Category Archives: Archives

Learning to read German legal responsa

Banner "rechtsprechung im Osteeraum

Modern technology has taken up the challenge of reading old scripts, the domain of palaeography. One of the best known tools, Transkribus, is currently used in a project on legal resources held at the university archives in Greifswald. The project Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum. Digitization & Handwritten Text Recognition focuses on sources dealing with Germany’s legal history in the region on the borders of the Baltic Sea. The project aims at making accessible 102.000 pages of legal instructions of the Faculty of Law of the Universität Greifswald (Spruchakten der Greifswalder Juristenfakultät, 1580-1800), 130.000 pages of opinions of the judges at the Wismar Tribunal (Relationen der Assessoren am Wismarer Tribunal, 1746-1845) as well as 25.000 pages of opinions of the judges of the Wismar Council Court (Relationen des Wismarer Ratsgericht) (1701-1879). users will get access to images of these sources and they will be able to perform text searches in this corpus. The Transkribus tool is being trained to recognize Early Modern handwriting of very different scribes. Does is succeed indeed in creating reliable transcriptions? What efforts are necessary to make such sources ready for computerized approaches?

Scribal varieties and the use of computers

Logo READ

At various European universities and archives teams use the Transkribus tool of the READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents) project and even a special portable scanning tent for projects which contain many thousand pages in Early Modern or medieval scripts. Combined with a very active presence on Twitter it can sometimes almost seem Transkribus is virtually the only proven tool in this field. Until now the number of projects with the Transkribus tool for documents specifically dealing with legal history is small. The recent announcement of the project at Greifswald at the Transkribus blog offers an opportunity to see the tool at last at work for legal historians.

A "Spruckakte" from 1586

A “Spruchakte” from 1586, Universitätsarchiv Greifswald – image: Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

At the bilingual project website in Greifswald it becomes quickly clear in the sources overview that you can find currently only images of four registers of Spruchakten from Greifswald which are shown at the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The initial choice for only four registers was made with a view to the Transkribus tool which has to digest the letter forms and writing patterns in order to become a functional reading tool. The registers contain documents from 1586, 1603, 1607 and 1643. The Universitätsarchiv Greifswald has digitized several series, among them immatriculation registers and charters, but the Spruchakten are not mentioned in this overview. On the other hand the university archive and library are currently present with the largest collections in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The other institutional partners in this project are the Universitätsbibliothek Greifswald, the Stadtarchiv Wismar and the Landesarchiv Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin. The Stadtarchiv Wismar has a web page about the creation of finding aids for the records of the Wismarer Tribunal in its holdings and also those in other archives, with some references to relevant literature.

One of the reasons to use digital tools for studying these legal materials is their nature. The series of legal instructions and verdicts is organized in chronological order and only indexed for the names of claimants and defendants. The sheer working power in dealing with a massive set of (textual) data can make a huge difference for starting at all with a project concerning documents linked with a particular legal court in some or all of its dimensions.

Using the Transkribus tool

For using the Transkribus tool you need to create a free account. You need to download the tool. There is a succinct user guide (PDF) and an extensive online guide in the Wiki format. The tool is the core of a set of accompanying websites and cloud services. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) are both possible. You will need to contact the team at the Universität Innsbruck for starting the “training” of the tool, the process of recognizing and correctly deciphering various forms of writing. Among the most interesting result with this tool is the high percentage of correctly resolved texts in Early Modern Dutch archival records. The “model” succeeded not only in reading just one kind of script, but dealt equally successful with several kinds of handwriting. Depending on the number of words fed into the machine the character error rate (CER) can reach very low levels. A recent post at the Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum discusses the difference between word error rate and CER.

On Tuesday October 29, 2019 Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent) and Jeroen Vandommele gave a webinar at the Dutch Royal Library about using Transkribus. Provided you can follow Dutch viewing this webuinar gives you a very useful introduction to the practical use of this transcription tool, albeit with a focus on optical character recognition for dealing with printed texts, in particular collections of ordinances and the resolutions of the Staten-Generaal. I wa sin particular impressed by the way you can zoom in on and select text blocks. Aspects such as the costs of using Transkribus and surely the most asked question, its final reading speed, currently one page within a minute, come also into view.

As for now the project in Greifswald brings only a set of legal instructions by the law faculty of Greifswald. These gain in importance when sets from the other two resources, the opinions of the Wismar Ratsgericht and the Tribunal are added. It will be most interesting to see whether the opinions of the law professors deal with cases heard at one of the two legal courts. Combining them with the verdicts themselves is a logical sequel. I had hoped to report here more about the ins and outs of this project, but on the other hand it is a realistic example of work in progress, not a finalized and fully dressed product.

Despite careful looking at the project website I could not readily detect the entrance to transcribed records, but I did reach a password protected page. You must forgive me my predilection for websites with site maps and clear navigation! However, the project team gives a very good description of the various stages of preparations needed for the workflow of their project. The team is right in approaching these stages as separate but intertwined projects which all need due attention. In the blog posts at the project website a lot of subjects have been touched upon, and this steadily stream will hopefully continue in coming years. It is certainly useful to get acquainted with this and other tools, to look at its procedures and terminology in order to carefully consider the chances and risks of using such tools.

The second Transkribus logo

It seems wise to look in more detail at the Transkribus website and its subdomains. On the main website the overview of pages for the Transkribus tool is essential. The transcription tool itself is hosted at a subdomain. Perhaps surprisingly there is also a page about the palaeography module offered by Transkribus at another subdomain, Transkribus LEARN. Here you can find hundreds of script examples. It is understandable Transkribus focuses at its transcription tool, but this palaeographical resource deserves to be knownfor anyone wanting to learn reading old scripts. This way of learning by doing it yourself has to be distinguished from the “learning” of the “model”, the process by which the transcription tool digests information about scripts from a set of documents for automatic deciphering. As an extra you might want to visit Famous Hands, a site with documents showing the handwriting of famous European persons. It is a bit amusing to see how Transkribus Learn and Famous Hands can seem almost hidden from direct view, but Transkribus LEARN is duly listed at the services page. here, too, a sitemap would be helpful.

The datasets of Transkribus have been put at the Zenodo platform with the title ScriptNet – READ. The fleet of deliverables, the newspeak term for finished products from a project, are listed at a separate page of the main website. Components such as the transcription tool, the portable ScanTent which works with Transkribus’ own DocScan app, the link to Famous hands, the GitHub repository of Transkribus and also the several components of the tools developed by various European teams can be found at this page. The socalled Transkribus KWS interface for keyword spotting brings you to a project for Finnish court records from 1810 to 1870 held at the Kansallisarkisto, the National Archives of Finland (interface Finnish and English), yet another subject touching upon legal history.

At the end of this brief presentation of the Transkribus tool and its current uses for legal history it is fair to mention at least concisely some other available tools, following no particular order. Transcripto is a tool with a German and English interface created at the Universität Trier. Looking at Scripto I thought for some time it might also be a transciption tool like Transkribus, but it is a transcription interface created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media for crowdsourcing projects which can be integrated with several CMS systems.

TranScriptorium was the earlier incarnation of the READ project. Among the five datasets at the old project website are transcriptions of verdicts given by the German Reichsgericht between 1900 and 1914, a project led by Jan Thiessen (Universität Tübingen). This set of documents in the Kurrent script has been transferred to the document sets of Transkribus; you can access it after free registration. Christian Reul (Würzburg) has created OCR4ALL, a tool for dealing with OCR scanning of historical printed editions. It turns out it is fairly easy to find transcription platforms with various levels of image and transcription integration. In some cases there are even distinct layers for guiding and moderating crowdsourcing projects, but finding a tool for electronic recognition and transcription of historical handwriting and old printed works remains a challenge which certainly deserves a separate contribution.

A postscript

Within a few days Elisabeth Heigl of the project team at Greifswald sent a comment with the good news of a very useful overview in English for searching and browsing the documents in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. With the search function you will see the result of the HTR done by Transkribus.

For all those curious about Transkribus and wanting to start using you might have a look for example at these blog posts elsewhere, ‘Digitize a Collection of Letters using Transkribus and XSLT‘ at the blog How to of the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities,  ‘How to historical text recognition: A Transkribus Quickstart Guide‘ at LaTex Ninja’ing and the Digital Humanities, and Issue 13: OCR (July 2019) of Europeana Tech.

Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt, a prince and a statesman

Paintings of Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt at the exhibition of museum Flehite

Paintings of Oldenbarnevelt (left) and Maurits (right)

Any country has some dates in its history on which politics and violence come together. Political murders are a rare phenomenon in Dutch history. Willem van Oranje, leader of the Dutch Revolt in the sixteebnth century, was assasinated in Delft on July 10, 1584. The brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt were lynched by a mob in The Hague on August 20, 1672 which held them responsible for the French occupation of the Dutch Republic. In recent years my country has witnessed the assasinations of politician Pim Fortuyn (May 6, 2002) and movie director Theo van Gogh (November 2, 2004). Last week solicitor Derk Wierum was shot brutally in front of his home in Amsterdam. Alas it was not the first time in this century a Dutch lawyer was shot, but the death of a solicitor defending a crown witness is an assault on the rule of law and justice.

In the list of Dutch historical figures who became a victim of violence you will find also a lawyer and statesman sentenced to death after a political trial. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619) clashed with prince Maurits, the son of William of Orange. I hesitated to deal here with yet another commemoration based on rounded years, but at last I visited an exhibition in his home town Amersfoort. I looked at some historical spots and archival records, and I will briefly mention some recent publications about Oldenbarnevelt.

A matter of choices

In the lovely old inner city of  Amersfoort near Utrecht Museum Flehite has organized the exhibition Johan en Maurits. Van vriend tot vijand [John and Maurits, from friends to enemies]. The exhibition opened on May 13, 2019, exactly four hundred years after the execution of Oldenbarnevelt on the inner court of the Binnenhof in The Hague, the premises of the Staten-Generaal, the governing body of the Dutch Republic. A life of service to the state he helped creating and unifying ended on the scaffold in a country sharply divided between his followers and those agreeing with prince Maurits Oldenbarnevelt had become a public enemy.

Photo of the Bollenburg house, Amersfoort

Van Oldenbarnevelt stemmed from a fairly average family in Amersfoort. His father was a merchant who acted also as a sequester, an official who took goods into his charge pending judicial proceedings. It is not known where Johan was born, but the house Bollenburg (Muurhuizen 19) where he lived for some time in later years still exists. The Muurhuizen, literally “wall houses” is nowadays a very picturesque street around the inner city with many beautifully restored medieval and Early Modern houses.

The information about his youth comes mainly form a single source, his own statement from 1619 about his life. The full biography on Oldenbarnevelt by J. den Tex [Oldenbarnevelt (5 vol., Haarlem-Groningen 1960-1972) warns for wanting to flesh out such information. After going in 1564 to The Hague to work for a barrister he studied between 1566 and 1569 in Louvain, Bourges, Cologne, Heidelberg and Padua. At Louvain his name was entered wrongly in the student register…  In 1570 he became a barrister at the Hof van Holland. Two years later he went to Delft to work for the hoogheemraadschap (water control board) of Delfland. In 1576 he became the city pensionary of Rotterdam. Soon he was chosen also on committees of the States of Holland. After the death of William of Orange in 1584 he supported a transfer of power to his son Maurits. His activity, qualities and insights were duly noticed, for in 1586 he reached the two posts he would hold until his death, landsadvocaat (state solicitor) and raadpensionaris (grand pensionary) of Holland.

Much has been made of the personal differences between Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt. Up to the year 1600 they seemed to make a perfect match, Maurits as a prudent and most gifted tactical military leader, Oldenbarnevelt as the man of grand strategies. Thanks to their combined leadership the Dutch Republic grew from a very low point in the mid-eighties to an emerging European power. A campaign to deal with the pirates of Dunkirk led to a hard fought victory in 1600 on the beach of Nieuwpoort where Maurits won the day with some luck. The incident annoyed him a lot, because he had urged Oldenbarnevelt not to start this adventure.

In 1609 a truce for twelve years with Spain was reached. Oldenbarnevelt had personally supported François van Aerssen (1572-1641), the Dutch ambassador in France, until 1613 when he did not continue him in his function, Van Aerssen felt disappointed and soon became the personal advisor of Maurits. A prolonged debate about theological matters in the Dutch Republic, in particular about predestination, developed into a full political conflict about the relation between church and state. Maurits decided in 1617 to join sides in public by going to the church of Oldenbarnevelt’s opponents in the Kloosterkerk, next to Oldenbarnevelt’s home in The Hague. The way a national synod should convene at Dordrecht and settle these matters was another matter of disagreement. In several cities riots broke out. In August 1617 Oldenbarnevelt forced the States of Holland in issuing an ordinance permitting individual cities to raise mercenaries to protect citizens. Citizens were not allowed to appeal to the Court of Holland, and soldiers had to obey only the orders of the States of Holland, not those of their commander Maurits. The very balance of power in the Dutch Republic between the individual provinces, the States General and the stadhouder was at stake, and also the adherence to the principles of government laid down in the Union of Utrecht (1579). Oldenbarnevelt favored a situation where towns and provinces could decide themselves on the admission of religious movements, and more specifically he wanted space and tolerance for those who did not join the Reformed protestant majority.

Maurits’ role in the events from 1617 until 1620 is nowadays much clearer than for Den Tex. J.G. Smit could edit 120 letters by Maurits held since 1862 at the Koninklijk Huisarchief [Royal Archive] in The Hague [‘Prins Maurits en de goede zaak : Brieven van Maurits uit de jaren 1617-1619’, in: Nederlandse historische bronnen I, A.C.F. Koch, J.G. Smit and A. Kersten (eds.) (The Hague 1979) 43-173; online, Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren]. These letters show clearly how Maurits worked slowly but steadily against Oldenbarnevelt after the resolution of August 1617. A year later, after more riots, forced changes in city government and above all the dismissal of the waardgelders in several towns Maurits had Oldenbarnevelt and his chief supporters, one of them Hugo Grotius, arrested on August 29, 1618. Maurits was in contact with some of the men who were later on chosen to judge Oldenbarnevelt.

It is wise to refer here also to the analysis by Jonathan Israel in is major study The Dutch Republic. Its rise, greatness, and fall 1477-1806 (Oxford 1995) of what happened in this year. Finding a legal reason for arresting Oldenbarnevelt might not have been particularly difficult, but on whose authority the arrest had to be done was certainly unclear, as was the choice of a tribunal and the judges. In the end they were chosen from both Holland and the other Dutch provinces. The trial dragged on for months. In the end the verdicts surprised many people. Grotius and Hogerbeets were sentenced to life imprisonment, but Oldenbarnevelt was sentenced to death, with the execution already following the next day, May 13, 1619. Maurits had ignored pleas for leniency towards Oldenbarnevelt. He did not attend the execution and an eyewitness report troubled his mind severely.

Some telling objects

One of the early editions of the verdict on Oldenbarnevelt

An early contemporary edition of the verdict on Oldenbarnevelt, 1619

The exhibition in Amersfoort is rather small, but the role of pamphlets and broadsides is made quite clear. The verdict on Oldenbarnevelt was quickly printed and published in several languages. Some of the items on display are most telling. The walking stick of Oldenbarnevelt is perhaps the most famous item associated with any Dutch historical figure. A poem by Joost van den Vondel immortalized both its owner and the stick. Another item is rather grim. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden recently acquired a sword which belonged to the German executioner Hans Pruym who worked for the city of Utrecht, the very man who decapitated Oldenbarnevelt. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has another sword said to have been used for the execution of Oldenbarnevelt (object no. NG-NM-4245), inscribed with a poem, but there is no provenance record of it before 1745. The story of Oldenbarnevelt’s captivity has long been known partially from a deposition by his servant Jan Francken, edited by Robert Fruin, ‘Verhaal der gevangenschap van Oldenbarnevelt, beschreven door zijn knecht Jan Francken’, Kroniek van het Historisch Genootschap, 6th series, part 5 (1874) 734-785 (online, Hathi Trust Digital Library). This year the original diary long held in private possession finally became visible to the public. It has been shown at the Museum De Gevangenpoort, a prison museum just outside the Binnenhof in The Hague, and is now on display at Museum Flehite.

Engreaving of the executionm, 1619

‘Justice done to Jan van Oldenbarnevelt’, engraving of the execution of Oldenbarnevelt by Claes Jansz. Visscher, 1619 – source: Het Geheugen van Nederland, https://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/

This engraving has become famous for many reasons. Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen discussed it in their study The bookshop of the world, reviewed here earlier this year, as the very work which laid the foundation for the success of Broer Jansz., a publisher in Amsterdam who succeeded in very quickly publishing this powerful picture. At Museum Flehite it is literally used as a background picture on a wall. These years saw a flood of pamphlets about and more often against Oldenbarnevelt. Fake news was created, too, to undermine his position. A number of these pamphlets has been put on display at Museum Flehite. The death of Oldenbarnevelt was not the end of the political strife. A few years later two of his sons prepared a coup, but they were quickly unmasked and severely punished. This did not help to put Oldenbarnevelt and his party in favorable light. The conflict helped to create a fundamental division in the Dutch Republic between those supporting the Oranje family and those supporting the cities and their governing class.

