By: Carolyn L. Barkley
One of the benefits of researching and writing a weekly article is the discovery of wonderful websites. The Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library’s The Avalon Project is one such discovery.
There is no “about us” page providing the background of this remarkable site–and background information on its development is not easy to locate–but it would appear that The Avalon Project site has been in existence since at least 2001. According to its Statement of Purpose and Document Inclusion Policy “The Avalon Project will mount digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. We do not intend to mount only static text but rather to add value to the text by linking to supporting documents expressly referred to in the body of the text …”1 This rather austerely worded statement does not begin to describe the wealth of information available.
The Avalon Project site is divided into nine major time periods: Ancient (4000bce-399), Medieval (400-1399), and then by centuries from the fifteenth through the twenty-first. Each such category provides a list of the specific documents available online.
Not surprisingly, the availability of ancient documents is limited but includes nine documents including The Athenian Constitution and the Code of Hammurabi. As time moves forward, however, interesting original documents, perhaps some that affected one of our ancestors, can be found. For example, in the medieval era documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a timeline of historic events and personages. One entry for the year A.D. 755 states:
The same year Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, was slain at Seckington; and his body lies at Repton. He reigned one and forty years; and Bernred then succeeded to the kingdom, which he held but a little while, and unprosperously; for King Offa the same year put him to flight, and assumed the government; which he held nine and thirty winters. His son Everth held it a hundred and forty days. Offa was the son of Thingferth, Thingferth of Enwulf, Enwulf of Osmod, Osmod of Eawa, Eawa of Webba, Webba of Creoda, Creoda of Cenwald, Cenwald of Cnebba, Cnebba of Icel, Icel of Eomer, Eomer of Angelthew, Angelthew of Offa, Offa of Wermund, Wermund of Witley, Witley of Woden.2
Other medieval documents include Nennius’ History of the Britons; the Magna Carta; the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) (said to have inspired the U.S. Declaration of Independence); the Laws of William the Conqueror; the Golden Bull of the Emperor Charles IV (1356); and the Laws of Richard I (Coeur de Lion) Concerning Crusaders Who Were to Go by Sea (1189) which provides a clear incentive for good behavior:
Richard by the grace of God king of England, and duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to all his subjects who are about to go by sea to Jerusalem, greeting. know that we, by the common counsel of upright men, have made the laws here given. Whoever slays a man on ship board shall be bound to the dead man and thrown into the sea. But if he shall slay him on land, he shall be bound to the dead man and buried in the earth. If anyone, moreover, shall be convicted through lawful witnesses of having drawn a knife to strike another, or of having struck him so as to draw blood, he shall lose his hand. But if he shall strike him with his fist without drawing blood, he shall be dipped three times in the sea. But if any one shall taunt or insult a comrade or charge him with hatred of God: as many times as he shall have insulted him, so many ounces of silver shall he pay. A robber, moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head,-so that he may be publicly known; and at the first land where the ships put in he shall be cast on shore. Under my own witness at Chinon.3
Many seventeenth-century documents provide direct documentation for our family history/genealogy research. One important group includes charters for Virginia (1606); New England (1620); Massachusetts Bay (1629 and 1691); Maryland (1632); the Carolinas (1663 and 1665); Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663); and Pennsylvania (1681). Other documents include the Articles of Confederation, the English Bill of Rights, several grants and constitutions, the Mayflower Compact, the Ordinances of Virginia, and the Royal Commission for Regulating Plantations (1634) – a total of eighty-two documents.
Eighteenth-century resources continue to document the political growth of the various American states, as well as important documents such as Virginia’s draft constitution in 1776; the Declarations for Suspension of Arms and Cessation of Hostilities (20 January 1783) and the subsequent Contracts Between the King and the Thirteen United States of North America (16 July 1782 and 25 February 1783). Other documents include An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery – Pennsylvania, dated 1 March 1780; Annual Messages of the Presidents of the United States; the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798); the papers of Jefferson and Madison; the Northwest Ordinance; treaties and statutes regarding Native Americans; Washington’s Farewell Address; and many more.
Nineteenth-century documents emphasize the growth of the United States as a world power. Documents relate to Algeria, Argentina, Austria-Hungary, the Barbary States, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, Macedonia, various German duchies, Bavaria, Chile, Peru, Saxony, Russia, France, etc. Major historical documents, such as the Monroe Doctrine; the Communist Manifesto; the Hague Conventions; and statutes pertaining to Native Americans and to slavery, are available as are Henry David Thoreau’s A Plea for Captain John Brown, written in 1859; The Narrative of Sojourner Truth; and The Laws of War, which provides multiple documents ranging from 1856 to 1925, including the various agreements of the several Geneva Conventions. If your ancestor was a prisoner of war during a conflict, reading The Laws of War will add a depth of understanding about his (or maybe her) treatment while held. The Confederate States of America: Papers includes secession declarations for Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, as well as various Confederate government organizational papers.
Twentieth- and Twenty-first-century documents include Camp David Accords (1978); various armistice agreements during World War II; the Atlantic Charter (1941); the Civil Rights Act (1964); the Dayton Peace Accords (1995); Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963); a collection of documents from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trail; the United Nations Charter; the Israeli Declaration of Independence; and the 9/11 Commission Report.
It is important to place our family members (both ancestors and those still living) within the context of their historical timeframes. The Avalon Project will assist you in making that connection and should be a resource of first-resort when searching for an historical document. It is a resource not to be missed, and best of all – it’s free!
1 Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, digital images, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/about/purpose.asp : accessed 15 October 2012).
2 “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” The Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang08.asp : accessed 15 October 2012).
3 “Laws of Richard I (Coeur de Lion) Concerning Crusaders Who Were to Go by Sea,” in The Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/richard.asp : accessed 15 October 2012).