Pronouncing the city’s law: aldermen as judges

In pre-modern European cities the aldermen were not just members of a city council charged with deciding on city policies. Creating and maintaining policy in the more pregnant sense of daily law and order was one of their prime tasks. In many cities a number of aldermen sat regularly as the city’s judges. In the past years a number of archives has created online databases to search for cases and verdicts in the records of aldermen. Outside the cities schepenen functioned within regional and manorial jurisdictions. We will meet some of them here, too. This post aims at showing you a wide variety of online search possibilities and presentations. The main focus of my post are aldermen in the Low Countries, called schepenen or in French-speaking regions échevins, I will look at seven projects. The Netherlands and Belgium will bring most of the examples adduced here, but I am sure elsewhere more can be found that would merit as much attention as the cities mentioned here.

Pronouncing the law

Curiosity to find out about recent projects for the digitization of the records of medieval and Early Modern aldermen was my first reason to starting looking for online databases and other projects. I was surprised I did not encounter quickly somewhere a list of relevant projects, or at least some links to similar projects at the websites with a particular database. Unfortunately this might suggest such projects are developed in at least relative isolation, or in the worst cases in splendid ignorance or with complete disregard of similar efforts.

The first project I would like to present concerns the records of a number of villages situated in the very heart of the Rhine and Meuse estuary. The schepenen conveyed at Tuil, the village most to the west of the contemporary province Gelderland, now a part of the municipality Neerijnen. Tuil gives the project its name, De Hoge Bank van Tuil, “The High Court of Tuil”. Nowadays we say in Dutch parlance these villages are positioned in the Rivierenland, the Rivers’ Country. Geographically it is more sensible to say they are situated in the Tielerwaard, “The March of Tiel”, between the cities of Tiel and Gorinchem.

The website for the Hoge Bank van Tuil is a project of three historians, Peter van Maanen, Gijsbert van Ton and Marco Schelling. It presents transcriptions of some 1,300 records from 1335 to 1525, from 1631 to 1637, and a number of scattered records yet to be integrated. The team has used records from several archives and printed editions. For some records the transcriptions are accompanied by images of the documents. This project aims at a reconstruction of the activities of this high court by combining data from a large variety of resources. As for now the records are not yet part of a searchable database, but they can be searched with the normal web browser search function. It is one thing to bring these materials together, but the material still needs editing before it can become the contents of a database. Exactly the preparation of this step is probably the main hindrance to tackle for further research in these regional records. Consultation with for example the Gelders Archief in Arnhem, the Regionaal Archief Rivierenland, Tiel, and the Regionaal Archief Gorinchem will surely be most helpful to start preparing a new phase for this project.

The very beginning

The Hoge Bank van Tuil came first in my post because it presents in a nutshell a number of very real questions and problems you face when you start with a project for the digitization of the records of aldermen. What period do you choose? Do you aim at a full reconstruction of archival records concerning a particular institution or jurisdiction, in this case a schepenbank? Do you restrict yourself to the records from one resource, be it records kept at an archive or records surviving sometimes only in print? Do you prepare from the start onwards for the creation of an online database, or would you like to stick with simple web pages? Sometimes you have to wait for the creation of proper archival guides and finding aids before even contemplating a project… Cities and their archival services often choose themselves for the digitization of judicial records. In the case of the Hoge Bank van Tuil three researchers decided to combine efforts for their project.

Logo Scabinatus

The project that prompted me to write about digitized verdicts of aldermen is concerned with verdicts of the échevins in Liège. The website Scabinatus 4000 was launched last autumn by the Université de Liège. The actual database contains acts from the vast series of scabinal registers kept at the Archives de l’État in Liège dating from 1409 until 1797. Some 1,750 (!) registers exist with each around 400 pages, good for some 750 acts. The registers 1 to 67 could be searched online already at a website of the Belgian National Archives, but this website with registers for the period 1409 to 1510 was last updated in 2007.

