Previously, we discussed Photographs in Archaeology as a Primary Source and its usefulness to modern research. Academic scholars also consider written accounts as primary sources. This includes diaries, writing on monuments, letters, commonplace books, autobiographies, wills, court documents, treaties, books of law, and merchant logs. While these texts depict things that people felt were worth writing down, they are still direct links to what people used, did, and thought in period.
Written accounts are a vital look into the daily life of a historical era.
A person would not record a recipe in a commonplace book or write an account of a game played in court unless it had relevance in their daily lives. Works of fiction, such as The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu or The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer are grounded very much in the cultural mores and expectations of that time period. While the people and the events in these narratives are clearly fiction, the descriptions of life were drawn from their own experiences. Clothing, pilgrimage practices, and court etiquette are all things that the writer and his or her audience knew and understood. These accounts provide invaluable information to researchers. The information fills in many of the gaps in the material culture (as anthropologists refer to the archaeological record). With the information gleaned from these accounts, a researcher can learn things like how the clothes were dyed, designed, and worn. We get glimpses into the layouts of the palace, the different roles of courtiers, the food consumed, and recreational activities such as sports, games, and poetry competitions.
So, even when you consider that these written accounts, whether diaries, merchant manifests, or works of fiction, are limited to what the writer deemed worth mentioning they still give us invaluable information that helps us understand what they did, how they made things, and how they used the things that they owned. Legal accounts, such as sumptuary laws, tell us what people were allowed and not allowed to do, while court records give insight into what happens when those laws were broken, and an idea how of how frequently they were. Without information like this, it would be impossible for us to fully understand life as it existed in period. These records, flawed though they are, give insight into things that either do not preserve well, like clothing, and even things that are not physically preserved at all, like religious views, music, and stories.
Visual arts such as paintings, sculptures and decorated pottery are also primary sources for your research.
While artists did, as far as we know, modify the subject of the paintings, such as making the subject prettier or more wealthy than in reality, —nonetheless, the clothing and other elements of life depicted in the paintings reflect the reality the painter lived in. Material remains of clothing, for example, are often limited to fragments of cloth as cloth decomposes relatively easily. Paintings however help us understand how those garments might have looked, They give us clues to styles and colors considered beautiful and fashionable, and where these garments would have likely been worn. They can even give insight into ornamentation and construction. For example, it is unlikely that a painter would paint seams that are not actually there, or to decorate a bodice with beadwork if that was never done.
Paintings, in fact, hold a dual roll in historical research.
Scenes depicting everyday life events, such as going to the market, playing with dolls, or knitting are images reflect things familiar to the people of that time period. Even mythical/religious imagery was depicted in clothing and settings familiar to the painter. This is why Mary often wears Medieval or Renaissance clothing. While these paintings are clearly not painting literal truths (Mary would not have worn Italian Renaissance clothing, for example), they paintings still tell us a considerable amount about the artist and the time period in which the artist lived.
While, as I discussed in previous blogs, all sources need to be critically evaluated. Photographs, written accounts, and pictorial representations act as invaluable sources to the research done within and out of the Academic arena.
Physical artifacts are important. Without the other sources, however, we would have, at best, a fragmented and disconnected account of what life was like in the historical eras that we study.
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