Tag Archives: Cultural heritage

Rethinking medieval history: Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014)

Phptp Jacques Le Goff - source: L'agenda du médiévisteWith the death of the French medievalist Jacques Le Goff on April 1, 2014 the academic worlds loses not only a prolific historian, but also one of its great inspiring teachers who devoted himself to renewing our insights into medieval people and the medieval world at large. At the heart of his work was the belief that for understanding medieval culture in all its aspects you need to gain insights of medieval minds. The histoire des mentalités was not his invention, but together with Georges Duby he succeeded in applying the ideas of the French Annales school of historiography to medieval history in far greater depth than its founders Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch could ever have hoped for. Johan Huizinga wrote somewhere: “We will need to have a history of the hat”, a history of all those countless elements of daily life which make up your surroundings, without realizing how particular they are. Le Goff choose not material objects as his theme, but he did delve into often neglected sources to find out the habits and workings of medieval minds.

Of his many books the brief study La bourse et la vie. Ëconomie et religion au Moyen Âge (Paris 1986) [Your money or your life. Economy and religion in the Middle Ages, Patricia Ranum (transl.) (New York, 1988)] can be singled out as perhaps entering the fields of legal history more than any other of his publications. On the surface this short book is a sequel to his major study La naissance du purgatoire [The birth of purgatory] (Paris 1981), the history of the slow surfacing of the purgatory, a new theological concept, His foray into economic history might look at first surprising, but it is not when you remember the subtitle of the Annales journal during the second half of the twentieth century, Économies – Sociétés – Civilisations. Among Le Goff’s early publications was a volume for the famous French series of short introductions Que sais-je? on medieval merchants and bankers [Marchands et banquiers du Moyen Âge (Paris 1955)].

It was typical of Le Goff to build his essay-like study about usury and usurers around sources which normally would only figure at the margin of a study touching on legal history. His choice to focus on a number of exempla, medieval short stories often used by preachers, and sermons containing an exemplum about an usurer, is richly rewarded. Le Goff succeeded in this study in offering also an introduction in a nutshell to medieval economic thought. He published this study before most of Odd Langholm’s fundamental studies about medieval economic thought appeared. However outdated Le Goff’s views on medieval economy might become, his lesson that medieval thought came very close to ordinary people remains fruitful and inspiring, not in the least because Le Goff was a great story-teller, too. As few historians before or after him he bridged supposed and real gaps between theories of medieval society and medieval theories at one end, and medieval life and behavior in its various dimensions at the other end. At the heart of Le Goff’s studies were medieval men and women. At the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) he fostered the field of historical anthropology. It is difficult to imagine much modern work on medieval history in France and elsewhere in Europe without the influence of his work and the studies by a number of his students who became themselves influential medievalists, in particular at the EHESS center’s Groupe d’anthropologie historique de l’occident médiéval (GAHOM). You will find here for example digitized literature with exempla and the Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi.

Le Goff lived long enough to see the great blossom of medieval studies since the last quarter of the last century. He had the greatness and humility to see the blind spots and omissions of his early work. In the 1984 edition of Les intellectuels au Moyen Âge, originally published in 1957, he readily admitted to have underestimated the close relation between intellectuals and urban life, between intellectual power and political power. He cited with approval Giovanni Santini’s Università e società nel XII secolo: Pillio da Medicina e lo Studio di Modena (Modena 1979) who stressed the importance of the common background for cathedral schools and the new medieval universities.

Many seemingly normal qualities and characteristics of current medieval studies, including the study of medieval legal history, such as its awareness of the social context, attention to the close relation of any subject to people and their lives, and the use of a wide variety of sources, are due to the example of Jacques Le Goff. In his late work he turned to major figures of medieval society such as Saint Louis (king Louis IX of France) and Francis of Assisi. He wrote their lives anew as no other before him. It is alway hazardous to predict which of his books will remain influential. I would vote for La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval (2nd edition, Paris 1984; many translations) but you will be excused most readily for taking from the shelves any of his other books and articles. In every single publication you will find yourself in the company of a great historian, a fresh thinker and a generous teacher who always opened windows which had been long closed. The title Pour un autre Moyen Âge (1977) puts it most simply, “for different Middle Ages”. Le Goff gave lectures in my country, too. In 2004 he received the coveted Heineken prize for history. It is strange he was never awarded the Erasmus Prize.

Let us remember Jacques Le Goff whenever we connect legal history to culture and history at large in daring and hopefully fruitful ways. Let’s not forget to keep telling stories making history and law alive for new generations.

The Belgian blog L’agenda du médiéviste alerts in its notice about Le Goff’s death to broadcasts on Le Goff by the French television network France Culture. On the website of the EHESS, too, you will find links to further hommages.

Weighing the witches at Oudewater

Heksenwaag, Oudewater

The Heksenwaag, Oudewater – image Geschiedkundige Vereniging Oudewater, http://www.geschiedkundigeverenigingoudewater.nl/

This month the walking historian marches again! In July I visited the tiny town of Oudewater, a city in the southwest corner of the province Utrecht. In the beautiful old city of Oudewater the historic Heksenwaag, the Witches Weigh-House is not to be missed. However, in fact I did almost overlook it due to the fact that in my memory the building was much larger. As a kid I had visited the Heksenwaag, and I even received the certificate stating my weight was normal. Coming back to this town things seemed different, but the degree of change was really surprisingly low. Afterwards I could not help questioning what I had seen and doubting my assumptions and conclusions. Moreover, the Heksenwaag is not just a building which any tourist has to visit, but it is a veritable Dutch lieu de mémoire. It links directly to the history of European witchcraft and the ways law and justice dealt with this phenomenon. The results are interesting enough to include in this post which has as its second focus the perception of Oudewater’s history.

Hard facts and shallow assumptions

The scales in the Heksenwaag, Oudewater

In De canon van Nederland, “The canon of Dutch history”, the Heksenwaag at Oudewater is connected to emperor Charles V. He is said to have granted Oudewater in 1545 a privilege to weigh persons suspected of witchcraft and to issue certificates of normal weight. The vogue for historic canons in the Netherland has led to several regional canons. In the canon for the southwest corner of Utrecht the story of the Heksenwaag is strongly qualified. Legend had preserved a tale of Charles V doubting in 1545 a witch trial at Polsbroek where a woman had been weighed and found too light. He ordered a second weighing at Oudewater, showing her to have a weight of 100 pounds, which saved her, As a sign of gratitude for the correctness of the staff at the weigh-house he granted the privilege. However, there was no weigh-house at all in the village of Polsbroek. The scene of the false weighing could have been the town of IJsselstein. There is no trace of any privilege from 1545 for Oudewater.