On the new Scabinatus website the registers 68 to 153 have been added, reaching now 1558. You can search for particular registers, a particular kind of acts (e.g. approbation, arbitrage, wills and witness statements), toponyms, a particular date or period, the kind of goods at stake, names, professions and social status. The website of the National Archives offered drop down lists for the kind of acts and the kind of goods. The scale of this project is clearly staggering. The functionality of the search screen is very detailed, and you are thus able to conduct all kind of searches. Comparisons in activities over long periods become here possible and fairly reliable. However, this database does not offer the complete text of acts, but only a summary with a lot of details. You will need to view the original registers for further research. This project has clear limits in time and resources which seems understandable in view of the sheer number of records to be processed.

New roads to the records of aldermen

Logo Itinera Nova

At Louvain (Leuven) the municipal record-office has combined forces with a German partner, the Universität Köln, for its joint project Itinera Nova. The city of Louvain can boast a series of 1128 scabinal registers from 1362 to 1795. The project started in 2009, and more than one million pages will be transcribed by volunteers. 255 registers are now available online, mainly for the periods 1362-1460 and 1550-1590. Knowing the difficulties sixteenth-century handwriting can pose it becomes very interesting which role the transcribing software MONK, a tool created at the university of Groningen, has played here. The MONK website presents extensive word samples from the Louvain registers. The Itinera Nova project in cooperation with the department at Cologne for Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Informationsverarbeitung involves crowd-sourcing. An online tutorial helps volunteers to start transcribing pages with a basic knowledge of palaeography. On April 25 and 26, 2013, Louvain hosted an international congress with the title Itinera Nova: Tools, People & History, The blog De Digitale Archivaris [The Digital Archivist] published a series of posts in Dutch about this congress. The website of Itinera Nova can be viewed in Dutch, English and French. You can browse at will and conduct general searches, and there is an advanced search option with drop down menus. You can also restrict a search to a particular register or period. From the transcriptions you can go directly to images of the original register. Registered users can get access to the annotation screen.

One of the major assets is a search interface for annotations. Compared to the project for Liège the texts of the records seems to be the focus and very heart of the project at Louvain. The Scabinatus project allows much more the serial analysis of similar acts, but the website does not bring you to the actual records, images or transcriptions. The approach for Liège seems to have been determined by scholars, the approach at Louvain is much closer to the general public. The schepenen of Louvain served as a court of appeal for other cities following the rule of hoofdvaart. Later in this post we will meet Den Bosch, one of the cities which went to Louvain for this purpose.

Dutch projects

For those readers waiting for a regular element of my blog, commonly known as the Dutch view, I will discuss next some Dutch projects. In March 2013 the Regionaal Archief Tilburg launched the Charterbanka charter database, the result of the combined efforts of archivists and visitors of the regional archive working together in a crowdsourcing community with its own website. The Charterbank contains some 450 medieval charters mainly issued by local schepenen from Tilburg and surrounding places. The search interface has fields for place, date, record number, inventory number, and persons adding their seal. In the result view you can enjoy images of the document, read the transcription in a rather small column, consult information about the seal or seals when present, and check for relevant literature and comments. This project focuses on the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period with a regional approach. Charters until 1312 from Noord-Brabant can be found online in the Digitaal Oorkondeboek van Noord-Brabant.

At ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), commonly called Den Bosch, the regional record office, with as its current name Brabants Historisch Infomatiecentrum, has created an online database with records created by both schepenen and notaries in small towns and villages in the present-day province Noord-Brabant. With some 180,000 records the harvest seems at first rich, but only in a few cases you can study a long period, mainly for Lith and Veghel. Resolutions of the Dutch Supreme Council for Brabant, the Raad van State in The Hague, from 1629 onwards, are also present in this database. In my view they constitute a very important source, but they are in a different class, even if they deal with the villages and towns of Brabant. The Dutch description of the database emphasises the possibility to search for persons in these records. Online projects with a genealogical approach flourish at this regional record office, and I could trace many of my own ancestors using the results of these efforts, but for dealing in real depth with other records this approach is narrow. Scans of many records are available, but you will encounter many items which surely touch upon history and legal history but do not strictly concern the activities of aldermen. The useful overview of processed records and items bears witness to the wide range of records deemed fit for inclusion. However, the word genealogie (genealogy) in its URL seemed at first telling. By choosing in the left-hand menu Gescande bronnen (“Scanned resources”) you can already search directly in a number of digitized registers of schepenen, by selecting the schepenprotocollen.

