Documents and their limits: form, tone, semantics

As well as the ability to come at a document from a number of angles, historical imagination and dogged determination are needed to squeeze the last drop of information from any document. For the purposes of the documents featured on this website, the definition of a ‘document’ is either a primary source that is contemporaneous with the period or a secondary source which we can regard as commentary. In either case, it was a great historian of modern France, Richard Cobb (1917–96), who in his Modern French History in Britain (1974) said that the reader needs above all else a ‘willingness to listen to the wording of the document, to be governed by its every phrase and murmur . . . so as to hear what is actually being said, in what accent and in what tone’ (Cobb, 1974, p. 14). If, for example, we came across a source that appears personal, one that addressed, say, a fellow politician by his or her first name but where the content is generally unremarkable, then at first glance it is unhelpful, even irrelevant. Two things could happen, however, that might prompt a change of mind. The discovery or rereading of another source or sources may suddenly give cause to rethink the subject matter of our letter. The very fact that these two politicians are writing to each other – regardless of the subject – may provide the evidence that we need to prove that they had confidence in the judgment and trustworthiness of the other, something not directly revealed in the text of the letter.

There is then a method to working with documents. Mostly, this method consists of asking questions. The National Archives at Kew has provided a useful guide to approaching documents, which it presents in the form of questions which need to be addressed of any source:


  • What type of document is it?
  • Who produced it? Do you know anything about the author/creator?
  • When was it written/produced?
  • Why was it written/produced?


  • What are the key words and their meaning?
  • What points or arguments are made?
  • What values or attitudes does the content reflect?
  • How does the content relate to a given historical situation?
  • Are there any clues about the intended audience?
  • How reliable is the source and does it have any limitations?
  • How does it relate to other sources from this period? Does it share the same ideas, attitudes and arguments? How would you explain any differences between these sources?

In order to apply this method to a source we need to establish two things. First, we need to be sure what, broadly speaking, the piece is about, and in order to do that the document should be read in its entirety. Second, we need to know the date of the piece. Is the dating historically significant?

Who wrote the document? What was its intended audience? Let us have a look at a document that may look complicated but can yield much. It is an extract from a fifteenth-century Italian source, reproduced in Jacob Marcus’s The Jew in the Medieval World (1999). The narrator of the document is Hakkym ben Jehiel Cohen Falcon, a Jewish innkeeper in the Italian city of Pavia. Falcon’s wife left him and appealed to Christian neighbours for sanctuary. Because of this, she is suspected of sexual misconduct. It is not clear where the sexual misconduct is supposed to have happened, but we do know that he is appealing to the Jewish authorities for permission to take her back as his wife within the context of hallakha or Jewish law. This case is especially important in Jewish law, as Falcon is a Cohen (formally, a temple priest), and laws of purity and marriage are more extensive in his case than they would be in the cases of other Jews:

In order to relate everything that has happened to me I shall tell you in detail what my business is and I shan’t hide a thing from you, sir. Now this is the matter concerning which I make inquiry of my master: . . .

This appears immediately to be a petition of some sort and gives us some sense of to whom this is addressed. The language might suggest that the relationship between the petitioner, so to speak, and the petitioned, may be unequal. A little more preliminary research would also establish that the narrative is directed towards a Jewish court of three pious men and judges, called a Beth Din, and in particular towards the leading rabbinical authority in Italy, Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabotto (c. 1420– 80). Falcon establishes his own credentials and gives his version of the relationship he had with his wife:

For the past several years I have made my living as an innkeeper in Pavia, and this was my business up to the year 230 [sic] [1469] when my wife began to trouble me saying: ‘You’ve got to leave this business’, and she gave me some good reasons for it. After she had kept hammering away at me every day for about six months and I had paid no attention to her – I kept pushing her off – the quarrel between us regarding this affair reached its climax about the beginning of Adar 230 [February 1470]. While I was in the house teaching my daughter, my wife picked herself up right at noon, took all the silver vessels and her jewellery, and repaired to the house of a Gentile woman, a neighbour, to whom my wife went frequently. The woman used to sew linen clothes for me, for my household, and for the guests who used to come to my place. She was also my laundress.

