Biographical and genealogical research

How to discover the lost MSS of Ms Perdita Amissa

Our imaginary author is female in part because this makes her an especially difficult case, letters and other documents belonging to women being less likely to have been preserved. Moreover, as Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, noted in her autobiography, even amongst those of upper rank, women's position was liable to be occluded: 'neither did I intend this piece for to delight, but to divulge, not to please the fancy, but to tell the truth, lest after-Ages should mistake, in not knowing I was daughter to one Master Lucas of St. John's neer Colchester in Essex, second Wife to the Lord Marquis of Newcastle, for my Lord having had two Wives, I might easily have been mistaken, especially if I should dye, and my Lord Marry again': Natures Pictures (London, 1656), p. 392.

From a modern perspective, however, male aristocrats with their shifting titles can seem just as elusive, and research into early modern archives highlights the extent to which public identity was not tied down in the manner of a modern democratic state to an individual, alphabetically ordered set of personal names. Surviving material on those both male and female from lower down the social scale is always fragmentary. While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the quantity of archival material from the past that survives, we also need to be aware of the mechanisms by which some kinds of document might be excluded and of ways in which the occasional vagrant could then still be preserved: on this question see David Greetham, 'The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion', Studies in the Literary Imagination, 32 (1999), 1-28.

For biographical research the Bodleian is a wonderful resource, and it also includes many materials from other archives on microfilm, listed in a printed guide available in reading and catalogue rooms. Much of this material is to be found on open shelves in Duke Humfrey and in the Lower Reading Room, where there are many national and international biographical dictionaries, notably Michaud's Biographie Universelle, B3.4.
There is much further archival material available on film in the British Library manuscript room.
For a guide to archival material on film or fiche see Michael E. Cornett, 'Working the Early Modern British Archive: Some Problems and Solutions of Access with a Checklist of Microfilm Sources', Ben Jonson Journal, 5 (1998), 167-200; and see also Exploring Literary Manuscripts within this site, and also the History, Genealogy and Local History section.

Did she make a will?

Research into wills has been revolutionized by the availability of an easily-searched online index of wills at the National Archives (formerly Public Record Office), Kew, which can be downloaded for a fee. However, many women did not make wills and there are many local anomalies: for a guide see Anthony J. Camp, Wills and their Whereabouts (Canterbury, 1963), and on questions of gender and property see Maria L. Cioni, Women and the Law in Elizabethan England with Particular Reference to the Court of Chancery (New York and London, 1985) and Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London and New York, 1993). A number of wills for particular areas (Essex, for example) have been published (ed. F. G. Emmison).

Did she publish a printed book?

he Pollard and Redgrave/Wing Short Title Catalogues supplemented by ESTC online are the first ports of call. See Exploring Texts: Printed Catalogues for more detailed analysis of these. Besides the caveats listed there, remember also that authorial attributions may not always be reliable, so that it is worth checking similar first or second names or anonymous works published within her dates of writing and reflecting her interests. For example, Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder, is catalogued under her brother, Sir Allen Apsley, because of a late ascription by Anthony Wood - always check other family members. Also check initials - works by A., P. or even P., A. are worth checking. Finally, remember that women who married/remarried may be listed in different sources under different names. Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale, Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, Westport, and London, 1990), is an under-used resource.

Evidence about authors and printers can be found in the Archives of the Stationers' Company, Films 1429.

Do MS writings survive?


  • F. B. Madan, A summary catalogue of Western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, 7 vols. in 8 (Oxford, 1895-1953; R. Ref. 702, R. 6. 15), continued by Mary Clapinson and T. D. Rogers, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1991; R. Ref. 705), indexes only major collections and fuller name indexes need to be sought in the printed catalogues of separate collections, and some typescript catalogues in Duke Humfrey - for poetry, notably Ashmole, Rawlinson, Tanner, Eng. Poet.
  • A very useful aid is Margaret Crum, First-Line Index of English Poetry 1500-1800 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (2 vols., Oxford 1969; R. Ref. 731).
  • The Harvester Microfilm selection of British Literary Manuscripts from the Bodleian Library provides finding-aids.
  • Many Oxford college MSS have been microfilmed and the films can be consulted in Duke Humfrey; there are some printed and MS additions to this with the other catalgues in Duke Humfrey. The catalogue by H. O. Coxe (1852) is now out of date.
  • On microfilms see Cornett 189; to his list can be added the Clarke MSS at Worcester college, very important for 17th century historians).


