Hidden Treasures for Historical Research

by B.J. Sedlock

This article briefly highlights sources historical novelists can use in their research: digitized documents/images that are available on the internet for free, and print or online resources that could be useful to generate story ideas.

Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive

Stained glass window from the Cathedral of Reims.

Stained glass window from the Cathedral of Reims.

Do you need an example of a medieval artist’s rendering of what a dragon was supposed to look like? Try this website: www.therosewindow.com. It’s labeled, “The Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive,” with copyright credit to Painton Cowen, who also authored the book The Rose Window, published in 2005 by Thames & Hudson.

Cowen has gathered on this website a multitude of photographs of medieval stained glass, primarily from English and French churches and cathedrals. Once you click on “go to the archive,” the next page emphasizes that the work is protected by copyright, but allows for educational and research use. If you agree to those terms, you then click through to the images. Many are large enough to see details, though a few are rather small.

I think the biggest benefit of the site is that the images are searchable by subject.  Once you click on “search by subject,” you can choose “non-religious subjects,” and then choose among stained glass images of dragons, peasants, money, clothing, etc. There are also certain themes, such as “death.”

Another interesting feature available on the site allows you to select a particular church, such as Wells Cathedral. A schematic of the building is displayed, allowing you to click and view the windows in sequence.

While beautiful and fascinating simply to view, this site should prove extremely valuable to authors researching art created in the Middle Ages, or even those seeking depictions of certain medieval characters in their novels.

Mrs. Astor’s Horse
Libraries and bookstores contain print resources that may not, at first glance, look like useful historical source material. For example, if you came across this book, you might dismiss it without looking inside, since the title page gives little clue to the contents:

Mrs. Astor's Horse

Mrs. Astor’s Horse

The title refers to the expression, “Who do you think you are, Mrs. Astor’s pet horse?,” comparing someone who’s putting on airs to a pampered beast belonging to one of America’s elite families.

Stanley Walker, the book’s author and editor of the New York Herald Tribune, presents 1920s and 30s pop culture as only a cynical big-city editor could have done. “Swank in the Bathroom” tells the reader about the state of American plumbing. Another chapter discusses the trend of high society ladies endorsing commercial products. “Victoria and the Moderns” describes 1930s interior design in detail. Walker also laments a culinary trend of strange food combinations found on tea room menus, such as English monkey or lamb in ambush.

Although it lacks both footnotes and bibliography, Mrs. Astor’s Horse could help an author needing story ideas. Does your 1930s romance novel need a scene where the couple clashes over a meal? How about having the man be disgusted by a tea room’s odd menu? Does your fashionable protagonist secretly need money during the Depression to keep up her position in society? Consult Walker’s chapter on endorsements among the elite.

Libraries are packed with resources such as these that historical novelists may have difficulty finding, or may not realize could be of use. Future columns will highlight books and websites containing hidden treasures for researchers.

About the contributor: B.J. SEDLOCK is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

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