The use of the Hebrew rather than Julian calendar may be ostentatious, designed to make an impression on the rabbis, or a genuine sign of some separateness from the Gentile community. We may need here to find out a little more about Pavia as a host for Jews at this time. Falcon has guests to his house and his clothes are repaired by a Gentile. This may say something about lack of separateness from the majority community, his wealth (is it typical?) and his religious observance. A strict interpretation of Jewish law may prevent a Gentile fixing the clothes of a pious Jew, although Falcon is perhaps self-consciously stressing linen and not clothes of mixed fibre. We may deduce that education is important in the world described here (‘I was in the house teaching my daughter’) and that women or girls have access to learning or, once again, this fact may have been inserted to impress the religious court. Might we also assume, given the audience, that he was teaching her the Torah or the Bible? If so, rabbinical teaching insists that nothing should interrupt the education of a child. He goes on:

My wife was in the house of this Gentile woman about half an hour before I inquired of my daughters where she had gone – for I was intent on teaching my daughter. Suddenly, however, my thoughts rose up and stirred me to ask my daughters: ‘Girls, where is your mother?’ They told me that she had gone outside and that my four year old little girl, holding her right hand, had gone with her. I thereupon went after her, seeing her in Jewish homes unsuccessfully, till my heart told me: ‘Go to the house of the Gentile; perhaps she’s staying there.’ So I turned in her direction and came to the house of the Gentile but found the door locked. I knocked and the husband of the woman opened the door at once, but when he saw that it was I, the husband of the woman who had just come into his home, he was distressed and tried to close the door, but he couldn’t, for I entered by force. When the auxiliary bishop, who was there, heard my voice, he said to me: ‘Come on in and don’t be afraid.’

Like a good Jew, Falcon looked for his wife first in the homes of his fellow Jews and only then went to the Christian home. Were the Christians located in a different quarter? Would consulting contemporary maps help us here? That he entered by force is interesting and again may say something about his status, if not the status of Jews more generally. That an ‘auxiliary bishop’ was present tells us something, but we really need to know more about the hierarchy of the church. ‘Come on in and don’t be afraid’ suggests that Falcon may indeed have something to fear:

There were present there, in addition to the auxiliary, two citizens, the bishop’s chaplain, and two Gentile women seated beside my wife, who was on a bench with her daughter in her arms. As I came into the house the auxiliary bishop said to me: ‘Is this your wife?’ and I answered: ‘Yes my lord’.

Who and what is the ‘bishop’s chaplain’? ‘Yes my lord’ sounds like deference. The narrative builds, although we must continue to remember the author of the narrative and those for whom it is intended to impress and for what reason. Now someone besides Falcon is afforded a voice:

‘According to what we now observe,’ he said, ‘another spirit has clothed your wife, who wishes to change her religion; therefore are we come to encourage her to turn to the Christian religion if she has really set her heart on it. If not, we advise her to return to her people and to her God.’

Some background is needed here on the sorry story of forcible conversions suffered by Jews in Christian Europe. Indeed in Pavia, there were moments in history when Jews were forced to wear a yellow cap, where some trades were forbidden to them and even, in 1597, expulsion. To prevent a Jew from converting to Christianity was a crime punishable by death. Before locating this exchange in that historiography, however, the last sentence uttered should give pause:

I then asked his permission to have an earnest talk with her in German, and he gave me permission to speak with her in any kindly way as long as I did not scold her. Now this is what I said to her: ‘Why have you come here and why don’t you return home?’ To which she answered: ‘I am going to stay here and I don’t care to return, for I don’t want to be mistress of a tavern’. ‘Come on, come on back,’ I said to her, ‘I have already promised you, you can do whatever your heart desires in this matter.’