Where do we find sources on the medieval and Early Modern history of Oudewater? This very question does bring you quickly to sources touching upon legal history. Joost Cox published in 2005 for the Foundation for the History of Old Dutch Law a repertory of Dutch medieval city charters with grants of specific rights, bylaws and ordinances, the Repertorium van de stadsrechten in Nederland (The Hague 2005). At the accompanying website you will find only lists of cities and dates. With some caution Cox traces such a charter for Oudewater said to be given in 1257 by Hendrik I of Vianden, bishop of Utrecht from 1249 to 1267 (Cox, p. 190). The Institute for Dutch History has recently digitized the major modern editions of medieval charters for the county of Holland and the diocese of Utrecht. The Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301, S.Muller Fz. et alii (eds.) (5 vol., Utrecht 1920-‘s-Gravenhage 1959) does contain an item for this charter (OSU III, 1428) which shows a short reference in a chronicle as the ultimate source of all later information. The chronicle places the gift of a city charter in 1257. Some later authors misread the chronicle and placed it in the year 1265. Nevertheless the city of Oudewater prepares the celebration of 750 years Oudewater in 2015. A celebration in 2007 would have been equally justifiable…

Map of Oudewater by Jacob van Deventer, around 1557

Map of Oudewater by Jacob van Deventer, around 1557

The remarkable insistence on some presumed historical facts in the history of Oudewater comes in a different perspective when looking at a number of events that most certainly determined its history. During a war between the bishop of Utrecht and the count of Holland Oudewater was severely damaged during a siege in 1349 (see for example the Divisiekroniek of Cornelius Aurelius (Leiden 1517) fol. 212 recto). Oudewater held a strategic position a the junction of the rivers Linschoten and Hollandse IJssel. In 1281 the bishop of Utrecht pledged Oudewater and some other possessions for 6000 livres tournois to the counts of Holland (OHZ IV, 1938 (1281 January 24)). The bishops of Utrecht never were able to repay this sum, and thus Oudewater remained until 1970 a town in Holland. On June 19, 1572, Oudewater was captured by Adriaen van Zwieten, and it became one of the earliest cities in Holland to side with William of Orange. On July 19, 1572 Oudewater participated with sixteen other cities in the first independent session of the States of Holland at Dordrecht, a landmark in the long struggle of the Low Countries with Spain, the Eighty Years War that lasted until the Westphalian Peace (1648).

Oudewater 1575

Engraving by Frans Hogenberg of the atrocities in Oudewater, 1575 – Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, collectie Historieplaten Frederik Muller – see http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/

The change of sides in June 1572 and the presence of Oudewater at the historic session in Dordrecht a month later had undoubtedly been noted by the Spanish authorities in the Low Countries. The locations of Dutch cities had been chartered quite recently by Jacob van Deventer, the cartographer charged by the Spanish king Philipp II with a large-scale cartographical project. The surviving maps have been digitized in the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. When Spanish forces approached Oudewater in August 1575, an ultimatum was sent urging the city council to surrender. By sheer misfortune this ultimatum was not properly understood. On August 7, 1575 the city was set to fire and many citizens were ruthlessly murdered. Only the church of St. Michael’s and a monastery did escape the devastations. These events clearly affected also the survival of historical records. With much support from nearby cities such as Gouda Oudewater was quickly rebuilt. The results of this building campaign are still visible in the center of the city which looks indeed rather unified if you look closely enough. The destruction of the original buildings, and presumably also of many historic records, explains the tendency to stick to some acclaimed stories and events. Archival records concerning Oudewater can in particular be found at the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Rijnstreek in Woerden and at Het Utrechts Archief in Utrecht. The survival of written records plays a role, too, in the project of Sophie Oosterwijk and Charlotte Dikken on the floor slabs of St. Michael’s at Oudewater.

Of witches, historians and tourists…

Perhaps I had start here better with stating my relative unfamiliarity with the history of witchcraft. As a historian I have kept this subject on purpose on a safe distance, but in the end there is no escape from it, in particular because the subject of persecution and trials is not far away from the main territories of legal historians.

Debunking some part of history is nothing special, nor is it my aim to expose any mystification. Others have done this thoroughly for the Witches Weigh-House. Under the pseudonym Casimir K. Visser the exiled German journalist and historian Kurt Baschwitz (1886-1968) published the study Van de heksenwaag te Oudewater en andere te weinig bekende zaken (Lochem, [1941]; online at the Dutch Royal Library). Baschwitz pointed to an inspection in 1547 of the weights used at the weigh-house, a fact adduced by earlier historians, but actually a normal procedure which says nothing about any special use. He notes the careful avoidance in the certificates of any reference to a belief in witches, witchcraft, sorcery and similar things. Baschwitz referred to Johannes Wier (around 1515-1588), the famous Dutch physician who fought against superstitions, Wier did not mention Oudewater at all in his 1563 treatise De praestigiis daemonum nor in his De lamiis (1577). Both books were often reprinted and appeared in translations. Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698), too, did not credit Oudewater with any special role in his famous book De betoverde weereld (1691). Baschwitz published in 1963 his great study Hexen und Hexenprozesse. Die Geschichte eines Massenwahns und seiner Bekämpfung (Munich 1963)Hans de Waardt reviewed the historiography concerning Oudewater and witches in his article ‘Oudewater. Ein Hexenwaage wird gewogen – oder: Die Zerstörung einer historischen Mythe’, Westfälische Zeitschrift 144 (1994) 249-263. De Waardt wrote his Ph.D. thesis on sorcery and society in the province of Holland, Toverij en samenleving in Holland, 1500-1800 (diss. Rotterdam; The Hague 1991).

For the study of Johannes Wier Dutch readers can benefit from the marvellous recent study by Vera Hoorens, Een ketterse arts voor de heksen : Jan Wier (1515-1588) [A heretic physician for the witches, Jan Wier (1515-1588)] (Amsterdam 2011). On Balthasar Bekker Johanna Maria Nooijen published in 2009 “Unserm grossen Bekker ein Denkmal”? : Balthasar Bekkers ‘Betoverde Weereld’ in den deutschen Landen zwischen Orthodoxie und Aufklärung (Münster 2009).

It might be useful to mention the special website of the main Dutch historical journal Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden / Low Countries Historical Review where you can search online in the issues from 1970 to 2012. As for searching literature for European history you will no doubt gain information and insights at the portal European Historical Bibliographies maintained by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. A number of current historical bibliographies presented at this portal can be consulted online. For the history of the city and province of Utrecht you can use the online bibliography at SABINE which in a number of cases provides also links to digital versions of articles and books.

Researching the history of witchcraft

When it comes to studying the history of witches and witchcraft I must confess to start at almost zero. It is years ago that I read a monographic study on witchcraft, and this particular study, Lène Dresen-Coenders, Het verbond van heks en duivel : een waandenkbeeld aan het begin van de moderne tijd als symptoom van een veranderende situatie van de vrouw en als middel tot hervorming der zeden [The pact of witch and devil: an Early Modern fallacy as a symptom of a changing situation for women and as a means to reform morals] (diss. Nijmegen; Baarn 1983) did not convince me at all. Perhaps I was simply wrong in choosing to read this book with its overlong title and its hypotheses which still seem to me farfetched. In fact I kept away from a whole group of Dutch historians doing maatschappijgeschiedenis, “history of society” who favored studies of minorities to detect changes in mentality. Any exclusive focus still makes me frown, but the history of mentalities and cultural history in general is of course fascinating and most valuable.

