip and look into funding options. My trip was kindly funded through the Robert Gildea International Travel Fund, which I applied for in May of 2021. It took me a while to research all the essential costs of the trip – including COVID testing – and then to research and fill out the forms for the funding. Your faculty, university or funding body may offer specific travel grants that you can apply for, but there may also be opportunities dotted around elsewhere, such as at the Institute of Historical Research. If you know you will have to do a research trip during your PhD, it is worth doing this research at the end of your first year in preparation for undertaking the trip in the second year.
I have never enjoyed planning for a holiday, let alone a research trip. Figuring out flights, trains, accommodation, and now all the COVID hurdles, it is a lot of ducks to get in a row. The most important place to start is the archive. Which archives do you need to consult for your research? By looking at the bibliographies of the secondary literature you are consulting, you will be able to find which archives might have relevant material. With COVID, it is also essential to check for any new measures. I postponed my trip to Italy after discovering the Archivio di Stato in Bologna had stricter COVID measures and instead moved my Paris trip forward to September.
Most of my research would be at the Archives Nationales in Paris. I was very privileged as I could stay with my aunt, which removed the stress of finding accommodation. Finding a place to stay is not easy, as I am discovering with Bologna, but there are a few options you could consider. A room in an Airbnb can be ideal as you will end up living with other people. A friend I met in Paris found her flat using SabbaticalHomes. It may be worth contacting the university in the city to see if they have any student accommodation you could rent. Sometimes even sending a tweet into the Twitter-sphere can lead to opportunities for house sitting. Take your time to find somewhere and make sure the accommodation has all the facilities you will need. Also, make sure you get travel insurance – which your university may provide – and sort out any travel documents. Do not be the ten people seated on the floor at check-in on my flight back from Paris who forgot their passenger locator forms! Do not be the ten people seated on the floor in front of check-in, like on my flight back from Paris, who forgot to do their passenger locator forms.
It is also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the archive catalogue. The Archives Nationales had an excellent online catalogue, and I could register an account before visiting, giving me a chance to find documents and be aware of the various processes. Some archives do not have these online systems, such as the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, and have simply scanned old inventories and catalogues which include very little detail. A lot of learning will take place in the archive itself, so do not expect to be an expert, but do dedicate some time to exploring catalogues before you go. I contacted one of the archivists about documents I wanted to consult, and they not only sent me some amazing online copies of certain sources, but they also gave me instructions on how to request documents that I needed special permission to access. Writing emails in French was a struggle but with the help of wordreference.com, Google Translate, and my friend who spoke French, I was able to compose something that made sense.
Language is one of the most important parts of a trip. My GCSE French is very rusty, and I spent a bit of time before going to Paris refreshing some of my knowledge. I noted down key phrases like ‘I would like’, ‘finished’, and, most importantly, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The people distributing the documents would always announce ‘Anglais’ when I arrived at the collection counter – they knew how bad my French was – but I still tried to speak French as much as possible. There were times when I struggled a bit more and they would bring out the person who could speak English to help me, but I think people were more understanding and patient because they could tell I was trying. The final day of my trip, I needed to view a specific document and the archivist I had been contacting had accidentally booked it for the wrong day. Thankfully, my friends at the collection counter helped and I was able to see it before I left. It makes such a difference to your experience if you try to speak the language.
As I had a month in Paris, this meant I could take my research at a steadier pace. I only visited the archive one day during the first week as I was still figuring out which documents to order and how to order them. However, by the final week of the trip, I visited the archive four days in a row. Spending long days in the archives trying to squeeze in as many documents as possible was very tiring. Next time I visit Paris, I would commit to only 2-3 days each week, giving me plenty of time to see documents and also have some breathing time between visits. This routine might not work for every research trip though. For example, the Archivio di Stato in Bologna is only open four days a week from 9:00 to 13:30, whereas the Archives Nationales in Paris was open six days a week from 9:00 to 16:45. Every research trip is trial and error, and that is okay. You will gradually learn what works best for you and do not be hard on yourself for not spending every hour of the day in the archive.
