A passport to the past

This week’s CBC Web column (listen tomorrow for the audio version!)…


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his 1953 book The Go-between (well, at least the quote is famous; I’m not so sure Hartley or his book are any more–I had to Google that quote to find out who said it.)

And perhaps great websites that collect quotes would make a fine web column on another date, but the point of this column isn’t the quote, but the statement: the past is indeed a foreign country. But just as people are using the World Wide Web more and more these days to plan their trips to physical foreign countries, so you can use the Web to pay a virtual visit to that temporal foreign country we call the past.

What started me thinking about these possibilities was the recent unveiling of a website called The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London, 1674 to 1834. The Old Bailey is, of course, London’s famous criminal court, and what they’ve put online is…well, let them describe it: “A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.” The transcripts of proceedings from 101,102 trials from April 1674 to October 1834 can now be searched, browsed and read.

Upon hearing this, I naturally did what anyone would do, and put in my own name. I’m relieved to note that in all that time not a single Edward Willett cropped up at the Old Bailey. There are, however, three pages of notes on other people named Willett. The person closest to having the same name as me would be Theodore Willett of St. Mary Woolnoth who, on April 28, 1731, was acquitted of embezzling almost 9,000 pounds from his masters.

Accompanying many of the transcripts of the trials are digitized images taken from microfilm of the original law books. In other words, information that would once have required you to make a lengthy journey to a library and dig around in dusty old stacks for possibly days on end to recover you can now pull up with a few taps on the keyboard, in between sips of coffee.

Increasingly, it’s not just the text but the actual documents themselves–well, facsimiles of them–that are appearing online. The United States’ National Archives are amazing in this regard. With three clicks of my mouse, I went from their home page to viewing Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten text for a telegram sent to Ulysses S. Grant on February 1, 1865: “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans.” They have vast online galleries full of material like this from all eras of American history.

As does (even more so, actually) the Library of Congress, where, again, just three or four clicks allowed me to browse a high-resolution panoramic map of Bismarck, North Dakota, from 1883.

Going further back (way, way, back), you can find digitized collections of papyri from ancient cultures through (what else?) the Advanced Papyrological Information System: here I viewed a letter, possibly written in the summer of 251 B.C., by Aigyptos to Zenon, asking the latter to send some castor oil, fish and garlic along to the former at Ptolemais. (No, I don’t read ancient Egyptian; fortunately, translations are provided.)

Not all historical documents are written on papyrus, paper, parchment, or anything else beginning with p and capable of being rolled or folded. A lot of ancient text exists only on inscribed stone and metal–and, yes, you can browse that online, as well. A case in point: Oxford’s Curse Tablets of Roman Britain.

What’s a curse tablet? The university explains: “‘Curse tablets’ are small sheets of lead, inscribed with messages from individuals seeking to make gods and spirits act on their behalf and influence the behaviour of others against their will. The motives are usually malign and their expression violent, for example to wreck an opponent’s chariot in the circus, to compel a person to submit to sex or to take revenge on a thief.” They’re an interesting source of information about the past because they aren’t formal texts preserved by government or the elite, but texts created by ordinary people to deal with ordinary problems. For example, one from Hamble, probably from the 4th Century A.D., is a curse on a thief: “The mind which stole this and which has been privy to it, may you take it away. The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune.” (And by the way, the curse tablets are just one small part of the digital collection of Oxford.)

In more recent times, of course, historical “documents” have moved beyond being limited to text of any kind, and take in video and audio recordings. The Library of Congress, again, has an amazing collection of all of these kinds of historical artifacts. And don’t think the video is all boring speeches by politicians or wartime newsreels (although that stuff is certainly present).

You can also find gems such as film of old Vaudeville acts: the one that rather leaped out at me was “Miss Laura Comstock’s Bag Punching Dog,” filmed by the Edison company in 1901, in which an ordinary looking dog jumps up over and over again at a punching bag swinging on a rope over the stage. Now that’s entertainment!

On a more serious note, at George Washington University’s National Security Archives website, you can listen to recordings of intelligence briefings from 1962 as John F. Kennedy and his administration struggle with the rapidly escalating Cuban Missile Crisis.

I wouldn’t want you to think that you can only find this kind of stuff in other countries, of course. Canada has Collections Canada. Among the outstanding offerings is the Virtual Gramophone, a collection of Canadian sound recordings, where I enjoyed Alice Green and Harry MacDonough’s performance of “Wait Till The Cows Come Home,” recorded October 18, 1917.

The past is, indeed, a foreign country where they do things differently–but thanks to the Web, you can more easily pay it a visit than you’ve ever been able to before, and gain a better understanding of those peculiar “foreigners” and their very different ways.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2007/05/a-passport-to-the-past/

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