Category Archives: Digital editions

Safe under a shield: A dual approach to the Prize Papers

Logo Open Access WeekThis years’ Open Access Week (October 19-25) is the occasion for a post about a number of projects tapping the wealth of the remarkable archival collection of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA) in the British National Archives. Several projects deal with a few record series within this archive, the Prize Papers. Someof these record series have become accessible online in open access, others, however, can only be viewed only at subscribing institutions. This contribution offers a sketch of the situation facing scholars who might want to use these rich resources. Surely one of their questions is why such differences have been allowed to develop by the National Archives and the partners in the various projects concerning the Prize Papers. My post will not offer a definitive conclusion to this question, but I will try to create a starting point for further consideration.

In 2012 I focused on the project concerning the so-called Sailing Letters, focusing on Dutch letters found among the Prize Papers, and I will therefore discuss this project here concisely. The recent launch in open access of an online atlas created using the Prize Papers and bringing a most interesting example of possible research rekindled my interest in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty.

Ships from every corner of Europe

When you look at the fine online guide for the High Court of Admiralty at the website of the National Archives at Kew some things will attract your attention, that is, when you do not start immediately to read the guide. First of all, the sheer length and detail of the guide does credit to the importance of this archive. For many HCA series you can find more information on consecutive pages, and this feature can only be applauded. Secondly, at the very start it is indicated no materials from the High Court of Admiralty are online at this website, a statement which is correct, but it does not tell you enough. In the section about the Prize Court you will find the link to a finding aid at the website of the Dutch Nationaal Archief in The Hague, with a lapidary statement that this deals mainly with the series HCA 32, the Prize Letters. However, this is simply misleading, The Dutch finding aid does provide with an index of Dutch letters in other HCA series as well.

The website of the NA does not bring you directly from its general HCA guide to the Dutch online general guide to the HCA 32 series with its thousands of letters, and in particular some 8,500 scans of Dutch letters, not just from the HCA 32 series, but from other series as well. You can also download the introduction to this index as a PDF or EAD.

Apart from these remarks the most important thing you will register is the great variety of resources forming entire record series which merit attention both per se and, more importantly, within the context of the history of the High Court of Admiralty. Normally you would not decide so quickly to single out one particular record series of an archival collection without acknowledging its wider context and setting. There are more than sixty HCA record series, eleven series for the Court of Delegates (DEL) for appeals in instance cases, and five series for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (PCAP). Nine HCA record series make up the main body of the records of the Prize Court, and seven HCA series deal with appeals in prize cases. HCA 30 appears at several points in this guide, the last time in a paragraph stating this series contains Admiralty Miscellanea. The guide closes before the very useful glossary of legal terms with a clear warning: “HCA is a large and complex collection of documents, and this leaflet does not attempt to be comprehensive. Both the finding aids and secondary reading can be found at The National Archives.”

When you continue focusing at the HCA 32 series at the website of the National Archives you will encounter a set of digitized records, four French muster rolls of ships captured in 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar. As is the case with more digitized records at this website, you can search freely in these records, but you have to pay to view this pieces. It would be nice if one could download them at least one day every year without this financial procedure or with a broadly advertised discount, preferably on October 21, the day of the Battle of Trafalgar. Here I leave it to others to find out about the digitization of other records in connection with Nelson.

Prize papers at a price

Banner Gekaapte brieven

My story of open access and subscribers-only access becomes more complicated when we look at the major research projects for the Prize Papers. In my country the project for the Sailing Letters gained most publicity. In five issues of the Sailing Letters Journaal edited by Erik van der Doe, Perry Moree and Dirk Tang a number of letters appeared in critical editions with accompanying essays. At Gekaapte Brieven [Captured letters], a website created by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam, you can view both the originals and transcriptions of six thousand Dutch letters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The transcriptions were done to a large extent by crowdsourcing. At the University of Leiden the project Brieven als buit [Looted letters] resulted not only in an online linguistic corpus for roughly the same set of letters, but also in a number of monographs, mainly dissertations. The Dutch Nationaal Archief created as lasting results the finding aid, the searchable index and a substantial number of scans, all of them accessible in open access. At the center of these projects were the Dutch letters documenting social life and the uses of the Dutch language in daily communication.

The blog of the Prize Papers Consortium shows graphically the number of parties participating in projects concerning the core of the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. Interestingly, this blog mainly shows the amount of preparations to launch the Sailing Letters project, and at some points the major project for digitizing a substantial number of other archival records is already hinted at. For the historiographical background of the projects dealing with the Prize Papers this blog – kept alive after finishing the Sailing Letters – is invaluable.

Logo Marine Lives

A second major project tapping the riches of the HCA archive is Marine Lives. This project puts the life of sailors and the events touching their ships first. In striking difference with the projects for the Dutch letters you find here images and transcriptions for selected items taken from several HCA record series. In fact the team of Marine Lives organizes campaign to deal with a clearly set case or a few registers. At present you will find for example a project focusing on the capture of three ships with Spanish silver in 1652, using in particular the HCA 13 series with in its 272 bundles and volumes in particular answers and examinations in prize cases and instances. For this case only the team does use as main resources four volumes of the HCA 13 series, HCA 13/66 to HCA 13/71. The description of this case is a veritable mine of information, and you will benefit from looking at this case, its references and bibliography. At the website of Marine Lives you can find the transcriptions of relevant pages in HCA 13/69. For other projects participants in Marine Lives have also looked outside the HCA archive, for instance at probate records and chancery records. By casting its nets wide Marine Lives does in my opinion justice to the sheer range and scope of the HCA archive. Marine Lives is not just a project, but a set of projects showing the importance and impact of maritime life for British history in general. Most of them focus on a particular archival record documenting a period of one or two years during the seventeenth century, or in the case of the Silver Ships on a particular case.

Banner Global Worlds

The same width and broad scope is a feature of the bilingual Prize Papers portal created at the university of Oldenburg. Alas this portal does contain only announcements of research, and the website has not been updated since 2012. The projects of German scholars will cover subjects such as cultural exchange, the material world of Frisian in the eighteenth century, missionary activities, views of the body, learning foreign languages and the role of correspondence. Whatever the outcome of these projects their aim is clearly showing the chance to open with the Prize Papers windows on a world in various ways. A nice element of the portal is an image gallery showing boxes holding the paper materials, various objects, word lists, drawings and notes, playing cards and much more. The Prize Papers are indeed a great time capsule.

A seducing interactive map

Banner Prize Papers Atlas

In the last major project open access and subscribers-only access rub shoulders. When I spotted the interactive map accompanying Brill’s online edition of selected Prize Papers I knew I would write here about it sooner or later. The interactive map uses information for the period 1775-1783, the years of the American Revolutionary War and the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, doubtlessly a very interesting sample period. The sample uses some 7,000 interrogations. In her background essay for the Prize Papers Online I Caroline Kimbell of the National Archives skilfully tells the story of the various locations and the rare use of the Prize Papers before 1980, a story not to be missed. At the map you can pose your questions helped by eight search fields about ships and six fields for their crews. The introduction contains a number of preset configurations for a number of subjects, for example the voyages of sailors from Scandinavia or the origins of illiterate crew members. The results on the map contain clickable links to the scans which can in most cases only be accessed by subscribers and subscribing institutions. Only at this point it becomes clear it is indeed the HCA 32 record series forming the backbone of this large-scale project with five sets, each of them focusing on a period of war. Eight sample biographies with scans of the interrogations accompany the map, as does a list of some studies, a number of them available online. You can search online in each set, but you will receive only restricted information and a thumbnail for the purchase of full access.

Logo Prize Papers Online

In the last paragraph I already hinted at a problem with the selected periods, the choice for war years. Wars had and have a major impact on society, but one will have to look at the years before and after a war, too, to gain insight into any substantial differences. The choice for war years during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century does make it possible to compare consecutive wars and changes in conditions for ships and crews. A second problem is the decision to include here only interrogations, presumably taken in overwhelming majority from the HCA 32 series. The guide to the HCA archive at the website of the National Archives shows precisely for this series a nice division into sets stemming from war years, and obviously the temptation to start with its crisply defined sets has been strong and convincing. I cannot help noticing the omission of the very series number in the introduction to each set of Brill’s Prize Papers Online. The correct references are also lacking for the sample biographies, In contrast to the images for the other projects discussed here the images of the scans of Brill’s project do not show the HCA 32 numbers.

Contrary to the policy for many commercial projects with digitized historical resources Brill does indicate clearly the price of € 45,000,- for purchase of access to the five sets, and € 8,500,- for yearly subscription. Access for one set comes at € 9,000,-. As a matter of fact Brill does offer a number of books online in open access, and this publisher gives discounts and waivers to people in developing countries for some online materials. The old motto of this Dutch firm, Tuta sub aegide Pallas, “safe under Pallas’ shield”, has evidently renewed its meaning and significance. Many will read here protection for its own interest instead of protection and care for the texts written by Brill’s authors trusting the high standards of this publisher.

Some questions

Is it a blessing in disguise that only some years of the HCA 32 series can only be accessed online at subscribing institutions? Instead of lamenting the protective shield around Brill’s digital resources we could also consider the chance to create in new projects open access to other series of the mighty HCA archive kept at Kew. In my view the different approaches shown here each have their qualities. The Dutch projects with the letters literally give us the most telling personal stories. Marine Lives makes a choice to look at a number of HCA record series and at particular cases. The team at Oldenburg promises to open vista to global worlds, but the portal shows no results at all, apart from the tantalizing showcase with a great choice of images and objects. The interrogations published by Brill benefit from the standardized form with thirty-two questions which makes this series to a substantial extent reliable and open to statistical treatment. Many scholars will use it as a part of their own research, not as the sole resource at the center of their interest.

Anyone organizing large-scale projects in the humanities does know that finances are often a determining factor in launching and finishing them. Brill obviously reckons the internal qualities of the record series is sufficiently high to make institutions pay for this publisher’s efforts to make this series of the Prize Papers accessible online. The interactive atlas is a showcase inviting scholars to convince their institutions to give them access to this remarkable resource. However, the German project convinces me even in its embryonic stage and hidden progress there is indeed a world to win when we opt for a broad approach to the records of the High Court of Admiralty. Marine Lives probably makes the wisest choice to alternate between singular records and major cases within a limited time span, and thus you can gain relatively quickly more insight into the chances for further research using the entire range of the sixty great HCA record series. The digitized letters remind you to remember the human and personal aspects of the large theme or subject you would like to investigate.

