Category Archives: Digital projects

Gathering graphic evidence on false inscriptions

Startscreen Epigraphic Database Falsae

Doing research in legal history means dealing with facts and theories. Provided you have conscientiously worked with the facts at hand it becomes possible to verify theories. In this century we have to deal also with floods of information, including fake news and faked or unprovenanced sources. Some recent cases about illegal selling of and tampering with ancient papyri have even made headlines. In this post I will look at falsified inscriptions which pose as sources stemming from classical Antiquity. A team of scholars from the Università degli Studi di Bari, Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice and the Università La Sapienza in Rome has created the Epigraphic Database Falsae (EDF). What does this database contain? How are materials presented? What does it bring for (legal) historians? When useful in the context of this post I will look at some other projects in epigraphy, the study of inscriptions.

Defying a first look

Perhaps it is worth telling how I found out about this project. The EDF project is included in an overview of projects in the field of digital humanities at the website of the Associazione per l’Informatica Umanistica e la Cultura Digitale (AIUCD), the Italian association for digital humanities and digital culture. At the portal Digital Classicist you can find more about the project. One of the aims of the project team is to integrate EDF with other online resources for epigraphy. EDF is already searchable through the EAGLE portal, an Europeana project for inscriptions, but it will also be connected with the Epigraphik Datenbank Clauss / Slaby (EDCS), one of the main online portals for epigraphy, accessible in five languages. A query for falsae at Charles Jones’ blog Ancient World Online brought me both to EDF and to a volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) founded by Theodor Mommsen. The sixth volume of CIL contains the Inscriptiones urbis Romae Latinae, and its fifth part is devoted to Inscriptiones falsae (Berlin 1885). You may consult this part online at the Arachne portal. Unfortunately the online version of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum created by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften does not function completely at present; for the volume CIL VI,5 you are led to the Arachne portal.

The website of the Epigraphic Database Falsae does not lead you to any explanation about its aim and functioning. For this you must turn to the description at the Digital Classicist. Let’s therefore proceed to the search interface which is only in Italian. You can search by the ID of an inscription, by ancient city, by the text of an inscription and by bibliographical information. Interestingly you can also exclude towns, texts and bibliographical data. You can turn on a search for Greek texts, too.

EDF advanced search

By clicking on the button Ricerca avanzata more search fields become visible. In fact my screenprint does only show the first half of the thirty search fields. First of all you can search for items with a TM number in the Trismegistos database, and for items with a DOI (Digital Object Identifier). You can search here for example for modern country and city, the place of production, the name of the forger, the present location, material and dimensions, religion, social category, type of forgery, diplomatic transcription and the use of a particular kind of versification, to mention just a few of them. Here, too, you can narrow your search by excluding one or more terms. For a number of fields you can choose from a dropdown list. When you look for a particular type of forgery you can choose from seven categories, including also a partial copy of a genuine inscription.

Of course the best thing to do is to test the database by searching for some forgeries, but this was not as as easy as I had expected. At first I tried to find information about the Fibula Praenestina (TM 256173, EDCS-19600767), but this object which was long suspected to be a forgery, is now viewed as a genuine object from the seventh century BCE. Entering Roma as the ancient city led me to some 250 examples. EDF000151 is a forgery by Placido Scamacca in Catania, first mentioned between 1746 and 1750, who followed as his model a genuine inscription in Rome. The EDF entry leads you in this case also to this inscription in the Epigraphic Database Rome. It is good to note that at EDR118156 the inscription at Catania is not mentioned; I saw also a case where a forgery, also from Catania, is mentioned in EDR as a “copia moderna”. EDR shows images of inscriptions, and even thought they are in black and white, this is something you would like to have also for items in EDF.

I hoped to find some of the false inscriptions from CIL VI,5, but it seems they have yet to be added, or I might not have tried to find them in the right way. I also searched in vain for the text of the inscription on the drawing of the vase on the start screen. The thing to note in EDF is the attention to the actual place of conservation and the cataloging by institutions of individual inscriptions. EDF notes carefully who edited an entry and when.

Integrating epigraphic data

This is not my first post with double numbering for ancient inscriptions. Last year I included an inscription with the Lex Flavia Irnitana in a post on Roman water law, and a few years ago I looked here in a post at the project Hispania Epigraphica. In fact the last years epigraphic scholars have become very much aware of the ways not only to refer to a particular inscription, but also of the ways inscriptions are described. Working with digital resources has made this need even more acute. For epigraphy EpiDoc: Epigraphic Documents in TEI-XML has become a standard for formatting information about inscription. At you can follow the latest developments for the integration of a large number of epigraphic databases. There is a real difference in representation on a simple webpage coded in HTML, information encoded using XML following the EpiDoc guidelines, and storage along the rules of RDF (Resource Description Framework). Among the books which provide you with background about such developments is the volume with essays edited by Monica Berti, Digital Classical Philology. Ancient Greek and Latin in the Digital Revolution (ePUB and PDF’s for single articles in open acccess, 2019); a bit more attention to inscriptions would have been most welcome.

