Understanding Sources: diaries

TPicture1o celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Laura Sangha

It won’t come as a surprise that I have chosen diaries as my favourite early modern source type, since I am currently researching the life and times of the Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist, Ralph Thoresby (1677-1725). But really, who could resist reading someone else’s diary? Who isn’t interested in other people’s lives? What other source gives us access to the personal jottings and reflections of the long dead? In what other source are the voices of the people delivered to us in such an unmediated fashion? Where else can we learn about how people thought about themselves in the past? Whilst other source types might be better defined, more representative of the population as a whole, more complete, or easier to contextualise or generalise about, there is nothing like the thrill of reading someone else’s thoughts on their own life experiences.

However…there aren’t many scholars who now think that early modern diaries are the private, personal, secretive records that the historian might wish them to be. Many diaries were written with a particular audience in mind. People read each other’s diaries, and circulated them among their family and friends. Diaries were not unfiltered records of significant personal experiences but were written with a specific purpose and function. We must resist the temptation to see them as more ‘authentic’ than any other source.

So perhaps diaries might have more to tell us about self-fashioning rather than the personal and individual? But then, what about the increasing tendency to see life-writing as ‘relational’ – to argue that self-identity is shaped only in relation to changing networks of interpersonal relationships? And what of our acknowledgment that all life-writing emerges from and is therefore shaped by culture? Should we not see diaries as records of collective mentalities, rather than individual aspirations or constructions?


Ralph Thoresby’s diary – too neat to be a flow of consciousness?

Not necessarily – not if you argue, as Mary Fulbrook and Ulinka Rublack have, that subjectivity emerges from connection, not detachment. Not if you stop looking for the self in a diary and instead are alert for those features of the text that allow you to locate the speaker in the narrative. Then we might find ‘the emotional character of experience and the ways in which events and developments were ‘processed’ internally, as well as the diverse reasons for people’s responses and their capacity or otherwise for effective action’.

And yet, and yet

It’s all very well for me to relate some of the attitudes and analytical approaches that are current in the humanities, but that isn’t really why diaries are my #histsources. My reasons actually aren’t very ‘intellectual’ at all – they are less to do with historical usefulness, and much more about the fascinating and compelling nature of what we find inside diaries.

unnamedFor sometimes it is nice just to immerse yourself in life-writing and the ‘self’ constructed in its pages. To revel in the sense of an encounter with a long dead person, who seems to confide in you, to speak across time. Why shouldn’t I, for a moment, imagine that the shy, honourable, affable, and slightly dull chap conjured by my text bore some relation to the person that he was, or even the self he was trying to fashion? It’s easy to while away an afternoon leafing through someone’s life in such a mood, putting off the dissection and reflection for just a little while, thinking and feeling your way back into the past, living a life that isn’t your own. Reading a diary is a little like reading a good novel (a fact that Ruth Scurr takes advantage of in her ‘imagined autobiography’ of John Aubrey).

And then, at the most basic level, it is the quotidian, the everyday detail that I really find the most engaging and enjoyable in a diary. It’s not necessarily particularly historically useful to know that Robert Woodford’s miller slipped and drowned in his mill pond one night three days before Christmas in the early seventeenth century, but nevertheless that little snippet is one that has stayed with me. And I can’t get out of my head the ‘little young chicken’ that Alice Thornton rescued and brought up, carrying it around in her pocket until it pecked her in the eye one day after perhaps mistaking the white for some corn. (Alice lost the sight in both eyes for six weeks but recovered). And what about Roger Lowe and his friends sharing a beer in the alehouse and chatting about Aesop’s fable of the dog who grasped at a shadow?

Whilst Thoresby’s exhaustive sermon notes and obsessive record of his daily devotions are most relevant and useful for my research, it’s the everyday details scattered through his self-writing that snag at the mind – I could write a series of post about them. There was the terribly wet journey to Newcastle which left Thoresby completely drenched and the bundles of papers in his coat pockets saturated, even after they had been lightly toasting in front of the fire all evening. There were porpoises sporting off the piers at Bridlington, and the delights of the ‘noted’ eel-pie house at Tuxford. There was his father-in-law, rather a stereotype, being ‘too liberal of my liquor to visitants’ the least of his crimes. There was the stormy day in April when the weather was so bad that the shops shut and icicles hung from the eves of houses.

These little details add a texture to our knowledge of people’s experiences in the past that other sources don’t, and ultimately, that is the reason for my choice. I’m with Roger Cardinal when he says that it is the trivial that ‘gently bruises the consciousness’, and diaries are one of the best sources we have for recovering the gently bruising bits of the past.


Gerald Dou, Old Woman Reading (c.1631-32).

Wenceslas Hollar, in Ogilby’s Aesop’s Fables (1673-5)

Mary Fulbrook and Ulinka Rublack, ‘In Relation: The ‘Social Self’ and Ego-Documents’, German History, 28.3 (2010), quote p. 265.

Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (2015).

Roger Cardinal, ‘Unlocking the diary’, Comparative Criticism, 12 (1990).


3 thoughts on “Understanding Sources: diaries

  1. Pingback: Understanding Sources: the source of it all | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: On a Danish French Translation of Klopstock’s German – Contagions

  3. Diaries are great fun, aren’t they? Of course, as you say, they aren’t as ‘candid’ and ‘intimate’ as we once thought, but their format still means that they give a different view of the past than so many other sources. The very fact that they are daily or weekly rather than retrospective means that they are cumulative rather than summative. (Of course, in many cases they were written up later from contemporary notes, but not always.) I always find it interesting comparing early entries to later ones to see how the diarist’s priorities/views have changed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s