Thursday, 17 July 2014

Conservation and The Science of Light

A data logger hidden behind an exhibit
The Conservation Department has recently been involved in the installation of two new exhibitions: ‘The Architecture of War Memorials’, which can be found on the third floor of the Raymond Burton Library, and ‘The Pity of War’, which is on display along the ground floor main corridor in the Harry Fairhurst. We decided that this would be a good opportunity to set up some environmental monitoring, so that we could investigate the environmental conditions within the display cases for the duration of an exhibition. We positioned data loggers in various cases to record temperature and relative humidity, hiding the loggers under exhibits and behind stands. We also agreed that we would conduct some light monitoring for the exhibition areas.

It is difficult to be discreet about our light monitoring – the blue wool sample cards that we have positioned in the cases need to be in direct light to give an honest indication of light exposure in the cases. You should be able to spot two sample cards in each exhibition.

Blue Wool Sample Card
 The principles behind the blue wool scale were originally developed for the textile industry in the early eighteenth century. French chemist Dufay was appointed to be Inspector of Dyeworks in 1729, and instructed to develop regulations to control the operations of the dyers.[1] He carried out systematic comparative testing on dyes, by exposing test materials alongside standard samples of graded fastness. Although there have been various developments in the materials, this method of using dyes of known light-fastness is still widely used today.

Blue wool scale card in exhibition case
The blue wool scale tests for light fastness. The sample card we use today is made up of eight swatches of blue wool, which are dyed so that each consecutive dyestuff has an increased resistance to fading when they are exposed to light. Standard 2 takes twice as much exposure to fade to the same level as standard 1, and standard 3 takes twice as much exposure to fade as standard 2 and so on up to standard 8. The sample cards are used in a variety of industries that need to test their products for light-fastness. This could include testing the dyes in clothes, the colour in wallpaper or watercolour paints used by artists. A standard test will expose the blue wool card to light alongside a sample of the dye. Half of the blue wool sample is covered (as you can see in the sample in our exhibition cases) and half of the dye sample is also covered. After a pre-determined amount of light exposure both the blue wool sample and the dye sample are uncovered and compared, and the dye will be awarded the standard on the blue wool scale that has faded the closest amount.

Conservators monitor light exposure so that we can limit damage to the materials that we care for. Light is energy, and energy is damaging to organic materials. I read a comparison of light and heat damage recently that I thought very expressive. Garry Thomson suggested that we imagine organic molecules as people on a commuter train.[2] People are jostled, but this causes minimal physical damage, just as a steady, cool temperature causes minimal chemical damage to our archives. If the temperature on the train is raised, this jostling can get out of hand, and this is when chemical reactions to our molecules also become increasingly likely.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum
Now, Thomson associates light energy with projectiles fired at the commuters by a riot control squad. The damage that the projectiles cause is dependent on the type of projectile: a ping-pong ball or a pebble might only cause minimal damage, whereas a rocket or a hand grenade would cause considerably more. Light travels in waves, with the shortest wave-lengths in the visible spectrum at the violet end, and the longest at the red end. Ultraviolet (UV) light lies beyond the visible at the violet end, and infrared (IR) at the red end. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy delivered; and the more energy delivered, the greater the damage. As a result the violet waves of light are more dangerous than the longer red waves; and the UV waves are the most dangerous of them all, equivalent to the hand grenades thrown by the riot control squad. During my research, I was amazed to discover that to get a supply of useable energy from heat comparable to the energy delivered by light in the UV range one would have to heat up to 200°C.[3] This demonstrates how powerful light energy can be.

 In our exhibition cases we are not testing individual specimens, but have chosen to use the samples to give us an overall indication of light exposure over a fixed period of time. We also take light measurements with a handheld monitor in our exhibition areas, which give us ‘lux’ and UV values. These tell us how much visible light and how much ultraviolet light can be detected. To reduce light exposure in our Borthwick exhibition area there are blinds on the windows. A shaft of light that once escaped from between the blinds was measured to be 1767 lux, whereas the next highest reading from the cases next to the windows with the blinds down has been 582 lux. Direct sunlight can be very intense, and the blinds significantly reduce this exposure.

