It’s our pleasure to introduce the next post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth. Sarah-Jayne is an independent researcher working on early-modern death and women’s wills. Having completed her PhD in 2019, she has been working in professional services whilst trying to pursue her research interests. Find her on twitter @S_J_Ainsworth.
The portrait of Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside Making His Will (1607) depicts the subject writing his will in preparation for a good death. The date of his demise appears in the epitaph above his head; his acceptance of death is written in Latin on the paper beneath his pen. Beside him sits his friend, George Preston, who is there to witness the autographed document. There is an intimacy and silence to the scene. Thomas writes; George witnesses. In this picture, there is no discussion, no exchange: indeed, the word ‘witness’, with its connotations of seeing, excludes voices.
But will-writing scenes were not silent. Most of the population couldn’t write and so employed a scribe to produce the will, putting down their wishes in writing; witnesses would confirm that what was read back to them was what the testator had said. Often, we do not know who the scribe was; even when we do, the legal language and the finality of the document mean that the exchanges, conversations and negotiations which have taken place as part of its composition are hidden.
However, there are examples of wills in which these voices are foregrounded, illustrating the extent to which the scene depicted in Braithwaite’s portrait was far from typical. The presence of not only scribes but also other actors at the deathbed complicates the idea of a straightforward testator/scribe transaction.Continue reading