In view of the sometimes rapid developments in digital humanities it is necessary to be aware having reliable (online) editions of the text of inscriptions is one thing. It is wise to look for inscriptions not just at one portal or to rely on one particular database. Often they are strengthened by rich bibliographies, but integrating them with images and linked data is currently very much work in progress or projects for the future. Of course it would be wonderful to have already now a single epigraphic gateway, but we have to reckon with different needs and technological possibilities. In this respect facing the very real questions of those scholars who want to investigate forged inscriptions is a reminder research questions and objects can be quite different from your usual approach. The blog Current Epigraphy will help you to stay tuned with the field of the study of inscriptions from classic Antiquity.

Tracing the records of medieval synods

Header blog Corpus Synodalium

For the second year on row I would like to depart from my tradition of opening the new year with a post on Roman law. The Roman empire and its law will receive due attention this year, too, but 2020 is a year with a quadriennial International Congress of Medieval Canon Law in St. Louis, Missouri, and therefore medieval canon law shall figure in my first post. I found out about the project Corpus Synodalium: Local Ecclesiastical Legislation in Medieval Europe / Législations ecclésiastiques locales dans l’Europe médiévale thanks to the accompanying blog, also called Corpus synodalium. Let’s have a look at this project which charts literally vast stretches of medieval Europe.

A database and a blog

The international community of scholars in the field of medieval canon law is not very large. In it lawyers, historians and theologians work together, contributing from each discipline the necessary methods, approaches and knowledge needed to study this field successfully. For some people an American project with a title in Latin and a French subtitle may perhaps look a bit eccentric, but it is typical for this interdisciplinary field. There are several blogs at the international Hypotheses network with a Latin name and a subtitle in another language.

Banner Corpus Synodalium

The project Corpus synodalium is at home at Stanford University. Its aim is to trace the records of local ecclesiastical legislation from medieval Europe between approximately 1215, the year of the important Fourth Lateran Council, and 1400, and to create a repertory with the texts of diocesan statutes and the records of provincial synods. The project description points to the large number of relevant texts, some two thousand, and their scattered presence in archives and libraries. This situation has contributed to a relative neglect of this resource type for the study of the medieval church and medieval canon law. Rowan Dorin (Stanford University) leads the project. Among the members of the advisory committee are Abigail Firey and Charles Donahue. Behind the name of Charles Caspers only his institute has been mentioned, the Titus Brandsma Instituut, a center created by the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and the Dutch province of the Carmelite order for the study of mysticism and spirituality.

The database of the Corpus synodalium is accompanied by further documentation, You can find here information about the progress of the project and also about the use of Philologic4, a well-known tool for text analysis and retrieval created at the ARTFL center of the University of Chicago. There is an explanation about the database fields and a set of guidelines for the transcription and editing of sources. The bibliography (PDF) contains information about the printed and handwritten sources used for this project. The list of further resources may contain only the great sources of medieval canon law from Gratian onwards, but the team provided links to digital versions of them. I had not yet spotted the digital version of the Decretum Gratiani, the Liber Extra (Decretales Gregorii IX), and the Liber Sextus of pope Boniface VIII at the website of the Scholastic Commentaries and Texts Archive (STCA); other collections and commentaries are already announced, but they are not yet present. The overview of texts already made available at SCTA is impressive. There are sections for canon law, statutes in canon law and civil law, meaning Roman law; the latter section of STCA is still under development.

As for the database of Corpus synodalium you can approach it in three ways, as a proper database, both in the original version and a normalized version, accessible after registration with Rowan Dorin, and as an online spreadsheet (viewing only, last update May 2019; 7,2 MB). Even a look at this spreadsheet is already interesting. The information has been put into thirty fields. It is possible to query for dioceses, church provinces and countries, the year of creation, the ecclesiastical authority involved – sometimes papal legates – and their regnal years. Critical editions are indicated and in their absence information about manuscripts. Aspects such as language or fragmentary tradition can be researched, too. When possible the digital presence of editions and sources has been recorded, and also the status of each entry.

Results screen database Corpus Synodalium

The results screen of the Corpus Synodalium database

The database opens with a screen offering two ways of browsing the contents, on the left using the names of the locations and on the right a choice from five centuries, 1100 until 1600. As an example of a diocese I choose here Tournai (Doornik). Two results appear on the left. On the right a block comes into view with several filters you may want to use. In the top right corner above the box with the filters is a tiny button Map All Results which leads you to the map; this button will be made more visible. You can also use another button in the top right corner to export the records ID’s you have found.

