Reflection on research practice by a former humanities postgraduate student

Self-reflection has been one of the more widely encouraged behaviours in learning in the last two decades. This is a task that is often easier to ask of others than to carry out oneself.  Looking back after more than fifteen years on my own postgraduate research, I am startled now by how much of my focus was on the evidential objectives of the research, the translation and transcription of the documents, and the collation and ultimately interpretation of the findings, and in contrast how little thought I gave to my own learning and practice. I rather too readily responded to the carefully framed questions of my supervisor as if they were surface-level queries of my progress, too often missing their deeper purpose, challenging me on my processes and the development of my understanding.

My research objective was to answer questions about the changing relationship between two medieval English kings, Richard II (ruled 1377-1399) and his usurper, Henry IV (ruled 1399-1413), and the higher ranks of the nobility. I was attempting to understand the extent to which the actions of the crown could change the territorial balance of power, and the extent to which transfers of authority over landed estates could yield measurable changes in politics and government, both within the crown’s ruling institutions, and in the localities.  I tried to trace this through studying changing patterns of behaviour among tenants and retainers, and through the impact of disrupted tenure on the economics of noble inheritances.  Naturally, I also drew heavily on the work of the great experts in this field, notably G.A. Holmes (1927-2009), K.B. McFarlane (1903-1966), Rees Davies (1938-2005), Nigel Saul, Chris Given-Wilson, Caroline Barron and Simon Walker (1958-2004), among others.

My general conclusions were that attempts to re-order political power through the seizure and re-allocation of noble estates yielded limited returns for the crown, as tenurial disruption appeared to make them less profitable, in many instances, and that those who were economically dependent on them, such as estate personnel, would act in ways to minimize the impact of change, and in some cases to protect the integrity of the inheritance in anticipation of a return of the disgraced family. These conclusions found their way into a number of articles, and a book The Politics of Magnate Power in England and Wales, 1389-1413 (Oxford, 2003).

My manuscript research notes were originally written by hand during visits to a range of archives, principally the National Archives, the British Library and a range of regional record offices, during, and in a few cases shortly after, my time as a postgraduate student.  The documents (with a handful of exceptions) were in Latin or Anglo-Norman, and I translated them into English (to the best of my ability).  I initially hand-wrote the notes, and then typed them up within 24 hours.

As a historical source in their own right, my notes, albeit extensive, are manifest in their limitations. My eye was arbitrarily selective, only recording what I was looking for to answer my research question, and doubtless I missed much of lateral significance. Secondly, while my palaeographical skills were functional, this was never my greatest strength, and on occasions the physical condition of the manuscripts and the faded or obscure nature of the writing, resulted in an admission of defeat, expressed rather pathetically as ‘unreadable.’ (Others, more able, if not more diligent, would have soldiered on.) In some instances I simply ran out of time.

My notes from the National Library of Wales and the University of Wales were due to the kindness of my supervisor, Rees Davies, and I also took notes from the K. B. McFarlane papers.

Since completing my thesis and the publications that followed, I have done little with the original notes, treating them as spent raw material, rather than as a pathway back into a more critical view of my own practice. They were never written with publication in mind, and therefore contain numerous and recurring infelicities such as typos, and ill-conceived contractions and abbreviations of my own devising.  However, notwithstanding all these obvious limitations they may be of some use to anyone researching the period, if only as a pointer to reference numbers for ordering or downloading the original manuscripts.

What follows below are three files of my manuscript notes on the higher nobility in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV.

NA PRO notes

BL notes

Notes from other archives

 

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