Meet Alison: She made an interesting discovery researching a Medieval contract

Alison at the National Archives of the United Kingdom in London.

January 22, 2019

Alison got to be the very first researcher to review a particular Medieval contract — and found quite a surprise. 

During her BE Fellowship, she flew to London to visit the National Archives of the United Kingdom and compare it to other documents from the era.

“I had kind of an ‘AHA!’ moment, where found exactly the opposite of what I thought was true. I thought it was a marriage indenture. Lo and behold, it was actually a land contract.”

How could such different content seem so deceivingly similar? It had a lot to do with a phrase we still use today.

Turns out, “to have and to hold” originated in land agreements. It carried over to marriage contracts, because early marriage contracts were basically just considered complex property agreements.

“It’s a lot more illuminating than I thought it would be — frustrating in some ways, but also fascinating,” Alison said. "We root those ideas of women as property in the 1800s, and oppression of women with the Victorian era. So to see it wind its way all the way back, in some strange way, is a little consoling knowing that this is a longstanding problem.”

“It adds so much depth to the phrasing to understand where it comes from. The fact we are able to say ‘to have and to hold’ today in an interpersonal way, as opposed to an objectified pawn in this economic exchange ... to have it be able to shift away from that makes it so much deeper and rich.”

Because Alison is the first researcher to examine the document, there’s also a lot of interpreting to do.

“It's like a treasure map," she said. "I have to piece it together word by word, and sometimes letter by letter to figure out what the scribe is saying.”

“It can be kind of comical! Paper was so scarce, and barely anybody knew how to write. But they they take such care to talk about these things. There'll be 7 people in 10 lines, and of course, since it's the middle ages where titles are important, there are like 4 titles after everybody's name.”

Want to make your own interesting discoveries this summer? 

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