Keith Thomas

It never helps historians to say too much about their working methods. For just as the conjuror’s magic disappears if the audience knows how the trick is done, so the credibility of scholars can be sharply diminished if readers learn everything about how exactly their books came to be written. Only too often, such revelations dispel the impression of fluent, confident omniscience; instead, they suggest that histories are concocted by error-prone human beings who patch together the results of incomplete research in order to construct an account whose rhetorical power will, they hope, compensate for gaps in the argument and deficiencies in the evidence.

Perhaps that is why few historians tell us how they set about their task. In his splendid recent autobiography, History of a History Man, Patrick Collinson reveals that when as a young man he was asked by the medievalist Geoffrey Barraclough at a job interview what his research method was, all he could say was that he tried to look at everything which was remotely relevant to his subject: ‘I had no “method”, only an omnium gatherum of materials culled from more or less everywhere.’ Most of us would say the same.

But how do we deal with this omnium gatherum when we have got it? We can’t keep it all in our heads. Macaulay claimed that his memory was good enough to enable him to write out the whole of Paradise Lost. But when preparing his History of England, he made extensive notes in a multitude of pocketbooks of every shape and colour.

Scholars have always made notes. The most primitive way of absorbing a text is to write on the book itself. It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin – the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. According to the Jacobean educational writer John Brinsley, ‘the choycest books of most great learned men, and the notablest students’ were marked through, ‘with little lines under or above’ or ‘by some prickes, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance’. Newton used to turn down the corners of the pages of his books so that they pointed to the exact passage he wished to recall. J.H. Plumb once showed me a set of Swift’s works given him by G.M. Trevelyan; it had originally belonged to Macaulay, who had drawn a line all the way down the margin of every page as he read it, no doubt committing the whole to memory. The pencilled dots in the margin of many books in the Codrington Library at All Souls are certain evidence that A.L. Rowse was there before you. My old tutor, Christopher Hill, used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him.

A more brutal method is to cut the pages out of the book and incorporate them in one’s notes. More than one Renaissance scholar cut and pasted in this way, sometimes even from manuscripts. It enabled them to accumulate material which it would have taken months to transcribe. Nowadays, we have less incentive to carve up books because we have photocopiers and digital cameras, and can download material from the internet. But historians still make newspaper cuttings. At breakfast, I often take a pair of scissors to the LRB, the TLS or the New York Review of Books.

Another help to the memory is the pocketbook in which to enter stray thoughts and observations: what the Elizabethans called ‘tablets’. John Aubrey tells us that Hobbes ‘always carried a note booke in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entred it into his booke, or otherwise he might have lost it. He had drawn the designe of the book into chapters, etc., so he knew whereabout it would come in.’ The National Portrait Gallery has a fine snapshot (taken by Colin Matthew) of the architectural historian Howard Colvin in the ruins of Godstow Abbey: spectacles pushed up on his forehead, camera dangling from one hand, he looks down intently as he makes a neat entry in the notebook he has just fished from his pocket. I have always been impressed by those academics who can sit impassively through a complex lecture by some visiting luminary without finding it necessary to make a single note, even a furtive one on the back of an envelope. They’d lose face, no doubt, if they were seen copying it all down, like a first-year undergraduate.

In the end, we all have to make excerpts from the books and documents we read. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars tended to read books in an extrapolatory way, selecting passages to be memorised or copied into common-place books. Sometimes they kept their excerpts in the order in which they came across them. More usually, they tried to arrange them under predetermined headings: virtues and vices, perhaps, or branches of knowledge. Properly organised, a good collection of extracts provided a reserve of quotations and aphorisms which could be used to support an argument or adorn a literary composition. As the historian Thomas Fuller remarked, ‘A commonplace book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field on competent warning.’

These compilations were not necessarily a preparation for writing, but could become ends in themselves. They were the predecessors of those anthologies of memorable sayings, anecdotes, jokes, eloquent passages and ‘gems from old authors’ on which publishers for the Christmas trade still rely. But they also enabled students to organise and retrieve their data. The art of making excerpts (ars excerpendi) was an essential scholarly technique.

The great limitation of the commonplace book was its inflexibility. Since each excerpt was entered in the book under a single heading, it could not be moved around thereafter. Noel Malcolm has described the system invented by the country clergyman Thomas Harrison, who explained it to Charles I during a two-hour conversation in 1638. It involved writing excerpts on small pieces of paper, which were then stuck onto hooks attached to metal plates bearing alphabeticised subject headings. This was a great advance, because it meant that the excerpted passages could be repeatedly rearranged to fit different conceptual schemes. In his book on The Footnote, Anthony Grafton quotes a letter by the great Swiss historian of the Renaissance Jacob Burckhardt, reporting that he had just cut up his notes on Vasari’s Lives into 700 little slips and rearranged them to be glued into a book, organised by topic.

