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‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Has Stirred Up a Craze for Old French Documents

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When Taylor Swift shared the promotional images for her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, which came out on April 19, the album’s styling was distinctly vintage: monochrome photographs, handwritten text, songs dedicated to historical figures, and a big payoff song called “The Manuscript.” Swift fans have long been aware of her interest in journaling and scrapbooking, and this double album presents itself as a kind of intimate journal or memory book. It references personal struggle and hard times alongside professional triumph, while marking that phase as past.

Swifties around the world rushed to celebrate the album, scouring the internet for images and objects that would allow them to capture TTPD’s vibe and aesthetic. They didn’t have to look far. 

In the past five years, e-commerce sites like eBay and Etsy have been flooded with original 18th and 19th century French legal manuscripts. These documents are hand-written in period French calligraphy on creamy linen rag paper. Each page was inscribed with a quill, using batch-made oak gall ink. Some have original stamps that show that a paper tax had been paid. Scrapbookers, DIY experts, journaling fans, and calligraphy enthusiasts love their aesthetics, and they snap up these hand-written pages, fashioning them into mood-boards, pasting them behind family photos, and seeing them as nostalgic evocations of bygone eras or emblematic of the Swift album vibe.

These legal manuscripts are sold as crafting ephemera today, but for hundreds of years they were intended to be a lasting, permanent record, and served as an essential tool for ordinary people. They provide at best incongruous backdrops for family photos and vacation memories. Even the most mundane of these documents could — and often did — involve intense negotiation, conflict, and emotional drama. But more crucially, in imagining legal documents as disposable, we reveal our own tenuous understanding of the ways that rights and privileges have been used and defended in the past.

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The vast majority of the manuscripts for bulk sale online are historic French notarial documents, created by public officials called “notaires,” or notaries, who have been part of the French legal landscape for hundreds of years. From the 16th century, notarial documents were a tool of the state, enabling the judicial and administrative system to function, and giving average Frenchmen and women the ability to manage both key life events and everyday interactions. People asked notaries to make records of “what happened,” often just in case a dispute arose in the future. The manuscripts offered written proof of legal contracts, enforceable for decades after they were written.  

The work of notaries became an extraordinarily routine and stable part of French life, and people of all ranks paid them to record many life transactions. If an artisan needed to borrow money for his business or his daughter’s dowry, he could ask a notary to connect him with a lender and record the transaction. Notaries helped parents of brides and grooms in negotiating marriage contracts that established the size of the dowry, when it would be paid, and how the woman would be supported if she was widowed. Landlords and tenants often recorded leases with a notary. A notary would write a will and might even draft it at the bedside of the dying person.

But occasionally notarial manuscripts documented other, less routine things. An unmarried couple might reach a settlement about an untimely pregnancy and have a notary endorse their agreement about what to do with their child. A will that freed an enslaved person would be written and witnessed by a notary. Formerly enslaved spouses might ask a notary to record their desire to make each other their heirs, a strategic choice which allowed them to preserve their property and successfully navigate the complexities of living as a free Black person in the French state. The services provided by notaries offered ordinary people — including marginalized, vulnerable people, whose voices are so often lost, ignored, or elided in the historical record — a way to make valid legal claims.

This expansive and crucial role remained consistent over centuries. 

Notaries and their clients took the records they produced seriously, and the manuscripts were supposed to be kept safe. The people who paid for their notarized documents took a copy home, where they could consult them again if needed. Notaries kept a version, too, and they were charged with keeping copies of every document they endorsed in their working lifetimes. At their death, a notary’s records were supposed to pass to the next officeholder, who would keep them safe and in good condition. 

In time, official notarial copies were deposited with archives all over France, where family members and researchers alike can still consult them. Notarial manuscripts are a valuable source of information, providing the basis for countless scholarly books and articles. They offer us a clearer understanding of the ways that regular, everyday people lived their lives.

In recent years, however, these 18th and 19th century French notarial manuscripts have also shown up online. It is not always clear where or how the documents made their way onto the market.

Selling notarial manuscripts, especially when the parties are long dead, might seem to offer little harm and a possible modest return. One online retailer said he was selling his father’s collection and didn’t know anything about it. Several professed to have bought them in flea markets, antique stores, boot sales, and second-hand shops in France. Others purchased them online.

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For many people, these are thrilling discoveries. One seller described the excitement of finding “a 19th century French ledger full of handwritten entries” at an antiques fair. Another enthused to her customers that some documents she had unearthed were, “written a 100 years before the Declaration of Independence in America.”

These pitches find a receptive audience among scrapbookers and Swifties, with their love of History, storytelling, and memory. Whether they are making junk journals or social media posts, notarial documents offer a unique visual appeal. If anything, the inability to read their French text enhances the allure of the documents. In an interview, Kay Holder of KaysVintageEphemera praised their “romantic perhaps Mysterious look,” while another Etsy shop owner described them on her page as “ABSOLUTELY beautiful” and “perfect for framing, scrapbooking, mixed media work as well as decoupage.” She “just LOVE[s] the old calligraphy and all the official ink stamps and seals.”

Some crafters and scrapbookers do worry about the effect of tearing, ripping, and cutting old, historic manuscripts. Ulrika von Wowern, owner of the Etsy shop UlrikasMiniatyrer, wondered to us, “What happens when there are no historical documents left?”

But, largely, crafters see themselves as preserving History, and an antidote to today’s fast paced world. In an interview, Elisabeth P. of ZabPaperLover told us she saw the documents as a remnant from a time when “we wanted things to be well made, neat and nice” in contrast to today when “nothing is handwritten.”

Yet, the dichotomy between their modern use and their historical purpose can be jarring.

People in 18th and 19th century France made and kept these documents because they literally offered guarantees of legal protections in a precarious world—whether to document something as mundane as a small financial transaction or as monumental as granting someone freedom. But by reducing the documents to backdrops for family photos and vacation memories, we reveal our ignorance of and our widespread casualness about the past. These manuscripts might look pretty, but they document some of History’s many injustices toward vulnerable people. It’s a risk that Taylor Swift herself is attuned to. “Nostalgia is a mind trick,” she sings in “I Hate it Here,” a song musing about whether life in a different time (past or future) would have been better: “If I’d been there, I’d hate it.”

Julie Hardwick is the John E. Green Regents professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789 (Oxford University Press, 2020). Amanda E. Herbert is associate professor of early modern Americas at Durham University. Her most recent book, Spa Medicine and Body Politics in the British Atlantic World, is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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