If I was to start nowadays doing research on this theme I would look first at such fine guides as the section on Hexenforschung at the German history portal Historicum.net. Klaus Graf is the moderator of a useful mailing list on witchcraft research. You can also point to a succinct thematic bibliography provided in Dresden, the Dresdener Auswahlbibliographie zum Hexenforschung, which unfortunately has not been updated since 2004. In Tübingen the Arbeitskreis interdisziplinärer Hexenforschung sets an example of bringing several disciplines together. Unfortunately Jonathan Durrants’ online Witchcraft Bibliography was not available when writing this post. Older literature up to the end of the twentieth century can be found for example in a bibliography preserved at a website of the University of Texas. For Flanders Jos Monballyu (Kortrijk) has created a fine online bibliography and a selection of relevant sources concerning witch trials. He has written many studies about witches and traced many criminal sentences concerning them in Flemish archives. The Cornell University Witchcraft Collection is most useful with its bibliography and digital library.

In American history the Salem Witch Trials (1692) offer a fascinating window on early American society. You can find many documents online, in particular at the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project (University of Virginia), at Douglas Linder’s Famous Trials website and at a portal dedicated to the events in 1692 with a digital collection of books and archival records. The perceptions of behavior and the attempts at dealing with such behavior in courts of justice, not to forget the changing perceptions of justice, are among the elements which make the persecution of witches, witchcraft and sorcery interesting for legal historians.

Of course these examples can be multiplied, but this would far exceed the boundaries of a blog post. Here I have sketched only the outlines of things worth exploring further. I called Oudewater a Dutch lieu de mémoire. In the book series Plaatsen van herinnering sofar five volumes have appeared since 2005 which follow for my country – albeit somewhat belated – the example of Pierre Nora’s seminal Les lieux de mémoire (3 vol., Paris 1984-1992). This interest in historical places and the ways events are remembered at particular places help us to remember history and legal history, too, happened to people in particular times and places, and not just somewhere as a part of a supposed or real historical process. Even a small building in a dreamlike preserved old town can relate to larger events. The scenic old streets of Oudewater was the scene of some very real events, but they are the background, too, for a very stubborn tradition of perceived history. The living memory and the construction or even invention of (parts of) history related to a particular place tell us the fascinating history of the uses of history, changes in perceptions and the construction of identity in time and space.

One of the things that make me uneasy in writing about witchcraft is the sheer proliferation of literature on this subject. Many scientific disciplines occupy themselves with sorcery and witchcraft and its history. It is very easy to miss a whole range of interpretations stemming from a particular corner or country. The road of using bibliographies is long. Sometimes it seems attractive to take a shortcut which in the long run does not bring you much further. Legal history should pay due attention to colored perceptions and distortions of historical facts and events in order to keep an open eye for its own pitfalls, shortcomings and blind corners.

Digital wealth: comparing national digital libraries

On April 13, 2013 the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) was launched, an initiative that brings together digitized sources from a number of cultural institutions in the United States. In November 2012 the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB) started which combines the digital collections of over 2,000 institutions in Germany. The DDB is still in its beta-version. A Wealth of Knowledge is the motto of the DPLA. In this post I will try to make a comparison between the new American and German national digital libraries. For this purpose I will look both at rather random chosen subjects, and also at specific subjects with a link to legal history. How rich are both initiatives? Do these two new digital libraries compare favorably with other national digital libraries? Actually it is already interesting to look how many comparable initiatives exist worldwide. A number of them is mentioned on my own webpage for digital libraries. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell a national library portal apart from a general search portal or a national portal for digitized cultural heritage.

The limits of comparison

Logo Digital Public Library of America

Perhaps it wise to start here with a Dutch proverb, je moet geen appels met peren vergelijken, do not compare apples with pears, in other words, don’t compare incomparable things. Each of the digital portals and national digital libraries has its own history, background and very different cooperating partners. In my view it is not unimportant to bear in mind this when I assess the qualities of the DPLA and the DDB. I do not want to judge them, but solely to put the efforts behind both libraries in perspective.

The first impression of the website of the Digital Public Library of America is colourful and inviting. A rolling banner shows an impressive array of beautiful images and photographs of important people and events. Visitors of the website can immediately starting looking at information for particular locations, dates and years. The exhibitions section brings you quickly to a number of themes. For legal history I would like to single out Indomitable spirits: Prohibition in the United States. Below the motto A Wealth of Knowledge you can enter a free text search. The DPLA gives prominent space to its tweets, a news section and its apps, alas not yet the applications to use on smartphones to search its contents, but two separate search interfaces. One of the apps enables searching in both the DPLA and Europeana. I will include this double search app and Europeana, too, in my comparison. For brevity’s sake I will not discuss here the Library Observatory with a more abstract presentation of the search interfaces of contributing institutions.

A first hesitation occurs when you notice no less than three horizontal menus to navigate the DPLA portal. The uppermost menu is definitely more concerned with the background, and perhaps you will scarcely need it. For navigation a site map would be helpful, also when facing the multiple browse and search options, the choice in the presentation of results and the way to filter them. In one of the new items you can read in small print that the DPLA is launched as a beta-version.

Engraving of Aaron Burr

Engraving of Aaron Burr – Enoch Gridley after John Vanderlyn, c. 1801 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

How to probe faithfully the quality of any meta-catalogue or portal to cultural heritage? In my view both well-known matters and rather randomly chosen examples will help clarifying this matter. As for the random example, I will choose subjects and themes which just happened to be within my view these days. At his blog Appealingly Brief Dan Klau wrote on April 18, 2013 a posting on Aaron Burr (1756-1836), the vice-president who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, and the ancestor of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the endless speech used to stop senators from voting on bills and other proposals. Until now the filibuster figured on my blog only in his original form as a pirate, and thus I am happy to welcome his namesake!

The DPLA finds 20 results on Aaron Burr. Not one of them is directly connected with the filibuster, but more with the conspiracy for which Burr was indicted on November 25, 1806, and with Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky, a place visited by Burr. I found just one image of Burr himself. The double app for the DPLA and Europeana, too, brings 20 results from the DPLA, and 3 digitized books in Europeana. It is the constellation of holding institutions in the DPLA that surprises me, and their content. The search term filibuster gives me just six results, all of them cartoons from the twentieth century. No doubt the cultural institutions that cooperate in the DPLA hold great treasures, but you would expect results from digital collections at Ivy League universities, and from libraries such as the New York Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Boston Public Library, although this library is present as a general partner in the Digital Commonwealth portal of cultural institutions in Massachusetts, a portal linked to the DPLA. As for now only the NYPL and Harvard Library already participate in the DPLA. In the digital gallery of the NYPL I found 57 images concerned with Aaron Burr. It seems that you cannot search yet all digital collections of Harvard Library in one search action at its website.

At present it seems the DPLA has enlisted the services of only a few major institutions, among them The Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Searching the Smithsonian collections for Burr yields more than 200 results. Looking for Burr on the website of the NARA will easily bring you 75 results. Clearly not of all of them connect immediately to digitized materials, but still the difference is very large. Somehow the aggregating process behind the DPLA is not working as completely and correctly as possible. However, the DPLA is helpful in another way: when you click on More subjects you will find a nice overview of associated themes. For Burr the filibuster is missing among these proposed subjects.