  • Charles Hardwick and H. R. Luard, Catalogue of the [Western] Manuscripts Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 1856-67)
  • A. E. B. Owen, Summary Guide to Accessions of Western Manuscripts (Other than Medieval) Since 1867 (Cambridge, 1966); microfilms Cornett 182.
  • For Cambridge college MSS on microfilm see Cornett 186, 195.


  • The British Library has an excellent overall name index and more detailed catalogues of individual collections (see Archives and Manuscripts p. 121); the name index is online.
  • The Harvester Microfilm selection of British Literary Manuscripts from the British Library provides finding-aids and other BL MSS have been filmed, Cornett 182, 186 (fascinating collection of cartoons/satirical prints), 191, 198.
  • Victoria and Albert Museum: the important Forster and Dyce collections are on microfilm.
  • Lambeth Palace Library: catalogue by M R James and Claud Jenkins, 2390 d.Lond.21.2=DH; Manuscripts in Lambeth Palace Library, including those formerly in Sion College Library, ed. O.S. Pickering and V. M. O'Mara (Woodbridge and Rochester, 1999), PE505.P53 1999. This library has a lot of important material; for microfilms including church records and Anthony Bacon papers, MSS Film 378-392; see Cornett 186, 188, 191, 192, 194, 195, 196.


  • The University of Nottingham Library Portland Collection is an important source of literary MSS and there is an excellent MS website.
  • The Brotherton Library, University of Leeds is developing good web cataloguing
  • Humanist MSS in UK libraries and archives can be found in Iter Italicum; a finding list of uncatalogued or incompletely catalogued humanistic manuscripts of the Renaissance in Italian and other libraries, ed. Paul Oskar Kristeller (London and Leiden, 1963-93), v. 4, which gives concise descriptions of the different repositories.
  • You can search the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.
  • Seymour de Ricci and William J. Wilson (eds.), Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, 3 vols. (New York, 1935-40), supplement ed. W. H. Bond (New York, 1962). Covers MSS before about 1600.
  • The Library of Congress MS holdings are searchable on the web and see also Medieval and Renaissance manuscript books in the Library of Congress : a descriptive catalog, ed. Svato Schutzner, 2 vols.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library with its very strong literary manuscript holdings, hosts the Union First Line Index of English Verse.
  • The Beinecke Library at Yale has an outstanding online catalogue with detailed indexed descriptions of MSS, notably the Osborn Collection of 17c MSS; it also has facsimiles of interesting pages. Verse is indexed on the Union First Line Index of English Verse.
  • Some MSS at the Houghton Library (Harvard) can be searched online and verse is indexed on the Union First Line Index of English Verse. For microfilms see Cornett 181, 182.
  • For the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, which contains important MS material relevant to Donne and Milton, see Guide to medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the Huntington Library by C.W. Dutschke with the assistance of Richard H. Rouse and Virginia Rust (San Marino, 1989), and for microfilms see R.Cat.1198cc, microfiches and guide. Verse is indexed on the Union First Line Index of English Verse.

Did she own any books or MSS?

