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Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Language and Sources


It is clear that Duffy has an ear for the language of the material he is using: he refers specifically to the language of Sir Christopher’s original and shows that he is taking it into account. However, the most noticeable point about Duffy’s use of language is that he has retained the original Tudor spellings: ‘a nimage’ (an image), ‘auter clotwhys’ (altar coths). The language of the original sources always poses a dilemma for historians: should they retain the original or render it into modern English? If the sources are in a foreign language, should they be translated and how will the accuracy of the translation be monitored? In the case of earlier versions of English, the situation is made more problematic because the language was not standardised and many people had their own variants of it. Sir Christopher Trychay, for example, tended to write ‘ys’ as a separate word after a name or noun to indicate the genitive: thus ‘John Wode ys brother’ means ‘John Wode’s brother’. The original conveys the sound and ‘feel’ of the original, but it risks putting off the reader or, perhaps, worse, sounding twee in a ‘Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe” way. Duffy decides on a qualified approach: he keeps the original spellings, giving a couple of useful hints in a preface, adds notes in square brackets for particularly difficult words (as with ‘purtenes’ in this extract) and adds a modern English version for any extended passage. He also adds, rightly, that the Tudor spelling ‘is less difficult to understand than may appear at first glance – readers who are daunted should try reading the passages aloud, and will be surprised how often the sense clarifies itself’.


Like Montaillou this is a text dominated by one single original source, in this case The Accounts of the Wardens of the Parish of Morebath, Devon, 1520-1573 edited by J. Erskine Binney and published in Exeter in 1904 from where all the quotations in this passage come. The printed primary source is an essential tool for the historian: it consists of an original primary source which is transcribed and printed in book form, usually with extensive notes. However, as well as an extensive list of secondary material, Duffy’s bibliography also gives three pages of printed primary sources as well as manuscript sources he has looked at in different archives. Although the book is looking in detail at one village, it is not essentially a work of local history; looking at other sources enables the historian to extrapolate from Morebath and to use it to illustrate a more general case.

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