Tag Archives: Cultural heritage

Defending Belgium’s cultural heritage

Logo State Archives BelgiumLast week many media published the news about a drastic cut in the budgets of major cultural institutions in Belgium. In particular federal institutions such as the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I in Brussels and the Archives de l’État en Belgique, also in Brussels, face next year a loss of 20 percent of their yearly budget. I use here the French name of both institutions, but in particular on the website of the Belgian National archives you can immediately gauge the multilingual character of Belgian society. Belgium can be roughly divided in three parts, Flanders, Wallonie and the central region in and around Brussels, Belgium’s capital. The German-speaking minority in the region along the German border has in principle the same rights as the Flemish and Wallon communities.

An online petition has been launched to give the protest against these plans a loud and clear voice, and I cordially invite you to share your concern about these proposals by signing this petition. You can read the content of this petition in four languages, Dutch, French, English and German. In this post I would like to offer a quick overview of some important digital projects in Belgium which help presenting Belgium’s cultural heritage. Some of these projects offer access to resources which are also important for the research of legal historians and for research projects concerning the rich history of law and justice in Belgium.

Digitization and the safeguarding of cultural heritage

Logo KBRWhen you look at the digital projects of the Royal Library and the Belgian National Archives it can seem at a first look Belgium’s national library has more to offer online than its counterpart in the world of archives. Just now there is very appropriately an exhibition about the First World War. However, in order to find the projects in the digital domain you will have to browse through various sections of the library’s website. A number of projects can be found under the heading Activités, but the digital library Belgica is tucked away among the catalogues. The variety of its contents, with apart from books and manuscripts also coins and medals, engravings, maps, newspapers and music scores, is such that it clearly merits a place of its own on the library’s website that shows a design which has changed little over the years. A number of manuscripts has been digitized for the project Europeana Regia. On my blog I have written twice about the presence of legal manuscripts in this project. Among the manuscripts is for example an illuminated French version of the Liber novum iudicum written in the second half of the fourteenth century (KBR, ms. 10319). You can search directly for digitized books in a special subcatalogue; a search for books concerning law (droit) brings you already some 160 books, and more can be found. The first look of rich digital repositories is somewhat dimmed by the fact that the actual number of digitized items is fairly restricted.

Logo FlandricaThe KBR does cooperate in many international projects: for example, the digital version of the Gazette de Leyden has been created in cooperation with the Belgian national library. On the national level the KBR supports the Flemish digital library Flandrica. This website with digitized books and manuscripts from six libraries working together in the Vlaamse Erfgoedbibliotheek [Flemish Heritage Library]  is strictly in Dutch. For items touching upon law and justice you have to choose the theme Recht en politiek [Law and politics] which brings you to thirty digitized printed books and manuscripts. The number of items with a legal context in Flandrica is quite small but they cover a wide range of subjects and periods, from a canon law manuscript to the procedure at law in the county of Looz, and from medieval times to the early twentieth century. As for editions of books printed in Flanders between 1500 and 1800 you can search for them online with the Short Title Catalogue Vlaanderen. Digitized literature in Flemish can be consulted online in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL), where you will find also literature in Frisian and Afrikaans.

Until recent the Belgian National Archives looked to outsiders as a very much centralized and not very active organization, but the first impression is not completely justified. The year 2010 saw the launch of a virtual exhibition about the dark sides of Belgian colonial history in Congo, Archives I presume? Traces of a colonial past in the State Archives, This year they launched a virtual exhibition concerning the First World War in Wallonie, Archives 14-18 en Wallonie. The website in four languages is being overhauled, and some parts are not yet available in English, in fact the overview of online databases did not exist at all at the time of writing. The search in archival inventories is an example. Here you can search both in scanned inventories and in digitized finding aids. Among the digitized inventories is for example the finding aid created by Jan Buntinx to the archival records of the Raad van Vlaanderen, the high court of Flanders [Inventaris van het archief van de Raad van Vlaanderen (Rijksarchief te Gent) (9 vol., Brussels 1964-1979)]. Recently the National Archives digitized the cabinet minutes created between 1917 and 1979; you can access these documents both in Dutch and French. The Recueil des Circulaires, official letters sent by the Ministry of Justice, have been digitized, too, as are a yearbook, the Annuaire statistique de la Belgique (et du Congo Belge) (1870-1995), and two juridical journals, the Revue Belge de la police administrative et judiciaire and La Belgique judiciaire.

Logo CegesomaA third institution threatened by the budgetary cuts is the Cegesoma, Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society. Precisely the attention of the research centre for periods in recent Belgian history with some very black pages and political reverberations until the very present has made it already earlier a target of Belgian politicians.

