PROVO — There's something about the smell of old manuscripts in a French archive you can't forget.
Just ask Ann Sumsion.
The second-year graduate student at Brigham Young University spent almost two weeks in Lille, France, this summer studying financial records from 15th-century France with three other students and Jesse Hurlbut, an associate professor of French literature and culture.
"I think it just brought home to me that there were people who lived back then," Sumsion said. "I knew that, of course, but it became more real to me."
The summer field-study trip immersed students Sumsion, Kathryn Rimmasch, Anna Siebach and Julie Nay in monetary records from the dukes in the Court of Burgundy, helping them see history through a different lens.
"As we read the material, it paints a picture of the past that's really fascinating," Hurlbut said. "(We see) the reality that they lived in and how wax for torches was a major expense because they needed light. We don't necessarily think of that."
Hurlbut has learned about extravagant banquets held by the dukes and their proposals to go on crusades.
"It's kind of like trying to reconstruct an event on the basis of how money was spent," he said. "It's like going back to figure out what the Rose Bowl looked like and all you had was the receipt. That's the kind of stuff we're coming across."
The students pored over four thick volumes — four of 100 — and took almost 8,000 pictures. They weren't looking for any specific kernel of knowledge, just a chance to learn from the past. The focus is now on the transcription and dispersion of information through a Web site and a CD to allow other scholars access to the ancient archives.
Hurlbut said he first got the idea because of BYU's emphasis on mentored learning experiences — professors helping a handful of students with special research projects. Hurlbut wasn't sure the approach was feasible in his field, because much of his expertise in research comes after years and years of training.
He discovered, however, that after a semester class on learning how to read the flowing French script, his students were able to transcribe at 90 percent accuracy.
The class was hard at first, Sumsion said, as they learned how to read the elegant words, made even more difficult by the placement on 500-year-old animal-skin parchment.
The spellings were different than modern French, and some letters were difficult to differentiate, such as "m" and "n" and "s." Some scribes even had different forms for the same letter. But after a semester of practice with pictures of similar ancient records, the group felt ready to tackle the real thing.
"It takes a while to learn the different handwritings," said Rimmasch, a second-year graduate student in French studies. "By the time we got to the end of our project in France . . . we still had to get used to each new scribe, but it took a few minutes instead of hours."
The days in France were long — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — poring over the records, photographing and transcribing the headings so the students could more easily identify the photos later.
It was a big accomplishment, but there are still 96 volumes left — plenty for future field trips and continued research. For now, the four students and many others in the field are working on the transcription of the records.
"To hold a 500-year-old manuscript in my hands, to read what they wrote about how they spent their money — it sounds kind of boring, but they were real people," said Sumsion, who hopes to someday teach French in an elementary school.
Rimmasch, who wants to teach French at the junior high level, said the experience also helped her develop a greater appreciation for primary resources.
"Scholars aren't superhuman people that get some kind of easy revelation about the things they know," she said. "They're just people who are willing to struggle through different sources of information in their search for knowledge."
Over the next few semesters, more French students will learn about the dukes of Burgundy through the photos and transcribed records. But for the lucky four, their experience was more than just a classroom lesson.
"It's just a hands-on experience that is invaluable — you can't get it any other way," Sumsion said. "You can't smell the pages (in a classroom). To go and be able to handle the real things . . . I've seen pictures all my life, but pictures aren't alive — you can't use your senses."