Names and people in early modern sources

In my working capacity as the Oracle of the OBP Online, I was recently asked a question that went something like this (details changed):

I’m confused by all these results. If Robert Scott was hanged in 1765, who are all these other Robert Scotts? And some of them are after 1765?!

This is at first glance a slightly daft question – well, obviously, they’re all different people but with the same name, aren’t they? (The question also contains a common misconception about the source, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) And yet, at the same time, it’s not really silly at all.

They might not all be different people. In our database of the names in the OBP there are 142 instances of the name ‘Robert Scott’ (including slight spelling variations). (Mind you, this is nothing compared to a name like John Smith, which occurs more than 4000 times.) How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?

And this is without even starting on the problem that a significant proportion of those appearing at the Old Bailey were known by more than one name, and some had a string of aliases and nicknames. Oh, and the reporters (or printers…) sometimes got people’s names – even those of defendants – just plain wrong.

In other words, identifying the relationship between names and people in early modern sources is often extremely tricky, and the question ‘who the hell are all these Robert Scotts?’ isn’t so daft. Which is just as well, really, because this is precisely the kind of problem that’ll be keeping me in work for the next couple of years.

This isn’t just of concern to family historians trying to work out whether someone is really their ancestor or not. Most historians have to make these linkages, ask these questions, at some time or another in the course of their research. Most of us do it on a small scale by hand; a more select group do it on the large scale with computers and algorithms. I’ll hopefully post about both of these later. But in both cases, the process relies on weighing up and ranking probabilities.

Sometimes the answer, either way, is so obvious that the question doesn’t even need to be consciously formed. But at the other end of the scale, there are times when it’s impossible ever to know because you simply don’t have enough information, especially if a name is very common and you have very little contextual information besides the name itself. And I’m sure other historians will have encountered those frustrating borderline cases: if those documents are all referring to the same person, you have a great story. But are you certain enough to rest a serious argument on that identification?

It’s true, for example, that death is a clincher: if you know this Robert Scott died in 1765, then he can’t be the same person as that Robert Scott mentioned in records as alive and well in 1775. (At the other end of the life-cycle, birth is equally conclusive, of course.)

But are you sure he died?

The OBP doesn’t in fact tell you that Robert was hanged (this is the misconception I mentioned above); like archival records from early modern criminal courts, it normally records only the sentence that was passed. But many people sentenced to death in the 18th century were reprieved or pardoned. Unless you have corroborating evidence that the execution was carried out (this does occasionally appear in OBP), you need to be cautious.

So a Robert Scott in the database after 1765 could be the same guy after all. Told you it was tricky.

(To be continued…)

A few links (because the place just isn’t the same without them):

The linkage of historical records by man and computer (JSTOR subscription required)
A discourse on method, historical knowledge and information technology
Reconstructing historical communities
AHDS guide

(X-posted at The Long Eighteenth.)

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7 Responses to Names and people in early modern sources

  1. Gavin says:

    I’m dealing with the same problem in something I’m working on. I’m thinking that instead of trying to come up with a best fit by calculating probabilities I’ll try to get a minimum and maximum number of individuals in the lists. eg how many people in total if the same name was always the same person, or if it was always different people. That just happens to be appropriate for the article I’m writing and the main source that it’s based on, but would obviously be no use for the OBP.

    Then there’s trying to identify place names and assign them to the correct county…

  2. quinn says:

    Good post. I remember working on the story of a labor leader named James Johnson. Same problem. Is it my James Johnson???

    I’m getting ready to teach Early Modern history for the first time (I’m a 20th C specialist), so I’ll be back for more. Thanks.

  3. Oddly, this is much of what I do, except that my people have only one name, and sometimes that name is spelled three different ways in one document. Occasionally, you get someone whose name is relatively uncommon for the area, like Hrabanus or Megingoz, and there’s a ton of scholarship out there on leading names and leading name elements, but even then, most of what I work with requires recognizing people within groups. To a certain extent, lots of very good German scholars have done much of the groundwork, but there are disagreements among the best. The most telling difference between your records and mine, I expect is sheer volume. On the other hand, I wonder if the EM scribes and notaries (or whatever you call them — clerks?) were better about adding descriptors, e.g., Robert Scott, who resided in Cheapside, and then some other description within the case that might point to some kind of regularly kept records? I’m very unfamiliar with court cases, except for the Rykener case. The testimony there gave John/Eleanor’s history, IIRC.

  4. Sharon says:

    Yes, you do tend to get extra information in court records – mainly about occupation or status and where people live. Unfortunately it’s not always very accurate. Years ago, for example, it was pretty much established that in theft indictments the place given for the defendant is often merely the place where the theft took place (the wording is quite vague – ‘John Smith late [ie, recently] of such and such place’), and to be certain that it was his/her residence you really want corroboration from other documents. And they tend to use very broad descriptors like ‘labourer’ which can cover a multitude of unskilled occupations (or may even be intended to be slightly negative – I’ve seen men described as labourer in indictments who are given a higher status descriptor such as a skilled trade in other documents). More information is always good, of course, but it can sometimes create as many questions as it answers…

  5. I was thinking of the opportunities for cross-referencing. At least if the record said ‘John Smith, draper of London’ there might be a chance to look him up in the guild archives.

  6. Sharon says:

    That’s right. Must get round to writing the next installment to discuss this more…

  7. Tim says:

    Sort of problem I had when tracing one Richard Knight through your incomparable OBP. From what I can make out, was sentenced in 1821 for theft, but only received a light sentence because of his youth; turned up at the Old Bailey again ca 1824 (sorry, don’t have my notes with me), sentenced to swing, but was reprieved and sent to Botany Bay, where he seems to have talked his way into being a personal servant of a free settler, claimed that he was sent on a timber trade to the Hokianga in NZ, where he vanished, turning up as an employee of the Fishbourne Maori/Pakeha settlement in the Coromandel; from there he was sent on another voyage across the Pacific, shipwrecked at Tabua with one other survivor, lived with the locals, until rescued by a missionary vessel, arrived back in London, in 1832, where he was recognised and sentenced to hang yet again. Records of the Fishbourne family landholdings exist, together with a possible missionary mention of his rescue, but the rest of the story rests on 3 cases involving a Richard Knight – with no indication apart from the chronological order of the cases.
    Knowing Magwitch’s fears in Great Expectations, he may well have swung

    But is it the same Richard Knight?

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