It was like the parish-council scenes in the Vicar of Dibley. We sat round a trestle table by the tea urn at the back of 15th-century Lambley Parish Church. They were dark autumn evenings, so we didn’t get the benefit of Lord Cromwell’s tall clear Perpendicular nave windows but instead peered at the easel supporting my marker-pen explanatory doodles dimly aided only by feeble and lofty pendant lighting. We were translating 15th century account rolls from photocopies authorised by their owner Viscount Delisle on condition we didn’t publish them in full. Our evening classes were organised by the late Jo Ellis, and funded from an HLF grant. The Lambley Historical Society reported in their 2008 review that the rolls “revealed the previously unknown fact that at the time, Ralph Cromwell, Lord of the manor, was re-establishing his presence locally by building a new manor house, taking into his own hands land he had previously rented out, allowing some homesteads to become derelict, and consolidating settlement in the village. It must have been a worrying time of change for the people of Lambley more than 560 years ago. We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to understand the realities of their everyday lives.”
A Heritage Lottery Fund grant had enabled the Lambley Historical Society to hire me. Whatever you think about the Lottery, it has funded some fantastic cultural events and projects. It is particularly good at stimulating community and voluntary participation, as it did at Lambley. I have had the privilege of being hired to help several other groups to understand and use archival resources, thanks to project grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here are some of our shared experiences.
Norton Community Archaeology Group advertised for a transcriber and translator of mediaeval Latin. Norton, a manor that had once belonged to the mighty St Albans Abbey, became part of Letchworth Garden City in the early twentieth century, and with it a long run of manorial court rolls. Other rolls arrived in Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) via local solicitors. The Archaeologists spawned a Historical Documents Section, and demonstrated how professional amateur groups can be in planning and executing projects like this. Not only did I have to provide estimates for the work, but also a test piece, and travelled down to Hertford for an interview; when I left the County Hall car park to head for the M1 and home, I had the job. The working relationship lasted five years; our new friendships endure. I was well managed, and well looked after, by the whole team, but
especially by David Croft and Ursula Scott (I don’t believe their generous suppers and warm hospitality were budgeted for in the bid!). My role was not just translating – that would not have satisfied the strict HLF ethos of community participation; I was teaching the group how to do a lot of the work themselves, analysing and contextualising my translations.
And meanwhile, they were also transcribing and indexing all the English records. Legislation in 1733 outlawed Latin as an administrative language, so there are nearly 200 years of English court books following on from five centuries of Latin rolls. An earlier anonymous translation was revised by comparison with images of the original rolls. What historians of one generation regard as ephemeral or ‘common form’ might be appreciated and evaluated by another. When translating mediaeval Latin documents, you have to expand abbreviations and analyse grammar and syntax carefully. Middle English words and phrases are best preserved in their handwritten forms, and not modernised. So it is a time-devouring process and I confess that it did go into ‘extra time’. David and Ursula managed me very well, and the Group also kept in regular contact with HLF throughout. My translations went into two of the three volumes that were the outcomes of the NCAG project.
“Unlocking the Vault”, my training course delivered in the funereal back room of the Rutland Arms, Barnby Gate, Newark, nevertheless enlightened the Newark Hidden Heritage team about using historical documents for their research. They are now puzzling over parchments in the department of Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham, where the Newcastle Estate records including manorial court rolls of Newark are now housed and made available. This project is ongoing and I look forward to meeting them again to fill in any gaps they have discovered in their knowledge through practical work.
There’s always “one that got away” isn’t there? Mine was the Beauvale Cartulary, British Library MS Add 6060. John Doyle & Marie Roberts, local historians with an interest in the lesser-known Carthusian monastery of Beauvale in Nottinghamshire, asked me if I could translate extracts from the monastic cartulary relating to local places. We were advised that a successful funding application would have to involve community collaboration & learning, and I therefore offered to teach John, Marie and other enthusiasts to read and translate mediaeval Latin so that they could do it themselves. But John and Marie instead opted to coordinate small grants from each local history society in the area covered by the cartulary. My translation was praised in the Eastwood & Kimberley Advertiser as “Mission Impossible” when launched at the Beauvale Priory Tea rooms last year. Marie and John generously thanked me as “ a brilliant translator of medieval Latin [who] has played a key role in our success and without his expertise and guidance we would surely have lost our way”.
Are you thinking of applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund? Does your project involve working with archives? If so, I’d be more than happy to help you plan, learn and complete your project. Let’s talk….