From the Archives: Patrick Debrosse, PhD Candidate visits the Archives départementales de la Haute-Vienne in Limoges, France

Patrick DeBrosse –  History department PhD Candidate (Cohort 2017-18) working with Dr. Nicholas L. Paul – is currently working on his dissertation, entitled: “Adorned with the Ring of St. Valerie”: History, Lyric, and Political Culture in the Limousin under Angevin Rule, 1154-1215.” In this week’s From the Archives, Patrick shares some of his experiences while researching at the

What is your current research on?

My doctoral dissertation examines the political culture of the Limousin region of France (around Limoges) in the aftermath of the region’s annexation into the Angevin Empire, a polity ruled by the kings of England during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. I attempt to use the writings of monks and the songs of troubadours to understand how medieval imperialism worked at a local level. I am particularly interested in the effect that living in a large empire had on Limousin expressions of identity, constructions of history, and perceptions of the wider world.

My research in the summer of 2022 focused on my chapter which explores the construction of history within the Limousin. I want to understand which new historical stories interested the people of the Limousin during the Angevin period, how Limousin monks and troubadours used history to reinforce their political values, and ways that Limousin authors reinvented old historical stories to maintain their relevance in a new era. A major goal of my summer research was to investigate the figure of St. Valerie, a woman venerated as an ancient martyr within the Limousin. 

What archive(s) did you visit and can you describe the archive a little?

One of the archives I visited this past summer was the Archives départementales de la Haute-Vienne in Limoges, France. This is a small archive run by the local government on the outskirts of the city. I went for the medieval material, but they had much more that would have been of interest to scholars of early modernity and modernity. 

The building is fairly inconspicuous from the main street (there is a lining of trees), and the signs are small, so it can be easy to miss: it took me a minute to convince myself that I was in the right place. The inside, however, is very clean and well-maintained, and a lot of the things inside looked relatively new. You are supposed to register for a research pass before you arrive. After you deposit your bag in the lockers by the entrance, you can pick up your pass at the main desk (straight ahead, at the end of the corridor and through the doors).  

The staff is smaller than you would find at a major archive, but large relative to the number of researchers that I saw working. There are usually at least two staff behind the desk to assist you. None of them seemed to be fluent in English, but if you (like me) struggle with spoken French, they are very patient should you need to write down the French or use a translator app on your phone. You choose your own seat, and are allowed to take photographs.

To request documents/manuscripts, you write the information on a paper slip in pencil. They will bring the box/folder to you at your seat when it is ready, but only one at a time. When you are finished with one box/folder, you can return it to the cart at the desk, hand the staff member the accompanying slip, and receive your next item. There are charging ports built into the research desks, but I did have trouble fitting my Apple laptop charger into them (it was too bulky to fit into the cubby). They also have a couple of rows of desktop computers. 

A particularly useful part of this archive are the open-shelf printed materials that line two walls of the reading room. These include print catalogs which are mostly digitized, but which are easier to skim in hard copy. They also include a number of rarer local history resources, such as a complete set of the Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique du Limousin

 What was the most exciting part of your archival trip?

For me, the most exciting part of the trip was seeing some of the autograph notes written by the monk Bernard Itier. The vast majority of the material I work with survives only in later copies, but in the case of Bernard, it is possible to find the original, handwritten notes that he wrote into the blank spaces of other manuscripts. It is really great to see these notes in person, since even though some of the notes are edited, the materiality of the notes is not always clear to me. In this archive, I got to see several small documents that Bernard had used almost as scrap paper: charters, chirographs, etc. This material context allows me to imagine Bernard’s writing practices much better than I could without seeing them for myself.

What was a challenge you encountered during your research? How did you overcome it?

It was unbearably hot during my time in Limoges (I think it was close to the all-time record high in France). Since my hotel was a far walk, and there was no feasible transit alternative, I had to time my walks very carefully so that I was not risking heat stroke at the peak hours of sunlight. It also meant that I had to acquire sunscreen and a hat, and figure out which routes to the archive took me through the most shade. Since I didn’t want to walk all the way back to town in the heat at lunchtime, I had to get smarter about planning my meal times and packing snacks in my bag to eat in the coffee area. Plenty of water was key. And (at the risk of TMI), I had to make sure that I didn’t request my manuscripts too quickly when I arrived, since the last thing you want is to get sweat on something from the twelfth century.

What’s a good museum to visit while in Limoges?

The Musée des Beaux Arts was incredible. It is right next to the cathedral (which hosts food and antique fairs during the summer), and it has a really nice garden with a view of the city behind it. The building is the old bishops’ palace, and is stunning. The exhibits range from Roman and medieval artifacts (in the basement) to paintings to enamel artworks. Enamel is the artistic medium for which Limoges is famous, and I absolutely loved seeing their displays show the evolution of the art form from the twelfth century to the twentieth century. It was very cool. 

Did you receive any funding to support your research?

The GSAS Mary Magdalene Impact Fellowship.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing historical research?

Talk to as many people as possible first: all our best ideas usually flow from conversations with friends and mentors. 

A French meal. Patrick’s argument for researching in France. 

From the Archives is a special series for the Fordham History blog which highlights the research experiences of members of the history department in an effort to both showcase their work and provide insight for future researchers preparing for their own archival projects.

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