The Dutch Republic, order and ordinances

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Last year ordinances rightly figured here in a post about the Dutch book trade in the seventeenth century. Printing and publishing ordinances on behalf of authorities formed a stable core business for printers and publishers. In 2019 a project started to digitize Belgian and Dutch Early Modern printed collections of ordinances, the socalled plakaatboeken. In January 2020 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the Dutch national library, published at KB LAB, its digital humanities platform, the results of the project Entangled Histories: Ordinances of the Low Countries.

For a very particular type of ordinances a study appeared recently, also in January 2020, which forms a perfect candidate for a comparison between research using archival and printed resources at one side, and the use of datasets on the other side. This post shows ordinances also at the crossroads of government, politics and medicine at a point in time where this has become a new reality.

Choosing your approach

In my post on the book trade and ordinances in the Dutch Republic I looked at the study of Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen on Dutch book production and sales during the seventeenth century. They pointed out how vital the task of printing and publishing ordinances was for printers and publishers. Each order for a single ordinance meant printing a fixed number of copies for which a low quantity of paper was needed, and best of all it guaranteed an immediate sum of money from the issuing authority, all factors making publishing and printing a stable business. The authors rightly concluded that the chance of printing and selling ephemeral works on a regular basis was probably essential for the success of the Dutch book trade.

Pettegree and Der Weduwen could not only locate rare editions in archives and libraries all over Europe, they also studied stock catalogues and auction catalogues for editions now lost. As members of the team for the Universal Short Title Catalogue they add information about existing copies of newly detected works to this online resource.

Getting hold of ordinances was important also for those authors venturing to create printed collections of ordinances called plakkaatboeken. A number of authors worked at provincial courts where you could expect to find the largest possible relevant collections. Finding out about these printed collections is much helped by using library catalogues with clear information about the nature of these works. The spelling of the very word plakkaatboek was not yet standardized, and thus you can encounter forms such as placaetboeck or placcaetboek. A few months ago I wrestled to locate digitized versions of the main collections for the Dutch Republic and Flanders in order to add them to my web page about Old Dutch Law. This task was hampered by the fact some digital libraries provide a link to an entire multivolume set, but others give you only links to each individual volume of a particular set.

However, even having online access to digital versions of these works, preferably combined with index volumes to them which I mentioned whenever available, is just the beginning of your research. These online versions are only to a limited extent searchable. Some digital versions have behind the screen an OCR-ed version, but it is notoriously difficult to get sufficiently reliable results when scanning Early Modern editions with the ordinary OCR process. These editions use several print types which pose difficulties in correct rendering, not to mention ligatures for certain letter combinations and abbreviations. Exactly for coping with this point the project of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, led by Annemiek Romein, comes into its strength.

The project Entangled Histories: Ordinances of the Low Countries set out to provide reliable texts in three ways. First of all existing scans of digitized books were improved by creating new scans using HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) with the Transkribus software. A second step was establishing each ordinance – or other element – as a distinct textual unit. The third step was enabling computerized categorisation of these units using a pre-established model. The project website provides explanations for each step.

The results of Entangled Histories are given as datasets, decidedly in plural. On the page explaining access to them it is stated the data are available in five formats, Alto, Page, XML, .docx and .txt for each book. An implication of this variety is the absence of a straightforward toolkit to use these data, because you can pick out your own format and determine the way you will handle them. The datasets are accessible at the Zenodo platform, with a separate page at Zenodo giving you a list of all works included. A quick overview is possible when you search with the tag Entangled Histories at Zenodo. The page with examples does not deal with the end result of the digital process, but with the models used for training the computers of Transkribus to read the pages.

Nearly 110 volumes for a total of 40 works have been included in this project. A number of them contain also texts on customary law (coutumes or costumen), statutes and other regulations. It is most thoughtful of the team at the Dutch Royal Library to include these works as well. The title of each dataset begins with an abbreviations pointing to the library from which a copy has been used. It seems only for one index volume accompanyng a plakkaatboek a dataset has been created, the Generale inhoud van alle de placaten (…) Groot Utrechtsch Placaetboek (Utrecht: Van Poolsum, 1733). You can deplore the absence of some editions from the sixteenth century, but this fact highlights only the clear need for decisions for any project.