Very much city centered are the efforts at the Stadsarchief Den Bosch for the analysis of and access to the series of aldermen’s charters and registers starting with the famous Bosch’ Schepenprotocol. In this massive series running from 1360 to 1811 the schepenen of Den Bosch dealt with matters concerning voluntary jurisdiction, passing acts on the purchase and sales of real estate, probate inventories, acts concerning guardianship, etc. I must strike a harsh note: to my surprise there is here no online database. The information for a database concerning the criminal jurisdiction has been assembled in the project Dataschurk (“Data Villain”). You can download all relevant inventories, an inventory of criminal dossiers and summaries of the dossiers themselves, and there are indexes on record number and name.

Decades of painstaking research have resulted in a rich harvest of materials. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol itself can be consulted on microfiches. It will certainly take courage to create a workable database which brings all information together and makes them accessible in a most reliable way. Luckily archivist Geertrui van Synghel can guide your research with her guide Het Bosch’ Protocol: een praktische handleiding (‘s-Hertogenbosch 1993), and her study “Actum in camera scriptorum oppidi de Buscoducis”: de stedelijke secretarie van ‘s-Hertogenbosch tot ca. 1450 (Ph.D. thesis Leiden 2006; Hilversum 2007) with a cd-rom containing 5735 scabinal charters and acts written by the city’s secretaries until 1450. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol transcends the city borders with the letters of surety enabling the confinement of psychiatric patients, even at institutions as far away as Liège. In his comment Christian van der Ven (Den Bosch, BHIC) announces that preparations for a digital version of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol are in a final phase.

Making choices about periods and subjects

Logo Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Last week The Guardian included the city archives of Amsterdam in a survey of Europe’s best free museums. The building of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam is surely imposing, but the reason for being featured here are the archival records kept here and the way their contents are disclosed more and more online. When I look at sources with a relation to legal history you can choose from a substantial variety of resources. The example I present here is restricted to a particular class of verdicts, those concerning “averij grosse“, general average or in German “Grosse Haverei”, cases in maritime law in which either a ship, a cargo or both had suffered unavoidable damage in emergency situations, and costs thus made or yet to be made or recovered had to be divided in an equal way [Archief van Schout en Schepenen, nos. 2806-2924, Vonnissen terzake van averij grosse, 1700-1810]. A separate chamber of the schepenen for “Assurantiën, Averijen en Zeezaken” dealt with relevant affairs.

Two splendid overviews of the history of European private law, Helmut Coing’s Europäische Privatrecht, I: Älteres Gemeines Recht (1500 bis 1800) (Munich 1985) 554-555, and Reinhard Zimmermann’s The law of obligations. Roman foundations of the civilian tradition (Oxford 1996) 406-412, provide you with basic information about the legal principles at stake, the role of the Lex Rhodia de iactu and with references to important commentaries, including those issued in the period of the Roman-Dutch law. Zimmermann gives the date of publication of the first edition of Quintyn Weytsen’s early treatise in Dutch on general average as 1651. According to the information in the Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands this can be corrected to a first appearance in print in 1617 as an appendix to Cornelis van Nieustad’s Curiae Hollandiae, Zelandiae & West-Frisiae decisiones (…) Item een tractaet van avarien gemaeckt door Quintijn Weytsen (…) (Leiden 1617), and a first separate edition in 1631 [Een tractaet van avarien, dat is Ghemeene contributie vande koopmanschappen ende goederen inden schepe bevonden (Haarlem, 1631)].