Banner National Archives

Perhaps it is wise to realize your luck as a historian in having at your disposal on your screen one or two major record series within the many boxes of the HCA archive. In view of the prize for the sets offered by Brill the best policy is probably to go to a subscribing institution for online access to one or more of these valuable sets, to arrange for images from the National Archives at Kew, and to pay a visit to this outstanding archive.

A debate about the use of digital resources should not lead us away from scholarly literature en sources in print dealing with the High Court of Admiralty. Using the Karlsruher Virtual Katalog and tapping the wealth of the library of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main you can find numerous publications. Eighteenth-century pamphlets and books, too, can be most helpful or serve as a starting point for archival research. In his research concerning Admiralty cases from the sixteenth century Alain Wijffels (Leiden/Louvain-la-Neuve) looked in particular at the role of Roman law. Wijffels has devoted several studies to Admiralty cases, including even in 1993 a Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on Civil law in the practice of the High Court of Admiralty at the time of Alberico Gentili. Do not tempt me to add here more than just the titles of relevant publications of the Selden SocietySelect pleas in the Court of Admiralty, vol 1: 1390-1404 and 1527-1545, Reginald Marsden (ed.) (London, 1892; Selden Society, 6), vol. 2: 1547-1602, Reginald Marsden (ed.) (London, 1897; Selden Society, 11) and – more recently – Hale and Fleetwood on Admiralty jurisdictions, M.J. Pritchard and D.E.C. Yale (eds.) (London, 1992; Selden Society, 108)!

There is enough space and material for approaching again this court with its magnificent holdings and using them to the benefit of the field of legal history, too. If legal historians want to have open access to any HCA record series which has not yet been digitized, it is up to us to follow in the wake of the Marine Lives team, and to start our own projects to achieve this aim. Publishing firms will steer their own course. Some universities have already created their own open access publication series or indeed changed their university presses into open access establishments. In my view watching from aside the struggles between publishers and libraries about access to scholarly publications is to take sides. The scholarly community itself has to play an active rol in this turbulent period with major changes in communication and access to information. Fighting for open access has only just started.

A postcript

Almost two weeks after publishing this post I heard about another project with Early Modern letters. The international project Signed, Sealed & Undelivered deals with some 2,600 letters – written in six languages – from the seventeenth century found among the holdings of the Museum voor Communicatie (MusCom) in The Hague which received the letter trunk in 1926. New technology will be used for the deciphering of 600 of these letters without even opening them, and thus preserving the sometimes peculiar foldings of personal messages.

Roman law and its digital life

Scholars working in the field of Classical Antiquity have wholeheartedly embraced the use of digital tools. Some portals concerning aspects of the ancient Mediterranean are even among the very best current websites. It is a sheer joy to figure out for example how to travel from Asia Minor to Italy using the Orbis interactive map created at Stanford University. In this post I would like to look at the possibilities to work with Roman law texts in digital versions.

Banner of the Amanuensis program

Are websites or tools available which can help to achieve the aims of both traditional and more advanced aims in classical philology when dealing with the texts of the great Roman lawyers and the compilations created in the sixth century AD? The answer might surprise some younger readers, but in fact one of the earliest computer programs dealt already with this subject. One can only admire the foresight and wide view of Hofrat Josef Menner (Universität Linz) to create the program Romtext not just for Justinian’s Digest, but also for his Codex and Institutes, for the Institutiones Gaii and the Codex Theodosianus as well as the Breviarium Alarici (Lex Romana Visigothorum) and even less well-known texts, for example the Tabula Heracleensis. The program functioned since the early seventies on a standalone computer. His program has now been converted by Peter Riedlberger and Günther Rosenbaum into a modern program, called Amanuensis. This tool was launched in March 2014 and is available both for the main personal computer systems and also as an application for smartphones. Amanuensis has been out already for some time now, and version 1.5.2 certainly merits attention here. In the Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 101 (2015) 793-794 the creators announced their tool in print to the scholarly world.

The search screen of Amanuensis

The origins of Amanuensis from a computer system with only bare essentials is still immediately visible in the austere search screen, both on your pc and on a smart phone. However, in this new incarnation Romtext still scores above the various websites with Roman legal texts where you can perform only searches in one singular text, not within the complete corpus of Roman law texts. The list of resources even includes three early medieval Germanic law codes, the Völkerrechte. You can set the search interface in sixteen different languages. You can tune the search mode to include exact phrases, skip occurrences or include various endings of a word, and by clicking on a paragraph you get the context into view. It is also possible to search for particular texts using the normal abbreviations for Roman legal texts. Amanuensis does deal also with assimilation in words to make searching for different spellings easier. In other words, you can perform the kind of searches you expect of similar tools. Long fragments in Greek have been excluded from the corpus.

Logo The Roman Law LibraryOn my own legal history portal Rechtshistorie I have listed at the page for Roman law links to a number of digital version of the Corpus Iuris Romani. At the Latin Library the texts for Roman law compiled under the authority of emperor Justinian have been put together in one section, the Theodosian Code and the Institutes of Gaius appear separately. Surely The Roman Law Library at Grenoble can boast the largest variety of Roman legal texts, but here, too, you have to search within individual sections. Yves Lassard and Aleksandr Koptev include at their magnificent portal when possible two or even more editions of a text, something to keep in mind when using Amanuensis and other resources, such as the very good searchable versions of the Institutiones Iustiniani, the Codex and the Digest at the Intratext Digital Library. At Intratext you can for example also search for words in alphabetical listings and benefit from the KWIC presentation (keyword in context).

A plethora of texts

Lately I have looked at several online text corpora, and it is rewarding to mention here at least some of them. The Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum guides you for Roman legal texts to the versions at the Latin Library. DigilibLT, Biblioteca digitale dei testi latini tardoantichi (Università degli Studi di Piemonte Orientale (Vercelli)), does not include any Roman law text among its Latin texts from Late Antiquity. The Bibliotheca Polyglotta created at the Faculty of Humanities at Oslo University is awe-inspiring for its sheer scope and range, from Arabic texts to the Bible in several languages, and from Ashoka inscriptions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, Roman law is absent. At Monumenta, a Swiss portal created by Max Bänziger, you have access to a large number of texts in classical and medieval Latin, but legal texts have not been included.

In another Swiss project, the Corpus Corporum – Repertorium operum Latinorem apud universitatem Turicensem at the Universität Zürich, you will find a wealth of Latin resources, among them for medievalists Migne’s Patrologia Latina. This portal builds on the strengths of some digital corpora which figure in this paragraph. I would have expected to find Roman legal texts in the section Latinitas Antiqua, but instead you will find Justinian’s Digest among the Auctores scientiarum varii as the only Roman legal text. For a different slant – and a very different layout – you can visit the Bibliotheca Augustana created by Ulrich Harsch (Augsburg) who has also included the Laws of the Twelve Tables, Diocletian’s price edict and other short texts.

Banner Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University

Let’s conclude this brief tour of major textual corpora for digital humanities with the Perseus Digital Library (Tufts University, Medford, MA). You might wonder why I did not start with this digital library, doubtless the richest online resource for Greek and Latin texts, and you will not be disappointed here when looking for the Quran, Icelandic sagas or texts on American history, too. Roman law is conspicuously absent. On a separate domain the Perseus Catalog does bring you to external versions of Justinian’s Digest, even in the 1909 translation by Charles Monro and William Buckland, the Institutes and the Codex, and to the edition by Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krüger of the Corpus Iuris Civilis at the Internet Archive, with the Institutiones and the Digesta (5th ed., Berlin 1888), the Codex Iustinianus (5th ed., Berlin 1892) and the Novellae (Berlin 1895). The Perseus Catalog does not bring you to the Codex Theodosianus also present at the Internet Archive in the edition by Mommsen and Paul Meyer (Berlin 1905). The Perseus Digital Library exists also in a special version for advanced philological research, Perseus under PhiloLogic, using the PhiloLogic technology developed at the University of Chicago available for text collections, encyclopedias and dictionaries, in many cases in open access. It would be great to approach Greek and Roman legal texts, too, with modern digital tools.

Knowing more is more than just fun

Today I received a flyer of a Dutch newspaper advertising with the slogan “Meer weten is wel zo leuk” [Knowing more is really nice]. I immediately combined their advertisement with the matters at stake here. The ideal of an all-embracing Altertumswissenschaft can still bring a smile on our faces. It would be great to connect aspects of ancient civilizations seamlessly and effortlessly with each other, and indeed the online availability of so many resources and their rich variety makes achieving the aim of histoire totale less far away than before. Why does Roman law get such a marginal place in the text corpora described in the middle of this posting? I had better not speculate on any answer. Perhaps Romtext and its current form simply have not yet been noticed very much outside the German-speaking world.

In last month’s posting about law and pocket books I noted an Italian pocket edition of the Digesta, but now you can actually have the Corpus Iuris Civilis and some supplementary texts literally in your pocket. It is not just that the Romans paid particular attention to legal matters, it is not even the perfection of their laws and commentaries nor the brutal exclusion of whole groups in society, it is the impact on Roman society and the reception of Roman law that matters crucially in understanding the Roman world and its significance during two millennia. Leaving out law when talking about the Romans might make things seem easier, but it does leave out something that mattered very much for them.

In fact scholars in the field of Roman law might sometimes yearn to achieve what others working in fields such as Assyrian and Egyptian history have already done with computers and digital tools. One can only admire the way ancient inscriptions and papyri have been made accessible online. The way things work for studying Roman law are changing, too, even if you can only find a trickle of news about Roman law on the deservedly famous blog of Charles E. Jones, AWOL – The Ancient World Online. Thanks to Sarah E. Bond’s blog about law in Classical Antiquity and her links I arrived at Paul Du Plessis’ (Edinburgh) very useful online companion to Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law (5th ed., Oxford, etc. 2015) who alerted me to the services of Amanuensis, and made me work to update my webpage on Roman law.