  • Detective work can sometimes help to track the fortunes of elusive papers; if any one of her MSS survives, there may be clues on it from which one can trace back what happened to the others. For strategies see David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook (London, 1994); with special reference to Oxford, pp. 226-37. Room 132 in the New Library has a card index of book owners.
  • An important and underused resource is the bookplate or label: the revised STC lists surviving ones, under 3368.5 and in vol iii pp 267-9. There are also bookplate collections, though mostly later (Johnson and Harding collections) which can be consulted in Room 132. There is some online material, eg, on the library of Humphrey Dyson (1582-1633).
  • Some note of owners of Bodleian MSS is made in catalogues of individual collections; some can be located by searching 'general copy notes' on OLIS.
  • Beal records books annotated by his authors.
  • From 1676 book auctions become an important source of information; occasional copies give prices. A. N. L. Munby and L. Coral, British Book Sale Catalogues, 1676-1800 (London, 1977), lists the catalogues; Room 132 also has a facsimile of Munby's annotated copy of the British Library's list of catalogues with Bodleian shelfmarks.
  • Wood's own copies of his auction catalogues, the basis of the huge Wood collection in the Bodleian, are catalogued as MS Wood R.13-23.
  • Michael Mendle discusses the Wood collection in Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (eds.), Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies(Philadelphia, 2002).
  • More recent book auctions may include detailed information on provenance. A card index in Room 132 lists consignors of books in Sotheby's catalogues from around 1900; the catalogues are also on microfilm, Films 866 (to 1945), 866 (1946-70).
  • Sears Jayne, Library Catalogues in the English Renaissance, 2nd edition(Godalming, 1983) covers 1500-1640.
  • Private Libraries in Renaissance England, ed. R. J. Fehrenbach and E. S. Leedham-Green (New York and Marlborough, 1992-) is building up a larger database.
  • Bookbindings can also provide important evidence and in the case of Esther Inglis are part of her oeuvre (for example, Christ Church MS 90, illustrated in Bodleian exhibition catalogue Texts and Embroidered Bindings, 1971). Many of Elizabeth I's MSS (e.g. MS Cherry 36) have striking bindings.

Are there any other papers calendared under her name or referring to her?

here there is no entry under the name there may still be relevant material; often the contents of MS commonplace books aren't listed in full. Discoveries can be made simply by careful reading through a catalogue where for example distinctive phrasing in a title can give a clue. Jeremy Maule found a Traherne MS in Lambeth Palace Library this way.

E. L. C. Mullins (ed.), Texts and Calendars: An Analytical Guide to Serial Publications (London, 1978, R.Cat.Ref. 51, 2nd ed. 1982. Texts and calendars II : an analytical guide to serial publications, 1957-1982 (London, 1983, R.Cat.Ref.52) is an excellent resource, listing with brief but often helpful descriptions the printed calendars of the Public Record Office, Historical Manuscripts Commission (cf. National Register of Archives website), national societies like the Camden Society and local county record societies; these calendars are themselves indexed and Mullins contains an overall index where some individuals are named. The Camden Society and other series are full of interesting reprinted MS material which may provide pointers to other sources.

The most up to date source for current locations of family papers is the National Register of Archives at Kew. At the same site are ARCHON, a national portal for archival sites, and a2a.

ver the last half-century there has been a major move of archives from private family deposits to local county record offices. The great printed source for the private archives is the Reports of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (in Duke Humfrey). The first 9 volumes, 1870-83-4, offer a conspectus of all the major repositories of personal papers then available, and often contain, as well as name indexes, reasonably full descriptions of MSS, great for browsing: for example, from the calendar of Petworth MSS, E. E. Duncan-Jones traced another MS of Marvell's 'Blake's victory' with attribution to a different author.

After this initial series the HMC started issuing calendars of selected individual collections, some of which (e.g. those for Hatfield House) are still in progress; some of these give very full extracts from letters. There are two series of name indexes, though these are by no means comprehensive. Many of these collections are available on microfilm, such as the Devereux, Dudley, Hastings (Films 1536, guide 25909eSan Marino 1.6 and 1.7), Hatfield (Salisbury), Seymour and Talbot papers.>/p>

City and county record offices are accessible through the web gateways here and here.

ithin their limited resources record offices will answer queries by post about their holdings though, if you have reason to believe the person you are studying has local associations, the best thing is simply to go there and see; websites will give current opening times and admissions procedures. Peter Beal recently found poems by Katherine Philips by looking through legal papers of some of her friends in such an archive. Some local court records are on microfilm, Cornett 188, 192, and the Adam Matthew 'Women's Language and Experience' series has Sarah Cowper's papers from the Hertfordshire Record Office and Elizabeth Lyttleton's from Cambridge University Library.

The ultimate record office is the National Archives (formerly Public Record Office), Kew (Kew Gardens Underground station). There are indexed Calendars for different categories, of which the most relevant will be Domestic and Colonial State Papers (SP); some Calendars are fuller than others but they can give an idea of basic contents of documents.