A quick look at recent publications about Oldenbarnevelt leaves me with sometimes mixed feelings. Jan Niessen, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt 1547-1619, vormgever van de Republiek (Utrecht 2019) is rather short. The translation of Jan Francken’s diary by Thomas Rosenboom does some service in retelling his story in modern Dutch [Het einde van Johan Oldenbarnevelt, beschreven dor zijn knecht Jan Francken (3rd ed., Amsterdam 2019)], but a new edition of the text from the original diary which surfaced this year is necessary. The book of Ben Knapen, De man en zijn staat. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt 1547-1619 (7th ed., Amsterdam 2019) offers a political study of Oldenbarnevelt by a historian and politician. Broeders in oorlog, vijanden in vrede. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt en Maurits van Nassau, redders van de Nederlandse Republiek by Mike Hermsen (Zutphen 2019) focuses on the two statesmen and their contribution to the Dutch state, with a fine choice of illustrations. Wilfried Uitterhove’s De zaak Oldenbarnevelt : val, proces en executie (Nijmegen 2019) focuses not only on the final years, but also in particular on the documents concerning the trial. Ronald Prud’homme van Reine, Onthoofdingen in de Hofstad. De val van de Oldenbarnevelts (Amsterdam 2019) looks also at the plot of the two sons. Bollenburg, het huis van Oldenbarnevelt by Jojanneke Clarijs (Bussum 2017) appeared a few years earlier to commemorate the recent restoration of this house.

Account of the costs for the trials, 1621

Account for the costs of the trials in 1618-1619 – Utrecht, Het Utrechts Archief, Huis Hardenbroek, inv.no. 4507

The main historiographical gap is still the lack of a full biography of prince Maurits on the scale of Den Tex’ work for Oldenbarnevelt. The study by J.G. Kikkert, Maurits van Nassau (Bussum 1985; 3rd ed., Soesterberg 2016) is very much in favor of Maurits. Arie van Deursen, Maurits van Nassau, 1567-1625. De winnaar die faalde (Amsterdam 2000) did not quite live up to high expectations. Some of the documents about Oldenbarnevelt’s life and the trial were edited already long ago, for example the questionings at the trial, Verhooren van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (Utrecht 1850; online, Hathi Trust) and the Gedenkstukken van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt en zijn tijd, M.L.van Deventer (ed.) (3 vol., The Hague 1860-1865; online, Hathi Trust). The document on the left, an account of the costs for the trials against Oldenbarnevelt, Grotius, Rombout Hogerbeets and Gilles van Ledenberg, was edited by J.J. de Geer van Oudegein, ‘Onkosten der judicature van Van Oldenbarnevelt’, Kronijk van het Historisch Genootschap 17 (1861) 336-340 [online, Hathi Trust]. This account is now – together with yet another copy of it – one of the special items in the archival collection of castle Hardenbroek for which I am busy finishing a new and very extensive finding aid at Het Utrechts Archief.

Another element that for many years hampered scholars to do research on Oldenbarnevelt was exactly the fact his archive held at the Dutch National Archives was only fully described as late as in 1984 by H.J.Ph.G. Kaajan, Inventaris van het archief van Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1586-1619 (finding aid no. 3.01.14 (PDF), followed in 1987 by a finding aid for the Oldenbarnevelt family archive [H.J.Ph.G. Kaajan, Inventaris van het archief van de familie Van Oldenbarnevelt, (1449) 1510-1705) (finding aid no. 3.20.41 (PDF)]. Kaajan drily notes in his introduction Oldenbarnevelt’s handwriting was terrible. The modern edition of his state papers and family papers by S.P. Haak and A.J. Veenendaal, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Bescheiden betreffende zijn staatkundig beleid en zijn familie 1570-1620 (3 vol., The Hague 1934-1967) can be consulted online, too.

Doing full justice to two historical figures can be seen as a metaphor, but in this case there are certainly spurs – both new objects and archival records – to delve again into the early history of the Dutch Republic which was shaped decisively by Maurits and Oldenbarnevelt. It is always a good sign when an exhibition makes you think again about its subjects and the objects put on display.

Amersfoort, Museum Flehite: Johan & Maurits: Van vriend tot vijand – May 13, 2019 until January 5, 2020

Ordinances and the book trade of the Dutch Republic

Some periods in history pose the problem of being too familiar. The Roman Republic, the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch Republic, the French Revolution and the Second World War are among the obvious examples. Sometimes scholars proclaim they can offer radical new interpretations of a period and its major developments, but often their studies reach this goal only to a limited extent. In this post I will look at a book focusing on one particular trade in the Dutch Republic. The authors make a fine case to put the book trade and the role of printed works at the very heart of the Dutch Golden Age, the seventeenth century. Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen studied in The bookshop of the world. Making and trading books in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, CT, 2019) not only the beautifully produced books now found in libraries, but also ephemeral prints, such as pamphlets and ordinances, which were less likely to survive. Pettegree and Der Weduwen visited numerous libraries and archives to trace these sources, and they point to resources showing traces of books now lost. Their work touches directly on Dutch legal history, enough reason to create space here for their stimulating study.

Ongoing research

Logo STCN

In March Pettegree and Der Weduwen, both working at the University of St. Andrews in the team for the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), visited the Netherlands. Apart from giving lectures and doing research in a number of archives and libraries, they acted as keynote speakers at an afternoon on March 28, 2019 about the Dutch Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN) held at the Royal Library in The Hague. The STCN set standards for a high-level description of Early Modern printed works, putting the lessons of analytical bibliography into practice. Initially newspapers, broadsheets and pamphlets were excluded from the STCN, and also in particular academic dissertations. The USTC started as a bibliography for books printed in France during the sixteenth century, but it has opened its nets for all printed works from incunables up to the year 1700.

In The bookshop of the world the authors advance well beyond the commonly held view of the Dutch Republic as a country with Europe’s most active and most respected printers catering for the whole world. Their research into printed works which in a number of cases survive in unique copies leads them to the assertion books formed only one-quarter of the printed works in the Dutch Republic. Newspapers, pamphlets, ordinances and foremost very ordinary simple books for daily use take the lion’s share of the production and trade in printed works, and more than that, these works provided printers and publishers with regular work and stable profits.

Pettegree and Der Weduwen bring this new book and its bold claims as a synthesis of a number of studies they published in the last ten years. A number of volumes with essays edited and co-edited by Pettegree function as substantial building blocks, for example Broadsheets : single-sheet publishing in the first age of print (Leiden 2017) and with Flavia Bruni Lost books. Reconstructing the print world of pre-industrial Europe (Leiden 2016), the last volume also available online in open access. Earlier Pettegree published with Malcolm Walsby the bibliography Netherlandish books : books published in the Low Countries and Dutch books published abroad before 1601 (2 vol., Leiden 2011). Der Weduwen is known for his study Dutch and Flemish newspapers of the Seventeenth Century, 1618-1700 (2 vol., Leiden 2017). It is hardly conceivable how a similar synthesis could be written without detailed studies on these subjects. Among Pettegree’s other books I must at least mention The book in the Renaissance (2010) and The invention of news. How the world came to know about itself (2015). The idea for the book about Dutch books can remind you also of a collection of his own articles Pettegree published in 2007, The French book and the European book world.

The main sources to support the claims of Pettegree and Der Weduwen are themselves products of the vibrant Dutch book trade. In the late sixteenth century Dutch book traders independently created book auctions, accompanied by auction catalogues, as a new phenomenon of the European book trade. Dutch publishers early on included advertisements in the newspapers the printed, including announcements of new books and book auctions. Some very popular books were reprinted almost every year. However, in some cases we know about them only because they figure in an auction catalogue which mentions one or two editions or in the stock catalogues some publishers issued, yet another new medium. Pettegree and Der Weduwen realized how city councils paid for ordinances printed as broadsheets to be fixed at public buildings, thus offering to printers a reliable source of income. Almanacs, prayer books and catechisms, other religious works and all kinds of manuals may not have survived the centuries in large numbers, but these often small-sized works helped printers and publishers to survive. Printing a too large or a too small number of copies of a work catering for a more educated public might well ruin a firm or hamper its functioning for many years. Some inventories exist which show the large number of unsold books and paper stocks with many thousand sheets in the shops of printers who went bankrupt. Such numbers of sheets allow for extrapolating the annual number of books printed in the Dutch Republic. I do not want to spoil your reading with the actual number offered by the two authors!

