ometimes you have to stumble through the archives to set the record straight—say, on a 14th-century feud between two French courtiers

Historians in the News

When I tell people that the five years I spent researching and writing my last book included about a month and a half of work in the French national archives, they often look skeptical or even laugh, saying, "Right, research in France. That sounds really tough." Sometimes they pantomime the copious drinking of wine. Or they ask why anyone needs to go to the archives at all, since everything is now on the Internet.

Actually there's a lot that isn't on the Internet. And once you fly across the ocean in a cramped economy seat, arrive in Paris with your luggage and research notes, locate your rented apartment, renew your pass at the archives, secure a numbered spot in the crowded manuscripts room, find your documents in the catalogs, carefully write the shelf marks (call numbers) on the neat little forms provided for that purpose, and stand in line to hand your requests to the harried or indifferent clerk at the call desk — your work has only begun.

As you wait for your documents to arrive at the desk, or to be delivered to your table from a metal cart rolled noisily through the room, you hope and pray that the precious records are available and that the curatorial staff can find them. If so, you have been liberated — or doomed — to spend days or even weeks copying faded, nearly illegible texts and deciphering them from medieval Latin, French, or the like. Many archives forbid photography, and you often have only ambient light, so a magnifying glass comes in handy. It's time-consuming, eye-straining detective work, punctuated by the occasional thrill of an unanticipated revelation.

Several years ago I was trying to find an elusive document that I felt might help me solve the mystery of a story I was researching. The story culminated in a celebrated trial by combat — a duel to the death — fought before the French king in 1386 by two Norman nobles, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. The fellow courtiers had once been close friends, until Le Gris acquired a piece of land that Carrouges coveted. Their falling-out led to accusations and even lawsuits, until finally Carrouges charged that Le Gris had raped his beautiful young wife, Marguerite. The case deadlocked in the Parlement of Paris, the nation's high court, which eventually authorized a judicial duel — something it had not done for 30 years and would never do again....

comments powered by Disqus