Characteristically Cegesoma is among the first institutions to react in public to the announcement of the new Belgian cabinet. The institute argues that the proposed cuts will harm most drastically the work accomplished during decades and future activities as well. Cegesoma holds archival and audiovisual collections and a research library. You can search online for digitized materials, such as photographs, sound recordings, tracts, posters, archival records, diaries and manuscripts. One of the archives coming from the Ministry of Justice now in the holdings of Cegesoma deals with the Rijkswacht, the Belgian national police, between 1931 and 1947. One of the largest and most visible online projects of Cegesoma is The Belgian War Press which offers online access to numerous newspapers published during the First and Second World War, both by the official censored press and the clandestine press. The website of the Cegesoma has a very well-stocked choice of links to other research institutions and a fine selection of websites concerning the First World War.

Logo Justice & PopulationsLegal history comes particularly into focus at Justice & Populations, a project with Cegesoma among the fourteen participating institutions. This project focuses on the long-term relations and impact of the Belgian judiciary in its widest sense and Belgian society in an international context from 1795 onwards until the present. it is unclear in which way this project will be affected by the new plans, but surely any change in the role of Cegesoma will have side-effects here, too. By the way, another Belgian project, Just-His, is very important for Justice & Populations.At Just-His you will find actually three databases, one on Belgian judicial magistrates between 1795 and 1950, a research repository and Belgian criminal statistics (only accessible after registration).

Among the institutions governed by the national government is also the Commission Royale pour la Publication des Anciennes Lois, founded in 1846. This committee is responsible for many important editions of sources concerning the legal history of Belgium from the Middle Ages onwards, ranging from ordinances, charters and customary law to legal treatises and collections of verdicts. On its website you can find an overview of the publications and projects. The issues of the Bulletin des anicennes lois et ordonnances de Belgique published between 1909 and 1999 are available online (PDF’s). Let’s hope the projects coordinated and often done by members of the committee themselves will not be harmed by any of the proposed measures.

A wider threat

Logo KVAB

Apart from archives and libraries museums, too, are included in the budgetary threats, but before looking at some museums I will look briefly at a higher level. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen (KVAB) [Royal Flemsh Academy of Belgium for Arts and Sciences] published in 2013 reports on the reform of the Belgian judiciary [De gerechtelijke hervorming: een globale visie (“The judicial reform, a global vision”)] and the role and significance of archives in Belgian society [Archieven, de politiek en de burger (“Archives, politics and the citizen”)]. One of the standing commissions of the KVAB has legal history as its core business, with projects such as the bibliography of current research on Belgian legal history and the critical editions of the works of Philips Wielant. The KVAB provides on its website a searchable version of the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek [National Biographical Dictionary], a useful tool for legal historians, too.

Among the targets of the cuts proposed by the Belgian government are a number of famous museums, for example the Royal Museum for Fine Artsthe Royal Museums for Art and History, and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, all in Brussels. Another royal museum, the Royal Museum for Middle-Africa in Tervuren, closed in 2013 for renovation. Its buildings and outlook had not changed substantially since its start in 1910 after a temporary exposition about Belgian colonial activities in 1897 instigated by king Leopold II. The museum had become an icon of Belgian colonialism, and later an outright offensive institution. A part of the ethnographic collections of the KMMA can be consulted online, including the Stanley collection. Hopefully the drastic renovation can be completed, but anyway it seems wise not to reckon absolutely with the projected reopening in 2017.

What will happen exactly with all these institutions is not yet clear. It is necessary to look at both their physical and virtual existence. Federal support could be withdrawn or become less substantial in many ways. Flanders and Wallonie can boast cultural institutions with rich collections. The portal Numériques – BE: Images et histoires des patrimoines numérisés can bring you quickly to a selection of images from some thirty cultural institutions in Wallonie. Belgian Art Links and Tools is a portal guiding you to some 600,000 images concerning art in Belgium, and to several repertories. This portal has been created by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, yet another threatened institution.

The Flemish heritage portal FARO – accessible in Dutch, French and English – is in my opinion a good starting point for finding out more about the different forms of cultural heritage in Flanders and news about them, be they digital, immaterial or very material. If you think digital collections will more easily survive, the actual absence of several links pages at FARO is a healthy reminder of the fragility of virtual existence and preservation. It is quite a feat to maintain a multilingual website, and thus it is a bit too easy to grumble about such problems! Luckily the page with links to several Flemish portal sites can be viewed, with due attention for initiatives in Wallonie, and there is also a general links selection in English. Among recent news items at FARO I saw an announcement about a masterclass on Food in Prison, held at Brussels on October, 16, 2014.

