FIELDWORK: THE LANDSCAPE
Many local histories, even the best, have one remarkable failing, and that is their complete neglect of what may be called the visual evidence of the past. You may ransack every source you can think of, printed and manuscript, in all the conceivable record offices in England and in your own district: but this is by no means the end of the story. There is scarcely a parish or a town history that sets out to tell us in one self-contained chapter what the place looks like. Even some of the best local historians think that all history is to be found in documents of one sort or another. They completely overlook the visible evidence all around them, the evidence of their own eyes. The prehistorian who is dealing with a period before there are any written documents, or the Romano-British archaeologist who has very few documents to help him, is forced to use this visual evidence. He digs for it, or finds it in the local museum, and whatever he finds he examines minutely; and he treats every fragment as a piece of evidence. But the historian dealing with periods of time when, generally speaking, there are abundant documents, completely forgets this valuable visual evidence and falls into the delusion that all history can be found in books and documents. Another delusion is that unless some piece of visual evidence can be confirmed or supported by some document it is not worthy of serious consideration. Let me give one illustration of what I mean. There is a first-class history by R. P. Chope of the large parish of Hartland in North Devon. This book was the fruit of a lifetime of research in the local records and among the records in the British Library and the Public Record Office in London. All this was well put together and the book is crammed with
information. It so happens that this parish is full of the most interesting farmhouses dating in the main from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though I suspect that some of them are in part medieval if only one explored them systematically. Several of these interesting houses stand on sites which are recorded as far back as Domesday Book. There surely should have been a whole chapter devoted to these fascinating houses: but there is nothing. They are as much historical evidence as anything written on paper, more valuable in fact than much that we get from documents because they cannot tell lies. They tell us facts about the past life of the parish that no written record ever set out to do, Mainly, of course, because the facts were too commonplace at the time to be considered worthy of record. People took their houses, their rooms, and the way they were furnished, completely for granted without reflecting about them in any way, in precisely the same way that we do our own houses. This is only one example of the kind of evidence that ought to go into every good local history.