Logo Ius Civile

In most cases the Ius Civile portal of Ernest Metzger (University of Glasgow) is one of the surest places to look for online information about Roman law, for example his clear listing of online versions of the various parts of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, but evidently Amanuensis has yet escaped his attention. On the blog of the online scholarly journal Roman Legal Tradition Metzger alerted on September 8, 2015, to a recent article by Thomas A.J. McGinn on Roman law and the expressive function of law. It is worth citing Metzger’s opening words:

Those who study Roman law don’t “collaborate” with other disciplines: they live in them. Romanists who aren’t part philologist and social historian don’t exist, and without some acquaintance with philosophy and the history of ideas they’re just left behind. So they don’t talk about “interdisciplinarity.” Like the old joke: “What’s water?” said the fish. The corollary is that Roman law is the perfect mirror for all manner of studies, and that includes relatively new ones, like the expressive function of law.

Metzger succeeds in making his readers really awake! To do justice to the role and importance of Roman law legal historians should do their best to bring this fact to bear on the study of Classical Antiquity, and make other scholars more aware of and wary about Roman laws, lawyers and institutions. Roman law is indeed a mirror of all aspects of the Roman civilization. In my view the mirror of ancient society is distorted when Roman law in its turn is not clearly visible. Of course the laws of the Romans can be biased, disgraceful or wrong, but a mirror should show such characteristics, too. Specialists of Roman law might be versatile scholars in other disciplines as well, but it is up to scholars in these disciplines to turn an eye to Roman law. You are at your own peril when you turn a blind eye to this central element in Roman life and culture. Having a nifty tool as Amanuensis at your disposal, if you want at your finger tips, can be most useful to make your mind up about Roman law. We have to thank scholars such as Josef Menner, Yves Lassard, Aleksandr Koptev and Peter Riedlberger who took and take the trouble of paving the roads to electronic access to Roman legal texts.

logo-Index Iuris

This week I noticed also the launch of Index Iuris, a portal at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Its creators, Colin Wilder (University of South Carolina), founder of the portal The Republic of Literature, and Abigail Firey (University of Kentucky), leader of the team for the Carolingian Law Project, have as their aim the development of a portal for all kind of historical legal texts. Including resources such as those now available in Amanuensis will be a major asset for this ambitious project. Hopefully it will not detract too much energy from their other projects, and exactly for this reason the co-operation of other scholars is most welcome.

Two centuries of mapping and locating

Banner How can a historian cope with all invitations to look at celebrations and centenary events? On this blog you will expect me to present a different look at such events. Last year the celebrations of 200 years Kingdom of The Netherlands started, and I did write here about the opening activities and a number of portals and websites launched for this occasion. These festivities come now to an end, and one particular aspect offers itself for attention in a posting.

One of the newly founded institutions in the new kingdom was the Kadaster, the land registry office. This week the modern Dutch land registry office launched an educational website called Tijdreis over 200 jaar topografie [Time travel through 200 years topography]. Lately I noticed some online projects concerning Dutch historical cartography and topography which deserve the attention of legal historians and others interested in Dutch history, too. This theme gives me also the chance to look in a second section at other projects with digitized Dutch maps and atlases. In the third and last section of this contribution I will look closer at a recent overview of Dutch digitization projects. I have created a PDF with a list of the most important links in this post.

Travelling in time and space

Bilingual map 1815 - Kadaster

Bilingual – Dutch and French – map, 1810 – source: Kadaster

The special website of the Kadaster succeeds in bringing something you might think existed already, but in fact it did not, although we will meet a slightly comparable project. On this interactive website you can start a time loop for the period 1815-2015 using the scale in the left sidebar, and view for every year – at least when available – a different map. You can stop the loop to contemplate the map in a particular year. Interestingly you can put in the name of a location in a free text search field, choose from the suggestions popping up or proceed with your own choice. You will end with a zoomed-in view of a particular place and zoom out at will.

While admiring this new digital tool it does not bring you quite what you expect from a land registry office. The educational website shows mostly regular topographical maps, and only when zooming in you can see maps with cadastral information. Of course one has to reckon with the production time itself of the first cadastral maps. The first map on the special website stems not from 1815, but shows the French départements with postal routes on a bilingual map created in 1810. The southern part of the later province Limburg is not included. As for 200 years Dutch land registry office, it was emperor Napoleon who decided in 1811 that this institution should come into existence. Only in 1816 work was resumed, and in 1832 54 offices of the land registry service were opened. Most of the first cadastral maps were created between 1812 and 1832. When the results of both cadastral and topographical maps became available some outstanding maps were created for wider use.

Combining geography, history and maps

Logo Wat Was Waar

The thought of putting historical information into a kind of GIS (Geographical Information System) is already some decades old. The last years convincing results of so-called HISGIS websites start to appear, often after promising beginnings, pitfalls, breakdowns and new design, both in terms of layout and technology. Perhaps closest to the idea behind the bicentennial map site of the Kadaster is the Dutch portal WatWasWaar [What Was Where] with a Dutch interface and an introduction in English. This portal offers you access to modern topographical maps with an overlapping layer with (links to) historical information and in particular other maps. You can set this website to show both a modern map and the pointers to historical information or show just one of these possibilities. I took the municipality Doorn in the province Utrecht as an example: you will find a number of cadastral, topographical and military maps, scans of the cadastral register (aanwijzende tafel), census information and even a nineteenth-century drawing of the manor Huis Doorn, from 1920 onwards the last domicile of the exiled German emperor Wilhelm II. In particular having access to the original cadastral maps at your screen is a great asset, and it is possible to filter for particular information and periods. There are also scans from map books for the region around Delft, Gelderland (Guelders) and Utrecht which bring you some locations in even greater detail.


More tuned to the needs of historians is the Dutch HISGIS portal. The portal started with a HISGIS for Friesland (Frisia), supported by the Fryske Akademy at Leeuwarden. Its regional background shines through in the absence of three Dutch provinces, North-Holland, Zeeland and Brabant. The modern province Flevoland is not even mentioned. However, you can find nationwide information about municipalities by clicking on the Nederland tab. For Brabant a pilot project has started with one municipality, Loon op Zand, a location famous for Europe’s largest area with moving sands and dunes, the Loonse en Drunense Duinen. A bonus are the sections for Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and even for Antwerp.

Reading the instructions (Uitleg) carefully is really necessary for this portal, for otherwise you would miss a lot on it. Although I have visited this HISGIS portal on earlier occasions I still find it not easy to get hold of specific information, but with due patience you can retrieve here much information. The quality of information depends also on the province of your research. For example, for the province of Utrecht you can look also at sketch maps (schetskaarten) showing the borders of each municipality; these documents, too, have been authenticated at the start of the process to chart all plots.

You must forgive me for mentioning here the great interactive map of the city of Utrecht created by Het Utrechts Archief, with not just historical locations and buildings shown on a modern map, but also access to older maps, images and much more. It really amounts to a HISGIS for the history of this city. The Drents Archief in Assen contributes map to AnnoDrentheNu, a website and an app enabling you to look at and walk using also historical maps.

Here are lions!

Photo of a youn lion - source: Hic Sunt Leones

Dutch municipalities are the subject of two related projects dealing with the history of towns and villages. Their borders have changed very much since the early nineteenth century, but there is another problem as well. Some names of locations are not unique. Even within a small country like the Netherlands some locations share names. An example: I thought Oosterend, “East End”, was only a village on the Frisian isle Terschelling, but there is another one as well. In Frisian, the second official language in my country, Easterein is now in Littenseradeel near Franeker, Aasterein is the Frisian name for the location on Terschelling,, and thus you can distinguish them. At Gemeentegeschiedenis [Municipal history] you can find the names of the 1100 municipalities existing in 1812 and all their successors up to the modern situation with just over 400 Dutch municipalities. You can search also for official place-names in the départements during the French occupation under Napoleon.

A second website, Histopo, also created by the team of Hic Sunt Leones [Here are lions] goes one step further and gives access to some 27,000 historical names of locations, hamlets, villages and cities. Apart from a repertory of municipalities since 1812 the creators acknowledge the use of two valuable sources which you would not immediately come up with. Nineteenth-century militieregisters (military draft registers) contain place names in many variant spelling, duly noted by the city archives in Amsterdam and put into two data sets. Another project at Amsterdam dealing with ondertrouwregisters, registers for the publishing of banns for couples wanting to marry, gives us place-names in sources from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The national crowdsourcing palaeographic project Vele Handen [Many Hands] deals with both the militieregisters on a nationwide basis, kept between 1811 and 1941, and the ondertrouwregisters between 1602 and 1811.

A third project of Hic Sunt Leones focuses on the historical names of streets in Amsterdam. Combining maps with all kind of data sets is the heart of each project featured here. Yet another Dutch website covers roughly the same subject, ErfGeo, with here, too, among the people in the project team members of Hic Sunt Leones. Here you can search for names of locations, and also for streets and even for buildings. My mother lived twelve years in Zwolle, and she remembered wondering about the Korte Ademhalingssteeg, “Short Breath Alley”, in Zwolle an alley once close to the scaffold at the main market place. ErfGeo can lead you to places no longer existin and show you the growth of cities based on the Atlas van de verstedelijking. It is even possible to ask for the nicknames of Dutch locations during Carnival! For the geographical information on your screen for a particular location these projects are not solely focusing on the Netherlands. The Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names can be tuned to work with data sets using the special Getty Vocabularies portal.

Hic Sunt Leones, “here are lions” is the phrase used by early cartographers to indicate zones later termed terra incognita. Lately the use of this phrase and its actual presence on medieval and sixteenth-century maps has been questioned. A few weeks ago a news item described the discovery on the so-called 1491 Martellus Map at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of among other texts a longer phrase with the words in quibus leones, “where are lions”. Multispectral imaging enhanced the faded colours and texts at this map and reinforced its brightness and legibility.

As for more HISGIS projects the links section of the British Historical GIS Research Network and HGIS-Germany are good starting points. The idea of a HISGIS has also lead to several projects using maps within the humanities, ranging from Early Modern London and Locating London’s Past using John Rocque’s map from 1746 to the interactive maps of Regnum Francorum Online, a project of Johan Åhlfeldt, the Pleiades gazetteer of the ancient world and Stanford’s delightful ORBIS for travelling in Classical Antiquity. Earlier this year I discussed the Landesgeschichtliches Informationssystem Hessen (LAGIS), created by the Hessisches Landesamt für geschichtliche Landeskunde and the Universität Marburg.