The printed Calendars are available in the Upper Reading Room, K5.25-95. Class lists to other papers are available in Room 132. In the Bodleian, you will find by the Upper Reading Room issue desk microfilms of the State Papers Domestic, 1547-1625, Films 1032, 1099-47 and 1625-1702, Films 1211, with guides to reel numbers; also on film are selected Star Chamber records, Films 1147, and Papers of the Court of Chancery (C) which can be a rich source for biographical and other information.

Chancery material is not available on microfilm; there is a partial index on the web at http://catalogue.pro.gov.uk and the indexes at Kew are enormously hard to use; it can be easier first to consult the the 'Bernau index' summarizing these indexes available at the Society of Genealogists in London, an excellent resource for genealogical research which charges a research fee, http://www.sog.org.uk/visit.html; see Hilary Sharp, How to Use the Bernau Index, 2nd edn. (London, 2000). For clarification see Henry Horwitz, Chancery Equity Records and Legal Proceedings 1600-1800 (Kew, 1998). For use of Chancery records to make biographical discovery see Art Kavanagh, 'Andrew Marvell "in want of money": the Evidence in John Farrington v. Mary Marvel', The Seventeenth Century, 17 (2002), 206-12. For a detailed study see J. Milton French, (New York, 1939).

The University of Sheffield Library Hartlib papers, an invaluable archive for the mid-17 century (including, for example, Dorothy Moore) are available in Duke Humfrey on CD-ROM.

English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 (Duke Humfrey R.Pal.14. 30g C25, EFL C25[Eng] REF) lists recent MSS that have come on the market each year, and The Times Literary Supplement will report major new finds. Sotheby's sale catalogues are a good source for the latest finds.

North America

Sources in the USA and Canada are selectively indexed in a section of RLIN, under 'Archival Resources' in OXLIP's 'General Bibliographic Tools and Publishing Aids' section.

Who were her heirs/descendants/patrons/friends?

(Having located them, you may find some of her papers amongst theirs.)


Starting point will be the New Dictionary of National Biography, whose new online edition is a revolution in historical scholarship. Other biographical dictionaries listed in F. B. Williams, Index of Dedications and Commendatory Verses in English Books before 1641 (London, 1962). For 17th century politics see Richard L. Greaves and Robert Zaller (eds.), Biographical Dictionary of English Radicals in the Seventeenth Century, 3 vols., Brighton, 1982-4)

For members of the nobility a useful resource is G. E. C[okayne]. (ed.), Complete Peerage (13 vols., 1910-59; R6.434) which lists alphabetically under title (e.g. Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland under Northumberland), and contains lists of sources and choice snippets of biographical information.

Remember that dictionaries are as good as their sources. Even the New DNB in its less well-researched entries does little more than combine the British Museum book listings with snippets from early works like Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1691), which is very uneven in reliability and marked by his strong Tory prejudices; however, a lot of his correspondence on which he based his material survives in the Bodleian. He drew heavily on the chaotic notes of his friend John Aubrey, also in the Bodleian (MSS Aubrey 6-9) and published as 'Brief Lives', Chiefly of his Contemporaries, ed. Andrew Clark, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1898).

For women writers, what has become the standard source is the compilation by George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies (1752; ed. Ruth Perry, 1985); Ballard's papers are still in the Bodleian and are on microfilm in Duke Humfrey, R Films 101.

Useful information can be found in successive volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography published by the Gale Group; these are on open shelves in Room 132.


Various family history sites and indexes can be found on the web; especially useful is Genuki. Then as now, tracing ancestry may combine antiquarian curiosity with an intense desire to prove particular connections, so genealogical material generally needs careful checking. Much genealogical material is available in Duke Humfrey, mainly at R6.

You can find family histories, etc. in the successive indexes of George W. Marshall, The Genealogist's Guide (London, 1903; ed. A.J. Camp (Baltimore, 1967).
John Beach Whitmore, A genealogical guide : an index to British pedigrees in continuation of Marshall's Genealogist's Guide (London, 1953)
Geoffrey B. Barrow, The genealogist's guide : an index to printed British pedigrees and family histories, 1950-1975 (London and Chicago, 1977; R.6.363); these are not cumulative so try them all.
Many manuscripts of genealogies produced for heraldic visitations are printed in the volumes of the Harleian Society, listed in Mullins, Texts and Calendars.