They spoke in German. Why German? The Jewish community in Italy was almost alone in Europe in dating from before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), save for the Greek community which was decimated during the Second World War. The antiquity of the Jewish community in Italy meant that it predated the diaspora that went to Spain and Portugal (Sephardic) or Ashkenazim (German), who when expelled from England and then France headed further eastwards. Ashkenazim later joined these so-called Italkim or Italian Jews in the north of the country and, after the 1440s, were themselves joined by Sephardim who came to the south. This document dates from the 1460s and was situated in northern Italy. Rabbi Colon, for instance, was from a well- known French family and was Ashkenazi. Why then did Falcon converse in German, not even Yiddish it would seem? Certainly, it appears that it was a language understood by both himself and his wife but not by his Christian neighbours. Could Falcon have been a newcomer and might this have affected his status, both among Jews and Gentiles? Why was his wife (who seems to lack a name) so against being mistress of a tavern? (Judaism makes no prohibition against alcoholic drink, and its consumption is actually commanded during some festivals.) Now his wife was given a voice but (obviously) speaks through him:

‘You can’t fool me again’, she responded. ‘You’ve lied to me ten times and I don’t trust you.’ And as she was speaking to me after this fashion I said to her: ‘Why have you your little daughter in your arms?’ ‘Take your daughter and go’, she answered, and I took her in my arms. Then as I turned to go my way the auxiliary bishop said to me: ‘Look here, Falcon, don’t be disturbed about your wife. No pressure will be brought to bear on her. Nothing will be done in haste, but quietly, calmly, and with her consent. Before we make a decision in this matter we will place her in a cloistered spot, among virtuous nuns, where no man may enter. She’ll have to stay there forty days until she completes the period of her isolation and reflection – for this practice has been established by the founder of Christianity that one may determine what is in the heart of those who came to change their religion, and so in order to prevent confusion to Christianity.’

The liberal tone of this exchange was striking, as was the overt reference to her being in the care of ‘virtuous nuns’. There is a copious literature on this subject, but for now we press on with the narrative:

When I heard this as I turned homeward weeping as I went. My oldest daughter came out to meet me, and I told her all about the unseemly affair that had happened to me. She ran to her mother to find out what she had in mind. ‘Go back to the house and don’t be concerned, and don’t bother about me’, her mother told her. Whereupon the girl ran to a prominent Jewess and spoke to her. Behold, the entire conversation of this Jewess is recorded in a disposition that has been forwarded to you.

That the testimony of a ‘prominent Jewess’ was weighed in the balance may tell us something about the matri-focal nature of the community under review; it may be that the society was governed with the power of men, but it was run with women very much in mind. That he left weeping may tell us something about contemporary notions of masculinity.

The source breaks out from the narrow concerns of inter-Jewish interest (important as these may be historically), and becomes a document more concerned with Jewish/Christian relations. By the bishop saying ‘I’ll cross-question her in the presence of witnesses, as is meant to be done in such a case’, he is doing the work of the rabbis. Implicitly, even explicitly, he questions the wife regarding her sexual conduct since she left her husband, and with her answer, the cohenim laws of purity and propriety are satisfied. This may suggest some synergy between churchman and rabbinic Judaism, at least in their understanding of biblical text. At the very least it suggests a sympathy for Jewish sensibilities that were singularly absent across so much of the medieval period. It may be, moreover, a commentary on the social relationship of the communities in that particular place and in that particular time. This document may not be unique. Indeed, there are medieval sources that reveal Jews inviting Christians to celebrations such as a bar mitzvah, even if it attracted the opprobrium of the church itself.

Documents then can reveal much and can reveal different things depending on perspective and the questions that we ask of them. The document above is translated from Hebrew. It might have been Latin, if its origins were different. What do we do then with the problem of translation, and what if we are presented with evidence that is so sparse and undemonstrative that the historian is left piecing together evidence like a parlour room detective? Then we must read more and we must read wider.