Culture and knowledge

Logo Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

The second library portal in my comparison is the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB). At its launch in November 2012 only a beta-version became visible, thus inviting criticism. The first impression of the DDB is austere, a white background with only a search interface, a slide show with just six pictures, and two clear menus. A sitemap seems at first superfluous, but with a view to the future it is wise to include it already. The language of the search interface can be switched to German or English. Below the general free text search field you can click on Advanced search where you will find initially find just two search fields. However, you can add search fields at will, choose from ten categories, and set the character of a boolean search on “AND”or “OR”. The link to institutions brings you to a map of Germany and a search interface to filter for archives, libraries, museums, research institutions, media and monument protection. At present nearly 2,000 German institutions contribute to the DDB.

The Grimm brothers

The Grimm brothers, drawing by Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1843 – Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen – image Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

How to test the qualities of the DBB in a fair and reliable way? 150 years ago Jacob Grimm died, the eldest of the Grimm brothers. Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) was not only responsible for the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812) – the fairy tales had their own bicentennial last year; a digital version of the first edition is present at the Deutsches Textarchiv – and with his brother for the Deutsches Wörterbuch, but published also a number of works which touch upon legal history, starting perhaps with a famous article ‘Von der Poesie im Recht’, Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft 2 (1816) 25-99, on the poetry of the law, and editions such as the texts in Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1834) and the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer (first edition in two volumes, Göttingen 1828).

Just entering “Jacob Grimm” in the DDB gives you already more than 200 results, with 80 images of either Jacob Grimm or both him and his brother Wilhelm. You will find the first three volumes (A to Forsche) of the Deutsches Wörterbuch. The DDB does not bring you to a digitized version of the 1816 article, online in the digital library for German legal journals of the nineteenth century at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. The DDB does contain the Reinhart Fuchs from 1834, and a letter on the subject of this book on several medieval versions of the Ysengrinus story by Grimm to the philologist Karl Lachmann, Sendschreiben an Karl Lachmann von Jacob Grimm über Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1840). The DDB lists several digital copies of the 1828 and 1854 editions of the Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer. Twice it is stated the first edition appeared in Leipzig, but the title pages of both volumes of this edition mention Göttingen. The error is due to the source of the meta-data on the digitized copy in question, in this case the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich.

With Grimm I choose an example from the very heart of German romanticism and scholarship. The formal end of the German Holy Roman Empire came in 1803 with the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, a decision of the German Reichstag at Regensburg. One of its consequences was the end of the secular power of a number of German ecclesiastical institutions over large territories, and the secularisation of all possessions of German monasteries. Many libraries were torn apart and ended in the holdings of new large libraries such as the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. By some German scholars 1803 has been described as a more decisive turn in German history than the French invasion by Napoleon. The DDB shows 106 results concerning this decision, not just books, but also links to archival records. Alas the links to the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart are only links to the online finding aids, not to the archival records themselves. When searching for Jacob Grimm at Europeana you get literally hundreds results. A search for the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss as a subject brings at Europeana only four results, but they happen to be the digitized appendices to the decision of the Reichstag with detailed information about institutions and territories. These volumes have been digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. If you search for titles with the same word, you get seven results, again from the same library.

Promises to be fulfilled…

How to assess the results presented in the DPLA and the DDB? Even when bearing in mind we have only been in touch with the beta-version of both digital portals a feeling of disappointment is not far away. For all its colourful and alluring aspects the actual search results at the DPLA are meagre. When you try to search for the same subjects in the online collection databases of some of the major participating institutions you get more results than are at presented harvested by or aggregated at the DPLA. The presence of less well-known digital libraries in the DPLA is a promise for the future. It is good that the nets of the DPLA are not only cast in familiar fishing waters. No doubt the number of participating institutions will steadily grow. In itself it is a strength that this portal does transcend the borders and limits of the traditional library. Images, sound recordings, archival records and artefacts are welcome in the DPLA without any prejudice. The side effect is, however, that books are not as prominently present as you would wish them to be. Some subjects are distinctly nearly absent in the DPLA. The last thing I expected to find in the DPLA among the few results for decretals was a digitized copy at the Brigham Young University of a rare edition of a medieval decretal taken from the edition of the Compilationes antiquae (Lerida 1576) by Antonio Agustín.

The DDB is a bit of a paradox. I have never seen before a digital portal with nearly 2,000 cooperating institutions behind it. I had expected more and more interesting search results for the examples I have chosen here. They stem from a pivotal period in German history and culture. It is not very reassuring to find that searches elsewhere, for example at Europeana and in the collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek yield more results than at the DDB. Especially when you realize German regional meta-catalogues, and at the top of them the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog, help you to track books, including digitized copies, in a very quick and reliable way, the question arises what the aims and goals of the DDB are. Is one it aims to do better than the BAM-Portal? The BAM-Portal finds more results, but on closer inspection only a portion of them concerns digitized materials.

How do the DPLA and DDB compare to similar national and international initiatives? Europeana came into view here already several times. A search for Aaron Burr at the European Library brings you 35 digital results. I found for the filibuster 68 results, with just 5 digital resources. Among the results you can filter for disciplines, which is helpful to find the right kind of filibuster. A similar search for the decision in 1803 to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire yields 23 digital results, with again mostly items digitized at Munich.

Worldwide several library portals exists which combine the forces of several national or even foreign collections to present their digitized resources. Here just a few examples: Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, increasingly aggregates also digitized books from other libraries, for example at Lyons and Toulouse. The Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura is an Italian initiative which combines the forces of a number of thematic and special collections. In Mexico a number of institutions work together in the Biblioteca Digital Mexicana. Fifty digital libraries in Poland can be searched using the portal of the Federacja Bibliotek Cyfrowech. The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel Cervantes is a portal of several major Spanish institutions. For Catalonia the portal Memòria Digital de Catalunya brings you to even more institutions. In the portal Digital NZ – Á-Tihi Aotearoa a number of cultural institutions in New Zealand bring digitized collections together.

One of the main factors for the success of digital library portals is the way data and meta-data are harvested and aggregated. In countries where many different digitization standards prevailed it is surely more difficult to create a successful portal website. The Polish consortium of digital libraries unites institutions which use exactly the same system. Efforts to create a national portal can diminish the financial means for participating institutions to digitize materials that you would like to find also at the national level. The launch of the DPLA took place in Boston. It was no coincidence that I mentioned the position of the Boston Public Library. Its participation in the Massachusetts portal Digital Commonwealth surely poses both possibilities and limits.

Not the least factor in the success of digital portals is sticking to international standards and at the same time creating a tool that is useful for users with different interests and backgrounds. Some portals might in fact be closer to a kind of national showcase than a research tool that fits the needs of scholars from various disciplines. Sometimes it is clear you will start your search elsewhere: for digitized historical maps a first orientation is given at such portals as David Rumsey’sOld Maps Online and Archival Maps, and a second major resource to use for this purpose is the GEO-LEO-portal of the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg and the university library at Göttingen. In my view the DPLA and DDB should get the benefit of doubt. It is clear that they do not yet fulfill all high expectations, but at the same time it is wise to realize nobody would see them as the one and only gateway to digital resources in a particular country. Hopefully constructive comments will be more helpful than harsh early criticisms to create the first complete releases of the DPLA and DDB more satisfactorily. These promising portals deserve a second chance.

A postscript

The portal to historical maps of David Rumsey will shortly join the forces of the DPLA. Among the European portals I could have mentioned the Spanish portal Hispana.

