A few weeks ago I went to a presentation of the London Lives project, held by the Long 18th Century seminar at the IHR. This ambitious undertaking aims to integrate the records of some of London’s major organizations – among them, the Old Bailey, Bridewell, St Thomas’ hospital – into a website that allows researchers to follow the lives of the ‘lower orders’ in their interactions with the legal, charitable and medical institutions of early modern London.
This is a phenomenal amount of data: over 3 million names, 1,300 to 1,600 separate manuscripts, around a quarter of a million pages, some 40 million words in all. Which means it needs a decent interface and facilities, or else one will just be swamped by raw, muddy data. Judging by the demonstration given by Sharon Howard, it looks like it has been designed with researchers in mind, with the ability to cross reference records and link entries together in sets.
Two examples of using the site were given. Tim Hitchcock deftly restored the reputation of the much-maligned nurse Hannah Poole, falsely accused of being uncaring and negligent; Bob Shoemaker showed a perhaps surprising distance between the criminal world and the poor, members of one rarely showing up in the records of the other.
Digital projects have to have a research question, and the one behind London Lives is: how did the poor and the plebian relate to the welfare authorities in early modern London? There were a number of questions raised as to which term to use – the project was originally entitled ‘Plebian Lives and the Making of Modern London’, which was dropped because of the difficulties of defining class in this era (not to mention the presence in the records of numerous higher class individuals, such as administrators). Hence the new title ‘London Lives’, both more specific in location and more general in scope.
There is one aspect to this question that concerns me: it frames the poor in terms of their institutional existence. Of course, there are few records of the poor that come ‘from below’, from their own mouths, especially when illiteracy is the norm. And of course, these institutional sources offer much rich material for understanding the lives of the lower classes, not necessarily as passive as one might presume. But there was much more to their lives than interactions with the authorities, and quite possibly a considerable degree of social autonomy as well.
Uncovering this independent existence is central to my Alsatia project, and devilishly difficult to do.
The London Lives Project isn’t live yet; it should be opening this May, but in the meantime there’s a blog for news and information about the forthcoming unconference in July.