Everything but law? On revisiting portals for medieval studies

Logo Reti MedievaliHowever vast the variety of all possible sources of information on Internet, and however strong the seduction of One Tool to Find Them All, there has always been a need for gateways and portals to find your way to specific subjects. The field of medieval studies has been lucky to benefit since many years from some great virtual portals and gateways. Some have become my favorites, others I visit only rarely. Lately I realized I use at Reti Medievali only the Calendario, its calendar of scholarly events for searching events linked to legal history which I gather at the congress calendar of my blog. Reti Medievali translates literally as “medieval nets”, because the information of this portal is literally located at a number of separate websites. Can you fetch in medieval law with any of these nets? How does Reti Medievali compare with some other portals and gateways? At least some parts of Reti Medievali can be viewed not only in Italian, but also in English, French, German and Spanish. In the second part of this post I will look at a most valuable contribution to the history of medieval law, the online version of a multi-volume publication published last year. For me its presence at Reti Medievali was a welcome trigger to have a broader look at this portal, to write about it and to compare it with some of its companion portals.

Fishing the seas of medieval studies

Reti Medievali (RM) started in 1998 as an initiative of scholars at five Italian universities to support and unite medieval studies both in the real and the virtual world. RM has even its own society. Since 2001 RM worked also with scholars outside Italy. Nowadays you might see Reti Medievali as a fleet, with on its ships a library, an events calendar, teaching tools, e-books, essays, an internet guide for medieval studies and its own online journal. At RM the section RM Memoria has the least transparent title, but it offers a concise bibliographical introduction to the medieval history of Italian regions and a number of Italian medievalists, and also a small section with three medievalists from abroad and a corner for medieval Spain. Among these scholars are some famous legal historians, for example Carlo Guido Mor, Pietro Torelli and Giovanni Tabacco. Reinhard Elze figures among the three non-Italian medievalists.

My first port of call at Reto Medievali should be the Repertorio. Here you can find at a general level overviews of the situations of medieval studies in eight countries, an overview of scientific journals, and nearly thirty introductions on a number of subjects and themes. Each introduction contains a – sometimes elaborate – sketch on its subject, and then proceeds to relevant sources in archives and libraries, editions, online resources, and closes with a bibliography. Legal history is certainly present here. The report by Riccardo Rao on Le risorse colletive nell’Italia medievale (2007) deals with recent scholarship about communal goods and several forms of medieval commons; Italy gets the main focus, but Rao provides also some references to other countries. Primo G. Embriaco dealt in 2006 in a similar way with the Regnum Italicum and with the power of lords in Italy from the ninth to the thirteenth century. In both introductions he mentions law at a few turns. Enrica Salvatori only mentions statutes in her essay on La civiltà comunale italiana [The civilization of the Italian comune], and apart from the useful references concerning municipal statutes law is nearly absent as a primary subject. Anyway, updating this introduction written in 2003 would be sensible. Tommasso Duranti gives an introduction to late medieval diplomacy (2009), and Nicola Lorenzo Barile deals with Credito, usura, prestito a interesse [Credit, usury, loan with interest] (2010). Reti Medievali could score much higher here if they had not presented the general theme overview with a plugin that your browser might not support in any language version. Translating the titles of the contributions for a number of items within the general scheme would be a most desirable and not too difficult service.

A tour of medieval portals

Instead of being content with such criticisms I prefer to look now first at some other well-known portals and see whether they give more space, a wider view or a more up-to-date treatment of matters concerning medieval law and justice.

Logo MénestrelCan the minstrel of the French portal Ménestrel convince us to visit it regularly for information about medieval law? Luckily there is an English version of many pages, or at least an introduction in English, and in some cases a clear promise to translate particular pages. Ménestrel started as an offspring of the journal Le médiéviste et l’ordinateur (1979-2007), one of the earliest journals concerning the use of computers for medieval studies. Ménestrel wisely admits it will not try to outdo websites which fulfill all possible wishes about a subject, but instead this portal will refer to them. Alas this promise is not kept for the field of medieval law. Although this subject does show up many time when you use the free text search (droit) there is no attempt for a general overview. However, implicitly you can reach legal subjects by looking at the auxiliary sciences (palaeography, codicology, diplomatics) and some of the classic sources such as charters and cartularies. These sections rank with the best guides in this field. In its early days there was a fine section on medieval canon law maintained by Charles de Miramon (Paris, EHESS). but eventually this section was removed. Among the few spots at Ménestrel with space for ecclesiastical law was the section on histoire religieuse, but alas that section, too, is now defunct.