The Low Countries and digitized old maps

It is a joy to write here about historical maps from the Low Countries. Faithful visitors of my blog will perhaps remember how I adduced the beautiful sixteenth-century town maps created by Jacob van Deventer in postings about a number of small Dutch towns. In its links section WatWasWaar points to a number of interesting projects with historical maps. As a finale to this post I will briefly list a number of projects. Even if some information might already be given here in earlier postings I like to bring them together here.

Map of Zwolle by Jacob van Deventer

Map of Zwolle by Jacob van Deventer (detail) – Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España

Jacob van Deventer (around 1500-1575) had been charged in 1558 by the Spanish king Philipp II with a large-scale cartographical project, the making of topographical and bird-view maps of the Low Countries. The surviving maps, the first set of reliable town maps for this region of Europe, have been digitized in the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica of the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

While preparing this post I noticed the link to a digital version of the famous seventeenth-century atlas created by Willem Blaeu at the website of the Regional Archives in Leiden. There is at least one other digital version of this atlas, using the copy in the library of the Illustre Collegi d’Avocats de Barcelona. This college, too,  has digitized its Atles Blaviana, the Atlas Major of Joan Blaeu (11 vol., Amsterdam 1662), accessible at the Memòria de Catalunya portal for the cultural heritage of Catalonia. This portal in its turn helped me not to forget to mention the Dutch portal Memory of the Netherlands, with among the 133 digital collections the Atlantic World project of the Dutch Royal Library and the British Library containing a substantial number of old maps. The Royal Library contributes the Atlas Van der Hagen (around 1690) and the Atlas Beudeker (around 1750) with not only maps, but also topographical prints and drawings. The 2,600 drawings and prints of hamlets, villages and towns in the Atlas Schoemaker, also held at the Royal Library in The Hague, can give you vivid images of buildings and people in the Dutch Republic during the eighteenth century. In fact the word atlas in Dutch cultural institution can mean both an atlas with maps and a topographical-historical collection, for example the Atlas van Stolk in Rotterdam with many thousands digitized drawing and prints.

On using a new overview of Dutch digital projects

My last paragraph with its seemingly erratic stepping-stones might seem a personal whim, but I steered it on purpose to a project at the Royal Library. On September 10, 2015, I ended my post about Dutch pocket law books with a remark about a recently completed survey of Dutch libraries and their digitization projects. To my disbelief the final report Bibliotheekcollecties in het netwerk [Library collections in the network] published online by the Royal Library does not give you in the overview of actual projects the exact web addresses. Add to this hiding the link at their website to a version of the overview with URL’s included, and you might guess my misgivings. The Royal Library did send me in August a new version of this list, and for your convenience I have uploaded it here. It seems worthwhile to look at this overview and to check for digitized historical maps. If such a survey serves any scholarly purpose it should be that of a concise practical guide with sufficient indications of the scope and contents of collections.

The overview covers 514 collections and gives succinct information in tabular format. At Leeuwarden Tresoar, the combined Frisian regional archives and Provincial Library, have digitized a number of atlases, and there is a pilot for a new digital map collection with for now just five maps. A search for kaarten (maps) at this new portal learned me quickly to prefer the advanced search and filter for the document-type maps, because kaart in Dutch is also used for postcards… The Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam is said to digitize landgoedkaarten (manor maps), but no link is provided; the collection is to be found within the general digital image database at the VU. Interestingly the VU has created the portal VU Geoplaza for modern GIS maps. The link to the nearly 800 digitized maps of the university library in Groningen did contain a typing error. Overijssel in kaart is a portal for digitized maps from four collections in the province Overijssel. Probably the best known Dutch digital map collection is the one held by the university library at Amsterdam with 450 digitized maps which includes the collection of the Royal Dutch Geographic Society, In view of the sheer number of atlases and maps the selection is rather small, but really important. There is a section with seven city atlases covering not only the Low Countries, but even cities all over the world in Jansonius’ work Theatrum urbium (….) (Amsterdam 1657).

Banner Atlas der Neederlanden - UvA

The next link to a digital map collection in Amsterdam is unfortunately broken, but triggered my attention for atlases. Is there indeed no functioning digital version of the famous Atlas der Neederlanden, nine volumes containing rare maps made between 1600 and 1800? A quick search learned me that there is a selection of maps accompanying the project for a facsimile edition of this atlas published in 2013. The list fails to indicate for Amsterdam the presence of digitized maps in the Suriname collection 1599-1975, Of course the quality of the information in this survey led by the Royal Library depends to some extent on the information provided by the institutions organizing projects for digital maps, but it seems little checking and updating has been done, nor is there a good explanation for the many collections without any indication of a URL. I cannot help noting these defects for a library which can boast a major role in many international projects bringing it justifiably great prestige.

We had better look at the collections indicated in the list and find the working web addresses ourselves, and thus I did. The digital map collection of the Royal Tropical Institute is now managed by Leiden University. The list duly notes that a large number of these maps – in fact some 7,100 – can also be reached in the image database of this research institute. In its digital collection Alterra maps Wageningen University shows maps made in the twentieth century dealing with the physical geography of the Netherlands. For Wageningen this list points to the filter for maps in the library catalogue at Wageningen University, but except in a few cases not to digital maps. Conspicuously absent in the list is the university library in Utrecht. There used to be a separate subdomain for digitized maps, but now you can at least find them using the advanced search mode of the library catalogue and check for digital availability. The special collections in Utrecht have great holdings in map collections which can be searched on collection level in a useful repertory.

Logo Caret-Tresoor

Anyone vaguely aware of the history of Dutch cartography knows there is much more to be found, and of course an updated overview – only in Dutch – can be found online at the website of the scholarly journal Caert-Tresoor (old Dutch for Treasury of Maps). Between 2005 and 2010 a number of online map collections has been presented in the section @ la Carte. A quick look at this website gives you digital maps at the regional archives in Groningen, typically missed in the overview where at least a number of libraries at regional archives have been included, but for example the Gelders Archief in Arnhem and its maps do not appear at all. The Beeldbank of the Technical University Delft is mentioned, but there is no indication of its contents, though this image database does contribute to WatWasWaar. Has the Royal Library by any chance been misled by the lack of maps in the project database at the portal Kenniscentrum Digitaal Erfgoed Nederland [Knowledge Center Digital Dutch Heritage]? Filtering for cartographical materials offers you some forty digital projects, but alas only a few of the projects presented here show up. To be honest, maps are often included indistinctly within these projects.

This post shares a defect with a number of earlier postings, my clear wish to include many things within the compass of one post! I leave it to you to check the PDF of the list for your own research and to add map projects from the descriptions at Caert-Tresoor. At the national level it is justifiable to mention the digital maps of the Nationaal Archief, and to point to the maps dealing with a much wider territory at the digital portal Atlas of Mutual Heritage, an interactive map accessible in Dutch and English leading you to many objects and bibliographical information, with for example another atlas by Blaeu – held at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna – and many rare maps concerning Dutch colonial history, worldwide trade and the history of the Dutch India Companies.

Uncharted digital territories

You might search for the right words doing justice to this kind of overviews, but I had rather use my time and energy to create an overview tailored to my specific need of knowing about a particular type of document within Dutch digital collections. When I could not find any reliable list of digitized pamphlets apart from the seventeenth-century mazarinades I started creating it myself. Surveying the holdings of cultural institutions has successfully been done at the collection level for Dutch museums which led to the creation of a number of regional websites for cultural heritage, often with the word Erfgoedhuis in its name, and in some cases to regional portals for digitized cultural heritage. In my country some themes and subjects are well served indeed with national digital platforms for materials concerning maritime history (Maritiem Digitaal), etnographic collections (Stichting Volkenkundige Collectie Nederland), university collections(Academische collecties), medical collections (Medisch Erfgoed), and also military history (Militair Erfgoed).

There are several gaps and weaknesses in the overview supplied by the Royal Library, with even no changes and corrections between the version of May 2015 and the latest one. Its lack of order is just another characteristic. However, you have to appreciate some dificulties in creating any consistent overview. Should one skip the libraries of archival centers? Should one create separate entries for each document type in a digital collection, or list them in a separate field for each entry? The list contains a number of abbreviations to indicate the presence of meta-data and physical objects, but they have not been used consistently. Strange is the exclusion of the Royal Library’s own digital collections, including the Delpher portal. The editors have listed some digital collections of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, but they skipped its collections at the Social History Portal.

It would certainly make a difference if we could access such information in an online database. The very creation of a database would demand solid thinking about the things to include or exclude, and above all concern about reliable input and maintenance. I am sure the Dutch Royal Library is capable of doing this. In fact the Metamorfoze website of the Royal Library offers already a succinct overview of Dutch digital projects which received financial support from the Dutch government. Out of sheer curiosity I looked for any project with maps, and I found the Bunkerarchief, a project at the Nationaal Archief concerning Dutch military defense with scans of some 9,000 maps and drawings made in the twentieth century. Luckily the online inventories of archival collections at the Dutch National Archives do tell you about the presence of scans of materials, but this large collection merits special mention in their research guide for maps and drawings. Here, too, a translation into English of the website or at least useful summaries would be most welcome.

Locating valuable digital collections can be a daunting task. In a digital world you still need reliable guides to information if you have to know more than the ever active global web company and its famous search engine brings you. I should have made a screen print of its name which showed at its start screen this weekend a heart with the Dutch national colours and a crown to honour the festivities celebrating the Kingdom of the Netherlands! You have read here the names of many libraries and archives, but museums, too, have maps in their holdings. Maps help us to realize that historical events and developments took place in particular surroundings, sometimes barely charted, sometimes mapped again and again to inform and please people. Maps help us to chart the past and to discern the variety of perspectives, limits and borders seen, perceived and created by people living in past centuries.

