Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with a numver of archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.


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