Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hunting Down History

I suppose there is something of the hunter-gatherer in all of us. Some people like to hunt foxes, with others it's truffles. With me, it's digital archives. The pleasure that the stag hunter probably gets when he sights a  mature hart in the cross-hairs, I get when I find a new digital archive. And the adrenaline coursed through my clerkish veins this morning when I discovered British History Online. To quote the website : "British History Online is the digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles. Created by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust, we aim to support academic and personal users around the world in their learning, teaching and research". If that sounds boring take a look at some of the titles which have been added recently : things like the complete series of the Calendar of Treasury Books and Papers and  the complete series of the Calendar of Spanish State Papers. But pick a collection at random, pick a volume at random and pick a date at random and dip in : absolutely fascinating.
My dip took me into the digital collection of the State Papers of Venice for the period 1202 to 1675. The 38 volumes cover relations between the Venetian State and England and they are, I am glad to say, available in English translation. In the main they cover official reports and letters from Venetian diplomats and these provide a wonderful sidelight on English and European history. Here are a couple of illustrations from the records of 1649. They are taken from the texts of diplomatic reports which have been sent to the Venetian Doge and Senate: 
Alvise Contarini, Venetian Ambassador to the Congress of Munster, to the Doge and Senate : 19th February, 1649.
The king of England has on three different days been taken before the judges appointed by the military for his trial. They omitted to read a letter presented by the French ambassador, and both his guards and judges treated him throughout as a private individual, never taking off their hats or paying him any kind of mark of homage or respect. He took exception to the judges as having no authority over their sovereign, without whom and still less without the concurrence of the House of Lords they could not pretend to any form of parliament ; nor did he make any other reply to the charges which were read to him. They took four days for consultation, in order to pass sentence without admitting further defence.....
Alvise Contarini, Venetian Ambassador at Munster, to the Doge and Senate : 26 February 1649
The poor king of England has at last lost both crown and life by the hand of the executioner, like a common criminal, in London, before all the people, without any one speaking in his favour and by the judicial sentence of his own subjects. The accompanying narrative gives the particulars. History affords no example of the like. It is a shame to all contemporary sovereigns, who for the sake of revenge against each other about trifles have allowed themselves to be confronted by so imposing a spectacle, of the worst possible example. ....
Wonderful stuff. Hunting at its very best. And without any cruelty to animals. Now Kings, that's another matter.

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