Writing at a slow pace

This month it seems I will not be able to write four posts. It feels awkward to break my promise for the continuity of my blog. However, yesterday I had the privilege of being guided to a project in Utrecht which proceeds very slowly indeed. It shows the relativity of joining a Weekly Post Competition or a Post a Day Challenge. This post has at face value only a very slim connection with legal history, but perhaps you might detect here a deeper meaning.

The Letters of Utrecht

Letters of Utrecht - The beginning

On June 2, 2012 Aleid Wolfsen, burgomaster of Utrecht, opened the project The Letters of Utrecht (De Letters van Utrecht) by uncovering a line of stones with the words of a poem in the pavement along the medieval canal Oude Gracht. You have to begin somewhere to give the past its place (“Je zult ergens moeten beginnen om het verleden een plaats te geven”) is the first line by Ruben van Gogh of a poem to be written by a collective of poets working in Utrecht.

To create an impressive start the project showed in June immediately a number of lines, but this was only a consequence of using a convenient starting point. For every week since January 2000 a stone with one letter has been put into place. The pace of one letter every week means the poem will become visible at a very slow speed indeed. At present some 650 stones are visible. Every Saturday afternoon a new stone is prepared in situ by a mason and put into its place.

Letters of Utrecht - The sequel will come next Saturday

The first stone of the project is a gift from The Long Now Foundation hewn from the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range in Texas where a 10,000 Years Clock is being installed since 1996. Behind the project in Utrecht is the Million Generations Foundation, an organization which invites people to think about the future of the earth, its people and civilization in the very long run. Its founder, Michael Münker, and my guide yesterday, is also on the board of the foundation for The Letters of Utrecht.

Among the immediate offsprings of the Long Now Foundation are The Rosetta Project for a public digital library with texts from all documented languages, and PanLex, a project for a multilingual translation database and interface. At first the name of the PanLex project led me to guess it aims at creating a database of laws worldwide! In fact you might indeed try to use it as a juridical multilingual dictionary.

Letters of Utrecht - "Guilty"

After spotting in the pavement the word guilty (“schuldigen”) I knew for sure I had a pretext to write here about this project. The word is a part of line in the poem by Ellen Deckwitz where the medieval tower of Utrecht Cathedral points as a finger to heaven to identify the guilty (“…schuldigen aan te wijzen”). My picture of this text is rather vague, but on second thought this can function as a mitigation of the rather strong image provided by the poem.

Letters of Utrecht - The present matters ever less...

Yet another line by Ruben van Gogh near the very start of the poem struck me even more: the present matters ever less (“…het heden doet er steeds minder toe”). The words of this poet run directly against the mainstream of contemporary life. However, it is only in the present that we can read his words and reflect on them, but he provokes us to realize that our view of the present is guided by the past. Is it sheer coincidence to reflect on words by someone named Van Gogh in the very weekend the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam closes for a seven month renovation? 75 paintings by Vincent van Gogh will be shown temporarily to the public at the Hermitage Amsterdam. Anyway, the present visibility of the project in Utrecht is not only provided by a website, but also by presence on Facebook and Twitter. It is certainly food for thought to look at a project aiming for the ages which is firmly present in the virtual reality using the media where people often seem to focus on actual situations and activities!

Another aspect of The Letters of Utrecht I would like to mention is the use of a type specially created by the Avant la Lettre foundry. The capitals of this type make me wonder about the form of a basic type yet to be created. I like the fact that a project which invites you to look into the distant future uses a contemporary type. As for the project in Utrecht it is no wonder if you are reminded of laws carved in stone, a subject touched upon here in some posts here, too (The voice of Hammurabi and Carved in stone). Using stones as a material to make texts visible for all times still has the attraction of one of the ways to reach into eternity. The use of stone is a part of the image a text creates, and thus I decided to include this post not only in the Utrecht section of my blog, but also under the heading Legal iconography.

Hunting for origins: the example of companies

A few weeks ago I read about the purchase in 2008 by China of a copper mine at Mount Toromocho in Peru for the sum of 3 billion dollars. It reminded me that I still have a story up my sleeve about another copper mine to illustrate the early history of companies with shareholders, and even better, the company in question still exists. When writing here in 2011 about the oldest share of the Dutch East India Company from 1606 I read also about companies founded much earlier. In this post I want to follow that track. However, this will lead also to questioning the idea and practice of searching for and claiming the earliest occurrence of legal constructions.

Searching for the oldest companies

Logo Hudson Bay Company

My search for companies older than the Dutch example of a company which issued stocks in the early seventeenth century is in itself in no way new or original. In fact I am surprised how much space has been devoted to this search in the English Wikipedia, with inevitably a list of oldest companies. This list is marred by the fact that a number of companies can claim indeed a foundation at a very early date, but they did not start outright as stock companies, the definition to be explored here. It was during a search last year for a particular person that I encountered the website of the Hudson Bay Company, founded officially in 1670. The Hudson Bay Company is proud of its long history. The full name, Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, indicates clearly the role of stockholders. Its archives are since 1974 at Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 2007 the UNESCO admitted these archives to the Memory of the World Register.

Another necessary distinction to be made is between temporary stock companies and more permanent ventures. In ancient and medieval history and law you will encounter examples of joint ventures which last for just one voyage of a ship. Temporary companies such as the English Guinea or African Company (1577-1580) were followed by the East India Company (1600), the Dutch Noordse Compagnie and the Companie van Verre predated the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), founded in 1602. The name of the VOC indicates that in it a number of earlier companies merged together.

A sale concerning the Stora Kopparberg, 1288

The “founding charter” for Stora Kopparberg, 1288 – image Riksarkivet, Stockholm

When I wrote in November 2011 about the oldest share of the VOC dating from 1606 I found comments on the website of Radio Netherlands Worldwide stating that Stora Kopparberg, a Swedish company, is the oldest existing stock company documented as early as 1288. The text of the June 16, 1288 charter can be found in the printed version of the Svenskt Diplomatarium, digitized at a website maintained at the Riksarkivet in Stockholm (SDHK, no. 1406). You can also use a modern transcription and a more extensive summary in the Svenskt Diplomatarium, all in Swedish. In this charter bishop Peter of Västerås acknowledges the sale of an eight part of the copper mountain called Tiskasjöberg, octauam partem montis cupri dicti Tiscasioberg, to his nephew Nils Christinaeson, who however commutes the sale for the possession of two parishes, Fröslunda and Hasselbäck. The sale was certainly important, because the charter was sealed also by king Magnus Ladulås and four other bishops. How the division of this property into eight parts came into existence is not clear, nor is there any mentioning here of the issue of shares. I feel sympathy for the anonymous comment on the RNW website that one can perhaps describe it better as a privately owned firm with external shareholders. In view of medieval canon law it is indeed the question whether you should see this property of the diocese Västerås as property of the chapter and bishop, a part perhaps of the mensa episcopalis. Were the king and the other bishops sealing themselves shareholders?

Mining at the Stora Kopparberget, also known as the Falu Grava, had started already in the tenth century. A charter from 1347 records the granting of several rights to the miners by king Magnus IV (SHDK, no. 5394; February 17, 1347), and here it becomes clear the mine worked as a company. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this copper mine was the largest source of copper worldwide. In 1862 the official name became Stora Kopparsberg Bergslags Aktie Bolga, a name indicating the issue of stocks. The delving of copper ended in 1992. The UNESCO added the site of the copper mine in 2001 to the World Heritage List. In 1998 Stora AB fused with the firm Enso into StoraEnso.