Graph: Light Levels in Harry Fairhurst Exhibition Area
The glass of windows and exhibition cases also reduce the amount of light that reaches our archives. UV light is reduced, and only between 80 and 90% of visible light is transmitted.[4] As UV is the most damaging type of light, we aim to reduce this as much as possible, and so we also use UV filtered glass for our exhibition cases. The graphs shown here relate to the display cases in the Harry Fairhurst, and demonstrate how much visible light is blocked by the glass as well as how much UV light is filtered by the glass.

Graph: UV levels in Harry Fairhurst Exhibition Area
 We calculate light exposure by multiplying the time by the intensity of exposure. We aim to limit the ‘light hours’ that our archives receive by restricting the length of time we have them on exhibition. Some more light sensitive materials, such as photographs or watercolours, are given even shorter exhibition periods, and are frequently substituted with surrogate images. We also alternate between exhibitions of original items with those full of surrogate material, so that we can continue to raise awareness of the collections we hold at the Borthwick without putting any items at risk from regular display.

 Although our exposure calculations are necessary, we are excited to see the results of our blue wool samples at the end of these exhibitions. Our calculations convey some numerical sense of light exposure, but the sample cards will be a significant visual indication of deterioration.


Forrester, Stanley. ‘The fast and the fugitive: light fastness testing of dyed textiles up to the 1870s’, Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists, 91 (July, 1975), 217-223.

 Guthrie, J., N. Tayan and L. Wilson, ‘A novel approach to light-fastness testing’, Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists, 111 (July/August, 1995), 220-222.

 Pugh, Samantha and James Guthrie. ‘The development of light fastness testing and light fastness standards’, Review of Progress in Coloration and Related Topics, 31 (2001), 42-56.

 Thomson, Garry. The Museum Environment, Second Edition, London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1986

With thanks to Tracy Wilcockson for the photographs and light monitoring statistics.


This post was written by Catherine Dand, a Conservator at the Borthwick Institute

[1] Forrester, 218
[2] Thomson, 3
[3] Thomson, 190
[4] Thomson, 5

Friday, 9 May 2014

Keeping Pace: Dr Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Archive

In your day-to-day life you've probably walked past one of George Pace's buildings before and not realised it. Pace (1915-1975) was a York-based architect who is famous for his contributions to modernist ecclesiastical architecture. Perhaps his strict religious upbringing was the reason behind his career. Upon the death of his associate, Ronald Sims, the Pace and Sims documentation was gifted to the Borthwick. Today, more than 250 rolls of plans, drawings and correspondence lie uncatalogued in storage: it was our job to begin this exciting quest.

As work experience students from the University of York - under the guidance of Dr. Amanda Jones - we immediately got our teeth stuck in (not literally!). Armagh Cathedral was the first building we unrolled. Seventy-seven architectural drawings took us on a virtual tour of the Royal Irish Fusiliers Chapel. The Dean of York personally recommended Pace for this project; this is the foundation of Pace's illustrious career. Some of the most interesting drawings from this roll related to the war memorial design. We saw many designed for such memorials; it served as a powerful and poignant reminder of the lasting impact of the World Wars.

Drawing of detail from Armagh Cathedral memorialDrawing of war memorial for Armagh Cathedral

Another part of our project was to help conserve some of the Atkinson Brierley archives. This involved cleaning the documents using specialised tools. Alex was swept away by, "the cleaning experience. I couldn't believe the amount of dirt that has accumulated on the sdocuments!" Through this, we learnt how important conservation is for the preservation of these valuable documents. We enjoyed working with the conservation staff and current volunteers and through their help and knowledge, we gained a new set of skills in basic conservation.
Cleaning Atkinson Brierley drawings
This was Guy's favourite part," I am currently working on a Masters dissertation on Brierley so the chance to contribute to the preservation of these wonderful documents was really rather special."

In three days, we managed to catalogue 347 documents. This process was one in which the past was unrolled before our very eyes. From memorials to dossals, radiator covers to electrical installations, and candlesticks to altars, we saw the extensive work and skill behind being an architect. Joy particular enjoyed the data collecting. "It is wonderful to think that my work is contributing to the preservation of 'the past in the present for the future'. Through the database, these documents can now be brought to light again and truly appreciated."
Caitlin data-inputting for the Pace project
"I built on my communication and team skills through the data inputting. Also, the project gave me the chance to further my palaeographical skills. This week has been really fun and insightful." Caitlin.

Work experience students study a plan
"Analysing the documents was very interesting. I normally study 19th century architecture, so getting the chance to see 20th century work was fascinating." Rebecca.

