A box of chocolates or the challenges of working in an archive

Archival work comes close to exploring alien worlds. It might be best described by this modified quote of the movie Forrest Gump: „Archival work is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.“ During the last two months, I’ve visited archives in order to find sources for my PhD thesis. My project revolves around the authority of abbesses and priors in south-west German urban collegiate churches (15th/16th century). Collegiate churches were religious communities which didn’t require canons and canonesses to take eternal religious vows. So I checked the written records of potentially interesting collegiate churches. Due to the widespread disinterest in female collegiate churches until the recent past, the archival material isn‘t as accessible as in other (male) cases. For instance some of the charters of the male community in Ellwangen are digitized. But regarding one female case, the archivist told me that I might have been the first person other than him to check the archival material since he had started working there. Hence, archival work isn’t always easy. Nevertheless, I’ve tasted many different chocolates for the last two months. Sometimes they‘ve resembled truffles and sometimes very experimental Bertie Bott‘s beans.

The entrance to the state archive in Augsburg – what treasures lay ahead? ((c) Simone Wagner)

Five steps are necessary before historians can work with archival sources: Firstly, they need to know which archives might have preserved sources related to their project. Secondly, they need to learn about the structure of the archive they are going to visit. Thirdly, they need to choose which archival material their are going to look at and which not. Fourthly, they need to skim over the archival material in order to check which sources really comply with their research question. Lastly, they need to transcribe their sources. At different steps different challenges present themselves.

Step 1:

Before being able to look at sources pertaining to an institution, historians have to know where they are kept. In most instances researchers and archivists have already published where the written records of collegiate churches are today. Archivists are also usually helpful and able to give advice. It is more difficult to trace the complementary written records of the collegiate churches which weren’t kept in their archives. Since different actors were involved in the affairs of a collegiate church the archives of other institutions might also contain important historical records. The history of these archives can be quite complicated. For instance, the archive of the Further Austrian administration was partly captured by the French during early modern conflicts and the whereabouts of some historical records are still unknown. Luckily, this is the exception: The collegiate churches of my project were dissolved due to secularization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thus, their archives came into the possession of the German states as they were the legal successors of the collegiate churches. Naturally, archives can’t preserve everything but have to make a selection which sources they are going to keep. Hence, the sources still existing today are a result of the interests of nineteenth century archivists. As they mainly were concerned to safeguard the legal claims of the state as successor of the dissolved monasteries, especially administrative and legal documents were kept. In the case of some female collegiate churches it is possible to demonstrate that devotional sources were thrown away in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Most archives in Germany are owned by the state. But there are some exceptions: Companies, the church and noble families can also be responsible for their own private archives. For instance, the historical record of the monastery Riedern are kept in the „Fürstlich-Fürstenbergisches Archiv Donaueschingen“ (Princely archive of the family Fürstenberg in Donaueschingen). The family of Fürstenberg obtained the archive of the monastery Riedern in the eighteenth century. At this time, the monastery of Riedern still existed and the nuns always had to ask the prince whenever they needed to look something up in their archive. Thus, the state couldn’t secularize Riedern’s archive when they dissolved the monastery. As the archival material hasn’t left Donaueschingen for some centuries, the archive has a distinctive atmosphere. The archive is in an old building, the reading rooms are furnished with old antiques and some of the sources are spread throughout the room.

Step 2:

Knowing which archive stores relevant sources isn’t enough. Historians have to understand the structure of an archive in order to find what they need. There are two general sorting principles: the principle of provenance and pertinence. Today, the principle of provenance is preferred: Archival material should be stored according to its context of transmission. The principle entails not to rip apart sources originating from the same institution but to respect the original order the institution has established. In contrast, when organizing an archive based on the principle of pertinence archival material is arranged with regard to content. Classification criteria comply with what archivists at the time deemed reasonable e.g. to differentiate between acts and charters. As this principle was fashionable when many modern archives where created it is still highly influential. It is easy to imagine how much more confusing the principle of pertince is, when looking for material of a specific institution. For instance, Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe (general state archive Karlsruhe) has torn apart the charters monasteries and collegiate churches received and sorted the charters according to the issuer. Thus, charters issued by kings, popes and every other issuer are kept separately. Some archives use a mixture of both principles, e.g. the state archive Augsburg. The archival material of Lindau is categorized depending on the archive it originally came from. Parts of the archival material were kept in the state archive Munich because acts (Akten) and office books (Amtsbücher) of one institution had been separated and brought to different Bavarian state archives. In the 70s, the state of Bavaria decided to honour the principle of provenance and relocated archival material according to its origin.