Are there any other examples of early stock companies? The firm of Francesco di Marco Datini in fourteenth century Prato had certainly partners. The Fondo Datini at the Archivio di Stato in Prato is one of the largest medieval commercial archives still preserved. If I would have to answer at point blank for examples still existing medieval companies I am tempted to look at the so-called Livery Companies in London, late medieval craft and trade associations, but they did originally function as guilds and did not trade as companies. Helmut Coing’s Europäisches Privatrecht 1500-1800 I, Älteres Gemeines Recht (Munich 1985) 523-530, distinguishes between different kinds of trade companies: Personengesellschaften, partnerships with mining companies as a special subspecies, Kapitalgeschafften with for examples the Italian montes – excluding the montes pietatis -, privileged seafaring and colonial companies in England and the Low Countries, and more modern companies from the late seventeenth century onwards.

In France the Société des Moulins du Bazacle was a milling company near Toulouse which was owned since the mid-thirteenth century by shareholders. The mills were driven by the water at the barrage de Bazacle, a dam in the Garonne river. Eventually the shares got traded on the market in Toulouse. The company existed until 1946. Companies are already mentioned in French law in the Livre de Jostice et de Plet around 1260 (Li livres de jostice et de plet, Louis-Nicolas Rapetti (ed.) (Paris, 1850) ch. 7.15, pp. 167-168; online for example in the Hathi Trust Digital Library).

Logo Sumitomo

The webpages of the Hudson Bay Company Archives mention the Japanese keiretsu (business group) Sumitomo. It took over a copper mine founded in 1591 by Riemon Soga in Kyoto. In 1691 the firm started winning copper from the Besshi copper mine which closed only in 1973. Sumitomo Mining Company is the very heart of this business group, one of the world’s largest firms. It is interesting to note that both Stora Kopparberg and Sumitomo had copper mining as a basic activity.

Let’s return briefly to the Wikipedia list of oldest companies. You might indeed object I was too dismissive of its qualities and rejected it too quickly as unuseful. Of course it is a nice list of early enterprises which have continued active until modern times, but not every enterprise took off at its start as a stock company. Here a few examples should suffice to illustrate this argument. The British Royal Mint was founded in 886, but king Alfred the Great did certainly not found a firm. Only in 2009 the Royal Mint became a company with limited liability, Royal Mint Ltd. The second example I know from my own experience in South Germany. The Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan reckons its foundation as a brewery back to a charter issued by the city of Freising in 1040 allowing the abbey of Weihenstephan brewing and serving beer, but surely at that time the brewery was not a separate corporate entity. By the way, the genuineness of the 1040 charter is disputed.

Understandably I will not try to plod through a list of dates and firms to be checked, and produce yet another tedious list. Since already two mines figure in this post it is just an educated guess to look briefly at the Wieliczka salt mine near Cracow in Poland. This mine was already known in the Neolithicum (3500 BC). In the eleventh century the mine was nicknamed Magnum Sal. The oldest shaft still present dates from the thirteenth century. In the late thirteenth century the Cracow Mines Company was founded. The Wieliczka mine operated until 2007. This mine, too, has been added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Mining and law

At the end of this post it might seem I have offered here a kind of tour of the Memory of the World Register and the World Heritage List, with only a very vague link to legal history. You might feel lucky I did not yet include a Dutch twist to this post, but the history of mining law brings me an opportunity to do just that. Mining law is indeed a separate branch of private law. In 1978 J. de Boer defended at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam his Ph.D. thesis on De winning van delfstoffen in het Romeinse recht, de middeleeuwse juridische literatuur en het Franse recht tot 1810 [The extraction of minerals in Roman law, the medieval legal literature and French law to 1810](Leiden, 1978). This thesis has a summary in English. Coing’s survey mentioned above brings you to other studies concerning mining law including works by Early Modern lawyers, for instance the Speculum iuris metallici, oder Berg-Rechts-Spiegel by Sebastian Span (Dresden, 1698; digitized at Heidelberg). In Dutch history mining took place in Limburg and also in the former Dutch East Indies.

Using the catalogue of the Max-Planck-Institut für Europäische Rechtsgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main, you will quickly find more relevant and even earlier works on the history of mining law. In Norway mining law was already codified in 1540. When you combine the results obtained there with a search in the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog for digitized books you will be able to look at a number of relevant works from your screen. The Metallicorum corpus iuris oder Bergk-Recht (Leipzig 1624) by Johann Deucer has been digitized at Dresden. Mining often belonged to the regalia, the royal rights. Eike von Repgow deals with this aspect of mining in the Sachsenspiegel (Landrecht I,35), written between 1220 and 1235, and the gloss by Johann vom Buch from the early fourteenth century expands on it (Glossen zum Sachsenspiegel-Landrecht: Buch’sche Glosse, Frank-Michael Kaufmann (ed.) (3 vol., Hannover, 2002; available online at dMGH, section Leges). The library at Frankfurt am Main is a treasure trove which you might indeed compare to a gold mine for legal historians! Here I have restricted myself to mentioning just a few titles and indicating some aspects.

The lure of looking for origins

American readers might have expected me to deal with originalism as the major subject of this post, but in a way my post is already in itself a comment on any form of originalism. The Legal History Blog is very helpful in tracking the discussions on originalism. One of the major problems with the approach favored by originalists is the question to which origin you would like to point. Do you go back to the debates of the Founding Fathers about the American Constitution, do you look at the early Congress or at congressional debates concerning specific amendments, or do you dare to consider also debates concerning the constitution and statutes of the original states before 1776? As for the Founding Fathers, in the book by Philip Kurland and Ralph Lerner and in the web version of their study The Founders’ Constitution (5 vol., Chicago 1987; reprint Indianapolis 2001) you can look even beyond them to the sources and arguments they adduced or debated.

In the wake of the controversies about the American Constitution and its present application many roads have been opened, some of them new and promising, some well trodden and somehow pale. The major flaw with the less interesting perspectives is the Whig interpretation of history, the tendency to use history and law as a handmaiden of the present, in fact only valuable because of the present, and thus sometimes called applied legal history. History and legal history can seem just fuel for debates and are reduced to ammunition for political views. At the very best history and the development of law are not totally neglected in Whig interpretations. In my country the ignorance about history of many members of the Dutch parliament is often shameful. Another problem in the present use and role of the American constitution is the tendency to avoid fundamental debate, and to press for solutions to political questions by the judiciary with as its main vehicle judicial review. A recent attempt in Dutch politics to let a court judge political matters was rightly rejected: the Dutch States General have to decide them, not the courts. Democracy and political debate can regain relevance when they become really relevant and decisive.

As for the history of early companies, it is better not to reduce the history of company law to the sometimes fascinating stories of their foundation or a series of snapshots of all kinds of companies in history, but to look at many aspects of commerce and law in context in longer periods, and to attempt perspectives from all around the world. Legal historians can bring in questions of law to gain insights which historians and other scholars can only neglect at their peril.

