Aug 4, 2020Before I was introduced to ‘proper’ historical research (surprisingly late in my education) I had only a vague understanding of the archive. From the way historians talked about ‘The Archive,’ I gathered it must be some promised land where not only the answers would be found but the questions also formulated. The Archive was where real historical work began, I was told.
So what do we do when a global pandemic restricts all access to the mothership? Luckily for us, the availability of online primary sources is at an unprecedented scale, and continues to grow by the day. Certainly only a tiny fraction of what is out there has been scanned and uploaded, and it will be a long time before entire archives are fully digitised. But with tools like Gallica and MDZ Reader, as well as the digital archives of individual libraries around the world, it’s possible to find even some of the more obscure printed early modern sources without great difficulty. In the past two years I have relied almost entirely on these rich open-access collections to write original pieces, some of which I am preparing for publication. While I doubt the historians’ obsession with finding lost manuscripts and books in the dusty netherworld of The Archive will ever be dispelled (perhaps for good reason), the online material has allowed me to carry on with work during the months of Covid lockdown, and its importance will only grow in the future.
One such document I’ve been looking at lately is the Historia Meteorologica (1651) of Hermann IV, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Unusually for a German prince during the troubled years of the Thirty Years’ War, Hermann had no business in the military—he was born with a crippled left leg, had to wear metal braces to support it, and was naturally drawn to scientific learning from a young age. This document is an interesting hybrid text of two genres—Aristotelian meteorology and weather observation. The first half is a relatively concise summary of the causes of sublunary phenomena (i.e. meteors), their types and their causes. But halfway through the treatise shifts gears to a summary of 23 years of weather observations, from 1623 to 1646. The daily records are remarkably unbroken and continuous. Seems to have been unaided by instruments such as thermoscopes or anemometers, but the qualitative descriptions are consistent in form. Hermann’s integration of astrological symbols into his observation notes indicates his search for correlations between the celestial and terrestrial spheres. I will need some time to properly analyse this short but dense treatise. But no doubt it will be a valuable addition to my ongoing research project. I didn’t need to travel to Kassel to read and write about it.