Some archives look rather unassuming from the outside, but may hold fascinating sources… ((c) Simone Wagner)

Step 3:

Having arrived at an archive, historians have to decide which archival material they are going to look at. Sometimes it is possible to check all of the written records, especially regarding the female collegiate churches a manageable amount of sources survives. However, the male communities e.g. Ellwangen and Kempten have extensive written record. These communities had enough money to go to court often which obviously produces more sources than solving conflicts informally. Thus, historians have to restrict the number of archival material they are going to inspect. It varies greatly how precise the archival material is described, though. The city archive of Constance provides an excellent overview over their inventory. The content of every file is outlined extremely specifically. But in other cases, the description made by archivists is relatively vague, incorrect or fragmentary. Here are some examples: For instance, a compilation of letters by the abbess of Lindau is filed under the label „private and public letters“. Disregarding that it is anachronistic to distinguish between private and public in premodern times, all of the letters relate directly to the reign of abbess Amalia of Reischach. The compilation of letters was probably used as a model in form and content by her successors. In comparison to other descriptions the label „private and public letters“ was even useful. The only information usually given about cartularies is the dates they cover. Mostly, it is unclear whether a cartulary is relevant for my research question or not. Some inventories actually prove beneficial, e.g. the inventory of Säckingen’s record in „Sammlung schweizerischer Rechtsquellen (compilation of Swiss legal documents)“. But as the creators were only focused on matters relating to today’s Switzerland (Säckingen today is German) their overview is incomplete and can’t be solely relied upon. All of these deficiencies are normal considering archivists don’t have the time to study all of their historical record. Besides, some descriptions are quite old. Archivists couldn‘t foresee future research and might have been interested in different aspects than contemporary historians.

Step 4:

After a historian has narrowed down the archival material, they have to read the sources to ascertain their usefulness. Having found the right archival material it is helpful to copy some of it. Depending on the (German federal) state, the policy regarding photographs or scans differs. Switzerland has been a pioneer digitizing archival material and letting users take photographs. Until recently, the German federal states were wary of photographs and insisted on users making (quite expensive) copies. But the state of Bavaria, for instance, has changed its policy in the last six months and now allows photographs. According to some rumours the state of Baden-Württemberg wants to change their policy on photographs, too. Curiously, at the state archive Augsburg just one person at a time may photograph archival material which can lead to tensions between users. There is a German saying for situations like these: “Die Decke der Zivilisation ist dünn” (The ceiling of civilization is thin). Users sometimes behave like a pack of wolves fighting for the last piece of meat during an especially cold winter. A warning sign in Augsburg indicates that some users tried to steal archival material shortly before I visited it. Naturally, an archive is caught between making its content accessible and preserving it for future generations. The less archival material is used the safer it is. Some prefer to digitize the archival material so that the original isn’t touched anymore. However, the material aspect of the sources is lost in their digitized version.

Step 4/5:

At home, the sources have to be transcribed so that a researcher can read them carefully. Both step 4 and 5 require good paleographical knowledge. I’ve come across many different fonts since, for example, the languages Latin and German were written in different styles. The style used for Latin in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century is based on the Carolingian minuscule which has influenced our way of writing. Hence, it is relatively easy to read. The bigger obstacle are the frequently used abbreviations in Latin texts. In contrast, German is written in a cursive and quite hard to transliterate for an unskilled reader. Furthermore, the sources exhibit a range of different hands from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Some sources are only accessible through later copies. Unfortunately, their originals are lost. During early modern times, the German cursive became heavily ornate. Thus, some historians prefer to read fifteenth century texts to early modern ones. The quality of the handwriting also varies greatly. The copies and compilations are usually written quite carefully, as someone wanted to preserve their contents for future generations. However, the files resulting immediately of the administrative practice are scribbled more carelessly.


Working in an archive is like exploring alien worlds or eating a box of chocolates – You never know what you’re going to get. Historians can’t always predict what sources they will find. They are at the mercy of the written record still preserved in the archives. Though archivists are doing a great job making written records accessible and helping historians, visiting an archive still has a lot of difficulties in store. What constitutes the challenge of working in an archive is also its appeal. Sometimes my plan didn’t work out and my expectations weren’t met. In other cases, the quality of my trove exceeded my wildest hopes. The thrill of spotting fascinating sources makes it all worthwhile.

— Simone Wagner

Simone Wagner is a doctoral research in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in late medieval religious history, especially that of southern Germany.

Carmen González Gutiérrez in ARTE documentary

Carmen González Gutiérrez, a COFUND fellow associated with our project, recently contributed to a documentary by the French TV channel ARTE on Al-Andalus. The region was a medieval Muslim territory, which is now part of Spain. Carmen talked about the Great Mosque of Córdoba, now called Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, one of the most important sacred spaces in Spain. The mosque was a key feature of the medieval town and influenced the whole region for centuries. Indeed, as a space steeped in history and a major tourist attraction, it still shapes the city today. 

Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (Source: Wikipedia).