These days you cannot escape from seeing the grim reality of borders, and I feel awkward not to mention here this fact. We cannot be strangers to current events. VU GeoPlaza has in its links section a link to another VU project, Death at the Borders, showing one dot for each dead migrant on his or her way to Western Europe from 1999 until the end of 2013. An interactive map of the Mediterranean shows regions scarcely seen in the main media. Current figures about migrants going to Europe can be found at the online map of the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

A postscript

Banner Archiefzoeker

While musing over my experiences in tracing digitized old Dutch maps it crossed my mind to use the Archiefzoeker, the inexhaustible concise guide in Dutch to digital collections all over the world. Eric Hennekam, its indefatigable creator, has put together nearly 5,500 collections. He announces new additions often at Twitter (@erichennekam) or at his blog Point de vue. I immediately found a recent posting about the mobile app of Old Maps Online, a marvellous portal where you can also find digitized maps held at the Dutch National Archives and Utrecht University Library.

Searching with precise search terms can yield much here, but for maps and atlases there is in the Dutch language a particular problem. When looking for the Dutch word kaart the nearly eighty results contain not only maps, but also gezinskaarten and persoonskaarten, family files and personal files in population registers, and prentbriefkaarten, postcards. Even the words kaartenbak, card file, and inspectiekaart appear, the latter for an inspection map of the Dutch Food Authority. Using the word atlas brings you also to a morphological atlas and an atlas of Dutch literary authors. The atlases with maps within The Memory of the Netherlands are not yet included, but some topographical atlases are present.

For more precise results tagging and classifying entries is sorely needed, because it is now rather cumbersome to find the things you are really looking for. Creating a mass of information should be followed by clear cataloguing in order to make the information useful and to ensure clear search results. Any grumblings over broken links, incomplete information or silly mistakes are another matter: constructive comments and contributions are most welcome…

Opening a book: Laws in your pocket

Cover A few years ago I came across a pocket-book on the bylaws of eighteenth-century Amsterdam. Its very size made me muse about the kind of books you would like to carry with you, the actual choice booksellers offered and offer you in the particular field of pocket law books. With this post I launch a new series of contributions with the motto “Opening a book”.

The book that prompted me to write about pocket law books has been digitized for the digital library Early Dutch Books Online (EDBO), the fruit of cooperation between the Royal Library in The Hague and the university libraries of Leiden and Amsterdam. Meanwhile EDBO has been integrated into the Delpher project of the Dutch Royal Library.  An anonymous book called Amsterdams burgerrecht: Dat is Verzameling van privilegien en handvesten [Amsterdam’s citizens’ law, being a collection of privileges and charters] (Amsterdam 1787) attracted my attention because of words following the subtitle: “Uit de groote Handvest en andere schriften byeen verzameld, om als een zakboek van ieder gebruikt te kunnen worden”, compiled from the Major Charter and other writings in order to serve as a pocket-book for everyone’s use. Initially I was tempted to see this fifty page book as a typical product of the so-called Patriotic Period (Patriottentijd), the period with a strong movement in favor of political change in the Dutch Republic, but there is a much earlier edition from 1748. Both EDBO and Delpher are connected with the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands, the retrospective bibliography of Dutch books published between 1540 and 1800.


The extensive information in these resources left me with one question, the actual dimensions of this book. I checked in vain the catalogues of the three libraries holding this book, the Royal Library in The Hague for the digitized copy, the university library at Groningen, and the library of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The copy at the Rijksmuseum is interleaved with pages holding notes said to date around 1770, and this made me wary. The collation, the physical form of this copy is slightly different, too, but this can be due to a mistake in checking the pages of this particular book, π2 A-B8 O6, at Amsterdam A-B~8 C~4 . Alas there is no image of the digitized book with a scale for dimensions or colors, something which you might take to for granted when digitizing old books and manuscripts.

The contents themselves of this book – at least posing as a pocket-size book – on the bylaws and ordinances of Amsterdam are interesting. For readers in 1787 the stress in the first pages on the military duties of the burghers (citizens) was surely interesting. The importance of the old schutterijen, the Dutch city guards, had been curtailed by the Orangist government, and building new militias was one of the items on the agenda of the patriotic movement. The book gives for a number of subjects extracts in chromnological from old ordinances, but the anonymous author gives the ordinances from 1394 partially in full length and places them prominently after the first short section about tolls.

An old practice still alive

Some small books: four

Some small books: four “dwarsliggers” in Dutch and a German book from the Reclam series

My insistence about the omission of the exact dimensions of this book is not a petty criticism or a hobby-horse. Dutch books in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were renown for the fine quality of printing and their handsome format. There is no need to remind English and American readers of the success of a series of short scholarly introductions which is surely due not only to the distinct quality of the authors but also to its handy shape. Germans know the Reclam’s Unversal-Bibliothek with cheap but reliable text editions, and the French have the Que sais-je series. Since 2009 a Dutch publisher has gained considerable success with really small pocket books containing texts printed crosswise (dwarsligger) measuring just 12 by 8 centimeter. The Reclam volume on my photo measures 15 by 9,5 centimeter.

Cover .

Lately I bought two pocket books giving you access not just to Dutch law in general, but doing this in a translation into easily understandable Dutch, meaning without juridical jargon. De wet in gewoon Nederlands [The law in normal Dutch] by Douwe Brongers (Amsterdam 2007, 4th ed. 2013; 703 pp.) starts with two documents from another legislative level, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, followed by the Dutch constitution, and large sections of the Dutch codes of civil law, criminal law and court procedure. Brongers brings in a second volume, De rechten van iedere Nederlander [The rights of every Dutchman] (Amsterdam 2013; 208 pp.), laws on consumer rights, privacy, equality, door-to-door selling and internet trade, the national ombudsman and the special children’s ombudsman, personal identification, governmental publicity, and the law concerning labour conditions. Their size, both in the number of pages (700 and 200), and physically (16 x 11,5 cm) make them less comfortable as books which you would really put into the pockets of your coat. The idea of combining compact size, concise information and clear language is indeed appealing.

Even legal historians use sometimes the pocket size for their publications. Julius Christiaan van Oven wrote a small book meant to guide his students attending his lectures at Leiden [Overzicht van Romeins privaatrecht. Leidraad bij een inleidingscollege (first edition Zwolle 1934; 7th ed.,1964)]. There exists even a pocket-book edition of Justinian’s Digest [Digesta Iustiniani Augusti, Pietro Bonfante et alii (edd.) (2 vol., Milano 1908-1931; reprint 1960 in one volume)]. In our century of electronic publication it should come as no surprise to find both a digital and a print version of J.E. Jansen’s study guide Romeins recht (2nd. ed., Amsterdam 2014), a volume in a series with more than forty short and small-sized introductions to the various fields of law.

Does this post gives you a taste of more?! You can tune the great database behind the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands to give you any book printed in a particular bibliographical format, but it depends on the data in the catalogues behind the STCN whether you will find the actual dimensions of a publication. Using words like zakboek or zakboekje and older words such as compendium you can spot a trend in Dutch book titles during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but this is not the first period of the use of these words in book titles attempting to attract the attention of buyers. Pocket-books on law in the late eighteenth century shared for example the company of books on gardening, horse riding, veterinary medicine and freemasonry, and you will find books with a clear political aim, too. Almanacs used to be really small, and their modern incarnation such as the Enkhuizer Almanak bear witness to a clear standard size surviving the centuries.

The Dutch Royal Library has recently created an overview of digitization initiatives in the Netherlands, and with some luck you can still access, too, a useful list with the actual URL’s of digital collections, in my view an essential asset inexplicably missing in the final report Bibliotheekcollecies in het netwerk published online in August 2015. For your convenience I have created a shortlist of the main relevant collections on my page for the history of Dutch law.

Old laws in a new world: The case of New Amsterdam

Digital gallery New Amsterdam

In my latest post I almost lamented the emphasis on European history on my legal history website. In order to make up for any deficiencies I decided to choose a subject outside Europe for my next post. Ironically I arrived at New Amsterdam 1647-1661 thanks to the European History Primary Sources portal. This portal brings succinct records for digitized source collections of whatever nature, tagged with basic information about countries, languages, periods, subjects and resource type. The subject colonial provided an entrance at the EHPS portal for this digital collection created by the New York City Department of Records and Administration. The contents of this digital collection are mainly original and translated ordinances and regulations, a theme firmly within the scope of my blog. In fact the very preponderance of legal resources made me very curious about this collection. Other ordinances from Dutch colonies during the Early Modern period are now also available online elsewhere. Here I will look briefly at those digital collections, too.

A legislative legacy

Earlier this year I enjoyed reading Russell Shorto’s book Amsterdam. A history of the world’s most liberal city (2013) about the rich history of the Dutch capital. In a conversation someone pointed me to his book about the early history of New York The island at the center of the world (2004) which I still had not read. In his book about Amsterdam Shorto dedicated a chapter about the impact of Amsterdam on New York (“Seeds of influence”), yet another reason to get hold of his study about the colorful history of the Dutch colony on American soil.

At the moment of writing the digital gallery consists of just fifteen images and the series of municipal bylaws created between 1647 and 1661. The Municipal Archives and the Municipal Library of New York City will soon add more digitized items to this gallery.

An early Dutch record from New York - image NYC Department of Records

The first ordinance issued by Peter Stuyvesant as Director-General of New Amsterdam, May 31, 1647 – NAR, BK 1

The heart of the digital collection is made up of ordinances and regulations. As for now there are four distinct series, the first with original Dutch records between 1647 and 1661, the second for a manuscript with translations of Dutch records (1647-1654), the third with a digitized version of a manuscript by E.B. O’Callaghan from 1868 with ordinances of New Amsterdam (1647-1661), and the fourth a digital version of the first volume of Berthold Fernow’s Records of New Amsterdam (7 volumes, New York, 1897-1898).

The first section gives you an immediate experience of the surviving resources from the Dutch period of New York. Dutch historians will recognize a smooth seventeenth-century hand, and for others this kind of handwriting is vastly different from English handwriting of the same period. The manuscript with translations of the register shown in the first section might be the work of Cornelius van Westbrook or Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan. The third section gives a manuscript by O’Callaghan with his translation of the same register. In the last section Fernow took over O’Callaghan’s translation of the first register. The digital version shows only the translation of the same register (up to page 49).

The register has been used to create a portrait of Stuyvesant, busy regulating daily life, in particular formulating policies ensuring the common good and adjusting affairs. The general impression is that of working out policies instead of working to ensure justice. Nevertheless I saw also an undated prayer for opening council meetings. If you would look in more detail you would for instance notice the ruling urging to pay Indians correctly for their work (September 28, 1648) and the order on the conveyance of real estate in courts convened by the Director-General (February 7, 1650). This raises the general question of ordinances concerning private law, other laws, the borders of jurisdiction and the functioning of courts.