The wealth of sources: comparing legal history databases

On April 23, 2012 Dan Ernst alerted at the Legal History Blog to the report by Mitch Fraas on legal history databases for the Center of Research Libraries (CRL). Fraas compares in his brief report the contents, range and accessibility of sources for legal history available in a number of major databases which can be accessed by subscribers and subscribing libraries. The theme of open access has figured here already a few times. Perhaps due to the sheer number of posts at the admirable Legal History Blog Dan Ernst’s post and the report by Mitch Fraas (University of Pennsylvania Libraries) have thus far not received due attention. Fraas makes some comments about finding documents and archival records outside the main databases for legal history that call for reflection and reactions.

This report gives me a most welcome opportunity to deal at last with these commercial databases which I have so far kept at a safe distance. Until now I have included them nor here nor at my website. Is it wise to want to have as much as possible in subscribers-only databases? To who belong the sources for the history of nations, for the development of law, legal institutions and jurisprudence, and the records of the actual application of law in courts and elsewhere? Is the intervention of commercial firms absolutely necessary to make online access possible? Are we simply facing a dilemma or are there several ways to obtain maximum accessibility at comparatively low costs? Fraas is a specialist in Anglo-Indian legal history, but he brings the Indian perspective only as a second thought. The very least I can do here is pointing to a blog which serves a portal to India’s legal history. I will also look at the digital collections provided by the Center for Research Libraries, both for subscribing institutions and in open access.

Commercial databases for legal history

Until now my main impression of commercial legal databases was that they serve primarily the field of current law. Depending on the country you live in they tend to focus on jurisprudence, laws and statutes. Legal history seemed to figure only as an offspring of these databases. My impression of a rather closed environment was perhaps rather unluckily fortified by the website Constitutions of the World where for non-subscribing visitors only facsimiles of constitution come into view. The guide on Scottish legal history by Yasmin Morais at Globalex, a website with guides to the legal systems of many countries where her fine guide is the only one dealing with history, adds to an impression of legal history as a subject lost between modern developments. The readers of this blog and my website or of any other worthwhile website on legal history know this picture is not correct. Legal history is very much alive!

If you do not deal on a daily business with Anglo-American law you might be excused in guessing LexisNexis, HeinOnline, WestLaw e tutti quanti present only the materials for contemporary lawyers and law students. The resources guide of an average American law school allots much space to the products of these firms, and a number of schools can add regularly new databases or functionality for existing systems to the variety of resources available for users on and off campus. History comes into view already because of the need in a number of legal systems to be able to search for precedents. Thus legal systems with a tendency to focus on case-law or – phrasing it for Anglo-American law – taking a lead from the principle of stare decisis, inherit a vital connection to the past for present-day use. The drawback is the daily temptation to view this historical connection as a useful handmaid of the present, and not much more. In American law case-law currently gets its specific importance also from the way the constitution comes into view.

A useful comparison

Logo CRL

You might wonder why I included the paragraph here above, but at least it helped me in being more aware of my prejudices against commercial legal databases. Let’s go now quickly to the concise report by Mitch Fraas. He looks at a wide range of sources: published case reports, trials, statutes and laws, general legal literature, and other legal materials. For each category he compares the resources offered to subscribers by LLMC-Digital, HeinOnline, Gale and other firms with resources freely accessible online. Very soon it becomes clear that sources for the United States and the United Kingdom are very well served in these commercial projects. Part of the report is a very useful links selection of both subscription databases and open access resources. Fraas notes that the CRL, too, makes many of its subscription databases available through LLMC-Digital. The report ends with conclusions which you can use as a kind of rough guide to digitized resources for doing legal history on subjects touching the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Fraas has written a more extensive report on LLMC-Digital to which he has added an overlap analysis with comparable providers and a report on the coverage of countries within LLMC-Digital.

At the very end of his report Fraas looks beyond materials for American and British legal history. Sources for the history of the British Empire are also included in the databases under discussion. Fraas himself is a specialist of Anglo-Indian legal history, the theme of his personal blog. His current research is concerned with Privy Council appeals in the early colonial period, i.e. the eighteenth century. For the legal history of India, too, Fraas indicates a search strategy for using digitized sources. To me he seems unnecessary modest in not mentioning his own blog and the sources he has made available himself. He advises researchers to start first with the subscription databases before visiting the various websites which deal with Indian law. It would have been easy to add the guide to these websites provided by Mitra Sharafi (University of Wisconsin) on her splendidly useful blog on Indian legal history.

In a comment on Fraas’ report at the Legal History Blog Fred Shapiro mentions the oversight of Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources. I guess it is the very variety of projects within Gale’s Making of Modern Law series that has caused this omission, but this is certainly a major resource. Today I noticed another blog Mitch Fraas has recently started, Unique at Penn, a blog for the University of Pennsylvania Libraries about its holdings. Compared to the average online library guide to digital resources for legal history Fraas’ report stands out because he indicates strengths and weaknesses of these resources and points to strategies for their use.

What else has the Center for Research Libraries in stock for legal historians? The CRL website gives an overview of the digital collections created by CRL. LLMC-Digital is among them, and most of them are only open to subscribers. Here I will briefly mention the resources in open access which have some relation to legal history. The Digital South Asia Library, a joint project of CRL and the University of Chicago Library, is not only a digital library but also a portal for South Asian Studies. Among the digitized reference books is the Imperial Gazetteer of India. The Digital Library for International Research contains the Digital Legal Texts of Outer Mongolia, created for the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulanbator. The collection Brazil Government Documents, too, is freely accessible online. Of interest is also the collection Chinese Pamphlets: Political Communication and Mass Education with pamphlets published between 1947 and 1954. In my latest post figured the nineteenth-century Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuktu. The digital collection with pamphlets and periodicals of the French Revolution in 1848 has also figured here in an earlier post. CRL provides more research guides, for example on human rights and medieval studies. At the CRL website you can find also reviews of major commercial digitization projects, for instance of World Constitutions Illustrated, with again a useful list of online resources, both for subscribers only and in open access.

Open access or subscription, an eternal dilemma?

Some of my readers would like me to vote clearly for the creation of open access digital resources as the sole way to provide scholars with adequate access to their preferred digitized resources. I simply cannot decide this within the space of one post. I am certainly concerned about the monopolizing tendency of a number of firms which gain sizeable profits from the digitization projects they maintain in cooperation with national libraries and prestigious research institutions. In principle national libraries have a task not only for scholars or for a nation but for the common good. It seems many institutions follow both the road of projects financed and possibly tapped to some extent by commercial firms, and the road of their own projects, sometimes in collaboration with partner institutions in other countries. Libraries are probably wise not to exclude commercial collaborations, but when access to digitized materials concerning the cultural or legal inheritance of nations and peoples is severely restricted, it seems they do not fulfill their mission as completely as they should.

One should be aware how difficult it is to take decisions in the face of budget cuts. Libraries, museums and archives have to adapt themselves to the chances and threats of the digital revolution. They face pitfalls and dead-ends, they are sometimes surprised by the very success of other projects. Every now and them it is even hard to discern at all between failure and success. They cannot bet on one horse, be it the glory of independent projects which distract from the very high costs sometimes involved, be it as a more anonymous contributor to commercially safe projects which do not exhaust their own budgets. In my opinion the firms with the subscription databases should give the contributing institutions more credit for their trust and for their policies which have resulted in the very creation of the collections being digitized. Is there no lawyer who can develop a legal construction which sets for example a ten years limit to the profits gained by these firms from digitizing objects which are in the public domain? On the other hand one has to acknowledge some firms invest at least some of the profits gained from their subscription databases in the field of current law into projects for scholars and the general public interested in culture and history.