An archival turn

The bookshop of the world is a fascinating book, not only for its views on the Dutch book trade, but even more for its vision of the Dutch Republic in which printed works formed a key element in communication. While reading the explanations of political developments and events in the seventeenth century time and again I marvelled at the natural way they underlined the important role of printed works. II even started wondering if this had been presented ever before in such a convincing way, yet based on painstaking and often daring research.

At Het Utrechts Archief a project for the description of some 5,000 Early Modern ordinances issued by the city of Utrecht and the States of the province Utrecht was finished in December 2017. It is more sensible to search for ordinances in archives, but as long scholars researching the Early Modern print world focused on books they first and foremost visit libraries. Archives would more readily make efforts to create finding aids for archival collection than spend money, time and expertise on describing pamphlets and ordinances. Not only ordinances were printed separately, resolutions of the Staten-Generaal and other States appeared thus in print. Last year the Huygens Institute / Institute for Dutch History in Amsterdam started the project REPUBLIC to digitize all early Modern resolutions of the Staten-Generaal. In 2018 Annemiek Romein (Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam and Universiteit Gent) started blogging at Bona Politia about her project to create better access to Dutch legislation in all its forms during the Early Modern period.

Logo Trinity College Dublin

Pettegree and Der Weduwen did visit numerous archives and libraries all over Europe searching for copies of known printed works and copies of unrecorded editions, and they will continue to pursue the path of personal inspection. It is difficult to highlight any institution with unexpectedly rich Dutch collections, but I think legal historians will want to know about the Fagel Collection held at the library of Trinity College Dublin. In 1802 this library succeeded in buying en bloc the library of Hendrik Fagel (1765-1838). Fagel, the last of an illustrious line of griffiers, heads of the chancery of the Staten-Generaal, had to sell his voluminous private library built by him and his ancestors since the 1670s. Whether you look at his books, the ordinances, the pamphlet collection or the maps the riches are astonishing. At least 500 pamphlets in Dublin are not recorded anywhere else. The volume edited by Timothy R. Jackson, Frozen in Time: the Fagel Collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, 2016) can tell you more about this private library, and the generous bibliography on the website of the Fagel Collection offers you still more.

Some reflections

At the meeting around the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands in March both the staff of the STCN and the USTC emphatically encouraged people to send their thoughts and comments about these database directly to them by email. I cannot and will not hide my enthusiasm about The bookshop of the world which rightly has been published also in a Dutch translation {De boekhandel van de wereld. Drukkers, boekverkopers en lezers in de Gouden Eeuw (Amsterdam 2019)], but of course it is possible to make some remarks. There is a clear need to be aware of the different qualities of the STCN and the USTC. Pettegree and Der Weduwen applaud the high standards of the descriptions in the STCN. Such information makes it possible to distinguish clearly between editions, editions with only a changed title page and new editions. In this sense the USTC and comparable catalogues need the power and skills of analytical bibliography. In its turn the USTC has started to become a truly universal catalogue for printed work published in Europe between the start of printing in the mid-fifteenth century and the year 1700. The original cores of the USTC are the two bibliographies of sixteenth-century French editions, French vernacular books : books published in the French language before 1601, Andrew Pettegree, Malcom Walsby and Alexander Wilkinson (eds.) (2 vol., Leiden, etc., 2007) and Books published in France before 1601 in Latin and languages other than French, Andrew Pettegree and Malcom Walsby (ed.) (2 vol., Leiden, etc., 2012). USTC casts its nets now considerably wider, but this would be unthinkable without such large-scale bibliographies produced over the years.

Logo STCV

At the meeting in March Steven Van Impe (Hendrik Conscience Erfgoedbibliotheek, Antwerp) told his public about the way the Short Title Catalogue Vlaanderen (STCV) is not just the Flemish counterpart of the STCN, not just a little sister doing a sister act, as he put it. From the start the STCV did not only include books, but also newspapers, broadsides and pamphlets. This was simply more feasible for the STCV because even now the total number of entries is after twenty years just below 50,000, whereas the STCN has a total content of closely to half a million works. The STCV publishes an online version of its manual for book description, and there is a yearly series of four seminars with each time fifteen participants willing to become bibliographers of Early Modern printed works. Thus the STCV team trains both scholars and staff members of institutions with relevant holdings in contributing to the STCV. In my view this training program is exemplary.

Among other things to note is the fact Dutch ordinances in the Early Modern period were printed from 1600 onwards which makes it much easier to read them. The excuse of not being able to read such legal resources is simply wrong. For such printed works it is now increasingly possible not to plod in a library through unwieldy printed volumes which sometimes lack sufficient indices or offer only a selection of ordinances. Instead it is wiser to go to an archive, ask for their copy of a publication with Early Modern ordinances and use their library to find editions of individual printed ordinances. You will appreciate the difference between reading an often much later edition of an ordinance, and handling the original edition, sometimes even in either a broadside or pamphlet format. You might imagine yourself listening to the city crier announcing the latest rulings, hearing them read by the vicar in your village church after the Sunday service or pushing with your elbows to get in front of the newest ordinances posted at the city hall or elsewhere in town.

A book with nearly everything?

Only when I had almost finished reading The bookshop of the world I noticed some omissions. The first concerns our knowledge about the books and book collections of women. The authors have not encountered any auction catalogue or other sources showing a woman’s book collection. It is possible to point to at least some catalogues pertaining to books held by Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), the first female student at Utrecht University who became a polyglot author corresponding with many scholars. In Utrecht she lived for many years literally next door to theologian Gisbert Voetius, well known for his opposition to Descartes. PIeta van Beek succeeded with support from Joris Bürmann in her study ‘Ex libris’. De bibliotheek van Anna Maria van Schurman en de catalogi van de Labadistenbibliotheek (Ridderkerk 2016) in tracing six catalogues concerning her books and the collection of the Labadist sect she had joined in 1669. Van Beek edited the texts of the catalogues and even added images of two catalogues. The library of The Grolier Club in New York owns five of these very rare catalogues. Van Beek suggests when Anna Maria van Schurman left Utrecht in 1669 for Amsterdam to follow Jean de Labadie she probably asked a theology student to get her books auctioned under his name [Catalogus variorum & insignium librorum praecipue theologorum D. Aemilii à Cuylenburg (…) (Utrecht 1669; copy Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek)]. Two auctions with books from the Labadists took place at Altona, and thus they can escape scholarly attention when you search only within the Dutch Republic. It is perhaps useful to note here you can search freely even without licensed access to Book Sales Catalogue Online. You can even see some images of the books you find. This exceptional case confirms in particular how you must cast your nets as widely as possible to ascertain facts about Dutch book printing and ownership.

The second omission I noticed touches on the publication of legal works. In chapter 12 concerning the printed publications of people trained at university level theology and medicine get more attention than jurisprudence. Pettegree and Der Weduwen flatly state legal works in print were mostly imported from abroad, which is basically a correct statement for works in Latin, and that only few Dutch lawyers published their works in the Netherlands. Here it seems the authors did not notice for example the series Bibliografie van hoogleraren in de rechten (…) concerning the works published by professors of jurisprudence at a particular Dutch university, for which you can even find two volumes online (PDF), the Bibliografie van hoogleraren in de rechten aan de Universiteiten van Groningen en Harderwijk tot 1811, B.S. Hempenius-Van Dijk et alii (eds.) (Amsterdam 2013) and Bibliografie van hoogleraren in de rechten aan de Utrechtse Universiteit tot 1811, edited by Margreet Ahsmann, Robert Feenstra and Corjo Jansen (Amsterdam, etc., 1993). They could have used also Douglas Osler’s Catalogue of books printed in Spain, Portugal and the Southern and Northern Netherlands from the beginning of printing to 1800 in the library of the Max-Planck-Institut für Europäische Rechtsgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main 2000).

Title page of Willem van Alphen, “Papegay ofte Formulier-boeck van alderhande requesten (…)”, 1642 – copy Ghent, University Library

You can search for the works of Dutch legal authors of the seventeenth century in the STCN such as Paulus Voet, his son Johannes Voet, Arnoldus Vinnius, Antonius Matthaeus II and III, and others, and make up your mind about their presence. Surely it makes sense to distinguish between works on Roman and natural law, and publications about Dutch law, both in fact these authors often published about both subjects. Pettegree and Der Weduwen are right to look in this study in particular for the more popular works that were less likely to survive in libraries. Recently I looked at the models for legal actions at court compiled by Willem van Alphen, secretary of the Hof van Holland in The Hague, in his Papegay ofte formulier-boeck van allerhande requesten (…) (first edition The Hague: for J. Verhoeve, 1642; online, Ghent University), a book reprinted four times during the seventeenth century. In 2017 I have written here about the books written by Simon van Leeuwen, not a university professor. The STCN currently has some 4,560 titles from the seventeenth century with the subject code Law, and this figure should be viewed in the light of its overall total of printed works.

