The marginalised are not the only ones to suffer from silences

It is a well-known trope in current archival writing that marginalised groups are excluded from archives. Writing in 2018, Rebekah Xanthe Taylor and Craig Jordan-Baker said that ‘Authors looking at marginalized groups specifically, emphasize that archives of more marginalized groups may not be created in the first place and more formal institutional archives might speak about marginalized groups only in statistics and diversity monitoring’.18

This is true, but the situation is more nuanced. Certainly, many marginalised groups do not appear in records. It is, for example, hard to find information about Roma and other travellers, particularly in early periods, while there is little or nothing about individual slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic to America or the Caribbean.

However, in England at least, it is not just marginalised groups who do not appear in records Most people do not feature much in them until the twentieth century. Writing in the language of the 1960s, historian A.J.P. Taylor said ‘a sensible law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked’.19 As Simon Fowler observed, ‘Until World War I, records in the western world were largely created for or about the very rich or the very poor’.20 The rich paid taxes, bought and sold property, got involved in litigation of various sorts and kept household accounts.

The poor fell outside the tax net and for most people in England, the only records of their lives were those kept by the church and later by the state of their births, marriages and deaths. From 1841, they began to appear in census records. They might have lived in a cottage that was part of a manor and so appeared in a court roll, or they might have had other brushes with the civil, criminal or church courts. Some might have held local offices or won prizes at flower shows and so might be traceable through digitised local newspapers. But it is very hard to trace information about many who existed above the poverty level. One of us (Thomas) has spent time trying to track the career of the writer Frederic Martyn who wrote a fictitious account of his adventures in the French Foreign Legion. Beyond Martyn’s highly romanticised published versions of his life, very little survives beyond census records and details of his military career, although he lived until the 1930s. A later section of this chapter tells ofThomas Holden who was transported to Australia at the end of the Napoleonic wars. He subsequently returned to England but we know nothing of Holden’s life after he achieved liberty.21 Neither Martyn nor Holden were marginalised people - Martyn was a sergeant-major in the British army, while Holden was a weaver - a semi-literate artisan.

The very poorest people can be found in the voluminous records concerned with poor relief. Those who joined the British army from 1869 onwards were part of an organisation that marched on forms. The 1880 Classified List and Alphabetical Index of Army Forms and List of Army Books included 1285 forms and every soldier made an appearance in a number of these. Indeed, as Barrett and Stallybrass have argued, the presence of so many forms required people to fill them in and so the army, which recruited from the poorest people in society, became a forcing house for literacy. But for most people in earlier times, the archives are more or less silent.22

It was ever thus. Sometime between and 450 and 180 BCE, somebody known to biblical scholars as Kohelet wrote:

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.23

Silencing has been part of government’s policies for millennia

In 2019, Arthur Bradley of Lancaster University cast a new light on silences. Taking his cue from a lecture by Michel Foucault, he argued that sovereignty is neither the power to make die and let live (as the ancient Roman formula puts it) nor the power to make live and let die (as Foucaults reversal of the Roman dictum puts it) but the power to make neither live nor die. He argues that sovereign power can be used to decide what counts as being alive and, by using exile, expulsion, proscription, non-recognition, social death, pre-emptive or retroactive nullification, it can reduce people to a state where it is as if they never existed.24

The earliest example cited by Bradley is the Roman practice whereby any emperor who had brought disgrace or discredit on the state, or any citizen who committed treason could be subject to damnatio memoriae whereby all traces of their existence were removed. For emperors (such as Geta in AD 211), their names were scratched from inscriptions on tablets, their faces chiselled from statues, their temples destroyed, images on coins defaced, wills annulled and property expropriated.25

Bradley goes on to trace this practice through history, including the Gunpowder Plot, which, according to Attorney General [later Lord Chiefjustice] Edward Coke, was an attempt to achieve the death of the king;‘and not the death of the king only, but of his whole kingdom ... even the deletion of our whole name and nation’.26 Bradley also argues that the decision by the Red Army to kill the entire Romanov family and not just the Czar in May 1919 was part of this practice. It had to be made as if the Romanovs had never existed.27

Putting people in the same invisible position as the Emperor Geta continues to be an element of modern policy. Bradley has argued that the enforced or involuntary disappearances in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala prefigure the USA’s use of extraordinary rendition and use of secret detention centres.28

Damnatio memoriae is still going strong. Following the disclosure of allegations of child abuse by the late entertainer Jimmy Savile, all public traces of him were removed, including his gravestone in a Scarborough cemetery, a plaque outside his former flat and a footpath sign in the same town, a statue of him outside a leisure centre in Scotstoun in Glasgow and his name on an inscription on a wall of Leeds Civic Hall.2

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