Manuscripts and Men

C.V. Wedgwood assesses the impact of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1869-1969

In the opening scene of ‘The Rake’s Progress’ William Hogarth makes a graphic comment on the social significance of documents. The young heir stands half dazed with his mdden accession to wealth. On one side of him, the lawyer examines the title deeds with their dangling seals; on the other, the mother of the deserted girl clutches an apronful of his love letters. On the one side are the legal documents, with their evidence about property, inheritance and the material structure of society; on the other are the private papers, with all they have to tell of human feelings and human manners. The typical family archive is made up of these two kinds of document—the legal and the intimate, the impersonal and the personal. And where would our knowledge of history be of family archives, large and small, had not been preserved and handed down? Without the varied evidence that they supply, history, as we know it, would be no more than the record of public events, without life and almost without meaning.

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