Joy holding a roll of drawings
This is how Joy rolls.
What made the experience truly worthwhile is the fact we have made a lasting contribution to the archives. Before we began this placement, we did not truly appreciate the important work of archivists and the volume of information stored. A career in archives is one that should be respected as archivists are making a remarkable effort to preserve our heritage. In fact, we are all interested in pursuing a job in this field. Aoife found that, "all the staff were friendly and helpful, and their career advice was really useful."

For read about the work of former work experience students, look at the posts on the Tuke project last year, here, here and here

Our work experience students
"A fun and fascinating week with a great group of people." Mark  

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Have You Seen Our New Website?

If you have looked at our website over the last week you may have noticed some changes! After a year of working away at it behind the scenes we are finally able to share it with you and hope you will see some changes for the better.

The redesign of our website was triggered by a few things.
  • A growing body of feedback from our users suggesting that the website could be improved
  • A desire to introduce new content to the website in order to fill in some gaps and provide more up to date information about our work
  • A need to make information about the breadth and variety of our holdings more readily available

Have we got it right?


For the next few days you will see a ‘Help us improve’ button on the right hand side of our home page. If you click on this button you will be able to leave feedback for us. Feedback can either be generic (relating to the whole website) or specific (you can click on a particular element of our home page and rate or comment on it).


Here are some of the areas we have been focusing on:

New look and feel

Our vision for the overall look and feel of the new website was clear. We wanted the site to be eye-catching and visually appealing. We have made good use of images of our archives, our premises and our staff at work to illustrate the website and achieve this goal.

The colour scheme for the new website has changed to a striking orange and grey in line with our new branding. We still retain the Borthwick logo at the foot of each page (and if you are interested in the history of our pig logo we have a new web page that tells that particular story). We want to put across a strong and consistent visual identity to all of our users that ties in with the posters, signs and leaflets you will see if you visit us.

New structure

We understand the frustration of not being able to find the information you need online. When planning the new website structure we tried to focus on the user experience. We have rationalised the structure to ensure our content hangs together in logical sections making information easy to locate. Naming the main navigational sections in a user-friendly way was key. We were keen to ensure that our users knew which section to click on in order to get to a particular piece of information. We do hope we have got this right and would welcome your feedback if you think we haven’t.

New Content

New content has been developed enabling the website to expand into new areas.

Donating or depositing material

We have created a set of pages was aimed at those who were considering donating or depositing an archive with the Borthwick. This new area of the website includes a useful overview of the deposit process as well as an FAQ section. Further pages and information sheets about preparing digital material for deposit are also included.

Looking after the archives

We are proud of the conservation work we carry out here at the Borthwick but had not previously highlighted this on our website. The website redesign has given us an opportunity to talk to our users about what goes on behind the scenes at the Borthwick, including our ongoing work to establish a digital archive.

The History of the Borthwick

In our 60th year the website redesign gives us a great opportunity to publish our story. These new pages describe our origins, our links to the University, key people and events in our history and answers to questions that we are sometimes asked (such as how we got our name and why we have a pig as a logo).

Future work

One of the key drivers behind the website redesign was our desire to make information about our holdings more visible and easily accessible. We have begun this process by adding an introduction to some of the themes of our archives within the ‘Our Holdings’ section (illustrated below). This preparatory work gives us stronger foundations to build upon. A future project will lead to an increased number of our finding aids becoming available in a structured and searchable format online.

Do take this opportunity to tell us what you think - we are looking forward to hearing from you!

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist at the Borthwick Institute
Read Jenny's blog on digital archiving here

Monday, 24 February 2014

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Nowadays many books are produced with a ‘perfect’ binding where the pages are stuck to the spine and invariably split open as soon as any pressure is applied. They are still the common book shape we are all familiar with but they are very different to books printed before 1801. Until the early nineteenth century bindings were all made by hand so each one is unique.

Books were produced by printing on a large sheet of paper and then folding, cutting and sewing the sheets to make the familiar book shape.  The size of the book depends on how many folds are made, so for a quarto the page is folded four times and for an octavo eight times, and so on. The text block that has now been created needs something to protect it and keep it clean and the best and most efficient way of doing this is to provide a rigid board front and back covered with a material such as leather.  You end up with a space that can be decorated in any way you want.
Sewing Structure of a Binding
Sewing Structure of a binding
This picture shows a book which has lost its spine showing the sewing structure. You can see the different gatherings of pages laid next to each other. The large thick cord is what is holding the boards on and providing a stable mount for the pages to be sewn onto.