Let these remarks not stop you from benefiting from an important and most readable study! Some attention to legal books serving the needs of the ordinary notary or barrister would have completed Pettegree’s and Der Weduwen’s most readable and convincing vision of the Dutch Republic as a country with an explosion of printed works exerting influence at any level, and some major innovations in the world of books. Law and jurisprudence were part and parcel of this society which thrived on communication in print.

A postscript

On December 5-6, 2019 a conference will be held in Liège on Printing and disseminating the Law in the Habsburg Netherlands, the Dutch Republic and the Prince-Bishopric of Liege in the Early Modern period (16th-18th century). The call for papers is out, with as deadline June 30, 2019. You can send your proposals to Renaud Adam and Nicholas Simon.

Sending a sign by signing: A Dutch petition from 1878

Start screen "Volkspetitionnement 1878"

Elections and choices make headlines this month. On March 20, 2019 elections were held in the Netherlands for the provincial councils and for the water management boards. The results of the election for the Provinciale Staten matter for the continuity of the current cabinet, because members of the Staten will elect senators later this year. To all political turmoil a terrible shooting incident in my peaceful home town Utrecht on March 18 added an atmosphere of shock, disbelief, grief and much more, depending on your closeness to the spot and the people afflicted. Last Friday a silent march has been held to the square where a woman and two men were killed. I had to reflect about a theme for a new post.

Last week the online Revoke Article 50 petition in the United Kingdom called my attention. Instead of stepping into the vexed questions around the Brexit I think looking at a late nineteenth-century petition is well worth attention here. The Volkspetitionnement 1878 [People’s Petition 1878] was held as a plea to secure space and governmental subvention for Christian education. Some 300,000 Protestants and 164,000 Catholics signed this petition. In the project led by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen the data of the petition have been used to create a searchable database and an interactive map. This petition was held in a period with a much smaller electorate, just 100,000 men, and even before the first Dutch political party came into existence.

Creating attention

Logo Vele Handen

The project to create online access to the 1878 petition is a project of many institutions and also the general public. In 2016 the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam started the project after the Dutch National Archives had made 11,000 scans. At the crowdsourcing platform Vele Handen [Many Hands] volunteers could read the scans and enter the data into a database. In June 2017 the project website was launched. The Nationaal Archief in The Hague has a concise news item about the project on its website, with a link to the scans of the original petition [NA, finding aid no. 2.02.04, Kabinet des Konings (The Kings’ Cabinet), inv.nos. 4482-4502 (Protestants) , 4541-4547 (Catholics)].

In 1878 a law was passed in the Dutch parliament which stipulated only general public schools for primary education could receive financial support from the government. Christian political leaders felt injured and sought a way to get this law repelled. Among these leaders was no lesser figure than the Protestant theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) who founded in 1872 the newspaper De Standaard [The Standard], in 1879 the first Dutch political party, the Anti-Revolutionaire Partij, and in 1880 the Vrije Universiteit. From 1901 to 1905 he acted as prime minister. You might want to look for his published works in the Kuyper Digital Library and the vast Kuyper Bibliography in the digital collections of Princeton Theological Seminary. His legacy is among the cores of the documentation center for the history of Dutch Protestantism, the HDC of the Vrije Universiteit.

The project website gives a good overview of the actual history of the 1878 petitions, and I use the plural on purpose. In 1877 the liberals had gained power. While Dutch Protestants had already for decades followed the changes in Dutch education, the 1878 law brought first of all Dutch Catholics into action. In June 1878 they launched three petitions, respectively to the members of the Tweede Kamer, the Senate and king Willem III, raising respectively 148,000, 164,000 and 164,000 signatures. A month the better organized protestant movement succeeded in raising 305,000 signatures within one week. However, on August 17, 1878 the king confirmed the new law. On the project website you can find a succinct bibliography (PDF) about this movement which did not reach its immediate goal, but certainly helped creating political awareness and stressing the need for a more effective organization of political opposition.

A scan of signatures from Oudenbosch, 1878 - source: Nationaal Archief

A scan of signatures from Oudenbosch, 1878 – The Hague, Nationaal Archief, collection 2.02.04, inv.no 2546, scan 162

At the project website you can search for individuals who signed one of the petitions, using their family names and for locations, or use the interactive maps to gain insights into the number of signatures placed in particular provinces and locations by a specific religious denomination or by both denominations. For each person who signed at least his name and (abbreviated) Christian name, residence and denomination have been registered, but the results page provide also space for other information, notably profession and the number of children, and a link to a scan of the page with the signature. I could not resist to check whether of my ancestors signed the petition. In my line of descent some names return regularly, and many of them lived in the western part of the province Noord-Brabant, mainly in Breda, Etten-Leur and Oudenbosch. One of the two Hendrikus Vervaart’s in Oudenbosch is surely my great-grandfather. I compared this scan with his signature in the marriage registration held at the West-Brabants Archief in Bergen op Zoom. Provided additional information has been entered in the database or that you have found elsewhere information about an ancestor, this resource surely adds color to the history of your family. You can press a button Informatie toevoegen (Add information) to enrich the data. It is nice to see the double use of crowdsourcing in this project.

Beyond quick success

To say the least, the Protestants and Catholics of 1878 would surely find the cooperation for this digital project remarkable, but in fact both movements found each other as political partners in dealing with the Schoolquestie, the question about the way to get funding from the government for schooling along denominational lines. In 1879 Kuyper formed a political party. In 1888 a first Dutch cabinet led by the confessionelen was formed which succeeded in getting equal financing of neutral and denominational schools. Over the years this political cooperation was not always easy, but a century later the major Catholic party and two Protestant parties merged into one political party.

The massive response to these petitions made especially the Catholics more visible in the Netherlands. Their existence in a nation styling itself as totally “Reformed” had almost been denied by historians. It showed in a graphic way the very limited franchise to vote of the late nineteenth century. It proved to be a spur to Abraham Kuyper to develop his visions of Christian life and organization in modern society, famously abbreviated as sovereignty in your own circle. He helped shaping a country which became for decades dominated by societal pillars, zuilen, subsections of a society in which one could live to a large extent from the cradle to the grave without serious interaction with other groups.

As for the present role of petitions and their future, I do not think historians can provide blueprints for the future, but they can make you pause for thought and reflection, and help you to see current developments in multiple perspectives. The website of the Volkspetitionnement 1878 offers a window on a very interesting period in Dutch politics and government, if only already for the fact it was composed of four petitions.

Archiving spies in the Early Modern Spanish empire

Cover exhibition catalogue "Espias"While musing about a possible subject for a new post I luckily remembered an announcement about a vital element within the Early Modern Spanish empire. Not only official ambassadors and delegates played an important role in informing governments, spies played an important role to. From July 2018 to July 2019 the Archivo General de Simancas presents the exhibition Espias. Servicios secretos y escritura cifrada en la Monarquiaa Hispánica [Spies. Secret services and enciphered writing in the Spanish monarchy]. The Spanish Empire formed with the Habsburg Empire a European superpower which needed crucial information from other countries, but also wanted to hide their own secrets from others. In this post I will looked at the very substantial downloadable catalogue of this exhibition (54 MB, PDF). In particular the use of encrypted writing made me curious to find out about this exhibition with three main themes: the organization of intelligence services, the spies and encrypted writing.

Archiving at Simancas

A few lines about the Archivo General de Simancas (AGS), ten kilometers from Valladolid, seem in place here. in 1540 emperor Charles V decided to create a new governmental archive, and quickly Simancas was chosen as its location. King Philip II of Spain issued in 1588 a further instruction for the running of this new archive, in fact one of the first Early Modern archival ordinances. Ten years earlier, in 1578, a new building was built for this purpose, yet another pioneering project of this period. The collections can be divided in two major blocks, the collections stemming from the Habsburgian period and those from the period under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. The collections of the various consejos (councils) for the regions of the Spanish empire are characteristic for the AGS. For the Bourbon period five major series for the secretaries and again five series for other organisms of the state are the key elements. Outside these series you can find the Patronato Real y Mapas, Planos y Dibujos, with maps, drawings and much more.