As for me I am genuinely surprised to learn much more about all these projects than i knew before. It serves me as a reminder that we Dutch are not always completely aware of what happens in Belgium, a sorry situation. Here I have tried to honour Belgium by creating in this post also a kind of nutshell guide to digital projects in the field of cultural heritage and legal history. Let’s support Belgian scholars and cultural institutions in their struggle to change the plans scheduled for the coming years, and help them finding the spiritual power and financial means to maintain existing activities and to work on new initiatives. These things will enrich Belgium and us more than any financial contribution can do, however welcome of course any support in hard money is.

Saving threatened archival collections

Banner Endangered Archives Project

The postscript to my recent post about the exhibition on Roman crime at Nijmegen helped me to find the subject of this post. In this postscript I mentioned the decision of the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam not yet to give back the items on view at its Crimea exhibition to the lending museums in Ukraine. This post introduces you to an initiative to save archival collections worldwide threatened either by material deterioration, poltical situations or simply by the ongoing progress of modernization in the country or region where they are located. The British Library has set up the Endangered Archives Project (EAP) on a truly massive scale with the aim of digitizing archival records and manuscripts in a few hundred (!) projects. On September 7, 2014 the completion of several projects was announced at the accompanying Endangered Archives blog. Within two months, between July and September, a million images has been added to the online results of EAP, enough reason for me to look a bit more closely to this audacious project and its composing elements.

On my blog the British Library received a few years ago criticism for its policies concerning the digitization of British newspapers. Last year I expressed some disappointment at the low number of digitized legal manuscripts at the British Library, but this time the library shows itself as a most generous cultural institution. The EAP portal is accessible in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic.

Safeguarding cultural heritage in situ and in virtual space

The EAP spans the world in a awe-inspiring way. Among the most interesting aspects is for example the fact that researchers and institutions themselves can apply for grants, often starting with a pilot project. The BL provides a framework to support projects. There is no grand scheme of the British Library dictating the goals and direction of general progress. Typically, EAP does not focus on national archives unless they are in dire need of support, and such projects will not cover all materials under the aegis of EAP. Items documenting the pre-industrial history of a country are the first to come under consideration for new projects. The grants support university projects as well as independent scholars. Of course EAP has contacts with the International Council on Archives and UNESCO’s Memory of the World program.

The EAP has created five regions for the projects supported by the EAP: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Let’s start with a look at the overviews of each region to spot projects which touch directly upon law, government and administrations. In the second part of this post other projects with law, the judiciary or other aspects of legal matters constitute a major aspect.

In the overview for Africa you can find for example EAP 607, a project for the preservation of Native Administration records between 1791 and 1964 held at the National Archives of Malawi. The Matsieng Royal Archives in Lesotho were the subject of EAP 279, where a wide variety of documents and records has been digitized. Colonial history looms large in a number of African projects, for instance in EAP 474, a pilot project for the preservation of pre-colonial and colonial document at Cape Coast, Ghana. In EAP 443 nineteenth-century documents for the Sierra Leone Pubic Archives have been digitally preserved, thus saving the history of a British Crown colony and the impact of slavery, to mention just a few aspects.

For the Americas, too, one can pint easily to projects aiming at preserving documents and records concerning the history of slavery and colonialism. EAP 184 started to support the preservation of records of the African diaspora in the archives of the Cuban province Matanzas. The material condition of these records decays rapidly. In Peru EAP 234 aimed at saving the colonial documentation within the holdings of the Sociedad de Beneficencia de Lima Metropolitana, with records reaching back to 1562. 100,000 notarial records at Riohacha and the peninsula La Guajira in Colombia documenting an important entrepôt of Caribbean and Central American trade are at the centre of EAP 503. Hurricane Ike in 2004 was only the last threat to archives with govermental records in Grenada which resulted in 132 reordered and digitized volumes (EAP 295).

The number of EAP projects in Asia is much larger than for the Americas. I could not help feeling particularly interested in some projects concerning Indonesia because of its link with Dutch history. EAP 229 and EAP 329 are two related projects dealing with endangered manuscripts in the province of Aceh on the island Sumatra. The digitization of nearly 500 manuscripts helps preserving the cultural and intellectual history of this region. The Dutch fierce attacks on Aceh during the nineteenth century were already a threat to this history, as was the devastating tsunami in 2008. A substantial number of the digitized manuscripts in this project contain texts on Islamic law.

Tavamani document - EAP 314

Legal history is a central element in EAP 314, a project for the digitization of Tamil customary law in Southern India. The documents of village judicial assemblies between 1870 and 1940 are the subject of this project of the Institut Français de Pondichéry. You can follow this project at its own blog Caste, Land and Custom – Tamil Agrarian History (1650-1950), where you can find also an overview of other relevant EAP projects for India. The recent huge increase in digitized materials within EAP is to a large extent due to the 750,000 images of some 3,000 books printed before 1950 in eight public libraries in Eastern India near Calcutta which have been digitized within EAP 341. The number of EAP sponsored projects in India is really large. On my legal history portal Rechtshistorie I had already put a number of links to digital libraries in india, but EAP brings substantial additions to my overview.

