The history of archives has transcended its disciplinary confines to suggest how a wide array of political and cultural practices became conversant with or even reliant upon record-keeping. Randolph Head’s new book is one long-awaited example of this welcome development. It integrates many of the author’s previous insights into early modern European political record-keeping and positions his view on chancellery archival records more widely.
One of the book’s central arguments – previously outlined in a 2013 journal article – posits that over the course of the fourteenth to the earliest eighteenth century, emphasis moved from archives as “hidden treasuries of material proofs” towards storing information “primarily according to its place in the transaction of political business” (p. xii). Head’s work covers chancellery archives up until around 1700 and relies on a functionalist definition of records as having the “specific purpose of providing evidence about past circumstances for future situations” (p. 1). While this focus is justified – chancellery archives did undoubtedly play an important role –, the excellent case studies may at times seem rather like cherry-picking as this review suggests.
But first a summary of some of the book’s stimulating and nuanced arguments of which there are many: The two introductory chapters provide readers with a polyglot overview about the recent historiography and – since Head is well aware of the problems of applying current terminology to the past – present useful working definitions for the central terms. He adds to this glossary throughout with up-to-date references to archival theory (e.g. to post-custodial archival practice, p. 139).
The first part discusses the political and cultural ends and means that makers imagined for the records they created. Chapter 5, for instance, anchors record-keeping in the scholastic tools of the High Middle Ages and an exhaustive array of recent scholars who have studied them. Introducing the medieval documentary practice of using solitary documents that worked as tools in a “political economy of privilege” (p. 50), Head connects early modern and late medieval historiographies that are too often still studied separately. These treasured charters recorded legally binding acts in perpetuity for future usage. The author presents cartularies and emissions registers as two distinct “little tools of knowledge”; the former “retrospective products of an inward gaze” (p. 59), the latter products of the circulation of charters. The chapter’s quality shows, for instance, when Head confronts historiographical debates about original (the circulating charter) and copy (its record in registers) with a more fluid pre-modern perception confounding this very distinction. But as Head readily concedes, chancelleries drew upon practices of using them that had developed in the world of theology and law at universities and, thus, outside his study’s purview.
The second part hones in on the toolkit that chancelleries relied upon to deal with an increasing number of records. Chapter 7, setting the scene for an array of careful case studies, traces the evolution of inventories, which allowed officials in Europe’s polities to use archives as repositories both of (formal) proof and of politically useful information. Again, Head shows that a modern notion of inventory fails to do justice to the often unpredictable and ad-hoc ways in which chancelleries produced finding aids, for the most part internally, to suit the specific needs of a particular moment within the administrative routine. Often, he suggests, the aids no longer helped finding the record. Instead, they practically substituted it with trust in its accuracy and the rigour of those who had once produced it.
The third part traces in detail how expectations about archives changed over time. Chapter 11 provides a good example of the case studies that Head builds his arguments around. It contrasts the – according to Head – failing aspirations of Philipp II and his archivist Diego de Ayala for the Simancas-archives with the reestablishment of an archive in the Electorate of Brandenburg, which two officials (Erasmus Langenhein, Christoph Schönbeck) sought to make workable by focusing on the “flow of documents” as Head puts it. The reader wonders – as with some other case studies – what exactly they are supposed to be representative of and why the author chose them. By what yardstick (other than the king’s), for instance, was the Spanish Habsburg archive, which (as Arndt Brendecke has shown) increasingly fulfilled a “patrimonial” rather than an “informational” function, failing at all.
The fourth part, then, focuses on noteworthy conceptual changes regarding archives. Chapter 15 contrasts two emerging approaches: One, advanced by Jean Mabillon and the Bollandists, centred on assessing authenticity through the document itself. Another built around external authenticity based on provenance in a public repository, advanced by German jurists. This contrast “between philological and institutional approaches” is useful at first sight but seems simplistic at second thought. Had not the material features of charters played a central role in German jurists’ approaches to Urkunden? Had not the institutional history of a particular repository – that of the noble family – an impact precisely in France, when we think, for instance, about the conflicts about precedence between the Bourbons and other related families. This is not to say that Head’s distinction is not useful, but it should perhaps rather be seen as an ideal type. As such, it ought not to be framed geographically and with group specificity.
Narrowing the definition of records as Head does, the author chooses an extremely effective tool of exclusion. It traces one form of archival functionalism, but crucially excludes others. While this is a valuable exercise, this chancellery redux narrows the social contextualism that Head methodologically endorses. Why would not the many records that officeholders habitually kept in their homes, such as the family records of noble as well as urban patricians, or the church’s wide-reaching and long-lasting tradition in keeping archives, to name but three, provide focal points where changes in record-keeping manifested themselves? What is more, in a functionalist approach, social phenomena such as vanity, laziness, ambition, antiquarian obsession, or administrative stickling, in short, the important human side of day-to-day archiving, cannot play the role they deserve.
Head astutely shows the rich rewards of his approach as we follow archive theorists, secretaries, and registrars into the art and craft of producing theoretical manuals, inventories, and standards of diplomatics. The limitations of his approach are also clear. Instances of record-keeping beyond proof such as those found in the stratified and group-bound record-keeping of corporations, families, and of generations of officeholders are entirely neglected. Would it not be the task of a historian to unpeel, if and why these were ignored, emulated, attacked, or swallowed up by those collections?
Arguably, Head’s work is a political history of record-keeping – adding to the historiography on the rise of the early modern state. As such, it confirms an existing narrative about change over time without confronting it with alternative potential driving forces of archival practice from Church to corporation and noble household. Nonetheless, readers of Head’s magisterial study will find rich oars to mine for further research.
 Randolph C. Head, Documents, Archives and Proof around 1700, in: The Historical Journal 56 (2013), pp. 909–930.
 E.g. Martin Wrede, Zwischen Mythen, Genealogie und der Krone. Rivalisierende Familiengedächtnisse im französischen Hochadel des 17. Jahrhunderts. Die Häuser Bouillon, Noailles und Bourbon, in: Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung 32 (2005), pp. 17–43.