From this practice of making notes on separate slips of paper there emerged what became the historian’s indispensable tool until the electronic age: the card index. By using cards of uniform size, punching holes in the margin and assigning different categories to each hole, it became possible, with the aid of a knitting needle, to locate all cards containing material related to any particular category.

These various techniques were codified in the guides to research which proliferated with the rise of academic history-writing. In one of the most influential, the 1898 Introduction to the Study of History by the French historians Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos, the authors warn that history is more encumbered with detail than any other form of academic writing and that those who write it must have those details under control. The best way of proceeding, they say, is to collect material on separate slips of paper (fiches), each furnished with a precise indication of their origin; a separate record should be kept of the sources consulted and the abbreviations used to identify them on the slips. If a passage is interesting from several different points of view, then it should be copied out several times on different slips. Before the Xerox machine, this was a labour-intensive counsel of perfection; and it is no wonder that many of the great 19th-century historians employed professional copyists.

Prescriptions of this kind reached their apotheosis in the little essay on ‘The Art of Note-Taking’ which Beatrice Webb included in My Apprenticeship (1926). It propounded the famous doctrine of ‘only one fact on one piece of paper’. In his delightful autobiography, Memories Migrating, the late John Burrow records his perplexities when this injunction was conveyed to him by his graduate supervisor, George Kitson Clark: ‘I brooded on this. What was a fact? And what made it one fact? Surely most facts were compound. How would I know when I had reached bedrock, the ultimate, unsplittable atomic fact?’

Nobody gave me any such instructions when I began research in the 1950s. I read neither Beatrice Webb nor Langlois and Seignobos until many years later, by which time my working habits had ossified. When I did, though, I was reassured to see that, in a slipshod sort of way, I had arrived at something vaguely approximating to their prescriptions. En route I had made all the obvious beginner’s mistakes. I began by committing the basic error of writing my notes on both sides of the page. I soon learned not to do that, but I continued to copy excerpts into notebooks in the order in which I encountered them. Much later, I discovered that it was preferable to enter passages under appropriate headings. Eventually, I realised that notes should be kept in a loose form which was flexible enough to permit their endless rearrangement. But I recoiled from uniform index cards: my excerpts came in all shapes and sizes, and there was something too grimly mechanical about card indexes. Since Anatole France’s description in Penguin Island of the scholar drowned by an avalanche of his own index cards, it has been hard to take them seriously. I still get cross when reviewers say that all that I have done is to tip my index cards onto the page.

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can’t be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime’s reading. So when I read, I am looking out for material relating to several hundred different topics. Even so, I find that, as my interests change, I have to go back to sources I read long ago, with my new preoccupations in mind.

Christopher Hill believed in reading everything written during the period (provided it wasn’t in manuscript), and everything subsequently written about it. He used to buy every remotely relevant monograph when it came out, gut it and then sell it. Like him, I try to soak myself in the writings of the time, particularly those I can find on my own shelves or in the Oxford libraries, or in Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). In G.M. Young’s famous words, my aim is to go on reading until I can hear the people talking. Anything written between roughly 1530 and 1770, whatever its genre, will have something to offer. If I peruse a 17th-century letter or skim through a monograph by a modern historian, I am likely to pick up half a dozen quite separate points relating to a variety of different subjects. Because I am as interested in the attitudes and assumptions which are implicit in the evidence as in those which were explicitly articulated at the time, I have got into the habit of reading against the grain. Whether it is a play or a sermon or a legal treatise, I read it not so much for what the author meant to say as for what the text incidentally or unintentionally reveals.

When the time comes to start writing, I go through my envelopes, pick out a fat one and empty it out onto the table, to see what I have got. At this point a pattern usually forms. As Beatrice Webb rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find the answer. So after scrutinising my scraps of paper, I set about reading more systematically, often discovering in the process that somebody somewhere has already said most of what I thought I had found out for myself. If not too discouraged, I add my new notes to the old ones and try to create some coherence out of these hundreds of pieces of paper. This involves dividing the topic into a great many subheadings, writing each subheading at the top of a page of A4, stapling the relevant slips onto the appropriate page, and arranging the sheets in a consecutive order. Only then do I start writing. Compared with the labour of making, sorting and arranging notes, this is a relatively speedy business. But it is followed by a much more time-consuming task, that of travelling round the libraries to check the references in my footnotes, only too many of which, thanks to poor handwriting, carelessness and an innate tendency to ‘improve’ what I have read, turn out to be either slightly wrong or taken out of context. I wish I possessed the splendid insouciance of David Hume, about whom a Scottish friend said, ‘Why, mon, David read a vast deal before he set about a piece of his book; but his usual seat was the sofa, and he often wrote with his legs up; and it would have been unco’ fashious to have moved across the room when any little doubt occurred.’

When all my mistranscriptions have been sorted out, the task is finished. Months later, the proofs arrive, by which time more books and articles have been published and I have found several more delicious passages which cry out to be inserted. By then, of course, it is too late.