Cover of the "Guia del investgador" for the AGS

By all means the AGS can look literally as a formidable fortress! Guides such as the Guía del investigador by Angel de la Plaza Bores (4th ed., 1992; online, 5 MB, PDF) help much to overcome your awe. In her article ‘Fuentes para la historia colonial de Brasil en los archivos españoles’ , published in 2009 in the series Guide du chercheur americaniste of the online journal Nuevo Mundo/ Mundos NuevosMaría Belén García López devoted a section to the use of archival record series at the AGS for researching the history of relations between Spain and Portugal with regard to Brazilian history. In English you might want to look at a 2014 contribution about Simancas by Claire Gilbert at Hazine. In 2016 Adolfo Polo y La Borda looked very brief at Simancas and other major Spanish archives in his post ‘Rethinking the Spanish Imperial Archives’ for the series Fresh from the archives of Dissertation Reviews. The Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES) offers a kind of tree structure which you can navigate to find not only online finding aids but also digitized archival records. At first this might look difficult, but the online guide Taming PARES by Scott Cave and Ashleigh Dean is a must-read to gain access to all riches of PARES. There is a separate website for the digital collection with 7,000 digitized items from the Mapas, Planos y Dibujos of the AGS. A much older guide by William R. Shepard, Guide to the materials for the history of the United States in Spanish archives. (Simancas, the Archivo histórico nacional, and Seville) (Washington, D.C., 1907) can be viewed online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library. German readers might want to look at Marc André Grebe, Akten, Archive, Absolutismus? Das Kronarchiv von Simancas im Herrschaftsgefüge der spanischen Habsburger (1540-1598) (Madrid 2014).

Early Modern spies

Spy report 1572 - AGS

Detail of a deciphered spy report on fortifications in Piedmont, 1572 – AGS, EST LEG 1234-48

In the preface of the exhibition catalogue Julia Rodriguez de Diego explains how the study of the history of spies, their networks and tools is important for at least three main terrains, viz. the growth of absolute monarchies, the history of Early Modern diplomacy and the field of political theories, even its very heart, the building of states and concepts of states and Staatsräson. The first part of the catalogue deals with the organization of espionage at several levels with the Spanish state. In 1497 the pope authorized the Reyes Católicos to send spies into Africa. It seems the Spanish government scarcely needed this spur, but it proved to be a welcome confirmation. In the catalogue you will find discussions of several documents, for example instructions to virreyes (the viceroys of Navarra, Naples and Sicily) and gobernadores (the governors of Milan and Flandes, meaning the Low Countries). The chart with several layers of the Spanish state is very helpful to perceive the impact and role of intelligence services within and for Spain. Juan Velasquez de Velasco, head of the royal intelligence service at the end of the sixteenth century, wrote to the king about the urgent need for coordination of all efforts. As an example of actual reconnaissance by spies you can look at a 1572 report on French fortifications in the Piedmont region with explanations about a map showing details of these fortresses. A number of documents about payments to spies closes the first section of the catalogue. Here and elsewhere you will find images of documents and substantial transcribed parts in the commentaries.

Encrypted message, ca. 1588-1621 - AGS

An encrypted message written on linen, ca. 1588-1621 – AGS, MPD 44-48

The second and largest part of the catalogue deals with actual spies. Spies might be the word we want to use, but agents is a better term. The Spanish agents delivered reports in encrypted script, here an example written on linen using an unknown cipher code. A late sixteenth-century treatise on counter espionage (AGS, EST LEG 601-183) shows insights in the way enemy spies were hindered in achieving foreign objectives. Spies travelled over all Europe. Venice was considered the very spy capital of Europe. Some documents in this exhibition tell us about spies going to the Ottoman empire. The Spanish spies reported also on the roles and fate of spies from other countries. Corsairs were another matter of concern, as in a 1535 report about preparations for an attack at Oran. Rather grim is the story from 1536-1537 in Naples of the interrogation of a person suspected to be a judeoconverso, a converted Jew, and of being a spy for the Ottomans. Some time later he was found drowned in a river. The story of a spy working in Ireland to get information about British industry and inventions is another interesting subject. The contemporary picture of a spy heading this chapter is a nice vignette of the perceived qualities of a spy, working day and night, always watching out as if he had eyes all over his clothes. A paragraph on famous spies is a logical ending for this section of the catalogue.

The uses of encryption

Encrypted negotation report - AGS

An encrypted negotiation report by ambassador Rodriguez Gonzalez de la Puebla, 1498 – AGS, PTR LEG 52-144, fol. 2r

The third part of the catalogue deals with encryption and its uses. The traditional main ways of encryption were substitution or transposition of letters and hiding written messages. For a late fifteenth-century example of a simple cipher code with 2,400 expressions the use of Roman numbers is shown for the names of particular authorities. The code was used by the Spanish ambassador in England who negotiated for the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with Arthur Tudor, the king’s brother. It is good to see the catalogue uses here an article by María del Carmen Sevilla González, ‘Las nupcias de Catalina de Aragón: aspectos jurídicos, políticos y diplomáticos’, Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 86 (2016) 657-726. Several documents help to give you an idea of what happened behind the screens before king Henry VII agreed in 1504 with the marriage conditions of Catherine’s second marriage in 1503 with the future Henry VIII in a beautiful illuminated document [AGS, PTR LEG 53-1].

In a final paragraph the catalogue shows examples of both general and particular cipher codes. Much of the information given here comes from a recent study by Javier Marcos Rivas, Los dueños del secreto. Espías y espionaje de la Monarquía de los Austrias en el Archivo de Simancas (Madrid 2015). A document from 1564 shows not only a text but also two bars of music [AGS, Estado, leg. 1.1.1.204]. The AGS has in its holdings a manuscript of an unpublished study by Claudio Pérez Gredilla, written in 1899 and 1900 about 200 different cipher codes found in the holdings of this archive [AGS, D/203]. The very last item is really a surprise, a 1936 German Enigma code machine from the holdings of the Museo Histórico Militar de Burgos. This object is really from another age of cryptography. It highlights the fact this catalogue focuses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

With some regret I have skipped a number of items in this exhibition catalogue, just as i have condensed four centuries of archiving at Simancas. To give just one example, a document with microscopic script from 1586 is presented separately online. You will agree with me the exhibition builds to a climax with the marriages of Catherine of Aragon and the presence of an original Enigma code machine. A particular strength of the catalogue is the ample use of images from archival records combined with partial transcriptions and extensive commentaries. To some extent you can use this catalogue also as an introduction to Spanish palaeography in the Early Modern period. This exhibition fits neatly in the tradition of the AGS for organizing interesting exhibitions, sometimes followed by a virtual exhibit, and publishing accompanying publications. It should invite you to combine your strengths in the Spanish language and the skills of the auxiliary historical sciences such as palaeography to benefit from the wealth of archival records kept at Simancas and in other Spanish archives.

Digital approaches to medieval charters

Start screen DCN

On January 25, 2019 the Digitale Charterbank Nederland [Digital Charter Database Netherlands, DCN] was launched at Het Utrechts Archief in Utrecht. In this project the Huygens Institute/Institute for Dutch History of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences works together with Het Utrechts Archief, many other Dutch archives, and the IT firm De Ree in Groningen to create an online database with not only medieval charters, but also charters written between 1500 and 1800. Among the speakers at the presentation was Els De Parmentier (Ghent) who made an illuminating comparison with the Belgian project Diplomata Belgica. It is only natural to compare both projects and to report on some early impressions.

The third attempt succeeds

In fact two previous attempts at the Huygens Institute to create an online database for all medieval charters in Dutch holdings had not reached their goal. Almost by chance financial support of the Dutch Science Foundation NWO, the presence of an archivist, Karel Engbers, who had recently joined the staff of the IT firm De Ree which supplies an archival system use at many Dutch archive, and the preparatory work of the Huygens Institute together resulted within eighteen months in the current database.

The DCN has a search screen with both a simple search and an advanced search mode which opens by clicking on arrows. The advanced mode is fairly restricted. You can search for phrases and for single words, and you can set a time period to limit the search results. The search tips lead you to the Dutch archives portal created by De Ree. The portal has a search interface in Dutch, English and German, but the page with search tips is only available in Dutch. In the top menu you will not find in the English and German version the choice for newspapers (kranten) and the very useful guide to institutions with holdings for cultural heritage (erfgoedgids).