As a ray of light is the recent inclusion at Ménestrel of juridical documents in the section for Paris médiéval. In the section with documents you can learn about documents normatifs, sources such as ordinances, and sources judiciaires, in particular sources about the judiciary, but strangely also customary law. However great or small these deficiencies at Ménestrel, it is great to have this guide to medieval Paris. Ménestrel is wonderful for its country overviews of medieval studies and the overviews of archives and manuscripts, and there is also a section on teaching medieval history.

Logo MediaevumAt the German portal Mediaevum, the great online gateway to medieval Germanic languages, it is only in the large section for dictionaries (Wörterbücher) that legal matters come to the surface. Gerhard Koebler (Innsbruck) has created online versions of several of his dictionaries, among them one for medieval High German (Mittelhochdeutsch). Koebler’s website is a veritable portal to Germany’s legal history. Of course Mediaevum mentions the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch, a project described here in a post last year. A promising link to a bibliography about Jews in medieval Europe is actually broken, but I did arrive at the Arye-Maimon-Institut für Geschichte der Juden (Universität Trier) and at a project led by Christoph Cluse concerning Medieval Mediterranean Slavery which does contain both a bibliography and a bibliographical database.

Logo ORB

There are several medieval portals with an exclusively English interface. The ORB (Online Resource Book for Medieval Studies) is one of the oldest still working portals. For this portal Brendan McManus created a concise section for medieval law, with reference to online version of Roman law texts, bibliographies for Roman law and canon law, and some links. The Labyrinth (Georgetown University) used to be a substantial gateway to medieval studies, but in its present clear design it is just a web repertory with commented links, lacking law as a general category. The number of relevant law links to be found with a free text search is meagre. Some links lead to the Medieval Sourcebook (Fordham University). This university in New York has placed this project conceived by Paul Halsall on a legacy subdomain, but you can still find here a splendid selection of sources in English translation for many subjects and themes, including medieval law and justice, for example about feudalism; the introductions, too, are interesting. However, The ORB and The Labyrinth do not attempt at covering the whole field of medieval studies. You will look in vain for an events calendar, a discussion forum or an online journal.

Logo Netserf-Law

This parade of American portals for medieval history would not be complete without NetSerf, a classic web repertory for medieval studies. Its choice of general subjects is balanced, and every link is accompanied with a concise introduction. The section on medieval law has a main overview and seven subsections, one for documents and the six others for barbarian laws, criminal law and punishment, canon law, Roman law, the English common law and Spanish law. Some pruning might be needed. A nice example is a Carolingian capitulare, a law from 802 figuring among the “barbarian laws”, the “national laws” published within the territories of the Roman Empire between roughly 400 and 750 A.D. Thanks to further subdivisions the section on the medieval period English common law is thoroughly useful. The cross-references are often helpful, and NetSerf is certainly worth visiting.

Let’s not forget here the Online Medieval Sources Bibliography which often mentions translation, too. I should have added this reference to my recent post about digitized manor rolls at Harvard Law School, because in this resource you can search directly for editions of particular types of documents. The Avalon Project at the Lillian Goldman Library of Yale Law School has in its section for medieval documents (400-1399) some thirty legal documents and sources, most of them in English translation.

I would have been most happy to show you here a portal to medieval studies from the Netherlands and Belgium, but alas I cannot give you an unqualified example. The website of the Onderzoeksschool Mediëvistiek, the Dutch research school for medieval studies is strong in bringing news and information about scholarly events, as is its Flemish counterpart, the Vlaamse Werkgroep Mediëvistiek. The Contactgroep SIGNUM deals with the social, economic, legal and institutional history of Dutch and Flemish ecclesiastical institutions, but even the fine list of web links does not make this website into a portal site. The Francophone medievalists in Belgium have surely their useful society blog, and also the well-informed L’agenda du médiéviste, but as for now they have not yet launched a portal.

Banner Mittelalter blog

In Germany you will find in particular online tutorials for medieval history, for example Mittelalterliche Geschichte (Universität Augsburg), an online tutorial at Tübingen, and a Leitfaden Mittelalter at the e-Studies website of the Universität Köln. Within the Hypotheses network of scholarly blogs the Mittelalter blog has quickly gained a central role. This blog is close to current scholarly events and contributions. In a tree structure for scholarly disciplines at this blog legal history gets a niche in the section for Spezialgebiete (“special areas”), together with the history of medieval philosophy, religious orders and prosopography, surely nice company, but also a bit surprising. This tree has some other remarkable juxtapositions which gives you food for thought. Whatever you might think about this blog with its substantial blog roll, Martin Bertram did not hesitate to publish here last year an article about legal quaestiones from mid-thirteenth century Paris.