There are many different sorts of bindings and fine bindings actually only represent a tiny proportion of those surviving, but their beauty and craftsmanship mean that they never fail to delight. There have been many wonderful binders through the ages some known only through their distinctive work such as the ‘Centre Rectangle Binder’, or the ‘Small Carnation Binder’ but there are other names that we can identify.



This is an early binding designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was for a book of his sister Christina’s poems.  

Rossetti was a poet, painter, and  illustrator among many other talents. His work with its clean pure lines influenced the generation that came after him including artists such as William Morris. Rossetti’s art was also characterised by his love of all things medieval and this binding is a good example of that.  The book is bound in smooth green cloth and has then been gilded, the design pressed into the surface with hot tools with gold leaf between the tool and the leather. The design wraps round the spine so is best seen when the book is open. The lines coming out from the spine top and bottom suggest ornate hinges and the small gold circles could represent the nail heads that would have held book clasps or furniture on a medieval binding. The design was developed over several months in 1865-1866. Rossetti had also done the design for Christina’s first book of poetry, Goblin Market, and this is similar in style with the small gold circles, although the lines for that book were straight not gently curved as in this binding.
The second named binding is from the beginning of the 20th century.
Sangorski & Sutcliffe were early 20th century bookbinders famous for using precious stones and metals in their extravagant bindings. One of their most famous creations was on a copy of the Omar Khayyam and was known as the Great Omar. It was a beautiful binding featuring golden peacocks with jewelled tails but sadly Great Omar went down with the Titanic and has never been recovered. A second copy was made but was then destroyed during the Blitz in World War Two. Undaunted, third copy was produced and, to date, this resides safely in the British Library.
Although, at first sight, this seems one of their less ornate bindings the design, fashioned by inlaying different coloured leathers, creates a real sense of movement among the rose stems.

Sangorsko and Sutcliffe binding for The Hind and the Panther
Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding for The Hind and The Panther by Dryden
The binding is not contemporary with the book which was published in 1697. It is a poem by John Dryden called The Hind and the Panther and was written after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The poem is an allegory with the hind representing the Catholic Church and the panther the Church of England.
It is interesting to speculate as to why this style of binding was chosen for the book. The tortuous thorny rose stems ending in the tight red rosebuds might be a metaphor for the struggle Dryden had to undergo, hiding his true religious beliefs until he was able to openly convert under James II. The use of roses as a symbol of achievement and completion is well established. After having battled with the long thorny stems, the toiler is rewarded with the beauty and the fragrance of the flowers. The rosebud represents beauty and purity and the rose leaves denote hope.  However the binding was put on over 200 years after the books first publication so perhaps the owner just liked the design!
These and many other examples of fine binding can be found in the display cases along the Harry Fairhurst corridor in the University of York library.  The exhibition will be in place until the end of April 2014. For more information please contact Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian at
This post was written by Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian at the University of York.
Don't miss Sarah's free talk on the Special Collections of the University of York, "A Journey Through the Pages" on Thursday 6th March 6.30pm (drinks and canap├ęs from 6.00pm), in LFA 204/205
To register for tickets go to


Friday, 20 December 2013

Poor Law Stories: George Crosby's family and a Christmas Removal

1848 did not provide a good or happy Christmas for the Crosby family. On December 21st, the overseers of the poor for the parish of St Mary Castlegate in York applied to the Justices of the Peace for the city of York for the right to remove them.

PR Y/MC.100/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and Family
PR Y/MC.100/32/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and family
George Crosby was married to Mary and they had had at least four children. By December 1848, only two still lived: John who had just turned seven years' old, and Mary who was barely eighteen months' old. They had been living in the parish of St Mary Castlegate, off and on, since 1840 when their eldest son James was baptised there. Now they had fallen upon hard times there, and had turned to the parish for support to help them.

