While thinking about What Happens Next, one of my options is to design some kind of project and try to get funding for it. Since I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years of my life looking into the lives of thirteenth century gentry families – two in particular, with reference to the Welsh March – I really want to start expanding my horizons and looking at other gentry families in other contexts. I’m most interested in family power and strategy, and the somewhat popularist realms of historical biography is tantalisingly close to this.
I’m hoping to put together a sigillographic project which looks at the gentry of specific English counties through the medium of their seals, cataloging or surveying the seals used by various members of the families and recording the kinds of documents and their content related to the use of that particular seal. There are several difficulties with this, which have come up in discussions with Prof. Phillipp Schofield and Dr Elizabeth New of the SiMeW project:
1. “Seal users” is a better term than “seal owners” because the people who used the seals were not necessarily the people who owned them – they may use other people’s seals to add a greater depth of authenticity or authority to a document.
2. Seals do not always (or usually) specify kin relationships – they may display a name, but in a family where several members bear the same first name, how can you be sure that the ‘Robert’ or ‘Richard’ or ‘William’ is the one you are looking for? – This is why any seal project undertaken on gentry families should, in my view, be undertaken in conjunction with a great deal of genealogical research and work done on the records relating to that particular family in general, so that you are slotting the seals into the context uncovered by such research, rather than starting with the seals and trying to work backwards.
3. If matrices are extant, there’s often no way to tell if that is the same matrix that made a particular impression, as the range of impressions vary greatly even with matrices bearing the same image.
4. If you want to know why people used certain images over others, there’s no real answer to that in a lot of cases. There are ‘common’ or ‘popular’ designs, which have been considered ‘conventions’ of seals, but the SiMeW project research has begun to question whether ‘conventional’ forms were considered superior to other, ‘lesser’ forms, giving rise to the idea of local or regional fashions in seal design, personal taste, family traditions, canting (allusions to the name in a pictorial pun) or heraldic devices, and the desire to visually display a particular marital or even foster alliance.
I’m more interested in digging into (4), although these are just a few of the things any seal project needs to seriously consider. Although I’ve sent off my proposals to the IHR and to the Oxford Hulme PostDoc positions, I’m not expecting to get shortlisted or beyond the interview stage since competition is so fierce. That’s just the nature of the beast. Since it’s still gentry-focused, it may be considered too derivative of my doctoral work, which would disqualify it for some external funding too. However, since I’m not going to be focusing on the same families as my doctoral thesis, and neither do I intend to look at the Welsh March, that might save it. It’s all about *new* research now – which seems a bit counter-productive, really, considering we spend 3+ years becoming really good at one area… Ah well.
Funding Bodies Reacting to Derivative Work
What I am really interested in looking at is the aspect of local and regional networks, and the way these networks affected local gentry families in times of crisis. I’ve explored this somewhat in Shropshire, looking at the reasons why the Corbets of Caus remained royalist when they were surrounded by Monfortians. The article, ‘Family Strategy or Personal Principles?’ is based on the paper I gave at the Thirteenth Century England XV Conference held at Aberystwyth and Lampeter 2013, and will be published in the forthcoming transactions.
I’m hoping to map the personal networks of the gentry holding land across the counties of England and the Welsh and Scottish Marches, which will probably occupy me until I retire… and then I’ll have to figure out what else to do with my remaining decades. I’m sure I’ll have acquired other (academic!) interests by then! …. I remain optimistic. Let’s see about getting a job in the first place, shall we?