The first register is given an honoured place, but somehow I had expected more. It is nice to see the different stages from transcripts to translation, and it shows Charles Gehring and all working in his trail were not the first to deal with the records of the Dutch colonial period of New York and surrounding settlements and areas. Those dealing with Dutch palaeography would certainly welcome here a transcription of at least a part of this hallowed register. Let’s say it without hesitation, this digital gallery is really a showcase, if not for its content, then surely for using in its web address proudly the new domain .nyc, anyway shorter than the .amsterdam domain.

Eager for more

Logo New Netherland Institute

Russell Shorto’s book appeared eleven years ago and it has become a classic work, even to the degree that its references remain unchanged in later impressions. For the latest scholarship about colonial New York and the New Netherland period you can turn to the only website Shorto refers to, the New Netherland Project, nowadays called the New Netherland Institute (NNI). This institute maintains a bibliography, and it has created an impressive digital library with both older publications and editions, and also digital versions of its own publications. In 2010 the New Netherland Research Center opened in the same building in Albany, NY, where the New York State Archives and the New York State Library are housed, too.

The logical question to ask here is what we can find here concerning legal history. Property law is written large for example in the three volumes of the Register of the Provincial Secretary (1638-1660). Here, too, is the luxury of a digitized version of the first attempts at translation, Gehring’s modern translation and digitized images of the register itself. Three volumes have been edited with the Council Minutes for the period 1638-1656, a primary source for the executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings of the Director General and Council of New Netherland. The sixteenth volume in the publication series gives us Laws and Writs of Appeal (part I, 1647-1663). The second part of volume 16 contains translations of court minutes from Fort Orange (1652-1660). Again property law is the subject of the translated Land Papers (1630-1664). Fort Orange became eventually Albany. There are minutes of the court of Albany from 1668 to 1685, now kept at the Albany County Hall of Records. The list grows really long! The Van Rensselaer Manor comes into view, too, as are the New Netherland Papers of Hans Bontemantel, a director of the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West Indies Company. Dutch colonial history elsewhere is also present, in the Curaçao Papers (1640-1665) (volume 17), here with a transcription, translation and images .

With separate access to the introductions of all sets, a guide to weights and measures, and last but not least both the original guide to Dutch papers created by Charles Gehring in 1977 and 1978 and its digital successor (2011-2012), you can only wish to have an online directory to the older phases of Dutch palaeography to try to decipher some of the images and to look more closely at Dutch words in the transcriptions. Luckily the magnificent multivolume Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal has become available at Leiden in a fine searchable version. The link to the digital collections of the New York State Archives does at first only lead to a free text search and four browsing filters (collections, places, repositories, state agencies), but I could quickly spot the collection for the Dutch settlement at the Delaware river (just one document from 1656), the administrative correspondence for the Dutch colony in New York (231 documents) and colonial council minutes with for example the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance.

Elsewhere, too, you can find digitized sources from the Dutch colonial period in the United States. At a branch of Ancestry is a useful links collection called New Netherland and Beyond. The section about the Dutch period (1621-1664) is the one to go for my purpose. You will find here for example A.J Van Laer’s selections from the Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts (1908) also dealt with by the NNI, and generally digitized versions of the finding aids, reports and translations created by Van Laer, O’Callaghan and Fernow.

Interestingly Dutch ordinances from the Early Modern period are in particular available online for the Dutch colonial period. The Huygens Institute/Institute for Dutch history has created a digital version of the West-Indisch Plakaatboek within its project The Dutch in the Caribbean World c. 1670 – c. 1870. The digital Plakaatboek Guyana 1670-1816 has been launched in February 2015, and this project dealing with Essequibo, Berbice and Demerary, too, is accessible with an English interface. The Nederlandsch-Indisch Plakaatboek 1602-1811, Jacobus Anne van der Chijs (ed.) (17 volumes, Batavia, 1885-1901) has been digitized partially at Oxford (vol. 1-3), but it is available completely – and nicely searchable, too – within the Colonial Collection of Leiden University Library. For the Kaapse Plakkaatboek (6 vol., Cape Town, 1944-1951), edited by M.K. Jeffreys and S.D. Naudé, the first free volumes appear in the digital books section of the firm aiming to be the One and Only Web Firm. The two volumes of the Ceylonees plakkaatboek, Lodewijk Hovy (ed.) (Hilversum 1991) deal with the period 1638-1796; in arrangement with the publishing firm you can view large parts of it online in the same virtual library as for its South African counterpart. Hovy added to his edition a book-length introduction. The Dutch presence in Brazil was an element in my post last year about Brazil’s legal history, but there is not yet a general edition of ordinances. By the way, in the Dutch language both spellings plakaatboek and plakkaatboek exist side by side, yet another difficulty to trace these modern editions and their older predecessors.

Mapping the early history of New York

By now it should be clear how necessary it is to view the digital gallery of one early register within a larger context, for example that of the Dutch colonial enterprises, but it is certainly wise to look also at other countries and their activities on the American continent. Even the English colonies show great differences. A monolithic view tailored to the taste of those wanting rapid answers caters for a substantial niche, but it does not bring you answers with subtle nuances or even new questions.

Shorto makes a case for looking anew at both the origins of New York and the United States. Looking at the Dutch period and the legal transplants effected by the English can help to see American legal history in more depth, beyond the battlegrounds of originalism. Shorto tries to create a new picture of Peter Stuyvesant (around 1611-1672), yet it might seem he overstates his case. I cannot help thinking that one tries to make out much of relatively scarce resources. The translated documents show more pieces of a puzzle, and maybe indicate we have to deal with several puzzles with large gaps or with maps showing empty areas.

In fact when preparing this post I did not just look at sources indicated at the website of the New Netherland Project. The Fordham University in Nw York City has created a digital collection of old maps showing New Amsterdam, New Netherland and New England. In Chicago the Newberry Library presents an interesting gallery with maps for American colonial history, initially made for educational use. A particular link with New Amsterdam is provided by the digital slavery collections of the New York Historical Society. Even if they do not deal directly with the Dutch period it is seducing to look at them in connection with the certification in 1665 by Peter Stuyvesant of land grants to manumitted slaves, digitized at the NNI.

Chances for new research

In 2016 the exhibit Origins – Light on New York’s founders will start. At the accompanying website the portraits of some iconic Dutch figures look already at you. Let’s hope this occasion will be just another spur to delve into the early sources of New York’s history and of American colonial history in general. It would be most welcome if at least some scholars and in particular legal historians study aspects of that early history starting with the original sources and reading the Dutch of the founders. Shorto makes you see the people, hear the many languages, smell the filth of the colony and the fresh air of a green island, and takes you on a voyage back in history much in the style of a novel. Exactly his fluent style and evocation of people and events make me shiver sometimes when I feel his imagination gets too strong. L.J Wagenaar wrote in 1995 in his review of Hovy’s edition of Dutch ordinances for Ceylon these sources provided him with living images just like a novel.

Russell Shorto cannot be faulted for using with verve a style that might be termed journalistic. His books make you curious for more. He raises questions and new views, and books with these qualities are as important as book with answers. He challenges us to write as lively as he can, to do the hard work in searching, studying and analysing resources, formulating new theories and creating vast vistas we would not have dreamt of before.

Here I will honour Shorto by pointing in his way to a fact that might shed light on Stuyvesant. I am finishing this post at the Frisian island Terschelling, a familiar location for readers here. Near the village Midsland-Noord, a new part of the old village Midsland, is a spot with sands and heath called Stuyvesant, perhaps best translated as “moving sand”. Peter Stuyvesant came from a village in West-Frisia. Even without pursuing this toponym in full depth it hints at a certain quality of things eternally moving, partially hidden, partially blowing in your face, a presence which slip though your fingers like sand. My country can still boast a number of these moving sand regions as nowhere else in Europe. Just as New York Terschelling is blessed with a bay offering itself as a perfect natural harbor… There are limits to our knowledge, but they will move with every new question, with every new concept and view guiding our quest for perceiving the realities of the past. Legal sources might be tapped in ways yet untried, and historical sources can be read very differently when you put them side by side with the traces and sources of legal history.

A postscript

After finishing this post I felt slightly awkward about not mentioning any resources at the New York Public Library. For historical maps of early New York one can start with the online exhibition Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009. Among the digital collections of the NYPL are early maps. The research guide Sea Blazers and Early Scriveners: The First Guide Books to New York City introduces you not only to these early guide books, but gives you also quick access to relevant literature in the holdings of the NYPL.

Some notes on the history of tolerance

Tolerance and intolerance are themes at the center of many contemporary debates, and their prominence has become stronger after the tragic events in France on January 7 and 8, 2015. On Internet these events have sparkled many reactions. Whatever my views and opinions, for me one of the questions arising is also how these events should influence the stream of postings on this blog. Can one use historical situations to shed light on our times, or Is it sensible to stay somewhat aloof? Perhaps it is wiser to remember that to step aside is taking a side, too.

When somehow among all remarks and exchanges about the situation in France the name of Voltaire came into view it provided me with at least one element of a contribution about the origins of tolerance. Eighteenth-century France is the setting of this post. The history of tolerance is complicated, and the number of themes, persons and subjects here does reflect it. Philosophy, criminal law, legal advice, legislation, the world of literature and debate, and also images, should all appear here for good reasons, but for the sake of length legal matters will be at the center of this post, and other themes appear more at the margin. In fact it turns out to be really interesting to choose for this focus. To some extent you can read this post also as part of a guide to digital resources for the history of France during the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.

Although I do not want to make you suffer by reading a rather too long post I bring here on purpose several themes together which in my opinion are best seen in connection to each other. In my view the interplay between a multitude of subjects, themes and resources concerning the French Ancien Régime and the French Revolution is fairly typical when you want to study these subjects. You can read this post also as a sequel to my post ‘Laws and the French Revolution’ (January 2015).

