Reframing a medieval bureaucracy: Databases for papal charters

Flyer "Papsturkunden ohne Ende"

At my blog medieval canon law is a special subject. Lately I have written here a few times about medieval charters. In 2020 I devoted a very long post to a number of papal charters from the fourteenth century issued around an interdict on the Dutch city of Dordrecht. This year the quadrennial congress on medieval canon law will hopefully take place in St. Louis from July 17 to 23.. Another scholarly event scheduled for this month came into view as a subject worth attention here. On February 17-18, 2022 a conference will be held on the theme “Papsturkunden ohne Ende”: Datenbanken ohne Ende? / “Actes à l’infini”: des bases de données infinies?, the endless stream of papal charters in view of the endless powers of modern relational databases. Scholars will deal with a number of projects for such databases. In this post I propose to look at some of them a bit longer, either because of their importance or because they are new of relatively new.

By chance I saw a notice about a project for a portal enabling you to search in numerous databases with medieval charters, Cartae Europae Medii Aevi (CEMA). It figures in a paper in Luxembourg, too, and it seems natural to present this resource and its many facilities here, too, to add depth to the description of databases for papal charters.

Three related perspectives

The scholarly meeting in Luxembourg comes with a triple subtitle: Databases, interoperability and shared solutions. It is indeed one thing to put information into a database, another thing to exchange information and metadata, and thirdly there is the matter of not inventing the wheel again but borrowing consciously from best practices elsewhere, and preferably working together on solutions. French and German scholars find each other here first of all in a project around the medieval kingdom Lotharingia which gave its name to the Lorraine region now in France. Recently Harald Müller, Hannes Engl, Michel Margue and Timoth Salemme presented their project INTERLOR in the article ‘Vorstellung des Forschungsprojekts «INTERLOR – Lotharingien und das Papsttum. Interaktions-,Integrations- und Transformationsprozesse im Spannungsfeld zwischen zentraler Steuerung und regionaler Eigendynamik (11. – Anfang 13. Jahrhundert)»’, Studi di Storia Medioevale e di Diplomatica n.s. 5 (2021). This project with scholars from Aachen and Luxembourg will focus on the cathedral cities of Liège and Metz, on the presence of Premonstratensian and Cistercian monks, secular power and the perception of the papacy.

On February 17, 2022, papers will be presented about a number of existing databases and the new database for INTERLOR. Thorsten Schlauwitz (Erlangen-Neurenberg) will speak about the database version of the Regesta pontificum romanorum. The Aposcripta database for papal letters is the subject in a paper by Julien Thery (Lyon). Rolf Große and Sebastian Gensicke (Paris) will discuss the project Gallia Pontificia and more specifically regests for acts of the archbishops of Reims. Muriel Foulonneau and Timothy Salemme (Luxembourg) present the new INTERLOR database, and a round-table discussion will be the conclusion of the first day.

The second session on February 18 will look at the roads from textual corpora to textual databases and the chances for data mining of medieval charters. Here Dominik Trump (Cologne) will look at the hybrid edition of the so-called Kapitularien, decrees of the Carolingian rulers, now available online in the project Capitularia – Edition der fränkischen Herrschererlasse. Problems of indexation of medieval charters will be addressed by Sergio Torres (Paris). Nicolas Perreaux (Paris) will discuss data mining, stylometrics and semantics in connection with the project and database Cartae Europae Medii Aevi (CEMA). Thus this database is indeed for a good reason also a theme in my post.

How will historians use such resources? This question is leading in the paper by Sébastien de Valériola (Brussels) who will look at data mining and data-driven research. Finally Bastien Dubuisson (Luxembourg and Namur) will speak about the transition from database to code for implementing stylometric research for medieval history. This is perhaps the best place to mention the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (“C²DH”).

A look at two databases

It will not do to present here all databases in the compass of a single post. I give at least the URL’s of existing databases. I could not yet find the URL for the INTERLOR database. Finding such databases is helped by a page of the CEMA website with a list of projects in many European countries.