It is easy to create a caricature of reality with a simple distinction between the good, the bad and the ugly. Some open access projects are distinctly ugly, in particular those with institutional stamps on images. In my view it would help to have more insight into the arguments which favor in one case open access, in another case cooperation with a publishing company. In earlier posts I could already show that the sheer number of items or the degree of familiarity of objects is not necessarily the decisive factor. Today’s wisdom can be tomorrow’s foolishness. State of the art technology can quickly become outdated. The position of libraries in the field of scholarly information can change rapidly and make current constellations inadequate for the future. The report discussed here deals with American and British legal history. It will be most interestingly to create similar reports for other fields of legal history.

A postscript

At the back of my mind remained the question where to find a guide to free online materials concerning American law. Recently Harvard Law School Library published an online guide for this purpose, not only for American resources, but also covering foreign and international law.

Protecting manuscripts in Mali to save cultural heritage and history

This month armed groups have been fighting in Mali. In a number of towns in this West-African country manuscripts are kept, sometimes in regular libraries, sometimes in the homes of families who try to preserve valuable sources for the history of their country. Timbuktu is the almost legendary town, the capital of a region with the same name. As for its name, the French spelling Toumbouctou can be found, too. Recently Tuaregs have tried to conquer Timbuktu in order to add it to a new Touareg state. The importance of the manuscripts present in Timbuktu and other cities in Mali has long been recognised. This week an appeal has been launched for the protection of these irreplaceable sources for the history of Mali, and more generally for West-Africa. The West African Research Association of the African Studies Center at Boston University is most active in promoting this urgent appeal. The IFLA, too, backs the appeal. Before more ruthless acts of violence take place with possible damage to people, their homes and belongings action is needed.

In this post I will look at research projects and digitized manuscripts from Mali. These projects might well preserve at least a part of the manuscripts and records that have survived sometimes for centuries, but are now closer to destruction than ever before.

The manuscripts of Timbuktu

The UNESCO has recognized the importance of the manuscripts in Timbuktu. Timbuktu itself was added in 1988 to the World Heritage List. Timbuktu has been home to a university since the fourteenth century. The manuscripts have been added to the Memory of the World register. With some disbelief I found only ten images in the UNESCO’s photobank for this project. Despite all efforts to study manuscripts in and from Mali the results to translate, edit and preserve them are still relatively meagre. The website of the Timbuktu Educational Foundation in Alameda, Ca., is one of the sites providing basic information on Mali and Timbuktu.

Today it was perhaps in illustration of this situation that even information on one of the largest relevant projects at the University of Oslo seemed at first to have disappeared. Between 2000 and 2007 Norwegian scholars have worked in a project for the preservation and promotion of the African literary heritage which led to an article and a provisional list of the manuscripts in the Ka’ati Library. More publications have resulted from the Toumbouctou Manuscripts Project sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the University of Cape Town. You can download three publications from the website, including a guide to the script used in these manuscripts. After registration you get full access to the database with transcriptions of manuscripts.

The African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress has digitized 32 Islamic manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, both in Timbuktu. The manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century are accompanied by presentations about Timbuktu and the history of Mali. The manuscripts can be searched in various way. Among the subjects are jurisprudence and Islamic law. The Library of Congress has also created an online exhibition on the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu which covers much the same ground. In view of the current situation in Mali it is helpful to use the guide to web resources on Mali at the website of the Library of Congress.

The World Digital Library has within its collections eight manuscripts from Timbuktu, all from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library. The Center for Research Libraries has created a digital library on the theme Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuktu with 209 documents from the nineteenth century, again from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu.

At Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, the Melville J. Herskovits Collection with Arabic manuscripts from West Africa contains a number of manuscripts from Mali. The catalogue to this collection can be searched online. Northwestern University has a digital collection Maps of Africa with some 100 maps. Stanford University provides a fine list of web resources on Mali, but apart from the projects already mentioned no other project for Mali’s manuscripts is included. Even the Internet Library for Sub Saharan Africa, a meta-catalogue and portal maintained by a number of German institutions, does bring only few projects relevant for Mali not yet mentioned here, but for anything else this portal can help finding answers or paths to answers on many subjects. The first project is based at Timbuktu, the Sauvegarde et Valorisation pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique. It has in particular helped renovating three libraries, and in creating a digital collection of manuscripts at Timbuktu, to be found at the Aluka portal with some three hundred manuscripts. Being accessible only to paying licensed users is a major drawback to view these digitized manuscripts at Aluka. The second project is La Bibliothèque des Manuscrits Anciens de Niger at the University of Niamey in Niger. This library holds manuscripts with texts from several countries in West Africa. Plans for digitization are announced in the library calendar.

Initially I did not find the actual location of the West African Arabic Manuscript Project, but in the end the URL itself is clear enough. This bilingual website (English and Arabic) offers a database with descriptions of some 23,000 manuscripts in several West African countries, including Mali. The introduction to the Timbuktu records explains that now some 9,000 manuscript descriptions from Timbuktu have been entered into the database. Between 1990 and 1998 five volumes of the catalogue of manuscripts in Timbuktu have appeared which have been used for the database. These manuscripts constitute a third of all manuscripts presently entered. This fact shows the importance of Timbuktu very well. A first simple search in the database – approachable in English, French and Arabic – for law as a subject yields already more than 900 results. Much more manuscripts have still not been recorded.

The National Library of Mali in Bamako is mentioned as one of the partners of the Réseau francophone numérique, a consortium of a number of national libraries in France and francophone countries around the world, but alas no item from Mali is included in this digital library.

A double challenge

When writing this post it became soon clear I face here two challenges, dealing with Africa and with Islamic law from the position of someone trained in European history and law. At my website and here I try to present subjects and themes from all over the world. Until now Asia, Africa and Latin America have been almost absent here. This post will certainly not redeem these gaps. In fact you might agree that slavery is another subject painfully avoided here, as is colonial history. In my latest post I did mention slavery in medieval Italy, not exactly the time and place where I had most expected to detect traces of slavery. It is only sensible not to put several major themes or subjects into one post, but I promise my readers that I will every now and then try to put an Eurocentric and anglophone approach aside.

Having made thus a solemn promise to present here a wider variety I will not hesitate to return briefly to this post’s subject. I would like to point you to a very useful list of digitized Islamic manuscripts at Archivalia, and to the website of the Islamic Manuscript Association. For this post I could use my notes for pages with relevant links on African law and Islamic law that I will eventually add to my legal history website. Writing about subjects stemming from every era, country and civilization need preparation if you want to create a result worth reading.

A postscript

Both for the background of Mali’s history, the importance of the Timbuktu manuscripts and the actual situation an article for The Root, ‘Fabled Timbuktu in Peril from Malian Coup’, by Michael Gomez of New York University will tell you much more than I was able to do here. The Africa department of Radio Netherlands Worldwide brings more details on the capture and current situation of Timbuktu and civil war in Mali.