Beyond that: search the International Genealogical Index, a compilation by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints from films of parish registers; microfiches can be consulted or ordered from local record offices. Note however that by no means all parish registers were covered, the transcriptions may be unreliable, and entries on to the online version are often inaccurately duplicated. Cecil Humphery-Smith (ed.), The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Chichester, 1995; BOD MapRoom G G1.C17.62) is an invaluable guide for locating parish registers: it gives facsimiles of old county maps and a colour-coded key to the location of parishes and availability of their registers, noting which ones are included in the International Genealogical Index.

Parish registers may also indicate where she/her family were buried. Remember that some women composed memorial inscriptions which may still be found in churches; Peter Davidson and Jane Stevenson (eds.) Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford, 2001) prints many.

Did she live in London?

Try the Guildhall Library, the main record source for London and the Corporation of London Record Office.

What county was she born in?

County histories are arranged in Duke Humfrey in alphabetical order at R.Top. Between venerable 18th century volumes, the massive Victoria County History still in progress (parts online at VCH), and the indexed proceedings of county historical societies, there are masses of leads here.

CRJ Currie and CP Lewis, eds, A Guide to English County Histories (Stroud, 1994; R.Top.518a) is very useful in finding your way through this material; here as so often the history of the ways in which local identities are constructed may itself throw light on the meaning of a life.

Did she or her family have connections with the Inns of Court?

Much MS material is available on microfilm: Inner Temple: Cornett 188; Gray's Inn: World Microfilm Publications - medieval and Renaissance MSS; Legal MSS of Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn are on fiche, listed at R Cat.180. See the Inns of Court library catalogues.

Reference works can be found in the Lower Reading Room:
The register of admissions to Gray's Inn 1521-1889, together with the register of marriages in Gray's Inn Chapel 1695-1754, ed. J. Foster (1889).
The pension book of Gray's Inn 1569-1800, ed. R.J. Fletcher, 2 vols. (1901-10).
Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Library of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, ed. J. C. Davies (Oxford, 1972).
The records of the Hon. Society of Lincoln's Inn: Admissions 1420-1893, 2 vols. (1896).
The records of the Hon. Society of Lincoln's Inn: The Black Books 1422-1914, comp. W.P. Baildon (vols. 1-4) and R. Roxburgh (vol. 5), 5 vols. (1897-1968).
A calendar of Inner Temple records 1505-1800, ed. F.A. Inderwick (vols. 1-3) and R.A. Roberts (vols. 4-5), 5 vols. (1896-1936).
Students admitted to the Inner Temple 1547-1660, ed. W.H. Cooke, 1877.
A Calendar of Middle Temple records, ed. C.H. Hopwood (1903).
Minutes of the Parliament of the Middle Temple 1501-1703, ed. C.T. Martin, 4 vols. (1904-5).
Register of admissions to the Hon. Society of the Middle Temple from the 15th century to 1944, comp. H.A.C. Sturgess, 3 vols. (1949).

Did she have family connections with the Church?

Standard biographical works include John Le Neve, Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, or A calendar of the principal ecclesiastical dignitaries in England and Wales, to M.DCC.XV, corrected and continued to the present time, by T.D. Hardy (Oxford, 1854), available also online in corrected and updated versions through the IHR.

For 17th-century clergy, very useful resources are A.G. Matthews, Calamy revised : being a revision of Edmund Calamy's Account of the ministers and others ejected and silenced 1660-2 (Oxford, 1931; R12.161; revised edition 1988) and A.G.Matthews, Walker revised : being a revision of John Walker's Sufferings of the clergy during the Grand Rebellion, 1642-60 (Oxford, 1948; R12.158; revised 1988). The copies in Duke Humfrey are presentation copies with additional material by the author.

Did she have connections in Parliament?

The Volumes of the History of Parliament are a mine of biographical information, more and more of which is now coming online.

What was her education?

University and school registers, while not (generally) applicable to women, are an important source of bibliographical information. The Lower Reading Room houses the major registers. These include for Oxford, Alumni Oxonienses : the members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714 : their parentage, birthplace, and year of birth, with a record of their degrees : Being the matriculation register of the University, ed. Joseph Foster, 4 vols. (1891-2); B3.333, and for Cambridge, Alumni Cantabrigienses : a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900, ed. John Venn and J.A. Venn (10 vols., 1922-54).