The second half of the DCN starts screen

I did not want to go immediately to another track of this post, but you can hardly escape from the crucial role played by the archival system of De Ree. In fact the start page of the DCN looks below the introduction very much like the result pages of the Archieven portal. On the right you can use filters for archival institutions (diensten, shortened from archiefdiensten), the presence or lack of images and other files (bestanden), and for toegangen, finding aids. By the way, Het Utrechts Archief figures large with more than 25,000 charters, but as for now only for some 6,600 items digital images have been provided. For each charter you can go directly to the relevant finding aid. Currently the database of the DCN contains already 170,000 charters with for some 24,000 items digital images.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and thus two invited speakers, Hans Mol (Leiden University and Fryske Akademy) and Ronald van de Spiegel at the presentation gave an early report about the functions of the DCN. Finding all occurrences of the abbot (abt) of Middelburg proved to be not straightforward. The use of wildcards is of course important in view of the different spellings of names and locations. With the DCN you can chart for example the changes in the preponderance of papal and royal charters or measure the importance of towns. More disconcerting is the way the datations of charters can led to a presentation of results with in the date field the number 1000 – or another year starting with 1 – instead of the date in the description. In order to work properly the archival system needs to have correct input in its own datation field of the finding aid. Instead of blaming this particular system – or any system for that matter – you will have to look more carefully at the quality of the original input created by archivists. Some crucial fields might have been left empty, and sometimes even a clear indication you are dealing with a charter might be absent. The institutions using De Ree’s system can continuously add and correct their data, but those institutions which do not use it cannot easily update their data within the DCN.

Karel Engbers (De Ree) explained how he urged to widen the selection of charters mentioned within the finding aids at the beginning of the project and during its unfolding. He urged for instance to include also specific genres of charters, and also the occasions where only a top-level description is given, even the most superficial ones like “a bundle of charters, 1350-1550”.

A look at Diplomata Belgica

Startscreen Diplomata Belgica (detail)

Maybe you will already have some ideas about the DCN, but I think you can see them much clearer when you compare the DCN with Diplomata Belgica. In fact I would have preferred to write here about this outstanding digital project much earlier, but things went different. The subtitle of this website with a French and English interface clearly sets its limits and character, “The diplomatic sources of the Medieval Southern Low Countries”. You will find here charters from the territories corresponding more or less with the current country Belgium. The word diplomatic stems from the auxiliary historical science diplomatics, the discipline dealing with medieval charters. For practical reasons, the sheer number of medieval records, this discipline often halts at the year 1300, and only seldom much later, up to 1340.

In her lecture Els De Parmentier made it very clear how you can use Diplomata Belgica to search for very specific questions about medieval charters, giving you a very comprehensive range of fields with both diplomatic and additional information, in particular the presence of religious orders. Apart from the main search interface you can use the interface Recherche Tradition / Tradition Search to search for the textual transmission of charters: as original or as a separate copy, in particular repositories, the writing material, the name of manuscripts and even the Stein number for French cartularies. Perhaps the most important information of De Parmentier’s lecture was the attention to the multiple way you can study charters: within the text of a document, in documents with the same actors, documents with identical compositions, and for example in documents issued by a particular person or institution for the classic research into the working of medieval chanceries. I will leave out here her comparison with other digital projects for medieval charters, for example those at the French Telma portal, the Digitaal Oorkondenboek Noord-Brabant, the Cartago project for charters from Frisia, Drenthe and Groningen, the registers of the Hainault counts of Holland (1299-1345), the international Monasterium project. the Anglo-Saxon charters and the DEEDS project. Each of them has many qualities, but all are slightly different in their approaches. Their common denominator is the choice of approaches founded on diplomatics.

Two approaches to charters

Some impressions become clear after De Parmentier’s lecture. In its current form the DCN is mainly what it shows on your screen, a set of charters filtered from the online finding aids of a large number of Dutch archives and from data sets – and images – provided by some other archives. You can see quickly where to go for rich holdings, but the crucial quality of the data provided by these archival institutions is very clear, too. It is a bit silly to see lots of charters dated in 1000, 1040 or 1085 when you know the actual number of charters for these years is much lower. The time range of the DCN goes considerably beyond the normal scope up to 1300 of (digital) editions of charters for particular regions or princes to include charters issued between 1500 and 1800.

The DCN faces a serious problem with the way datations of charters are handled due to the quality of the input provided by holding institutions. Sometimes one date field with incorrect or insufficient information can lead to a wrong representation of the actual date range. Instead of grumbling about this state of affairs it is perhaps wiser to check the actual input and the cases which are or seem incorrect. The larger lesson is for many digital projects you will need to use fields in a correct way, think only of such standards as EAD (Encoded Archival Description) and Dublin Core, and of course for your own digital presence and services. Sooner or later you will want to share information. Many Dutch archives offer their finding aids also as open data, yet another spur for checking interoperability and correct working before connecting to other projects or presenting data to the general public. In a finding aid archivists describe items as succinctly as possible but uniquely distinguishable from other items, and it should be no surprise descriptions do not contain all possible information, let alone full transcriptions. Some archival institutions provide transcriptions, for example the Regionaal Archief Tilburg.

The DCN website mentions a diplomatic definition of charters, a single act written on parchment or paper pertaining to a legal situation or a legal action – e.g. a sale, a donation – made legally valid by the internal and external characteristics of the deed, such as a seal or a signature. For me the use of the phrase bevoegd persoon (authorised person) seems almost to exclude private persons. The phrase ‘Charter’ is de archiefterm, “[a] charter is the archival term”, wordings written by Jan Burgers, the project leader (Huygens Institute and University of Amsterdam), is simply not correct. In the latest version of the Dutch archival terminology (2003) a charter is defined as a document containing an act validated by one or more seals or a notary’s sign. This definition clearly differs from the definition in the famous Dutch manual by Muller, Fruin and Feith (1898) who saw a charter as the expedition (grosse) of an oorkonde, to be distinguished from a concept or a final version (minuut). The 2003 definition is much clearer about the documentary nature and more succinct. It is foremost an archival definition, and not primarily a concept from or defined by the needs of diplomatics. Luckily the explanations by Burgers about the importance of charters as historical sources are on spot.

Logo Huygens Institute / ING

In my view the Digitale Charterbank Nederland is a tool which reflects archival practices and needs. Its great power is the way you can look at charters within their archival context instead of seeing them only as specimens of a separate documentary genre, and having images of them on your screen. The search possibilities of the DCN are somewhat restricted, even when you allow for the way you can focus on a single archival collection. It is only wise to remember two earlier attempts to create this Dutch charter database failed. Hopefully the problem with the dates in the charters can be solved quickly by the contributing archives and De Ree. Thus we will have at our disposal a primarily archival tool which supplements other Dutch digital projects for medieval charters, such as the digitized versions provided by the Huygens Institute of the oorkondenboeken for Utrecht (OSU), Holland and Zeeland (OHZ), and Gelre (Guelders) and Zutphen (OGZ). Creating links between these editions and the DCN is one of the things that will enhance this database. In particular the coverage with digital images in the DCN is still a bit low, but no doubt this will change rapidly. The qualities of the DCN should also become rapidly available with an English, French or German interface for all scholars worldwide wanting to use charters in Dutch holdings for their research. Without some understanding of archives, archival theory and the classic historical auxiliary sciences such as diplomatics, palaeography, chronology and sigillography you will and cannot tap completely the wealth of information charters can provide.

Rembrandt’s private and legal life

Bannere exhibition "Rembrandt Privé"

On December 7, 2018 the exhibition Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] opened at the city archives of Amsterdam. In an earlier post on my blog I mentioned the project RemDoc – Rembrandt Documentation which offers a searchable database with images, transcriptions and many English translations of seventeenth-century documents pertaining to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The exhibit show documents held at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, the largest municipal archive in the Netherlands, some original works by Rembrandt, a number of maps and the chance to gain access to augmented reality around the documents using a tablet. The legal nature of many documents will soon become clear in this post.

Stories of love, art and money

I started to admire Rembrandt already as a child. His paintings, drawings and etchings are so much alive with people. Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age helped shaping my perceptions of the seventeenth century. I was soon aware of the many decisive turns in Rembrandt’s life. The way he portrayed people both in sorrow and joy, and the dark hours of his own life offered a healthy antidote to viewing the Dutch Republic in too much sunlight. The catalogue of the major Rembrandt exposition in Amsterdam in 1969 was a book I have seen many times. It often referred to historical documents about Rembrandt and his works.

