By Danièle Cybulskie
Of the millions of people who’ve lived on Earth, we know barely a fraction of their names. Even in periods in which thorough records were kept, time, the elements, and human actions have eroded our stockpile of documents, leaving us with just a few remembered names from the past. There are a few things that medieval people did that increased their odds of their names surviving, and they happen to be things moderns can do if they want to be remembered, too.
1. Get Arrested
Most of the ordinary medieval people whose names we now know have been discovered in official, legal documents. These could be ecclesiastical records (in which people were charged with fornication, adultery, and other sinful deeds), or manorial records (in which people made and resolved complaints about their neighbours’ misdeeds), or court records (in which people appeared for big crimes, like murder). If a peasant committed a crime, it was recorded, and many of these records have survived due to where they were stored and who stored them. After all, government property is government property, and that tends to be respected except in cases of great social upheaval, like the French Revolution.
Legal documents have revealed some fascinating medieval people, such as John Rykener, a prostitute who worked dressed as both a man and as a woman. Without this arrest record, we would have no knowledge of Rykener; with it, we have both his name, and a very interesting case study.
2. Write a Memoir
It’s true that most medieval peasants were illiterate, but that didn’t stop Margery Kempe from commissioning someone to write her biography. Kempe’s story is one of marriage, pilgrimage, and the quest for greater spiritual understanding – it is also a record of one woman’s attempts to be as saintly as she possibly could be, while annoying her neighbours ceaselessly. Anyone who has read The Book of Margery Kempe will tell you that Kempe is unforgettable, and, doubtless, the medieval pilgrims who left her behind because of her incessant weeping would say so, too. Luckily, she has given us all a chance to remember her by having her story written down.
Medieval people sometimes got bored. Sometimes, they even got bored in church. As a result, they wrote things on any available surface. Sometimes, they even left us a record of their names. Because it’s never smart for a graffiti artist to leave enough information (time, date, address, etc.) for them to be tracked down, this is not as informative a method as the two above, but historians can make some pretty impressive inferences based on the script and the location of the graffiti. Either way, tagging a church or The Tower of London will ensure that later generations are thinking about you as they sit where you once sat.
4. Make a Selfie
Imagine sitting and copying books all day, every day, knowing that your hard work is likely to go uncredited. Considering most copyists were monks, you’d think this wouldn’t be an issue, but clearly some monks had trouble resisting the temptation to make themselves known, leaving their pictures and their names in the books they copied. The incomparable Erik Kwakkel has written extensively on medieval selfies, and you can find his blog post (and its amazing pictures) here.
5. Be Rich and Famous
This kind of goes without saying, but if you want to be remembered by history, you usually have to be rich and/or famous, or lucky. Since luck is something that can’t be acquired (or maybe I just haven’t yet learned the secret), being rich and famous works pretty well. We have plenty of information on the nobility of the Middle Ages because they left behind receipts, genealogies, proclamations, letters, literature, and art. Being rich and famous increased their luck in terms of being remembered, as there were more records left; even if some were destroyed, others would remain. If a person wasn’t rich (like the Medicis), she could be remembered by being – well, unforgettable, like Joan of Arc. The more documents in which someone appeared, the more likely we are to have discovered them.
It’s interesting to think of the possibilities future historians have for mining our own lives as we leave large, digital footprints every day. While we have a better chance of being remembered through channels that aren’t illegal, it’s fortunate that we have been able to find the number of medieval names and stories we have, largely through these five means.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.