Circles and layers around law and tolerance

Title page Traité sur la tolérance, 1763 - source: Wikimedia CommonsThe first focal point for tolerance in France during the Ancien Régime in the current discussion seems to be Voltaire’s Traité de la tolérance (1763). One can read this treatise as a plea for tolerance, both on a philosophical and a practical level, and the background of this text can seem a mere pretext or occasion for expressing these views. John Locke had put tolerance center stage to thoughts about the best possible way of government in his treatise A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689 – online for example at Early Modern Texts and the Constitution Society), but Voltaire is not just reacting in a philosophical debate without any connection to contemporary developments. Locke wrote his treatise one year after the Glorious Revolution (1688), and this, too, should make you hesitate to see the history of political thought as a history of ideas which can be studied in separation from contemporary surroundings.

Voltaire might not have qualified professionally as a philosopher, but he certainly belonged to the circle of French philosophes. It is important to note Locke expressed his views in a letter, and Voltaire in a book-length treatise, an interesting fact for a prolific letter writer and playwright. The literary dimensions of Voltaire’s work are really important in gauging the impact and importance of his views and thoughts. Of course it is wise to look beyond just one text of a writer, and exactly how you can realize this nowadays will be one of the issues in this post. Voltaire wrote texts in a number of literary genres, and he had wide contacts all over Europe, a fact returning later in this post. A characteristic of his work is the use of irony, and even more, the possibility to read his texts in several ways, both at face value or with a potential for irony immediately below the surface. This ambiguity makes it harder but also more interesting to gain perspective on his views and coded messages.

The machinery of law

The initial impulse for Voltaire’s treatise on tolerance came from his reaction to the case of Jean Calas, a merchant from Toulouse who had been sentenced to death in 1762 by the Parlement de Toulouse for allegedly killing his son Marc-Antoine, presumably because his son wanted to convert to the Catholic church. Calas was subjected to torture and broken upon the wheel. If we remember this case today as a cause célèbre it is to a large extent thanks to Voltaire’s efforts. In an article from 1994, ‘Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l ‘innovation critique’,1 Élisabeth Claverie analyzes the way Voltaire set out to make an affair out of this case, and indeed created the model for fueling public indignation about cases which seem to run contrary to the public good.

Assembling materials to expose alleged and real abuses of the Catholic Church and its influence on French society might seem an obvious thing for Voltaire, but he did look seriously enough at the exact dealings of the judiciary in the Calas case. His treatise was only a final phase in a series of letters and preparatory texts, some of them meant for public use, some definitely not. Voltaire used his connections to bring the case to the attention of the French king, including getting Calas’ widow to Paris to plead in person her case before the king. Whatever Voltaire’s views of harmful Catholic influence, he aimed foremost at an official rehabilitation of Calas. An online dossier by Anne Thouzet gives you detailed information about the trial at Toulouse, the infringements to the ordinance of the Parlement de Toulouse and royal ordinances about criminal procedure – in particular the Ordonnance criminelle of 1670 – and to various other documents and images. Thouzet also points to a number of relevant web links. The Archives départementales de la Haute-Garonne in Toulouse have created a PDF with transcriptions of some documents, ‘Calas, du procès à l’affaire’.


By chance I remembered that you can find several digitized documents about the Calas case at Tolosana, a digital library of the Université de Toulouse. On closer inspection Tolosana does bring us not only documents touching this case, but a very interesting selection of materials concerning law at Toulouse during the Ancien Régime, with customary law, arrêts (verdicts) of the Parlement de Toulouse, documents about municipal institutions and other jurisdictions, documents about lawyers and law teaching at the university of Toulouse, and a separate section on trials (procès toulousains). Let’s not forget to mention here also the Bibliotheca Tholosana, a collaborative project, and Rosalis, the digital library of the Bibliothèque de Toulouse. In Rosalis you can find one of the most famous manuscripts for the history of the inquisition in Languedoc, discussed here in earlier postings.

The section of Tolosana for trials at Toulouse contains a distinctive number of mémoires judiciaires, also known as factums. In a factum cases were discussed for the general public and with a view also to the judges dealing with a particular case. A blog post by Léo Mabmacien about these factums leads you in particular to a selection of documents in a virtual exhibition created at Clermont-Ferrand, Les factums, justice des villes et des champs : le mémoire judiciaire du 17e au 19e siècle [The factums, justice in cities and fields. Judicial “memoires” from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century]. At the Bibliothèque nationale de France is the largest collection of existing factums, and in his very interesting postMabmacien discusses these resources at Paris, too. The collection at Tolosana is at present the largest online collection of factums. Among the digitized documents for the Calas case is a number of mémoires judiciaires. Voltaire’s book-length treatise on tolerance is also included (PDF). In particular the mémoires published after 1762 are very valuable as sources for public and learned opinions about the case and efforts to annul the trial. At Bienvenue chez Monsieur de Voltaire you can find digital versions of the texts of a number of Voltaire’s letters (sections En direct par Voltaire), in particular those concerning the Calas case.

Logo Criminocorpus

For the history of French criminal law you can learn much at the fine Criminicorpus portal – with both a French and English interface – and at the website Le droit criminel created by Jean-Paul Doucet. At both websites you can find the text of relevant royal ordinances dealing with criminal procedure. Remembering Tolosana was not just a case of having a good memory. In fact I wrote here about Tolosana and the Calas case in June 2010. Five years later I still feel astonished that these digitized documents have scarcely been used in contributions about Voltaire. Their value is seriously diminished by this omission. The French online research portal Isidore has entries for seventeen relevant documents digitized at Tolosana, but the tags attached to them do not function. No wonder that the online presence of the various documents has remained somewhat in the shadow. Internet is definitely an ocean where you have to know the entrances to particular information.

Logo Isidore

Isidore, a portal focusing on the humanities and social sciences, has a search interface in French, English and Spanish. It did bring to my attention a recent Ph.D thesis about Adhémar Esmein (1848-1913), a famous French law professor and legal historian who did look at the Calas affair in his main textbooks on constitutional law [Antoine Chopplet, Adhémar Esmein et le droit constitutionnel de la liberté (thesis Université de Reims, 2012)]. Chopplet does not use these online documents for his study of Esmein’s view, but he does for example highlight the fact that Esmein did not comment on the fact that Voltaire himself had been a victim of the infamous lettres de cachet, one of the most glaring abuses of the French judicial system during the Ancien Régime. Esmein admired Voltaire for his detailed criticism of criminal procedure in his writings about the Calas affair. Montesquieu was perhaps much better equipped to do this, but on this subject he remained silent. In an even more recent Ph.D thesis available online at the Theses platform, La pensée politique d’Adhémar Esmein : l’historien du droit by Alexandre Fiorentini (thesis Aix-en-Provence, 2014), the interplay between Esmein’s political position and his views as a legal historian is further discussed.

Using online journals

By now it should be obvious that bringing together all these materials is only possible and feasible thanks to the use of linked computers. However, how can one safely digest these masses of information, and analyze them in a controlled and sensible way? Having the information at your disposal is one thing, using the right tools for analysis is another, and presenting a meaningful analysis should be the real challenge. Dealing with the Calas case can show you the use of some digital tools and projects. Perhaps it is good to stress here that I only show some of their highlights, not their entire scope.

However you think about my plea for a consistent use of the contemporary ocean of online materials, but it is wise not to neglect good bibliographical research. French research in the field of legal history can be tracked down online using the services of the Bibliographie d’histoire de droit en langue française (CLHD, Nancy) which can be consulted both in French and English. A simple search for Calas brings you to eleven titles published since 1964. Using the thesaurus (“Procès-Affaire Calas”) you will find ten titles. Earlier this year I already wrote here about this bibliography.

A number of French research portals help you to find quickly online versions of articles. The oldest portal Persée gives access to digitized issues of a number or well-known learned journals. For the Calas case you can find for example an article on the concept of proof by Jean-Louis Halpérin.2 A second interesting article is by Frank Kafker who discusses the role of Diderot who did not speak out about the Calas case in public, but behind the screens he used his influence and did write people about it.3 Another scholar discusses the general attitude of Diderot towards political actualities.4 The OpenEdition initiatives is not only home to the Hypotheses network of scientific blogs in French, German, and Spanish, but also the provider of a number of online journals at Revues, many of them completely or partially available in open access. Among the most relevant journals for my theme here ise the Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française.

Revues points for instance to the book by Janine Garrisson, L’Affaire Calas, miroir des passions françaises (Paris 2004) in an alert by Jacques Bernet [AHRF 354 (2008) 202-203]. At one of the blogs at Hypotheses, Criminocorpus, you can find a notice by Jean-Claude Facry about the recent study by Benoît Garnot, Voltaire et l’affaire Calas. Les faits, les interprétations, les enjeux (Paris 2013). Facry provides an overview of its contents. At the Criminocorpus portal itself is the History of Justice Online Museum, a very useful section with virtual exhibitions. It is certainly worth looking at the exhibit on Les exécutions publiques dans la France de l’Ancien Régime (only in French). OpenEdition publishes also online books, one of them a volume of articles about L’exécution capitale : Une mort donnée en spectacle, Régis Bertrand and Anne Carol (eds.) (Aix-en-Provence 2003), unfortunately not in open access, where you should look at the contribution of Robert A. Schneider, ‘Rites de mort à Toulouse : les exécutions publiques (1738-1780)’.

At Cairn you can look at some 400 scholarly journals. A search for the affaire Calas yields nearly 200 results. For the book by Janine Garrisson you can find a review by Laurence Kaufmann in Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 61/4 (2006), who mentions in particular a study by David Bien, L’affaire Calas. Hérésie, persécution, intolérance au XVIIIe siècle (Toulouse 1987). The search results at Cairn help you to find recent French literature on themes such as major trials, for example Les grands procès, Daniel Amson et alii (eds.) (Paris 2007) or a brochure by Jacques Vergès, Les erreurs judiciaires (Paris 2002) that appeared in the famous Que sais-je? series. Closer to the Calas affair is the volume of essays La plume et le prétoire. Quand les écrivains racontent la justice, Denis Salas (ed.) (Paris 2013 ), a special of the journal Histoire de la justice 23/1 (2013) with a pertinent article by Sylvie Humbert, ‘L’autre justice de la Dictionnaire philosophique‘ (p. 81-87), one of the publications of Voltaire during the 1760´s.

