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Alwyn Ruddock: Enemy of History? November 28, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

You have worked your entire life researching a given area of history. However, you have published barely anything waiting to write your ‘big book’, the one that you will be remembered by. The years pass and the book does not materialise and then comes your final illness… What will you do with the seventy odd sacks of microfilms, photocopies and notes that represent your life work. Well if this was a normal historian you would scramble to arrange an archive: it would be desperately important to make sure that the information could be passed on to successors so that your life’s work was not lost. But that was not the case with the great English historian, Alwyn Ruddock, her final wish was to have all her work shredded, something that her executor promptly and heartbreakingly carried out.

We know how much was lost because in 1977 AR had put together a book proposal describing a work that she wished to write. She went, necessarily, into some detail about her theses and though she was careful not to reveal the location of her discoveries (an understandable precaution!) she claimed to have made revolutionary finds. These included an early document about the discovery of a ‘new land’ in the Atlantic, prior to Columbus and evidence for Italian backing for John Cabot. Perhaps she had just made these up? Scholars have since chased down several of her references and these demonstrate that some and probably all of these deductions were genuine (whether they were correct is another matter): AR was on the basis of this book proposal an exceptional historian.

But we return to her decision to destroy her life’s work. This is what she wrote in her will.

I much dislike posthumous publication and do not wish anyone to try to finish work left unfinished by me at the time of my death. The only exception to this shall be a book which may be already in the press in course of publication at the time of my death or incapacity. All the work to be destroyed is entirely my own property. The expenses of the collection and revision have been paid for by me without any publishers advance payment or any grant, academic or otherwise, to help pay for the collection or travelling expenses in England, Europe and America. Nothing is to be sold or given to any other person or to any library university or other institution.

This is not an explanation, it is a justification. Naturally the material was hers. But what on earth would persuade a historian to commit one of the two unforgivable historical sins and destroy history (the other is to make up history)? As the prose in the paragraph above suggests AR was clearly in her right mind when she decided to do this many years before her death and her executor could not do otherwise than respect her wishes. That such a talented and disciplined historian could have made such a decision fills Beach with horror: in part because she did it, in part because perhaps she had experienced something high up on the mountain of historiography that we lowlanders still lack.

A lesson? Don’t wait till you are 77 to start writing your life’s work.

Other rogue researchers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com