Archives as Evidence

When we think of archives, we tend to think of them as either physical spaces or collections of documents – both of which they are, of course. But archives are also historical records in their own right: the archive doesn’t just contain evidence, it is evidence.

The relative abundance of documentation in archives for, say, early modern northwest Europe versus that for Russia in the same time period tells us something about administrative capacity in those places. That quantitative data for the study of fiscal capacity in imperial Russia is so difficult to collect tells us something already about the tsarist state’s fiscal capacity. (Adam discussed a version of this for the American West in an earlier Broadstreet post.)

But there are other, more subtle ways in which archives are evidence. These often only become apparent through the examination of qualitative sources; in other words, through the analysis of texts. This is an approach more commonly taken by historians, and it’s one of the ways in which the skills of historians and social scientists can be complementary. It’s also at least partly why, as Scott noted in an earlier post, historians speak of sources, while social scientists talk about data.

What follows are brief summaries – like historical trailers! – of three different instances where a change in the archive – the appearance of new kinds of documents, the recording of new practices, the mention of new populations or practices in old kinds of documents –  suggests a change in certain practices on the ground. Each of these relates to some aspect of property rights and contract enforcement. None of these, as far as we can tell, was motivated by any obvious external event.

The first is from the estate archives of the wealthy Sheremetyev family – aristocratic landowners in Russia, whose estates I’ve studied extensively. (I may have mentioned them once or twice before?) Their serfs were among the most prosperous in all of Russia, and it has been hypothesized that their estate management practices contributed to that. The archive for the estate of Voshchazhnikovo (not an outlier in any particular way among their estates) is full of credit agreements, inheritance contracts, land transactions records, and dispute resolution proceedings. But when one looks at the entire archive over the 150+ years it covers, one can see that for the first 30 or so years, in the first part of the eighteenth century, the only transactions documented were land purchases by serfs in the name of the landlord. (This was a fairly common practice established by large landholders to help their serfs get around legal obstacles to owning land in their own names.) Then around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries documentation for other transactions begins to appear. By the 1830s/40s, we start seeing contracts covering a wide range of transactions and dispute resolution documents for a variety of conflicts. The contracts begin to mention outsiders as parties to them and new forms of collateral appear. Comparison with other landlords’ archives suggests it was not a simple matter of cheaper paper or growing literacy – the volume of documentation is not obviously different across estates, but the kind of documentation is. A gradual change in local practices seems to have occurred on these particular estates (not those of other landlords), possibly due to the realization that once the administrative system required for land transactions was in place, it could be extended to a variety of different contexts. The extension was not designed from above for any specific purpose; there are no such indications in the voluminous correspondence between the estate managers and the landlords’ clerks in St Petersburg. In this way,  the archive for the estate captures a change in practices – toward greater formalization of property rights and other economic transactions – that does not appear in any of the oft-cited prescriptive sources.

The second example is from late medieval England. The medieval period is full of change in the archives – including the growth of documentation itself. Many of the questions that so interest medievalists center on small but certain changes in the documentary record, such as changes in the terms used to describe free and unfree tenants or changes in the kinds of transactions free versus unfree people engaged in. One significant change that has generated a literature of its own concerns manorial court procedures. Those who work with manorial archives have noted that by the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries procedural practices and types of documentation in these archives start to bear greater resemblance to the common law courts. The These innovations occurred well before the Black Death, suggesting that large-scale institutional change was underway in the century or so before the plague struck. These changes have raised questions about and inspired lively and ongoing debate over the security of property rights, the extent to which unfree peasants had access to recourse in the kings courts, and what the implications might be for early institutional integration, the centralization of the English state, and the decline of serfdom.

My last example goes back even further in time – to early medieval Europe. (If you’re interested in early documentation and how medievalists read archives, I recommend this fascinating collection of essays.) In various parts of Europe in the late Merovingian/early Carolingian periods, a new practice appeared in the standard documentation of the time. This practice involved lay landholders (usually from among the local elite) donating their land to monasteries who in turn allowed the donors to retain usufruct rights in perpetuity. This innovation is thought to have arisen from the demand for more secure property rights, and the view that the mechanisms established by the Church would work better to keep landholdings intact across generations than other forms of dispute resolution. This practice expanded in interesting ways under Charlemagne (a discussion of which would require more than a few blog posts, but one can read more about it in studies like this and this).

All three of these examples show us ways in which changes in archives can reflect innovations in local practices. They all suggest a version of institutional change that involves small innovations on existing practices. None was motivated by any exogenous event, and all were discovered by observing changes in archives.

Most of this work is not situated in the debates that drive research in social science, but it is nonetheless relevant  – especially to studies of institutions and institutional change. The medieval examples shed interesting light on early institutional development – a period too frequently overlooked in the existing literature. The Sheremetyev case raises interesting questions about the limits to institutional innovation when there is no larger connective framework (like that which joined the state and the manorial courts in late medieval England). For those trying to understand institutions and institutional change in the very long run, these cases offer more pieces of the puzzle.



  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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