Quintyn Weytsen (1518-1565) became a councillor in the Court of Holland only in 1559, and in 1561 and 1562 he was also charged with hearing accounts in the province of Zeeland, information easily gathered from resources such as the Dutch Biografisch Portaal and the Repertorium van ambtsdragers en ambtenaren 1468-1861 (The Hague, Huygens Instituut). Some of the later editions of his work, specifically Adriaen Verwer’s Nederlants see-rechten, avaryen, en bodemeryen (editions e.g. 1711, 1716 and 1730) contain also two ordinances concerning general average from 1551 and 1563 which no doubt prompted him to write his treatise. The lapse of half a century before a printed edition was published is remarkable. The 1617 edition gives no introduction at all for Weytsen’s text, and therefore his short text (from p. 226 onwards) might have been circulating already in manuscript – or perhaps a much read pamphlet? – long before.

The pages on general average at the website of the municipal archive of Amsterdam were launched in Autumn 2013. They offer a succinct introduction to the doctrinal side of things, and introduce you to the procedure before the bailiff and schepenenOne of the important things stated is that both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company did not use the services of this court, because the administrators took care of freighting and transport. Statements confirmed on oath before Amsterdam notaries about cases of avarij formed the starting point of the procedure; you can find them using an index of these scheepsverklaringen (PDF), some 5,400 cases. The hint to check the Amsterdamsche Courant for its notices about shipwrecks and averages in its scheepstijdingen is most useful. You can check this newspaper in digital format at the new Delpher portal of the Dutch Royal Library. Do reckon with variant spellings such as avarieavary, avarij and averij! The suggestions to look in other record series for further information are most helpful. In the database of the Amsterdam city archives you find a digital version of the index created in 1980. The search interface allows you to search for the names of shippers and ships, harbours of depart and arrival, and dates. Two examples of cases from 1726 and 1780 help you to prepare your specific search actions. A search action leads you to further information on a particular case, often supplemented with thumbnail images of the documents.

Can I mention anything negative about this project in Amsterdam? With just two titles about general average this information is rather to short, and the reference to the article by Ivo Schöffer lacks the page numbers (pp. 73-133). Elsewhere on the website a treasure page has been dedicated to the case of the vessel St. Antonio di Padova which was attacked by pirates off La Spezia in 1704. The ship commanded by Jan Lens suffered a lot of damage during a four-hours fight. Repairs were made in Genua. The page shows a part of the notarial statement on this case. Somehow the section on general average does not link directly to this showcase, the only relevant page translated completely into English. In view of the international standing and importance of this archive the maIn point to criticize is alas the absence of a page-to-page translation into English of its marvellous website. The Amsterdam city archives ask people to pay for full-scale images of scanned documents, but before deploring this you must realize they offer a very rapid scanning on demand service.

Different situations, different approaches

In many fields awards and prizes are given yearly for the best project. Is it possible and sensible to do this for this group of six random picked projects? In a bird’s-eye view we saw:

  • transcriptions from the Rivierenland in the Hoge Bank van Tuil
  • large-scale indices and an analytical approach in the Scabinatus 4000 project for Liège,
  • crowdsourcing, transcriptions and images, with even an annotation tool for Itinera Nova at Louvain
  • images and transcriptions of charters at Tilburg
  • indexes for both scabinal and notarial registers, and a growing number of scanned registers for the province of Noord-Brabant
  • inventories, indexes and finding aids concerning the wide judicial functions of the schepenen of Den Bosch – with a printed guide and a cd-rom of the earliest records but without a database -
  • finally the verdicts from Amsterdam concerning maritime law from a distinct period, with an online searchable index and scanned images which have to be paid for.

