My local library is known in the region as focusing on local history and genealogy. When the pandemic started to really affect public life when the stay at home order was issued, the regional library system asked for people to consider keep journal and diaries and give them to the library to document daily life during “these unprecedented times”. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend (socially distanced of course) about travel and keeping a journal to keep track of places or experiences to potentially return to. This has got me thinking about how we know some of what we do about daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance through diaries, shared books (with marginal notes and conversations), letters, and the types of written communication that aren’t often considered in a literary sense.
Most of what survives is not from everyday people, since the middle and lower classes would likely have not had the time, education, and/or materials to use for leisure or social written communications. Adding to this the probability that history was unlikely to have had much interest in preserving such records over time if they existed, and you end up with plagues that have a much stronger record in literary sources (mostly featuring the upper classes) such as Boccaccio’s Decameron or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet than in non-fictional sources. That’s not to say such sources have not survived, they have, but these records have received far less attention as literary and historical documents. In today’s social media saturated world, it’s pretty easy to find all kinds of stories and experiences directly related to the pandemic, but it’s a very different situation for historical plagues and other society changing events pre-mass media.
So this brings up the question to me about the travel journal I’ve kept the past several summers, mostly for conferences, and the quarantine journal I started back in March. Had COVID-19 not happened, I would be on my way to the UK for about 2 ½ weeks of travel and conferences, and I would have brought with my travel journal since both locations (Durham and Leeds) are places I’ve been before. Besides trying to schedule and map out days, most of my notes have to do with travel routes and methods, and favored food/drink or shopping stops. I remember a few years ago in London, taking note of a favorite bubble tea place (including the street address) and then going back there the following year, only to find a fried chicken joint in its place. The note from the following year reads “UpT (keep notes! J) now fried chicken place L”. Thinking back on that, I have to wonder what or how someone else looking at that note might have understood it. I’ve worked with enough manuscripts to know the challenges that come first with deciphering the words and handwriting, and then interpreting them and figuring out the context and meaning. I also think back to a book I vaguely remember titled Motel of the Mysteries that is about archeologists in the 41st century future discovering and trying to interpret a motel from the 20th century; the only bit I remember is the detail that a toilet seat was considered to be a ceremonial headdress.
So, on to the quarantine journal. What stood out to me most was that at first I was using sentences and fuller phrases, but the last 6 weeks or so have been mostly lists. For example, entry #1 dates 3/20 includes the following:
-Not full isolation start b/c HVAC and bug guys & trip to WalMart (measure tape for knit) & car wash
-3m run went pretty well; did some sweeping & a little yard stuff
-Stinky pretty cooperative
Three months later, the entry for 6/20 looks like this:
-Class prep and revs
– pie start
I can think of all kinds of probable questions from someone who wasn’t familiar with my daily life and general abbreviations. For example, who or what is Stinky, what’s 3m, what does ‘kitty’ mean, why is there ‘pie start’ and ‘pie fin’ (what’s fin?) with something in between, what’s ‘revs’, etc. All this of course assumes you can read my casual cursive.
What also stands out is that there’s virtually nothing here about the pandemic; it’s all basically daily life. There’s no real reason to keep this kind of record except that it’s something to do, and it might be interesting to me later on for some reason. I have a hard time thinking that someone else at a later might get something useful or meaningful out of this. This suggests to me that it’s possible that this sort of reasoning may be part of the reason why texts like Boccaccio’s don’t feature as much about the actual plague, beyond the preface.
I’m also starting to think about potentially using something like this as a class exercise. It’s pretty common for students in literature classes, even the required intro surveys, to focus on finding “the meaning” of whatever they’ve been asked to read. Here’s my thinking: have students keep some kind of journal for about a week, and then in class on the last day, have them switch possibly not know whose they’ve got, and then ask for interpretations. This might be a valuable exercise in considering how intentional meaning might be, as well as hopefully providing the point that sometimes the meaning is on the reader not the writer, and not everything needs a deeper point, sometimes the surface is right. I think that perception, that there’s always a deeper meaning in something literary, can prevent students in some cases from enjoying a reading assignment.
Obviously this would all need more careful thought, organization, and focus before actually implementing such an assignment. I do think though that some kind of literature to history to everyday documentation exercise would have value and interest for students, especially in a time when the world seems unpredictable and new and not very welcoming. Doing something like this fairly early in the term might be helpful to get students thinking about how they approach textual interpretation, and hopefully humanize the texts they read later on a bit more.
Since history and literature both require information and interpretation, and these sorts of documents often become important records for how most people understand the past, I realize that how my personal journals might be taken in the future is not predictable, but that too is a feature of working with this kind of writing. The intent and meaning of when it’s made might differ substantially later on. I still don’t think the library system would be interested in my quarantine journal though, but then again maybe that’s what the letter writers of the Middle Ages thought at the time too.