Some databases attract your attention because they aim at providing access to documents from a long period and from a wide range of places. The Aposcripta database is hosted at the Telma portal for databases with medieval charters of the IRHT in Paris (Twitter @aposcripta). The project takes its name from the expression apostolica scripta, a term used by popes for their letters. This database was launched in 2017. It contains currently some 22,000 items, some 14,000 of them from the thirteenth century and nearly 2,800 letters from the twelfth century. These numbers are rather low. You could already find in the first printed edition of the Regesta pontificum romanorum more than ten thousand summaries of papal charters up to 1198. However, Aposcripta scores points with its impressive overview of editions used and mentioned. Entering ten thousand items and more issued per annum after 1300 will be quite a feat. Aposcripta rightly warns you not to expect everything in an edition also in its database, stressing the fact it is more a search tool than a digital archive.

With Aposcripta you get an idea of the sheer mass still awaiting digital treatment. The question of interoperability comes inevitably into view for the Cartae Europae Medii Aevi (CEMA) hosted also in Paris (Twitter @Carta_Europae). Even a restriction to currently twenty digital resources for this portal is understandable. The tabs of the search screen of CEMA open new vistas. I have seen various online textual corpora and their search facilities, and I have repeatedly mentioned here the wonders of Philologic4, in particular for the Corpus synodalium, a database and repertory at Stanford for medieval synods and statutes discussed here in 2020. CEMA offers multiple ways of searching in 270,000 charters. Even if I did not immediately spot a chronological filter this is probably just an oversight on my side, and more to the point a sign of my bias as a historian keen on temporal precision! Speaking of another way of representation, the Regesta pontificum Romanorum has a geo browser.

CEMA has undoubtedly most interesting qualities bringing research concerning medieval charters on a new level of depth and possible comparisons. It scores also with a bibliographical database for source editions which builds for instance on the earlier CartulR database of the IRHT for editions of French cartularies. Some 2,700 editions have already been included in the new database.

Into the future

In view of all things now at your disposition in these databases it feels a bit too strict to mention here some gaps or seemingly missing projects. You would expect the inclusion of more existing projects for CEMA. It does raise the question of standards for data exchange and interoperability. Just one of the Scandinavian Diplomataria is currently harvested for CEMA. The fine project for medieval charters from the territories of current Belgium in Diplomata Belgica would seem most fit as a further extension. Can some of the digitized Dutch editions of charters in oorkondenboeken available at the resources platform of the Huygens Institute, Amsterdam, also be among future additions? The database with medieval and Early Modern charters held in Dutch archives, the Digitale Charterbank Nederland, discussed here in 2019, is probably too much a resource for archivists than a tool for the field of diplomatics.

Writing this post and mentioning the Corpus synodalium created by Rowan Dorin and his team in Stanford I remember his warnings at the online digital legal history conference in March 2021 about creating and maintaining databases for the future, the seduction of putting in all available materials, and the need for the use of widely recognized standards with a view to things as a conversion to another database or extraction into some other system. It is not just a matter of bringing the water from a number of lakes into a new sea, and leaving the result unattended afterwards.

In my opinion the meeting in Luxembourg helps you to welcome the differences between databases with their various earlier history in print as road signs to paths you might explore. It would be most tempting to create an all-encompassing database for medieval charters with images, transcriptions and scholarly commentaries. For textual research you will want access to a kind of corpus, and this wish is every bit as valuable. Bridging distances between scholars from nations with a history of both wars and fruitful mutual influence is one thing, bridging gaps between scholarly approaches in neighboring disciplines is certainly a serious goal, too. I am sure the scholars participating in this conference and working on the projects I concisely mentioned in my post are quite willing to share their experience building on the sometimes very old research traditions behind them. Their openness to new tools and questions are a sign of the vitality of these projects and the teams currently responsible for bringing them into our century.

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