An article by Lynn Hunt, ´Le corps au xviiie siècle´, Diogène 203/3 (2003) 49-67, helps us to remember that the first major treatise against torture, by Cesare Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, only appeared in 1764, and to notice also it was not the abuse of torture that prompted Voltaire into action in 1762. In 1766 Voltaire wrote a Commentaire sur le livre des délits et des peines. In view of the sheer length of this post I would rather not adduce here more examples of the results made available through the services of Persée, OpenEdition, and Cairn. If you want to look beyond recent French publications you can enlist the services of JournalsTOCs to get quick access to the tables of contents of many scholarly journals. A nice array of legal history journals in open access is available in the right sight bar of my blog.

With the Dictionnaire philosophique of Voltaire we touch the Republic of Letters. The world of European networks in the period of French hegemony deserves separate treatment here. I would have preferred to include a substantial section on it here, but wisdom tells me it is better to leave you here, albeit somewhat in suspense.

The digital turn

French historians have not been content with creating just one view of the Calas affair. They came back to it again and again, and it can even serve as a kind of thermometer of someone’s position. In this post I have tried to show some of the materials now available that have only seldom been used in connection with this case. In fact you can use the digital resources mentioned here also for the study of other subjects. Jean-Paul Doucet gives a nice list of famous trials on his website, and it my view it has become much easier to gain a head start using online resources than earlier on. This tournant numérique, this digital turn of doing history, is not only a matter of easy access to primary sources. Bringing into view resources scarcely considered before or almost forgotten, can broaden and deepen the way we look at all kinds of history, including legal history. In my opinion connecting legal history with history at large is one of the urgent needs of legal historians. It is up to me and you, to my and your creativity to make the digital turn fruitful and important.


1. Élisabeth Claverie, ‘Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l’innovation critique’, in: Parler en public, a special issue of Politix. Travaux de science politique 7/26 (1994) 76-85; online at Persée.
2. Jean-Louis Halpérin, ‘La preuve judiciaire et la liberté du juge´, Communications 84 (2009) 21-32, online at Persée; special on Figures de la preuve.
3. Frank A. Kafker, ‘Le rôle de Diderot dans l’affaire Calas’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21/1 (1998) 7-14, online at Persée.
4. Hédia Ouertani-Khadhar, ´Diderot et l’actualité politique´, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 18-19 (1995) 93-103, online at Persée.

Celebrating common law beyond Magna Carta

Header Et Seq.

2015 is the year of many celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. It is silly to try to avoid mentioning it here, but I know my readers expect me to find a different slant on the celebration. The four remaining copies of the 1215 version get ample attention at the British Library. The Lincoln copy was put on show in 2014 at the Library of Congress (Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor). Earlier this year there was much media coverage for the finding of a later copy of Magna Carta at Sandwich, Kent. At first I would have almost believed the news concerned the finding of a fifth copy from 1215, but this was not the case. However, this copy from 1300 combined with a copy of the Forest Charter.

Recently Harvard Law Library decided to digitize its collection of manuscripts and archival records with texts concerning medieval English law. At Et Seq., the library’s blog, there were already two announcements, on March 25 about early English manor rolls by Mary Person, and on April 10 ‘Medieval Manuscripts Online-Magna Carta & More’ by Karen Beck. The riches of the digital collections at Harvard Law Library are certainly no secret, but now it seems they surpass their earlier efforts, this time with support from the Ames Foundation. Person and Beck briefly introduced the new digital collections, but there is a real need to tell more here.

A gateway to medieval resources

Detail of roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16) - image Et Seq.

Detail of a manor roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16)

Before going quickly to the newly digitized resources it is wise to look at the overview of historical and special collections, the web page on rare books and manuscripts, and finally the overview of digital collections and digital exhibits. This threefold entrance is in some respects confusing, but each approach is in itself valuable. The only snag is remembering where you found a particular collections, exhibit or link! By the way, the overview of digital historical databases deals with subscription databases.

The first series of digitized archival records consists of some 170 medieval rolls, mainly manor rolls and account rolls, most of them stemming from five villages in different English counties (Cheshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Staffordshire and Suffolk). Some items are effectively not rolls, but charters. The time range of the items goes from 1305 to 1770, with therefore not just medieval sources. These rolls will be successively digitized during the coming years. As for now you can read online only items from Moulton in Cheshire, with just one court roll [no. 20, Lenten court, 30 Henry VIII (1539-1540)]. There is an online finding aid (inventory) with descriptions of all items and whenever available links to their digital version. To assess the variety of materials digitized at Harvard Law School you might have a look at an earlier post here about medieval rolls. English manor rolls could be easily found using the Manorial Documents Register of the British National Archives. I find it harder to get an overview of them using the new Discovery portal, but in the end you can find for example other rolls for Moulton Manor.

The series of medieval legal manuscripts at Harvard Law School has been divided into two section, the first with forty registers of statutes dating from the early fourteenth century until 1500, the second for nineteen registers of writs. The oldest register of writs (Registrum brevium with also some tracts) dates from around 1275 (HLS MS 24), the latest one from around 1476 (HLS MS 25). One manuscript contains also yearbooks and tracts (HLS MS 193, around 1350). The volumes with compilations of statutes often contain the text of Magna Carta. The oldest manuscript present at Harvard which includes Magna Carta dates from around 1300 [HLS MS 57, Magna Carta cum Statutis]. You can also search for these manuscripts within the HOLLIS catalogue of Harvard University Library, using the filed “Other call number” and entering “HLS MS XXX”, with XXX for the manuscript number.

HLS MS 172, Sherriff's Magna Carta, around 1327

“Sherriff’s Magna Carta”, around 1327 (?, circa 1298) – Harvard Law School, MS 172

A splendid example of the presence of Magna Carta in Englsh legal life is a socalled sherriff’s Magna Carta said to date from around 1327 (HLS MS 172). However, in the overview of manuscripts it is suggested with due hesitance that it might even date from 1297 or 1298. Such copies were read aloud four times every year.

At the website of the Ames Foundation you can consult an overview of all these registers and manuscripts. The Ames Foundation invites scholars to provide more detailed descriptions of manuscripts, something until now only done for HLS MS 184 which contains the Statuta vetera, writs and some tracts. The description of this manuscript does refer to the overview of manuscripts created by John H. Baker, English legal manuscripts in the United States of America : a descriptive list (2 vol., London 1985-1990; Selden Society; reprint 2 vol., Buffalo, NY, 2010), and earlier in English legal manuscripts, vol. 1: Catalogue of the manuscript year books, readings, and law reports in the library of the Harvard Law School, John H. Baker (ed.) (Zug, 1975). The new description of HLS MS 184 gives you for each item in the manuscript the link to the digitized page. For many items you will find a reference to the numbering in the Statutes of the Realm or additional information about editions. The meta-data of the manuscript are not forgotten either. In my humble opinion this example sets a standard for describing English medieval legal manuscripts. The name of the author of this description should definitely be added.

The overview created by the Ames Foundation makes it very clear that what we encounter here is not just a very regular set of manuscripts. These manuscripts at Harvard will show surprises to those scholars who start with the large labor of dealing in-depth with each of them. The overview points to an unedited tract in HLS MS 24b, a single leaf with a large section of the Tractatus de bastardiae, described in 1997 by Jerome Arkenberg. ‘The Story Behind a Stray Manuscript Leaf’, Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s. 8.4 (1997) 46–54, an article available also online. I am sure this is only an example, and not an exception of a text yet to be edited and studied.

The digitized manuscripts help us to come closer to the actual versions of texts seen by those dealing with legal matters in the late Middle Ages, and this can correct the more synthesized critical editions of texts such as the Statuta vetera et nova. A comparison with the text versions printed in incunabula editions comes also much more feasible, and these early editions, too, can now be found in digital versions, too. The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (GW) at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) at the British Library increasingly point to digital versions . You can search in these online catalogues for Statuta regnorum and Statuta Angliae or use the GW overview of all editions of statutes.

Magna Carta seen in perspective

In the year of the celebrations around 800 years Magna Carta the newly digitized manuscripts at Harvard show above all Magna Carta did not stand alone. It got a place alongside other statutes of the realm. It would be most interesting to see what place or impact Magna Carta had on actual writs, and for answering this question, too, you can now consult at home on the screen of your computer or tablet the digitized registers of writs kept at the magnificent holdings of Harvard Law School. You will benefit also from the resources and articles brought together at the website of the Magna Carta Research Project. As for medieval canon law and Magna Carta, you could very well start with reading an online essay by Anne Duggan at the website of the project Early English Laws. A look at these earlier laws helps also to discern with more precision the new elements within Magna Carta.

At my own web page about legal history you can find among the information about the history of the common law links to other online resources for this subject which merits continuing attention because of the continuities and changes in the history of Anglo-American law at large. Apart from its printed publications and the priceless online Index to Year Book Reports (David Seipp, Boston College) the Ames Foundation is working with Harvard Law School to create further digital access to resources in the field of the history of the common law and medieval law in a wider sense.

The definitive history of Magna Carta will not be written because every generation will come with different questions and methods to approach the old roads to answers, and no doubt each generation will come up with new perspectives worth considering carefully again and again. Thanks to the staff at Harvard University for make these materials accessible for anyone interesting in legal history! As for Et Seq. you can subscribe to its RSS feeds, simply follow the 852 RARE items of this library blog or follow @hlslib at Twitter. If liberty is a value to treasure and foster you cannot pass by in silence this Icon of Liberty, the telling subtitle of a special website created by the American Bar Association for this year’s Law Day (May 1). Magna Carta 800th will keep you informed about many of this year’s celebrations. Among this year’s online exhibitions are Exploring Magna Carta of Boston College Law Library and The Magna Carta (Great Charter), 1297 of the Parliament House, Canberra.

A postscript

Linking Magna Carta and medieval canon law is not a whim or an isolated idea. On June 16 and 17 a conference will be held at Saint Louis, Missouri on the theme New Constitutions and Constitutional Beginnings: The Fourth Lateran Council and Magna Carta 800 years later. The conference is sponsored by the International Society for Medieval Canon Law (ICMAC). The Fourth Lateran Council is the subject of a congress later this year in Rome, November 24-29, 2015: Concilium Lateranense IV: Commemorating the Octocentenary of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.