Once I started requesting documents, I created a spreadsheet to track what material I had ordered, including details from the catalogue, to ensure I remembered the rationale behind my choices. Every research trip needs a spreadsheet or document to track the essential information: the references, the contents, the type of document, keywords or dates, and whether you have requested, viewed and photographed this item. When a document looks awfully familiar, you can check the spreadsheet before you waste time taking more photos.
When in the archives, I spent most of my time taking photos of documents. You will see more experienced academics reading and transcribing documents on the spot. It can be very intimidating. Everyone works differently, and as PhD students, we need to remember we are still developing our palaeography and language skills. Whilst everyone has their own methods of working, when you have limited time in a certain archive, you have to be efficient with your time. Photos are key! Start with a photo of your reservation slip –this is essential for organising your photos later– then of the documents, from every angle possible! When you start working through your archival documents after your trip, you will be thankful you took photos of all the creases and water-damaged pages to try and get the clearest image. Some people take cameras with tripods, I just used my phone. A lot of archives will let you take photos but if you are unsure, check with the people working there (or look around to see what everyone else is doing…). Most of the archives I have visited let you take photos for free, but some may ask for a small fee. I also had to work with microfilm and thankfully a kind archivist talked me through how to use them and take photos on a special machine. Before this guided tour of the microfilm room, I prefaced that I did not speak French well and despite him speaking French the whole time, the archivist clearly and concisely showed me everything I needed to know about using the microfilm.
You have all your photos – now what? On those days off, dedicate some time to organising all your photos into folders. At the start of my trip, I did this after every archive visit. It is a nice simple task that does not involve a lot of energy or thought. Then why did I stop organising my photos two weeks in? My answer: I have no clue and will never make that mistake again. The start of term was stressful enough but having to organise thousands of photos into folders meant I gave myself a lot of extra work. When it came to storing all the photos, I used iCloud storage, which made it easier to transfer photos from my phone to my laptop, but other people use their university OneDrive or take an external hard drive with them. Another important point I wish I had come to terms with much early in my trip was that you cannot and will not see everything related to your work. Your thesis is around 100,000 words, which sounds like a lot, but you soon realise that you have to become selective with the material you are using. So, if you do not get to view all the documents, or only use 3 sources from the 25 folders of material you consulted, that is okay.
Although this is a work trip, you need to set aside some time for yourself. As most PhD students are aware, wellbeing can be easily forgotten when you are in the depths of your research. Spending days on end in an archive can leave you feeling drained and isolated. I was very lucky that I was staying with my aunt, who was someone to bounce ideas off of when it came to my research, and also a person to take me out of the academic bubble. I know this is a privilege though and when I visit Bologna, I will not have that same support network. Already, I am planning to live in shared accommodation, which will hopefully help me find friends and also help me improve my Italian. It may also be worth searching for other academics that are working out there. By pure chance, I made friends with a PhD student from America who was also visiting the archive. She requested a document I was already consulting that day and I am thankful she slipped me a note afterwards about going for coffee. It was such a coincidence, as our research is closely linked, and now we catch up online and are even planning to coordinate our next trips to Paris. And take time at the weekends to enjoy yourself! The fun times make the work even more rewarding and productive.
The most important thing to remember for all research trips is that they rely on trial and error. A new archive comes with a new set of rules and a new set of documents. Be kind to yourself and ease into the research. If you are dealing with handwritten documents, it will take time for your eyes to adjust to the script. My experience in Paris will inevitably be very different to my trip to Bologna in the New Year, let alone compared to someone else in a completely different research area. Even though travelling abroad has become trickier with COVID, the extra hurdles are worth it. Research trips are a fantastic way to access new and exciting documents but also the perfect excuse to have a mini getaway.
Elena Rossi is a second-year DPhil student in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Her research considers how women encountered worlds of learning in the university towns of Oxford, Paris and Bologna from c. 1200-1500. She is also a Student Lead on The Medieval Student Experience Project at Queen Mary, University of London.