Our first seminar update of the new term…
At our latest Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, Dr Jonathan Fitzgibbons made a strident attack on what is still one of the key texts for historians studying the last days of the Cromwellian Protectorate, John Towill Rutt’s edited version of The Diary of Thomas Burton Esq.
The diary records parliamentary proceedings – such as speeches or committee meetings – from 1656 to 1659, and was edited and published by Rutt in 1828. With no Hansard to record proceedings at that time, diaries made by MPs in the chamber are a key source for historians of the Interregnum. Fitzgibbons began with Thomas Carlyle’s attack on Rutt’s edition immediately after publication; the diary was ‘dull’ and full of useless ‘rubbish’. But whilst Carlyle’s editions from the period, such as the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell are now seen by historians as unreliable, Rutt’s edition is still widely used after it was reprinted in the 1970s. The text is now available for free on the internet via British History Online.
However, Dr Fitzgibbons’ research suggests that the published text is actually substantially different from the original manuscript. During the editing process, Rutt discovered another parliamentary diary of the period, that of Guibon Goddard, which he drew upon to add detail to Burton’s text. Unfortunately, Rutt rarely tells his readers when he is quoting from which source! Fitzgibbons demonstrated several occasions where Rutt combined two reports of the same speech into one; the result is that many MPs’ speeches often sound contradictory and extremely repetitive, as if they were time-wasting. This, Fitzgibbons believes, has led to a substantial misunderstanding of the third and final protectorate parliament in 1659. Seen as the most divisive of the parliaments, historians have stressed the filibustering tactics of some members, relying largely on Rutt’s edition to support this claim.
With such an attack on a source regularly used by many historians, discussion afterwards was lively. Several people noted that Burton’s diary was still one of the most comprehensive accounts of the period, and others wanted to discover just how far Fitzgibbons’ research would undermine the current picture of the third protectorate parliament. Further discussion centred on the nature of diaries (and edited diaries) themselves as sources: whether they were compiled by one person; when they were actually written (in the chamber or outside, for example) or how much embellishment has been added later.
For more on parliamentary diaries as a source, read Vivienne Larminie’s earlier blog ‘Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries’ or news of the History of Parliament’s ‘1624 Parliamentary Diaries’ project, which is looking to produce a definitive edition of the proceedings of both Houses of the 1624 parliament.