Although the Crosby family lived a long time before the advent of the modern welfare state, there was a safety net (of sorts) to catch people who could not support themselves whether through illness, injury or unemployment. The Poor Law had operated since Queen Elizabeth I's day and was administered through parishes. The better-off residents of a parish contributed to a fund through their rates, which was then paid out to paupers. By the nineteenth century this system was seen as bloated, expensive and counter-productive and notions of the undeserving poor surviving on handouts from their hard-working neighbours fed into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act established poor law unions and the dreaded Union Workhouses which loom so large in our collective memory. There had been workhouses before, but they had tended to be small and local. The Union Workhouses were built on a massive scale and unpleasantness, an important part of the 'less eligibility' mindset (the idea that the workhouse should be a deterrent to discourage all by the most desperate from seeking assistance), was a fundamental driver of their construction.

York's Poor Law Union was incorporated in 1837 but for many years was ineffectual. The pre-existing workhouse on Marygate (next to the Minster Inn) was very small, overcrowded and subject to outbreaks of disease. It had been set up in 1769 as a joint initiative by a number of the city centre parishes and could only accommodate 90 paupers. In 1845, an official inspection of the workhouse found that the privies were "without exception in an offensive state". There was an open cesspool in the girls' yard. Many of the inmates were diseased and the children were placed "in the infectious wards with adults labouring under syphilis and gonorrhea".        

The spaces in the Marygate workhouse were taken up with the deserving poor: the elderly, the infirm, and children. This meant that other paupers, despite the provisions of the 1834 Act and its aim to stop out-door relief to the able-bodied poor, were still supported by the city parishes with the old-style payments. So at least for the moment, the Crosby family knew they would not end up at the gates of workhouse, to be separated.

They did, however, have to move. The city of York, as a legacy of its rich and ecclesiastical medieval history, had a lot of parishes. Although there had been some rationalisation in the sixteenth century, there were still more than 20 parishes operating in the middle of the nineteenth century. Each of these parishes had poor law overseers who paid out poor relief. Their job also required them to make sure relief was only paid when absolutely necessary. This led to a system whereby pauper families could be removed and sent back and forwards across the city as each parish attempted to avoid paying relief (and thereby, establishing a precedent).

PR.Y/MC.100/32/1-3 Removal Order
PR Y/MC.100/32/2 Removal Order 
Luckily for the St Mary Castlegate overseers, a precedent had already been set. On 9th September 1844, the Crosbies had applied for poor relief. Then, George and Mary had had three children: James, John and Emma, and they had been living in the parish of All Saints North Street, whence they had been removed to the parish of St Mary Bishophill Senior. So it was a simple matter to apply for the family to once again be removed to St Mary Bishophill Senior.

The family's settlement was in St Mary Bishophill Senior because that was where George Crosby was born. All of his legitimate children, and his wife, shared in his settlement. There were a number of ways that George could have gained a different settlement from that of his birth, and the fact that he retained his birth settlement tells us something about him. He had never completed an apprenticeship, for example, or served as a domestic servant for over a year. He had never rented a property of a rateable value of £10.00 or more, or run a business. Looking at the areas we know George Crosby lived in, it seems likely that he was a labourer. Castlegate and North Street in the mid-nineteenth century were notorious slums, the haunts of prostitutes and thieves. Hagworms Nest, a court off one of the Water Lanes in St Mary Castlegate, had been a source of epidemic cholera from the seventeenth century through to the famous outbreak of 1832 whilst North Street recurs again and again in the police records of the period. Labouring was a precarious way to earn a living, and so it isn't surprising that the family fell upon hard times regularly - nor, sadly, that they lost so many children.

Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby (reverse)
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
There is currently an ongoing project at the Borthwick Institute to index all of the surviving poor law papers for the city centre parishes. Perhaps George and Mary Crosby will turn up again in another parish and we can continue to follow their struggle.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Borthwick at 60! Our anniversary exhibition

In May 2013 we put up a small ‘taster’ exhibition, marking the 60th anniversary of the Borthwick. Now we have just opened a larger exhibition which reflects on the story of the founding of the Borthwick, explores its early days, and looks at aspects of our development, past and present. The exhibition is in the Storey Exhibition Gallery, top floor, Borthwick Institute. It runs from 1 November 2013 to 31 January 2014.

