Summaries, Paraphrases and Quotes

Researchers can only be grateful when archives publicize their collections. The standard starting point is for archives to post their various catalogs online. Normally these describe the general content of entire volumes (often hundreds of documents per volume), and occasionally highlight a particularly interesting document within each volume. Some well-heeled archives go further, cataloging their holdings on a document, rather than volume, level. This is really useful.

But we need to avoid the temptation to rely on these in place of consulting the documents themselves. We always need to be a bit suspicious of summaries mediated by others.

An example? A year or two ago I noticed that the National Archives (PRO) had catalog info on the document level, particularly the State Papers collection. I downloaded each individual record because they also included brief summaries of the content of each letter. You don’t see that level of detail very often. So as I was skimming through these records in DTPO, I came across a document that piqued my curiosity. Here’s the summary from TNA website:

1702.7.9 Marlborough to Nottingham   (PRO SP 87/2.11)

Marlborough [to Nottingham]: he has written to the [grand] pensionary concerning the expedition to the West Indies but has received no answer. Lord Cutts is wrong in the matter of Mr. Morgan. He agrees that the elector of Bavaria and duke of Savoy will agree to the proposals. He has again pressed the [grand] pensionary to prohibit letters [to France and Spain]. It is in England’s interest to support Prince Eugene. Dated at camp at Over Assel [?Overijse]. PS. that he seeks a person to replace Sir Martin Beckman. ff. 11, 12

Pretty straightforward. Until I looked at a scan I had of the original:

Actual text

Actual text

For those who need the paleography practice:
“I agree intierly in your Lordps opinion, that the Elector of Bavaria and the duke of Savoy will harken to noe proposals, till thay see the success of this Campagne”

Unfortunately my interpretation of the original deviates from the summary in three ways.

  1. I’d suggest that the positive spin in the summary isn’t as evident in the original. Instead, Bavaria’s and Savoy’s responses depend an awful lot on how the rest of the campaign turns out – when exactly did they expect to see the success of this campaign (it only being early July after all)? And what exactly did Marlborough think their response would be? Marlborough probably was optimistic, but I’d argue his words are not as positive as the summary suggests.
  2. The summary’s interpretation of Marlborough’s use of the term “harken” is also a bit problematic. I’d argue “harken” doesn’t necessarily mean “agree to”, though a broader analysis of Marlborough’s usage might clarify the matter. This matters if we care about how Marlborough envisioned such diplomatic negotiations: did he expect the Bavarians and Savoyards to simply acquiesce to Allied demands due to the overwhelming victories of the campaign, or did he expect them to be more hard-nosed in their negotiations?
  3. Finally, it’s not exactly clear that Marlborough was referring to any specific proposals (as suggested by “the proposals” in the summary), since the original gives the more vague “noe proposals”. I think this further reinforces the uncertainty of how the Bavarians and Savoyards would react, particularly if there isn’t even a specific proposal that Marlborough is thinking about. Presumably a previous letter from Nottingham which discussed the issue would shed some light: was this prior discussion about a specific proposal or just general wishing that the two powers would abandon their French ally? We can’t tell without the Nottingham letter, which is not in SP 87/2; I’d have to check if it’s even in TNA – I know Nottingham’s papers are spread across several archives. Did the summarizer have some additional knowledge of this broader context, or was it simply a (hasty) generalization? I don’t know, which is a problem.

In short, I don’t really know whether the summary of this portion of the letter is good or not. Which in itself is discouraging, because that makes me wonder whether I need to be leery about summaries of the other letters. Perhaps we can trust summaries that seem to be using contemporary language rather than modern parlance? “Concerning the expedition”; “pressed to prohibit” – which of course assumes you can tell the difference.

If the quote is to be used to judge Marlborough’s optimism after only a few months of campaigning, what can we conclude? Is this quote evidence that Marlborough expected the Bavarians and Savoyards to abandon their French ally after a few months of campaigning? (Savoy did so in 1703; Bavaria not so much. But did Savoy do it because of this specific campaign?) And if Marlborough did expect Savoy to switch sides after one or two military campaigns, is this evidence that Marlborough was naive, or prescient, about how diplomacy worked? How much supposition can we pile on top of this quote? A lot less once we look at the original.

Ultimately these aren’t earth-shaking disagreements, but such nitpicking is important, depending on how tall of an edifice you want to build on top of this quote. Alas, historians can build some rickety structures, and often their foundation is hidden in a brief citation in a footnote. Which is why I not only prefer sets of evidence rather than single anecdotes and “examples”, but direct quotes whenever possible. The original language is also useful in identifying contemporary vocabulary for further digging – vigor anyone?

This tiny example has further relevance. To return to one of my obsessions, we are rarely careful enough in our summaries and note-taking: the uncertainties in the original get flattened in the retelling. This happens all the time in history (and everywhere else), and forms one of the pillars of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History. Hence the need to keep original copies of the documents whenever possible. And, as we’ve discussed before, the need to look at a bunch of letters where the same author might have expressed himself differently on the same subject, and more clearly. Research is hard.

So kudos to TNA for their document-level descriptions. Further kudos for including a feedback link where you can suggest corrections. Whether this feedback feature gets used with any regularity, and how transparent the process is, is another matter.

Unfortunately, such summaries won’t serve as a substitute for the real thing.

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