If you put these seven projects into a grid you can probably more easier see which qualities they share or lack. What makes these projects successful or not? I cannot predict what visitors of these websites will want to know nor what they would like to have at hand on the screen of their computer or tablet. Some researchers might want to start making grand analyses as quickly as possible and therefore applaud transcriptions and online indices, others prefer painstaking transcriptions of the originals or of images provided by an archive. The pioneers for the Rivierenland have not yet reached the phase of building a database. One archive, the city archive at Den Bosch, does not provide a database, and I suppose this is a policy decision, because so much energy has already been put into the resources in question during more than twenty years. For other cities printed critical editions of the verdicts of schepenen exist, and thus the need for an online database might be less urgent.

Even though this is a rather long post I still feel I have treated all projects presented here rather briefly. It is wise not to judge their qualities too quickly! A stronger objection is the choice of examples which is very much personal, but at least also for a part guided by the lack of an easy overview of relevant digitization projects for this particular kind of resource. I would not feel ashamed if this post serves as a stepping stone for more and better.

A postcript

In his comment Christian van der Ven of the BHIC at Den Bosch stresses the actual cooperation of Dutch archives for this kind of projects. I have taken over his factual corrections, and the important information about online access to a number of registers of schepenen already avaiable now at the BHIC, and the appearance of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol in digital form in the near future.

4 thoughts on “Pronouncing the city’s law: aldermen as judges

  1. Christian van der Ven

    First of all a big ‘thank you’ for this indeed rather long, but also very interesting blogpost! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on making these resources accessible.

    In contrast with the lack of a compiled list of all the various projects available, behind the scenes of the archives there is lots of sharing knowledge and experience with such projects going on.

    On the Itinera Nova project you write: “Since 2009 more than one million pages have been transcribed by 35 volunteers.” This sounds like too much… The information that I have, is that a total of almost a million pages eventually need to be scanned and transcribed. From that amount, a large portion has already been scanned, and about 10.000 pages have also been transcribed (which, for 35 volunteers, still is a big achievement!)

    Thank you for directing people towards my blog series btw.

    The Regionaal Archief Brabant (‘charterbank’) does not exist. They are named the Regionaal Archief Tilburg.

    As for the database that we develop at the BHIC, the focus is definately not purely genealogical. For example, the word ‘genealogie’ in the url is purely a result of the database from which the overview is generated, which is a database we already had for generating an overview of our genealogy records, so we just thought to use the same software and kind of form to generate other overviews as well.

    Indeed in the index there’s a focus on names of persons, but also on names of places and the acts/deeds that the records are about — in general archives are formed around people and acts/deeds, so in many ways, all archives are ‘genealogical’. In my opinion however, the BHIC even has more resources which are not typical for genealogy online, than many other similar archival institutions.

    Also, we have scanned most of the ‘schepenprotocollen’ that we keep and put them online — this year we will complete this project for the remaining protocols. Many of them are not searchable yet though the index, but are already browsable through this page: http://bhic.nl/index.php?id=11886

    Where we have searchable records available for these protocols in our database, they are linked directly to the scans.

    Anyhow, for more information on the background of this project, you could read the article that I wrote some months ago: http://www.digitalearchivaris.nl/2013/09/goed-genoeg-is-ruim-voldoende.html

    I’m happy to answer any questions you may still have, also on other databases with legal/court records that we have online, or are working on.

    Finally, in the same blog series about the Itinera Nova project, I posted a blog about Geertrui’s lecture on the Bosch’ protocol, in which she ended with the news, that the protocol will be scanned on a short term: http://www.digitalearchivaris.nl/2013/05/de-middeleeuwse-schepenprotocollen-van.html

    Reply
    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Christian, thanks for your long and very constructive comments! It is good to know Dutch archives cooperate much more behind the screens than is readily visible. I will correct factual matters, and point readers to your comments. One word about the BHIC and genealogy: The BHIC does deal very equally with both genealogical and other records. The intertwining of genealogy and general history helps genealogists to view personal family records in context, and historians are helped to imagine persons and families with the help of their favoured records.

      Reply

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