Daniel L. Smail: 'History in conflict: notarial and court records.'

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

The penultimate contribution to our History in Conflict meeting came from Daniel Lord Smail. In his presentation, Smail reflected on how the various kinds of sources he has encountered during his many years studying medieval Marseilles might shed light on historical conflicts and the strategies used to manage them.

Smail classified the sources he has worked with into three groups, each identified according to how overtly they enter into historical discussions when they frame a conflict. The first of these groups, notarial sources, are doggedly persistent in avoiding historical references. The second group, account books, mention history only occasionally. But the last group, court records, are saturated with historical reference and make the past a central feature of the way in which they explain conflicts to their audience.

He found notaries were consistent in their tendency to ground texts only in the facts of the moment. Account books meanwhile, would refer to the past where necessary, but contain few systematically historical arguments. The account book of one Marseille resident shows money coming in and out of the household with little historical context, but as it moves to discuss the deaths of people who had financial relations with the author, histories begins to emerge as it explains an inheritance or an outstanding debt, especially if conflict arose out of complications in the history of the relationship.

Far more than either of the other categories, however, court records were centered on historical narratives. This was part of their focus on conflicting parties’ past acts. Histories of conflict were the explicit subject of some documents. They come to the fore, for example, in the ‘Libelus’ a list of an accused person’s history of transgressions, as well as in ‘witness exemptions,’ documents in which testimony was challenged based on witnesses’ personal histories with the conflicting parties.

Smail identified the telling of a convincing historical story as the key to using of history in effectively in the arena of medieval Marseillaise legal conflict. Details of places, times and information were key to making witnesses’ historical narratives convincing before magistrates and the community. The overall picture that these sources leave us with, he suggests, is of a scaffolding of larger scale historical understanding within which individuals could build up structures for stories using the bricks of local anecdotes, observations, and memories.

Daniel L. Smail: contact details and research

(Alex Collin)


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