It is possible to create your own workflow with these datasets and save them online. I had expected Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent), who created the project during her period in 2019 as a researcher in residence at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, to create also a searchable textual corpus which you might access online, but this has not happened. Romein and the project members did not lock the data into only one format allowing only restricted research possibilities. In January 2020 I contacted Annemiek Romein to explain such decisions. She explained to me textmining was not the principal aim of this project. The version of a text coded in XML can be used for an online searchable edition. The focus of this project was more on the use and comparison of OCR and HTR scanning. In the overview of the volumes included you can use the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) address to go directly to a particular dataset. A direct combination of the datasets with the original scans cannot be offered at this moment, because these scans were made by the Grand Omniscient Firm for the cooperating libraries.

In view of this situation it is perhaps wise to remember such decisions for this project with datasets would have been entirely within the reach of the former Dutch NCRD institute for documentation on legal history and legal iconography. The NCRD had its office at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. The institute had been created by the KB and Dutch universities. At some point in its history the board of directors had to decide whether the database with a bibliography and scanned images, still only accessible under license, would run at a single computer or become available on more computers on a network. In my view Dutch and Belgian legal historians should not only start using the datasets of Entangled Histories, but also start working together to create its own infrastructure, both in the real world and in virtualibus, in order to combine knowledge and efforts in the field of digital humanities. No doubt the Foundation for Old Dutch Law could play a role in such matters, too.

Approaching lethal illnesses

Cover "Per imperatief plakkaat"

Until this point you might have become impatient with me about the promised second part of this post, a particular subject which can be linked with our own times. You might have wondered why I seem to search solace in writing about a glorious period in Dutch history which was not so happy for many people, as if nothing else happens in the world right now. The study of A.H.M. Kerkhoff, Per imperatief plakkaat. Overheid en pestbestrijding in de Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden [By strict order. Government and fighting plagues in the Dutch Republic] (Hilversum 2020) deals with policies and ordinances against the plague and other contagious diseases during the Early Modern period. At the publisher’s website is a preview of the first fourteen pages of this book.

The main question in Kerkhoff’s study is why it took almost three centuries before the Staten Generaal, the central governing body of the Dutch Republic, decided to enact general measures againt contagion in periods with threats of plague. Kerkhoff starts his study by looking at the first successfull policies against contagion made by Italian cities around 1400. He even translated a statute against the plage issued in Ragusa in 1377. It needs stressing these Italian towns were in some cases large city states, a fact other states might have noticed, too. However, for centuries local Dutch towns issued their own pestordonnanties. Only in 1664 the Staten Generaal came with an ordinance pertaining to all provinces and other regions. Other authors, for example Leo Noordegraaf and Gerrit Vlak, De gave Gods. De pest in Holland vanaf de late middeleeuwen (Amsterdam 1996; online, Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (PDF)), did certainly mention this ordinance, but they and others focused on one region or on a single town. In the Groot Placaet-boek (…) Staten Generael ende (…) Staten van Holland en West-Vrieslandt (…) edited by Cornelis Cau et alii (9 vol., ‘s-Gravenhage-Amsterdam 1658-1795) the second volume contains the ordinance issued on July 31, 1664 by the Court of Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland (II, col. 3171-3174). A few days later the States of Holland came with its own resolution concerning measures to be taken. Kerkhoff combines research in archives with the use of relevant historical studies. Using digitized collections of ordinances or even the new datasets, provided you can tune them quickly to your preferred way to approach them, can be most helpful to support more traditional ways of research, and it will also be most instructive to become better aware of the restrictions and limits of both approaches.

Kerkhoff wants to show that the political will to impose measures in the most general possible way was more important than medical views of contagion control. The author briefly mentions some examples of modern diseases which confronted Dutch authorities in recent decades and reminds us of the clash of interests in the debates about the policies against these diseases. With currently the new corona virus as a very real and growing presence in many countries this study seems to have been written with an uncanny intuition about the return of such matters of grave concern. Medical and epidemological knowledge, wisdom and vision are certainly needed to deal with different views about actions against this virus. With yet another project on its way at the Huygens Instituut for the digitization of the resolutions of the States of the provinces in the Dutch Republic between 1576 and 1795 and their reIease in a open access research environment I am sure a combination of the datasets of Entangled Histories with these resolutions will open new vistas and roads to ask new questions, to probe deeper into them and shed new light on older studies and views.

A postscript

In June 2020 the first tranch of some 5,000 scanned pages with resolutions of the States General appeared on the Dutch crowdsourcing platform Vele Handen. The REPUBLIC project, too, works with Transkribus. Volunteers will check the scans and correct the computerized transcriptions.

Annemiek Romein, Sara Veldhoen and Michiel de Gruijter published the article, ‘The Datafication of Early Modern Ordinances’, DH Benelus Journal 2 (2020) about the Entangled Histories project.

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