Norah Gurney in old Borthwick strongrooms, 1957
Norah Gurney, 1957
The exhibition poster includes this splendid picture, taken in 1957, of Mrs Norah Gurney. She had arrived the previous year, as assistant archivist - the first such appointment. She is pictured in one of the original Borthwick strongrooms at St Anthony’s Hall, taking a probate act book down from the shelf.  The detail in the photograph is superb. It really evokes, for those of us who remember St Anthony’s Hall, the atmosphere of the strongrooms – dark and cramped, with mezzanine floors above, all racked out with rather oppressive dark green metal shelving (state of the art in the 1950s). Things hadn’t changed much between 1957 and when we left in 2004!
Norah Gurney later became the second Director of the Institute, taking over after the retirement of Canon Purvis in 1963. Tragically she died of cancer aged only 52, in 1974. There have been in total four Borthwick Directors (although the title is now Keeper of Archives). It is notable how much continuity we have had between 1953 and today – all our ‘bosses’ served first under their predecessors – this is true of our conservators too.

The exhibition reflects on development and change. Although the past couple of decades – and particularly after our move in 2005 – have seen great changes, there is an obvious continuity in our remit and in what we still think is important. 
Searchroom Office 1953
Searchroom Office 1953
This photo, of the searchroom office, ready for business in 1953, shows, for example, how some things have physically altered. But other things continue: the importance of teaching and research can be traced back to our original purpose, and so can our role in what we now call ‘outreach’.

Canon Purvis with summer school students
Canon Purvis with summer school students
 Here is Canon Purvis with students at an early ‘summer school for archives’. Teaching with documents is still central to our work, but handling techniques have certainly changed for the better! 
The exhibition traces how distinguished academics quickly arrived in the early days (the first visitors’ book is on display), and yet the first name recorded in the visitors book – and very regularly thereafter - is that of “Mrs T” (as we called her), a professional genealogist and a good friend to the Borthwick, regarded with much affection by staff. The exhibition has some photos of her 80th birthday party at the Borthwick.
We have had quite a low key 60th birthday (though we had cake to celebrate the anniversary of our opening day!) and this is partly because we had big celebrations when we were 50, ten years ago, but also because this year there has been a bigger celebration to mark the 50th birthday of the University, and of course the Borthwick is part of that.

We have been here on campus for eight years now, and only a few of the staff now remember St Anthony’s Hall.

Moving from St Anthony's Hall 2004
Moving from St Anthony's Hall, 2004
Here we are moving from St Anthony’s in 2004 – archives are being taken off the green metal shelves (how different from the new electronic mobile shelving!). It was a well-planned six month operation.
Borthwick Building half-built
Current Borthwick building half-built
 And here is the new Borthwick half built.

You can see here the massive concrete shell of the strongroom block, on the right. We had 10 strongrooms in the old building, but these came in all shapes (usually small) and all sizes (usually inconvenient). The other day, three of us who remembered St Anthony’s Hall found ourselves perplexed in trying to remember where they all were – they were scattered all over the St Anthony’s Hall complex  (as were the offices). We found there was even one strongroom (one of the less frequented ones) that we had quite forgotten!

Two of us have memories of the Borthwick going back to 1980, and so in effect remember nearly half of its lifespan. On the one hand it has been a bit nostalgic to remember the past, but on the other it serves to show how important it is to try and record, and carefully consider, our history. The Borthwick really does have origins unique among archive offices.
I hope as many as possible will come and see the exhibition. Find out why we are called “Borthwick” (it has to do with William Borthwick of Bridlington, but in fact he wasn’t personally involved at all!), why we changed our name in 2005 (have people noticed?) and why our logo is a pig (clue – it is the connection with St Anthony’s Hall). There are individual exhibition cases about the Borthwick’s founding, about Canon Purvis our first Director, about St Anthony’s Hall and why we had to move from there, about the Borthwick in the early days, about conservation past and present, and about our activities over the years.
And if you are interested in learning more about the Borthwick’s origins in relation to the founding of the University of York, come along to the 50th Anniversary Public Lecture at 6pm, Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, on 18 November. The lecture is: “In York the opportunity waits, and all historybeckons”: the story behind the founding of the University, 1946-1963.

