How To Do Provenance Research

How To Do Provenance Research

This article provides a concise “How-To” guide for conducting provenance research. What is provenance? Simply put, provenance is “the history of an item” [1]. Provenance research is that research which sheds light on the history of the ownership of any given item. This article focuses on how to conduct research for literary items, such as a book, a manuscript, a papyrus, etc….

There are 3 important things to identify for each item when conducting this type of research. The first is the identification of the owners. Who owned it and when? The second is the identification of locations. Where has this item been throughout history and when? The third is the identification of its names. What has this item been called and when?

“The majority of items contain holes in their chain of ownership. The reasons for gaps in the provenance of an item include lost documentation, lost oral history, and/or a sale without record. Even if records of ownership do exist, they might have “unclear, inadequate, conflicting, or incorrect information”. There’s also the possibility that a forger has faked evidence of ownership, which further complicates the matter of establishing provenance. [1]

Step One: Select an item to conduct provenance research for.

This item can be anything, but to give an example of what this looks like, let’s say I have selected the Parker Chronicle as my item. The Parker Chronicle is “…one of the most importantmanuscripts for our understandingof Anglo-Saxon history.

Step Two: Establish the item’s chain of ownership.

I think the easiest way to go about doing this is in reverse-chronological order, which means we work from the most recent owner to the oldest owner.
For the Parker Chronicle, its current owner is the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where they have it named Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 173. When and how did they obtain the Chronicle?
They obtained it from John Parker in 1593 when he brought a portion of his father’s library to the college. The evidence for this is in the Parker Register (CCCC MS 575).
John Parker acquired the MS in 1575 upon the death of his father, Matthew Parker (from whom the Chronicle takes its popular name).
Matthew Parker acquired the MS at an unknown time from his colleague Nicholas Wotton.
Where, when, and how Wotton acquired the MS is unknown.

It is important to include unanswered questions in your report so that other researchers can see what still needs to be answered. Including them also helps others understand what type of information is needed for their own reports. Fundamental questions are aimed at acquiring information for the three main points of identification (owners, locations, and names).

There is a serious need for more provenance researchers. A good number of the world’s most famous literary relics have never had their provenance investigated in a methodical fashion. The majority of the world’s literary relics have never been investigated. The only way this is going to change in the foreseeable future is if we get more people to devote time to studying and researching the provenance of these relics.

The chain of ownership of the Parker Chronicle (CCCC MS 173) can be written clearly and concisely like this:

From 1593 to present CCCC MS 173 has been in the possession of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

From 1575 to 1593, John Parker (1548-1617) was the owner of CCCC MS 173. Where was it being kept while he was the owner.

Sometime prior to 1575 until 1575, Matthew Parker (1504-1575) was the owner of MS 173. When did he become its recognized owner?

In the 16th century, Nicholas Wotton (c.1497-1567) acquired MS 173. From where did he acquire it? When did he acquire it? When did he officially bestow the MS to Matthew Parker?

There are many ways to obtain the information needed for provenance research. Offline methods of obtaining provenance information include going and inspecting the item you selected, reading physical books that mention it, going to libraries, and talking about it with relevant scholars. Online methods of obtaining provenance information include using search engines, browsing cites that publish scholarly articles, finding the institution’s website that your selected item is being held in, searching the internet archive, and again, communicating with relevant scholars. If you are researching manuscripts or fragments that have been digitized, sometimes the institutions in possession of those digitized items have already uploaded a brief summary of provenance. This can be found by locating the digitized version of whatever you are looking for online. For example, the Parker Chronicle is online, but it does not have a section specifically for provenance. Instead, you have to read the overall summary to gain some insight into what they claim the provenance to be.

How to effectively use the Google search engine:
When you go to Google for provenance research, search for the name of the item you are researching but include ” ” around the term. For example, when searching for the Parker Manuscript, my search entry would look like “Parker Manuscript”. This limits the results to only show results with those exact words. Adding other words outside of the quotation marks can help sway the results to a particular topic. For example, if I wanted books on the topic, I could search (“Parker Chronicle” books) or (“Parker Chronicle” pdf), and I would be more likely to find something like that than if I only searched for the name.

My favorite, and possibly the most open and largest, website that hosts scholarly content is Jstor. Jstor hosts a ton of scholarly articles and books which have been incredibly useful for me in my own research.

There are other sites where you can access scholarly content like Brill or Taylor & Francis Online, but in my experience, Jstor has the most free content and the cheapest paid content. Another way to effectively use the Google search engine is to include the quotation marks around the required term that you want and then add Jstor afterwards. This makes the results show Jstor articles that mention your search term, which sometimes can be more useful than using the Jstor search engine which they provide on their website. Also, sometimes Jstor articles are only pay to read but those articles are free elsewhere. If you find an article on Jstor or Brill or wherever that is only pay to view, try to copy and paste the title into the Google search engine to see if its available for free elsewhere.

The Internet Archive has also been useful to me. It has a ton of information that sometimes can’t be found anywhere else online. You can do the same thing on Google for the Internet Archive as you can for Jstor, where you search for (“Parker Manuscript” to pull up links specifically to the Internet Archive that don’t show up when you are using the Internet Archive’s search engine.

Get in touch with scholars who have looked into what you’re researching can also be useful. They might know more than what they included in the publication that alerted you to their existence, and might be willing to help assist you further in your own studies if they have the time.

Another option is to enter your item’s name into the search bar on the Ctruth website. I have published a number of articles pertaining to some of the most famous manuscripts in the world. I might have already collected the information you’re looking for. If I haven’t, contact me about it and I’d be more than happy to collaborate in order to increase the volume and quality of Ctruth content.

Provenance research is crucial to Ctruth’s mission of conducting research on chronology. Chronology is heavily based on literary sources, and without a clear view of what these sources are and where they come from, we cannot have a clear view of chronology. If you have any questions or comments, either leave a message on this article or contact me at

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[1] – Accessed 2 August 2020.

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