I had a chance earlier this week to give a talk about Doña Gracia Nasi at the International Jewish Genealogical conference in Washington, DC, centering on the way I did research for my biography on her (The Woman who Defied Kings). Since the audience was a collection of genealogy buffs, I talked mainly about the challenge of trying to go back 500 years to look for a woman, perhaps like members of their own families, who was not particularly famous, or royal, or notorious. Nor had she been sufficiently well-known to have a collection of papers in any one place – nor even any papers under her own name.
I explained it was a dogged treasure hunt and an organizational challenge, and how I had spent a lot of time at first circling the world she had lived in, in the hope of stumbling upon mentions of her – going around and around my subject rather than directly trying to find her, at least until the trail got warmer. I also had to find helpers who could read sixteenth-century handwriting (no easy task), and who understood the various acronyms and dialects that were used. Even documents in English did not use the English we use today.
I also read all I could find that had been published about her in languages I could read easily – English and French. But I was determined to include only original sixteenth-century documents as my sources, because from the outset I had realized that many historians had just copied each other. Also, so much of what I read from those historians was wrong or wrong-headed – such as assuming she could not have done this or that because she was a woman – and so they had attributed her deeds to others.
I then had to study the political and economic life of the period, to understand what I might be reading. If they mentioned war… well, what war was that? There were so many going on all over Europe at the time. I had to create a chronology of what we did know (or thought we knew) about her travels, deeds, and interests so that I could narrow down the archival search in any one place to the limited number of years when she might have lived in that city – say, between 1537 and 1544 in Antwerp.
After that, it was time to make a list of all the characters around her that we knew by name: sisters, brothers, mother, father, husband, children, cousins, and so forth. And we had to include all the various names they might have used and the many spellings of those names. If we found mention of family members in any document, then it was likely the incident had some connection to Doña Gracia herself.
I then consulted all the academic journal articles I could find that had included mentions of her, because these journal articles are normally rich in archival footnotes. So, for instance, if a footnote mentioned a certain notary in Ferrara, we could go to the files of that notary and look for other documents about her – and other facts in the same documents that had not been mentioned. Academic journal articles usually transcribe, at the end, the complete archival document used as the historical basis for the piece, which is normally included in its original language (so the reader can make his or her own interpretation). So long as I could find someone to help me with the translations, it would likely contain a lot of material that the academic might had thought to trivial or unnecessary to include – but might be useful to me.
This is only a brief sampling. If you have any further questions about the research methods, please tell me. I’d be glad to answer.