 Katherine Webb


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Present and Future Consent: proving marriage in fourteenth-century Yorkshire

If, like me, you’ve been enjoying BBC4’s Medieval Lives, you will have been fascinated by the recent episode on Marriage. The idea that a marriage in the Middle Ages could be contracted and considered valid on the strength of a few words of consent, often spoken in private and/or under pressure from one’s family or friends, is one that’s alien and disconcerting to modern western sensibilities. Much of the evidence for these practices comes, as Helen Castor showed, from the records of the church courts which, amongst many other things, dealt with proving and enforcing marriage contracts, annulling invalid marriages and punishing adultery. Here at the Borthwick we hold the papers relating to around 15,000 cases pleaded before the diocesan courts of York between 1300 and 1858, the largest such archive in the country. Just over 1500 of those are matrimonial and of those around 200 come from the period 1300-1500 – there are well over 600 medieval causes in total. All of these papers have recently been digitised and indexed in a project run by the Universities of York and Sheffield and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Anyone can now search the database of about a million instances of personal names, over 5000 places mainly in Yorkshire but spread as far afield as Sweden, America and Russia, and an almost endless variety of subjects. The Church Courts from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century had jurisdiction over a wide variety of business including matrimony, defamation, tithe, probate, breach of faith and church rights.
Rather than being a day-to-day record of court proceedings, the Cause Papers are full, formal documents submitted to or issued by the courts. They were used by litigants to introduce their arguments and by the court to transmit its findings. They are a wonderful source and capture rich detail about human existence and interactions. I came to the Borthwick to work as an archivist two years ago. Up till then I had specialised in the records of English medieval royal government. Since arriving I have taken a crash course in ecclesiastical records, and the Cause Papers have regularly grabbed my imagination. I was fortunate to help behind the scenes on filming and sit in on the discussion between Helen Castor and Dr Bronach Kane. Inspired by the show (and, I should add, by recent discussions with Sara Powell, a York MA student who has just completed a dissertation on matrimonial causes in medieval York), I’ve done a bit of digging. The case I’m going to focus on is not untypical of the kind of disputes the church courts tackled. Indeed, those which attempted to enforce contracts and make one partner to stick to their vows with the other, make up the greatest number of marriage dispute cases. 

CP.E.181.1 & 181.2

In the late winter of 1389/90 Emmota, a servant of Henry Rayner of Beal in the West Riding brought a suit before the Curia Ebor', York's central church court. She complained that though she and Robert son of John Williamson of nearby Kellington had contracted to marry, he had not yet solemnized their vows and would not now marry her. What was worse, in a parallel suit brought by Emmota she complained that Thomas, Robert's brother, also of Kellington, had publicly defamed her good character by alleging he had slept with her (or, as the record more prosaically states, 'knew her carnally') in an attempt, she claimed, to prevent the marriage taking place.

Those are the bare bones of the story, which are laid out in a variety of documents now available to view for free through the York Digital Library Cause Papers portal, although, be warned, you will need to know some Latin to make sense of them. In essence, Emmota's case hinged on proving the words she claimed she and Robert had spoken openly before witnesses in the private house in which she worked at Christmas a year previously (which, by my calculaton, would be December 1388) had actually been spoken, and that she had not slept with Thomas. In the formal articles her attorney William de Killerwyk presented to the court, Emmota argued that Robert had publicy and willingly confessed that he and she had both lawfully contracted marriage

 'p(er) v(er)ba mutuu(m) co(n)sensum exp(ri)me(n)cia de p(re)senti ac spo(n)salia p(er) v(er)ba de fut(ur)o carnali copula postmod(um) int(er) eosd(e)m subsecut(a) ... /
by expressing words of mutual consent in the present and their spousal by words of future [intent], carnal intercourse between them having followed afterwards...'

 In the formal articles her attorney William de Killerwyk presented to the court, Emmota argued that Robert had publicly and willingly confessed that he and she had both lawfully contracted marriage ‘p(er) v(er)ba mutuu(m) co(n)sensum exp(ri)me(n)cia de p(re)senti ac spo(n)salia p(er) v(er)ba de fut(ur)o carnali copula postmod(um) int(er) eosd(e)m subsecut(a) … / by expressing words of mutual consent in the present and their spousal by words of future [intent], carnal intercourse between them having followed afterwards …’ If she could prove this, she wanted the court to declare the marriage valid and to compel Robert to recognise her as his lawful wife and solemnize their marriage. 