Although I am woefully aware that I skip here a lot of interesting projects in Asia I would like to mention at least two European projects. EAP 067 is a project to digitize extremely rare materials, mainly from the twentieth century, about the Roma’s in Bulgaria, including not only ethnographic and musical items, but also for example a manuscript of a history of the gypsies. Keeping these materials at all was often dangerous for the Roma during the communist period in Bulgaria. A second project deals with the results of archaeological excavations between 1929 and 1935 in the Kyiv region of Ukraine (EAP 220).

For those worrying about the length of this post it might be a relief to read that within EAP there has been only one project from the Oceania region. In EAP 005 the Australian National University created inventories of materials at the Tuvaluan National Archives. This group of islands in the Pacific is in acute danger of being flooded.

Preserving the history of law, customs and government

The project concerning the preservation of manuscripts written in the Vietnamese Nôm script between the year 1000 and the twentieth century in EAP 219 is an example of documents threatened by sheer memory loss. The Nôm script went out of use around 1920. For decades teaching this script had been forbidden. The Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient in Hanoi had collected materials before 1954, but no proper inventory had ever been made, and the present storage conditions are poor. The 1,200 surviving manuscripts offer information about laws, courts, imperial decrees and land ownership, Within EAP 272, a project for ephemera and manuscripts in Nepal, a number of manuscripts all dating around 1808 contain legal texts.

Drafting a list of EAP collections with materials concerning legislation, jurisprudence, courts and other legal institutions is not an easy thing to do. The EAP website allows simple and advanced searches at item level, but as for now you cannot search for a particular subject or theme at the collection level. This is certainly a blemish, but not an impossible situation. A search for laws shows you only a few projects, but for EAP 144 you get directly a number of digitized manuscript from this project for Minangkabau (Sumatra) manuscripts. Anyway you can retrieve a list of all 240 projects; the short descriptions can be expanded. You can also search for projects using an interactive world map. Browsing the various projects is no punishment, but an object lesson in appreciating the rich varieties of human culture.

Projects with legal aspects are no exception. Using the tag Governmental records at the EAP blog helped me in tracing some relevant projects. EAP 688 is a new project for digitizing deed books from the Caribbean island Saint Vincent during the slavery era (1763-1838). EAP 561 aims at creating inventories of and digital versions of records for landownership in Imperial Ethiopia. At Accra, Ghana, witchcraft trial records will be digitized (EAP 540). A project to make inventories of court and police records from the period 1820-1960 and digitize some of them has been successfully executed in Gambia (EAP 231). Ecclesiastical records from colonial Brazil are the subject of EAP projects such as EAP 627 leading to the digital archives at Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies created by the Vanderbilt University.

Several projects deal with manuscripts from Mali. Not only in Timbuctu a vast number of manuscripts is still present. Last year the threat of massive destruction of this unique legacy by terrorists became a very real menace; a post on this blog informed you about initiatives for their safeguarding and digitization. Following a pilot project (EAP 269) the projects EAP 488 and EAP 490 focus on manuscripts kept privately by families at Djenné, a treasure trove as important as Timbuctu. Some 4,000 manuscripts are now known against two thousand at the start of these projects. In yet another project at Djenné photographs are being digitized (EAP 449).

Luckily, there is more!

Often I apologize at the end for the length of my contributions, but this time I am happy to point to the links section of the EAP portal which will bring you to a nice number of projects all over the world for the digital conservation and presentation of rare and endangered manuscripts and records. You might be tempted to say that the efforts of the Endangered Archives Project can deal only with a limited number of projects, but luckily the British Library is not the only cultural institution and research institute to look beyond the borders of a country. Often these institutions have to face the threats of budget cuts, and a political climate in favor of focusing on projects which benefit solely the own nation, or they even have to fall back to provide only fairly basic services.

The British Library and all involved in similar projects deserve the gratitude of scholars, of peoples and countries whose cultural heritage is or will be rescued thanks to them. Scholars should be encouraged to look beyond their own culture and national history in order to perceive its peculiarities much sharper and to understand its importance in greater depth. Let’s hope such arguments can convince those responsible for setting cultural agendas and developing research strategies with lasting results. Digitization will be one step in a much longer process, and no doubt digital retrieval presentation will change its outlook as has been the case already since the earliest uses of computers by historians and lawyers alike.

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.