It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written. The awful warning is Lord Acton, whose enormous learning never resulted in the great work the world expected of him. An unforgettable description of Acton’s Shropshire study after his death in 1902 was given by Sir Charles Oman. There were shelves and shelves of books, many of them with pencilled notes in the margin. ‘There were pigeonholed desks and cabinets with literally thousands of compartments into each of which were sorted little white slips with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (so far as I could see) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift.’ And there were piles of unopened parcels of books, which kept arriving, even after his death. ‘For years apparently he had been endeavouring to keep up with everything that had been written, and to work their results into his vast thesis.’ ‘I never saw a sight,’ Oman writes, ‘that more impressed on me the vanity of human life and learning.’

Living, as I do for much of the year, in Shropshire and following a routine uncomfortably close to Acton’s, I find this account distinctly painful. The unread books pile up and I know that I shall not live long enough to use all the references I have accumulated. Those who come after me will almost certainly be unable to read what I have written or interpret my abbreviations, leave alone discover what purpose the excerpts were meant to serve in the first place. As Francis Bacon warned long ago, ‘One man’s notes will little profit another.’

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

Yet as I pick my way through my accumulation of handwritten material, I don’t feel depressed. The thousands of used envelopes themselves give me a good deal of nostalgic pleasure; they remind me of old friends, of institutions with which I have been associated and of the secondhand booksellers who have sent me catalogues over the years. Admittedly, they also remind me of many false starts: topics I began on, tired of or discovered were being written up by somebody else. But that is a challenge to reorder my materials as the world moves on and my interests change. In his essay ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, appended to his The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills reassuringly remarks that ‘the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress … As you rearrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination.’

I feel sympathy for Robert Southey, whose excerpts from his voracious reading were posthumously published in four volumes as Southey’s Common-Place Book. He confessed in 1822 that,

Like those persons who frequent sales, and fill their houses with useless purchases, because they may want them some time or other; so am I for ever making collections, and storing up materials which may not come into use till the Greek Calends. And this I have been doing for five-and-twenty years! It is true that I draw daily upon my hoards, and should be poor without them; but in prudence I ought now to be working up these materials rather than adding to so much dead stock.

In fact, Southey published a great deal, including three-volume histories of Brazil (1810-19) and the Peninsular War (1823-32), in both of which, the ODNB tells us, ‘the curious reader can still find much engaging anecdote and odd information.’ Unfortunately, these works are said to show poor narrative grasp and a lack of perspective. For without a clear conceptual plan, an accumulation of excerpts, what Milton called ‘a paroxysm of citations’, can rapidly become a substitute for thought. ‘What tho’ his head be empty, provided his common-place book be full?’ sneered Jonathan Swift.

It is only too easy to misapply excerpted passages by taking them out of their original context. Ideally, I should have followed the technique, recommended as long ago as 1615 by the learned Jesuit Francesco Sacchini, of always making two sets of notes, one to be sliced up and filed, the other to be kept in its original form. That way, I could have seen at a glance where the passage I wanted to quote came in the author’s argument. Failing that, there is nothing for it but to look at the source once again and check that I am not misrepresenting it. This may involve return visits to distant record repositories and can be very time-consuming.

Even when all the necessary precautions have been taken, the result will still lack anything approaching scientific precision. For what my method yields is a broad-brush impression of beliefs and behaviour over long periods of time. I am a lumper, not a splitter. I admire those who write tightly focused micro-studies of episodes or individuals, and am impressed by the kind of quantitative history, usually on demographic or economic topics, which aspires to the purity of physics or mathematics. But I am content to be numbered among those many historians whose books remain literary constructions, shaped by their author’s moral values and intellectual assumptions. When writing history, there are rules to be followed and evidence to be respected. But no two histories will be the same, whereas the essence of scientific experiments is that they can be endlessly replicated.

In a report for the publisher, an anonymous reader of the manuscript of my recent book The Ends of Life described my way of working as

an Oxford method, which I associate with the work of Christopher Hill, as well as with Keith Thomas. There is always a line of argument, but it tends to be both contained and artfully concealed in a great many references to and citations of a generous selection of (mostly printed) texts and documents, which account for a high percentage of the text. According to strict and even censorious critical criteria, these materials cannot stand as proof of any argument, since the reader is in the hands of the author and of what he has chosen to serve up as, strictly speaking, illustrations of his own contentions, it being, in principle, always possible to build up a different picture with the aid of different examples. The last thing one will find in this kind of social-cultural history is the allegedly knock-down evidence of statistics, but the wholly justified implication is that these matters are best understood with the aid of what German social scientists and theorists call the faculty of verstehen.

That, I think, is a very kindly account of what I try to do: to immerse myself in the past until I know it well enough for my judgment of what is or is not representative to seem acceptable without undue epistemological debate. Historians are like reliable local guides. Ideally, they will know the terrain like the backs of their hands. They recognise all the inhabitants and have a sharp eye for strangers and impostors. They may not have much sense of world geography and probably can’t even draw a map. But if you want to know how to get somewhere, they are the ones to take you.