Section of CP.E.181.1 p.7
Section of CP.E.181.1 p.7

The court documents, written in heavily abbreviated, legalistic Latin, unfortunately give us no idea of what words they actually said to each other. I think we can imagine them taking each other’s hand and Robert saying something like ‘Emmota, here I take you as my wife, for better or worse, to have and to hold until the end of my life; and of this I give you my faith’.[1] Legally though, it is the emphasis on ‘present’ and ‘future’ consent that mattered. By claiming both, Emmota hoped to prove her marriage was doubly valid and indissoluble. The theory that words of present consent created a perfect, complete marriage and a permanent bond had held sway in Canon Law since the mid-twelfth century.[2] But it often cut little ice with ordinary people! Many tended to see these words as merely making a contract not the marriage. The theory meant that Emmota and Robert were married; the only things remaining for them to do at that point were to solemnize their union in church and to consummate it afterwards. It is clear that Robert wanted, initially, to have no more to do with the marriage, and he challenged the truth of Emmota’s case in court. But, as will become apparent, he had indulged in sexual intercourse with her at some point after saying these words, which, by his words of future consent, theoretically made the marriage valid, complete and unbreakable.

That is unless Emmota could not disprove the allegations that had apparently been made around this time by Thomas son of John Williamson, brother of her supposed husband. In her articles submitted in this second case Emmota claimed she was a woman of ‘good fame and honest conversation’ who had never previously been accused of adultery or incest. Thomas, she said, had declaimed before a multitude of local people that he knew her carnally in order to impede the marriage contracted with his brother. For this, she wished Thomas to be excommunicated. We can suspect, I think, since there is no real hint in the records of a fraternal row over Emmota, that the brothers colluded in concocting the story of Thomas’s fornication with her. Local men John May, John Warde and Alan son of Robert appeared before the court to testify for Thomas, and they appear to suggest that Emmota had refused to say to which of the two brothers she had promised herself for fear of them. Their evidence, presented in March 1390, of a sexual relationship with Thomas, though, appears to have been trumped after much toing and froing by a surprise confession from Robert.

On the back of the document bearing their witness statements is a memorandum that on 3 November 1390 Robert and Emmota came before the court. Having sworn on the Gospels, Robert admitted he had made the contract of marriage a week before Christmas last one year hence. He had then first slept with Emmota (‘p(ri)mo carnalit(er) cognovit’) on the feast of St Stephen (26 December) following. Both parties confessed to the truth and the judge moved to deliver his verdict, that,

‘Because we have heard both by the confession of the said parties made in the judgement before us and by other sufficient and lawful evidences in this business, the abovesaid Emmota, plaintiff, has sufficiently proved her action brought before us in this case, therefore in this writing we have adjudged as our sentence and definitively the same Robert, defendant, to be the lawful husband of the same Emmota and the same Emmota to be the lawful wife of the same Robert.’

In short, Emmota had won. Robert had confessed and the truth of her side of the story had been lawfully upheld. Sadly, the sentence handed out by the court does not survive. Robert may well have joined his wife in solemnizing their marriage and may have had to do penance. I’ll leave you to speculate.

Emmota was a woman of humble origins who fought tooth and claw against men of, perhaps, greater means to persuade a church court to recognise her version of events. It appears from the Poll Tax records of 1379 that she worked for a tailor. She herself is not listed as a taxpayer (although there are a couple of Emmas in the Beal list which might be her), while her ‘husband’ Robert may be the same man as the ‘Robert Williamson’ noted as being taxed at fourpence, the lowest rate, in Kellington.[3] We are dealing here then not with the wealthy in society or with the urban or rural gentry but with ordinary people. We have a brief window into their everyday concerns and lives.  Emmota and Robert had promised themselves to each other away from many prying eyes. For over a year she had been forced to wait. She must have been getting worried about not being able to publish banns of marriage and to have her union blessed by a priest, both of which were considered sins. Ultimately, she took her man to court and won the day. Their case is one among many at the Borthwick which give us intimate detail about the lives of our ancestors from all ranks of society. I hope this will have persuaded you that the Cause Papers have a great deal of interest. Do please take a look on the database and see what you can find.


This post was written by Dr Paul Dryburgh, one of our archivists who specialises in our medieval records.  

[1] Emmota probably returned the words. These were the words a witness reported that John Beck, a saddler, and Margery daughter of Simon Taylor had exchanged, in a cause paper from 1372: C.P. E.121:
[2] For what follows and for an excellent overview of the Cause Paper evidence in English matrimonial cases, see R.H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 26-36.
[3] Henry Rayner of Beal and his wife, Agnes, were taxed at sixpence in 1379: Carolyn C. Fenwick, The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Part 3, Wiltshire-Yorkshire (Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 37, 2005), pp. 361-2. For leading me to these references, and for help in nailing down the place names in this cause, I am very grateful to Dr Jonathan Mackman.