Reconstructing Bentham’s legacy

Among the events mentioned for February 2011 in the congress calendar of this blog was a two-day conference at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon on Psychiatrie et prison: le question de soin aux personnes détenues (Psychiatry and the prison: the question of care for persons in detention). The main hall of the ENS could not contain all those who wanted to attend this conference on February 3 and 4, so videos have been made of this event which can be viewed now online. The service of making available these videos is very welcome. Before I knew that the Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Lyon would do this, I had pointed to Interfaces, the blog of their Rare Books Department, where you can find for instance a post on the French version from 1791 of John Howard’s The state of prisons. Lately this blog has presented a series of posts on legal medicine in the nineteenth century, Le médecin-legiste à la Belle-Epoque. Penal law has not yet figured on my blog, and I will try here to make up a bit for my silence on the subject.

Transcribing Bentham

Logo Transcribe Bentham

Somehow Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) came to my attention. For some reason I do not know very much about him, and the few things I knew are very obvious, his idea of the panopticon – realized in at least three Dutch prisons, at Arnhem, Breda and Haarlem – and his support for utilitarianism. Sometimes I could not quite understand what makes Bentham an important thinker. Reading about the Bentham Papers project of University College London (UCL) made it clear that in fact only parts of his written legacy are accessible in print, and perhaps this, too, explains part of my unfamiliarity with him. Lately this project has had major coverage in the media, including an article in the New York Times, but perhaps it is not bad for legal historians to bring some aspects of it together.

Claire Warwick, director of Digital Humanities at UCL, blogs about the activities of this center. UCL has decided to propel the efforts of the team editing the Bentham Papers by calling in the help of the general public. Transcribe Bentham invites people to make transcriptions of papers from one of the 174 boxes at UCL with Bentham’s legacy. You can register to volunteer for the transcription of a document – wisely always chosen from a restricted set of boxes to ensure continuity – and after registration you get digitized images of the documents. The transcriptions are created online using XML encoding and will be checked by members of the editorial team. Crowd-sourcing is the apt term for this way of making people participate in a project. UCL has a central website on Bentham, and next to the website for the transcribing project is the website for the Bentham Papers database where you can search for texts by Bentham and his correspondents. My imagination is fired by the way people are invited to support historical research, to decipher and read historical documents and to take a part of the burden faced by the editors of any texts. Giving Bentham back to the people is the kind of slogan that involuntarily comes on your lips.

Bentham started his career as a lawyer. As a philosopher the workings of the law were not alien to him, and even where he does not touch upon law, criminal justice or jurisprudence it is clear that he did not overlook them in his appeals for social reform and his theoretical works on society. Bentham is only one of the major European thinkers of the nineteenth century. For many of them institutes exists which dedicate their efforts to the study and publication of scholarly editions of their published works and papers. Maybe legal historians will not directly benefit from the efforts brought together for Bentham’s legacy, but surely some ideas of the UCL project merit attention. The idea of invoking the help of the public or creating working committees is not completely new, but digital media can give cooperation an extent hitherto not thought possible. Claire Warwick stresses the great value of creating wider support for digital humanities, not only by starting this transcription project, but also by making visible the sheer width of humanities and by discovering the possibilities of social media.

Medieval punishments

Bentham was a reformer. Penal law was one of his targets. Medieval penal law is one of the most vivid subjects – and targets –  in popular historical  imagination. The medieval history of punishments is the subject of the latest issue of Madoc 24/4 (2010), a Dutch journal for medieval studies. On March 4, 2011 this volume with the title Straffen in de Middeleeuwen was presented at the Dutch national museum for criminal justice, Museum De Gevangenpoort in The Hague. For reasons unknown to me the museum’s website does not mention the presentation on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this journal based at Utrecht. Neither did I or the Dutch legal history portal Rechtsgeschiedenis make any references to it. I will make up for this omission by making your curious about this issue. Han Nijdam writes about punishments in medieval Frisia, Guy Geltner brings you to Le Stinche, a prison in Florence, and Jos Koldewij looks at costumes conveying shame. Jan van Herwaarden revisits pilgrimages inflicted on people, Adriaan Gaastra writes about the penitential practice in the early medieval libri paenitentiales, and Clara Strijbosch has studied the punishments of the afterlife shown in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, both in the Latin and the vernacular versions. Some of the authors see parallels with today’s ideas about criminal justice. The authors of this number of Madoc maintain this journal’s happy tradition of bringing the results of recent research in a very readable, attractive and yet scholarly way.

More on transcribing online

Some knowledge of scribing conventions old and modern is needed to read any manuscript. The auxiliary discipline of palaeography deals with this problem. The UCL project Transcribe Bentham takes due notice of these matters. On March 7, 2011 Eric Hennekam alerted the visitors to his forum for archives to the MONK project at the University of Groningen. MONK aims at building a system for transcribing and searching text in digitized handwritten records. The blog Archive 2.0 has a post on this project. Archive 2.0 is an interesting blog of a group of Dutch archivists discussing new developments in the archival world. The blog post is in Dutch, but the interface of the Monk demo website is in English. Among the texts are accounts from the county of Guelders (1425), a document in Latin  from Louvain (1421), and late nineteenth documents from Groningen. What if MONK would be used to transcribe Bentham?

Crowd-sourcing is one of the themes on another Dutch archivist’s blog, De Digitale Archivaris, and you will find there a post on the Bentham project from September 29, 2010, with a reaction of UCL’s Bentham team.

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