De rebus digitalibus: Doing digital legal history

Logo DH 2019 at UtrechtWhile the virtual world and the real world steadily become interwoven, it can sometimes seem legal history is only at the fringe of the digital turn. On the other hand all kinds of information and resources can be found online today. Using such resources does have an impact on the form and practices of legal history. Some scholarly events aim among other things at creating space for reflection and discussion about the tensions between older forms of doing history and alluring new ways and methods to pursue research goals. This year’s international congress of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) will be held at Utrecht from July 9 to 12. In this post I will look at its program of DH2019, and also at the call for papers of a conference on digital legal history to be held at Frankfurt am Main on March 19-20, 2020, organized by the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte. It is only logical to compare the program and aims of DH2019 with the call for papers of DLH2020. Even if using the tools and methods of digital humanities may seem Latin to you, the importance of this digital approach will certainly grow, and knowing about them is useful.

Varieties and complexities

The main theme of next month’s conference in Utrecht is complexities. The way complex models are created to represent complex realities is to be addressed, as are the manifold questions about digital scholarship itself on a theoretical, social and cultural level. There is a variety of networks and mazes at work in the field of digital humanities. New generations of scholars arrive, with different perspectives and skills. If this sounds almost too much of a good thing for a four-day conference, you will see that some workshops start already on July 8. For the special focus of this conference, digital humanities in Africa, a workshop for African scholars, DH – the perspective of Africa, will be held from July 1 to 5 at the Lorenz Center of Leiden University. On July 8 there will be a workshop at the Royal Library in The Hague on Libraries as Research Partner in Digital Humanities. The venue of DH2019 is not a university building, a conference center or a large section of an hotel, but the TivoliVredenburg music center where hosting music from many periods and styles in five concert halls has become regular business.

The variety of subjects in the conference programme is truly impressive. Let’s look first of all for subjects in close connection with legal history. Renana Keydar and Yael Netzar will talk about finding out about the perception of threat by the Israelian police force. Georg Vogeler and two of his colleagues will discuss the ways to export charters into TEI P5 (Text Encoding Initiative). Marie Lavorel will talk about ways to preserve the oral histories of survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. The opening address of DH2019 will be held by Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town). He will make a case for being aware of the complexities, not only as a challenge, but as chances. In her closing keynote Johanna Drucker (UCLA) will speak about ecological sustainability and its impact on the ethics of digital humanities. The use of energy for computers leaves a large footprint on our planet. Tito Orlandi will give the Busa Lecture in which he will discuss the history of digital humanities and the apparent lack of a paradigm for this field. The lecture is named after Roberto Busa (1913-2011), the pioneer of using computers to deal with a textual corpus, the Corpus Thomisticum with the works of Thomas Aquinas. In 1980 his Index Thomisticus was completed.

The ADHO has a number of special interest groups (SIG) which nicely show the sheer width of digital humanities. Apart from libraries and DH currently SIG’s exist for literary stylistics, audiovisual data, global outlook, geospatial software and its uses, and for linked open data. Just looking at these subjects helps you to view digital humanities as a house with many rooms and space for more things to come.

My first impression of the program and the variation in themes and subject is that this conference deals with a number of territories that seem largely uncharted by legal historians. In particular subjects in world history can seem sometimes unconnected to legal history. In the second half of this post we will see how the MPIeR steps in to bridge such gaps.

Digital legal history

In some posts at my blog I have tried to look at the presence of digitized materials for doing legal history outside the Anglo-American and European sphere. Thus I looked for example in 2010 at South Africa and in 2014 at Brazil. In 2017 I discussed here digitized resources for the legal history of Suriname and last year more specifically the digitized slavery registers of Suriname. The death of Fidel Castro prompted me in 2016 to write about Cuban legal history. In yet another post I looked here at HISGIS and legal history. Digital projects are very often here discussed here.

However, digital humanities are not absent around more traditional themes and subjects. A nice combination of studying both the United Kingdom and Australia in the field of criminal law is found within the projects of the Digital Panopticon cluster, concisely presented here. The Exon Domesday, the manuscript with the Domesday register for South-West England held at Exeter Cathedral, is the subject of a project using a number of tools from the field of digital humanities.

Logo Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

It is perhaps wiser to look at the call for papers of DLH2020. The call starts with a summary of the various ways digitization and computers affect the field of legal history. Digital tools are used to gather information, they can assist in the exploration and analysis of information, and they help you to publish and connect research results. Databases offer access to legislation and to case law, in a number of cases for considerable historical periods, too. A second main point is the way digital humanities transcend the borders of disciplines. Apart from the problems inter- and transdiscplinarity pose themselves, adjusting existing digital tools, approaches and methods to meet such problems can have a major impact even when changes seem slight. Such unexpected turns can in the end also prove to be most helpful and literally path-breaking. However, the presence of digital humanities has not yet led to decisive changes in the ordinary practice of legal historians. The MPIeR dedicated in 2016 a part of issue 24 of the journal Rg/Rechtsgeschichte-Legal History to contributions discussing the role of digital humanities for legal history. The Law and History Review, too, published an issue on Digital Law and History [34/4 (2016)] with a focus on Anglo-American practice.

The purpose of the DLH 2020 conference will be first of all to get a more complete and balanced view of digital humanities and legal history, both on the theoretical level and in actual practice. The call of papers contains a fair number of possible questions for papers and posters: What do digital humanities bring that would not have been possible without them? How do they influence your approach and methods? Can we use methods of analysis common to DH also for legal history? What chances are there to use modelling to deal with questions concerning legal history? What about using Big Data or engaging in data-driven research? Which limits confront legal historians? Are there possibilities in DH we clearly can use to our benefit? An important question comes at the end of the call of papers: what resources are lacking until now? Proposals can be submitted before September 15, 2019 to

The set of questions reminds me very much of the question medievalists asked and ask about other disciplines. You might not be able to use approaches, tools and methods without some modification, but it is by all means interesting and important to know about them. I think that it is wise to be aware with Tito Orlandi that no clear paradigm for DH bhas yet been developed, and this means it is also possible to contribute to the construction of this paradigm or at least to building best practices from many perspectives. Digital humanities will touch almost every field of humanities. Scholars of Classical Antiquity have perhaps taken a lead in using elements of digital humanities, not only for their own benefit, but also for making their set of disciplines – discipline in the singular will not do here! – also accessible to a wider public. Entering the fields of digital humanities can hold its surprising, but it is no longer an uncharted world where angels fear to tread. The conferences in Utrecht and Frankfurt am Main can surely help you to get in contact with those people who have taken the plunge into the world of digital humanities.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s