The building of the Stadsarcheif Amsterdam

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam at the Vijzelstraat in the former bank building designed by K.P.C. de Bazel

Reading about somebody in a book is one thing, seeing the works of an artist in museums adds much to it, but somehow having the documents in front of you stirs the imagination even more. The Rembrandt Documentation project of the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam and the Radboud University Nijmegen gives you online access to many thousand documents. There was an older work, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt (1575-1721) by C. Hofstede de Groot (The Hague 1906; online, Universität Heidelberg) with transcriptions and commentaries for nearly 500 documents, followed by W.L. Strauss and M. van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York 1979) and M. Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt 2006, II: New Rembrandt Documents (Leiden 2006). The online project has a wider time range, 1424 to 1799, and offers much more documents, and also references about Rembrandt in art literature. Sometimes Hofstede de Groot did not record texts completely. Commentaries can be very different and convincing explanations no longer missing. An example: Hofstede de Groot gave a large extract from an attestatio de vita from July 26, 1632 (no. 25, p. 24-25; RemDoc, no. 4399) made by a notary inquiring about Rembrandt’s health, but the reason for this inquiry was not clear to Hofstede de Groot. In 1979 it became clear it had to do with a rent subscribed to by one hundred citizens with the stipulation the full sum would be paid back to the longest living subscriber.

An enlarged map of Amsterdam and two documents

The exhibit at the city archive shows a selection of documents around a number of themes and events in Rembrandt’s life. Often two documents are shown, with either a print next to them or an image of a painting in the background, most of them from the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis. With the tablet you can focus on a document and start a short podcast about the document or documents. Often you will see a seventeenth-century map in the background showing you the exact location in the inner city of Amsterdam. The image to the left centers on a document about the execution of Elsje Christiaens, a Danish servant convicted for murder hanging at the display gallows in 1664 on the other side of the IJ, the estuary to the north of Amsterdam. Rembrandt often made sketches in this region. He drawed this young woman twice.

The exhibition shows some familiar documents, and although I had already some expectations, the legal nature of many documents is indeed striking. To mention just a few of them, the betrothal of Rembrandt and his first wife Saskia van Uijlenburgh in 1634, an ecclesiastical procedure about his later mistress Geertje, some testaments, the inventory of his bankruptcy in 1656, and the inventory of his house after his death in 1669 are all legal documents.

The 1669 inventory - Amsterdam, Stadsarchief

A page from the 1669 inventory – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Archief Notarissen, subseries 113, Gerrit Steeman, inv.no. 2625C

The death-bed inventory of Rembrandt’s house in 1669 is rather special. It belongs to documents more or less damaged by the 1762 fire in the city hall. Several documents have now been restored and digitized. Until now the transcriptions of this document in RemDoc (no. 13471; Hofstede de Groot, no. 306) could only be incomplete. It is a reminder that a historical state of affairs can change indeed. Illegible or missing words can become clear. In the case mentioned above a document which seemed inexplicable can be studied anew, placed in a context and yield new information. The readability of old Dutch documents was the theme in a post I wrote earlier in 2018. I proposed to everyone wanting to learn online to decipher Dutch documents from the seventeenth century to start with the documents about Rembrandt. As an example I showed an image of an obligation Rembrandt had got into for the purchase in 1639 of his house in the Sint Anthoniebreesteeg for which he had failed in 1653 to pay four years of interest (RemDoc no. 4628). Even if not for all documents images and an English translation is available, a fair number of archival records can be used to gain also palaeographical skills.

Among the archival records on display I want to single out two documents. The first is a complaint from the Portuguese merchant Diego d’Andrada in 1654 about a portrait of a young lady Rembrandt had made for him (RemDoc, no. 1661) with clauses about the way Rembrandt was going to act to fulfill the wishes in accordance with the regulations of the painters guild.

Documents about the black community in Rembrandt's Amsterdam

The second document involved also the presence of Portuguese merchants in Amsterdam, the burial of Francisco d’Angola in 1659 who had lived in the same street with Selijelij Krablije. Rembrandt could meet in the very street where he lived black people who lived as servants in the houses of Portuguese merchants. In Amsterdam it was forbidden to have slaves, but one can assume in some cases such servants were in fact slaves. Amsterdam had become in the seventeenth century one of Europe’s most important financial and trade centers. You might encounter anyone and anything, and thus Rembrandt’s world stretched far beyond Holland.

More archival records

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam is rightly famous for its digitization service. Some 30 million images of archival records are currently available online. Indexes exist for a steadily growing number of record series, and in most cases they lead you to digital images, too. The ondertrouwregisters (betrothal registers) are probably the most praised record series of the municipal archive, because uniquely for this kind of resource the Amsterdam records often contain additional information about the partners, their professions, origin and family.

Logo Alle Amsterdamse Akten

In 1906 Hofstede de Groot noted in the acknowledgements he had not used himself the notarial registers of Amsterdam, because this rich resource had not yet been adequately inventoried. He had mostly to rely on the transcriptions and editions of the people who had gained access to them thanks to the guidance of archivists. It is one thing to have now at your computer screen full access to digitized images of these registers using the finding aid (toegang 5075), but another thing to find quickly relevant acts. Here the crowdsourcing project Alle Amsterdamse Akten steps in which aims to digitize and create indexes for a staggering volume of notarial registers, good for 3,5 linear kilometer in 700 cupboards. The project overview gives a current number of nearly six million digitized pages, some 680 volunteers at the Dutch transcribing platform Vele Handen [Many Hands] and 267,000 documents. There are more than ten thousand registers from 731 notaries in the Early Modern period. The website contains special dossiers about six themes, among them Rembrandt and also slavery with highlights among the notarial acts, some of them newly found, others already known.

Search screen Alle Amsterdamse Akten

The search screen of Alle Amsterdamse Akten

After free registration you can start searching in the notarial registers from Amsterdam at the website Notarieel Archief Amsterdam. You can search for descriptions, type of act, first names and surnames for two persons, location, day, month and year, or choose a particular notary. When searching for Rembrandt van Rhijn you will immediately get a choice of variant spellings in a dropdown menu, both for Rembran(d)(t) and R(h)ijn. At this point I can no longer hide the fact that the exhibit can be visited in a Dutch and English version, but the other websites of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are completely in Dutch. The press kit for the exhibit in four languages and the display texts for the documents are the exceptions, but the tablet scripts and transcriptions are only available online in Dutch. There is a strong case to add at least a search interface in one other language. It is some solace to be able to download the 1998 repertory of notaries in Amsterdam between 1524 and 1810 by A.J. Bosma. Earlier on an overview had been created of more than 5000 notarial acts in cases of gross avery between 1700 and 1810, damage to ships in emergency situations, an important resource next to an index on these cases of maritime law heard by a special court. I wrote a paragraph about these verdicts in an earlier post.

Rembrandt and Vermeer in documents

It seems wise to see Rembrandt not in isolation. John Michael Montias (1928-2005) was an economic historian who became an art historian focusing on the social context of art. He found and transcribed lots of Early Modern probate inventories mentioning works of art which can be searched in the Montias database of the Frick Museum, New York. The Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology has created the Boedelbank, a database with Dutch probate inventories from four regions seen as a resource for the history of material culture. In 1989 Montias published Vermeer and his milieu. A web of social history, translated into Dutch as Vermeer en zijn milieu (Amsterdam 1993). Over the years Montias had traced some 450 documents in seventeen Dutch and Belgian archives – not only in Delft! – with direct and indirect about information about Vermeer, his family and people associated with him. The Dutch edition contains as an appendix (pp. 331-403) an enlarged version of the list of documents with a number of full transcriptions. The number of documents for Vermeer is definitely lower than for Rembrandt. Even if such documents do not allow for strict conclusions about the content of his art works, they enormously raise the awareness about the multiple contexts of Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

In the face of an ocean of specialized art literature about Rembrandt and Vermeer the point I liked to make here is not only the legal nature of many archival records in the Amsterdam exhibition, but also the presence of many other persons in these documents. Rembrandt and Vermeer were supreme masters in portraying people who you seem to know and understand in an uncanny way. The Dutch historian Geert Mak wrote a book about the Six family [De levens van Jan Six. Een familiegeschiedenis, 2016; The many lives of Jan Six. A portrait of an Amsterdam dynasty, 2017], a merchant dynasty with Jan Six at its very heart, a friend of Rembrandt, portrayed twice by him. The painting is still owned by his descendants. Viewing someone in his familiar surroundings or in the streets of his hometown is also a metaphor for viewing law not as an isolated element of society, but vitally connected to its utmost veins. Finding and recreating such connections is surely challenging, but searching for a subject in vivo is more rewarding and revealing than staying content with results in a supposedly detached laboratory. At the end of 2018 I would almost say: Keep calm and study legal history!

Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] – Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Vijzelstraat 32, Amsterdam – December 7, 2018 until April 7, 2019