The results of this quick tour from a particular perspective are relatively clear. Ménestrel offers scattered information about legal history, but it almost turns the balance with the sections for the auxiliary sciences and its most valuable online guide to medieval Paris where legal records get judicious space. Mediaevum offers less relevant links than Ménestrel, but some of them are really useful. Thanks to its concise sections on medieval law the ORB Net scores better than the Labyrinth. NetSerf scores nicely with its section on medieval law which brings you to further sections with links, basic comments and cross-references. Paul Halsall’s Medieval Sourcebook and Yale’s Avalon project have both substantial attention for medieval legal history, and often they give you quick access to translation in modern English of important legal sources. A round-up of Dutch and Belgian websites did not add much to this tour, although all of them have at least one useful element. In Germany we saw a number of online tutorials for medieval history. The tree structure of the important Mittelalter blog left us somewhat bewildered about the role it accords to legal history.

Summa summarum

At the end of this post I bring Reti Medievali again into view. In my opinion this portal shines out for the sheer range of sections and approaches. Mediaevum is perhaps even better, but it is restricted to the Germanic languages and literature. Ménestrel satisfies many needs and it is strong on some fields with traditional importance for legal historians, but a general section about medieval law is sadly lacking, as are pointers to better resources. The absence of legal history is precisely more visible because the sheer width of disciplines is stunning, and some of these sections are truly superb. Italian medievalists can benefit for the auxiliary sciences from the Scrineum project at the Università degli studi di Pavia, and thus it does not matter so much that the Repertorio of Reti Medievali does have only one section from 2003 on this subject.

I f you create a grid with a number of fields for elements at these portals, such as sections for various disciplines with guides and bibliographies, an event calendar, news, a blog, a digital library, teaching tools and a scholarly journal, preferably in open access, you can quickly see which portal meets most demands. Even though it does not offer you everything in this list, Reti Medievali trumps the other portals when you look primarily for sheer width. Of course I realize that you will often go from one portal to another, and in fact I have set out here how to do this for medieval legal history. RM has a digital library and an online journal, RM Rivista appears since 1999. This journal is supported by Firenze University Press which publishes more journals in open access.

RM e-Book, the series of digital publications, is published also in cooperation with FU Press. The twenty books so far published in open access often touch upon subject related to legal history. Political history, political theory and the interplay between secular and ecclesiastical powers are the main subjects. No. 19 of the series is in itself reason enough to start having a closer look at RM, and in fact this spurred me to start writing this post. The four volumes of Honos alit artes. Studi per il settantesimo compleanno di Mario AscheriPaola Maffei and Gian Maria Varanini (eds.) (2014) are a Festschrift for one of the most versatile contemporary scholars in the field of legal history. These laudatory volumes for Ascheri (1944) deal not only with medieval Italy, but also with towns and cities in Early Modern Europe, the cultural dimensions of the history of law in Europe, and also contemporary law and institutions in Europe and America. The overview of the contents will reassure you immediately of the presence of contributions in English, German and French side by side with articles in Italian. Medieval consilia, Siena and Tuscany, to mention some of Ascheri’s beloved themes, are often addressed by the authors, but in fact you will find articles touching many corners of Europe. The online versions are not just helpful for everyone without access to the printed version, but give you the possibility to search quickly for your own favorite themes and subjects.

The gist of my post is clear: instead of staying with one portal it can be most useful to look elsewhere, sometimes for specific questions, sometimes because of sheer curiosity or the expectation of interesting news just outside your normal fishing grounds. In my experience you will surmount the difficulties of other languages whenever your interests are really awakened. When you come back from one of these portals you might turn to the mighty volumes of the great Festschrift for Mario Ascheri, and find at every turn new aspects of medieval and later legal history. The four volumes build an impressive plea for the importance of legal history, meriting not just a room of its own in the mansions of history, but more convincingly as core connections between periods, subjects and themes.

A postscript

The staff of Mittelalter blog received my remarks about the tree structure with Spezialgebiete (“special areas”) with interest. They did indeed change the tree structure, and it looks now more convincingly. Legal history (Rechtsgeschichte) is now a an element of history (Geschichtswissenschaft).

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