Example metadata in the Corpus Synodalium

When you click on a search result you can check either the metadata or go to the text edition. In the menu bar below the title of the database you have not only a general search field, but also four distinct search options: the concordance, a representation of search results as keywords in context (KWIC), collocation for establishing connections between particular terms, and the time series option for showing occurrences over time. In the dark grey bar are clickable areas enabling you to go to the project homepage, the user guide, to a feedback form and to Philologic4. With the button Show search options you open an advanced search mode. You can even tune your search to include approximate results, and sort results in the order you deem useful.

The subtitle of the project may lead you to infer only statutes and synods from France have been included, but the corpus does contain information on all regions of medieval Europe, including the British isles. Texts from 1181 to 1495 have been included. Before you jump into doing statistical work it is good to note that for some three hundred items the date has been entered between brackets, but they can be viewed in chronological order. For this particular reason only it is sensible the team put in additional field concerning the date and time of texts.

In order to get access to the database I contacted Rowan Dorin who provided me with the necessary information. He urges users to look first at the latest progress report (PDF) and look at the information provided about the project before entering the database and returning too quickly with the impression some things are still missing. The report (April 2019) makes clear the database will eventually contain nearly 2,200 texts. Nearly 1,300 texts have now been transcribed and fed into the database. Some 300 texts have never before been published.

With the report firmly in my mind I start looking for texts in the database stemming from the Low Countries. After all, in 2020 you remain entitled to my Dutch view! I checked for documents concerning the medieval diocese Utrecht. There are twenty texts mentioned for Utrecht between 1291 and 1355, all edited by J.G.Ch. Joosting and S. Muller Hzn. in the fifth volume of their source edition Bronnen voor de geschiedenis der kerkelijke rechtspraak in het bisdom Utrecht in de middeleeuwen (8 vols., ‘s Gravenhage 1906-1924). Alas there is no online version of the complete set. The Dutch Royal Library has digitized only three volumes of the set at the Delpher platform, luckily for this post apart from the volumes 2 and 6 also volume 5. In this case there is probably also a copyright problem for the newer volumes.

However that may be, I could check this edition quickly. I noticed the synodal statutes of bishop Dirk van Are, issued in 1209 and reissued by bishop Wilbrand van Oldenburg in 1236 (vol. V, pp. 48-53) have not made it yet into the spreadsheet and the database. These statutes had been published already by the near namesake of Samuel Muller Hzn. (1852-1915), his nephew Samuel Muller Fzn. (1848-1922), son of the famous book dealer and collector of engravings and pamphlets Frederik Muller, in Het oudste cartularium van het Sticht Utrecht (The Hague 1892) 172-178. The team at Stanford adds for two statutes from Utrecht information about a much older edition, the Concilia Germaniae edited by Johann Friedrich Schannat and Joseph Hartzheim (11 vol., Cologne 1759-1790). For the synod in the archdiocese Cologne held in 1332 by Heinrich von Virneburg not only the edition by Joosting and Muller is noted (V, pp. 1-43), but also those in the Concilia Germaniae IV, 282-285 and by Mansi, vol. XXV, cols. 723-726. Seventeen statutes have been connected with this archbishop, and the information about their manuscript tradition, (partial) editions and relevant literature mentioning them is excellent.

Looking beyond the database

Of course the Corpus synodalium is not a creation ex nihilo. There is a steady flow of studies and editions. Twenty-five years ago Joseph Avril wrote his most valuable article ‘Les décisions des conciles et synodes’ for the volume Identifier sources et citations, Jacques Berlioz et alii (eds.) (Turnhout 1994) 177-189. At the university of Bonn you can find the Bibliographia Synodalis Iuris Antiqui (BISA) with both a German and an English interface. The repertory for relevant sources from France exists already for a half a century, Répertoire des statuts synodaux des diocèses de l’ancienne France du XIIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, André Artonne, Louis Guizard and Odette Pontal (eds.) (Paris 1969). Odette Pontal contributed the volume Les statuts synodaux for the Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental (Turnhout 1975). Avril and Pontal edited numerous French synodal statutes. The bibliography of Jakub Sawicki appeared even earlier [Bibliographia synodorum particalarium (Città del Vaticano 1967)]. These works are just a few examples of repertories, studies and editions.

Let’s not forget to look at the blog of this project! The category cartographie of the blog enables you to follow the progress of the integrated digital map of medieval ecclesiastical jurisdictions using the ArcGIS system, more specifically for church provinces and dioceses. It took me some time to spot in the database the tiny button which opens the map. If you insist in having a preview of the map you can open it also separately, but currently only the black-and-white version is working. The changes in the boundaries of dioceses and church provinces will also eventually become visible. The posts do not tell which product of the ArcGIS product line is used. The reason behind the somewhat hidden place of the map is a clear wish to create publicity only when the map and the database come close to perfection. The blog informs you about the regular international workshops around the project held since 2018. It tells you also how Rowan Dorin started in 2011 to create the overview of relevant sources for the Corpus synodalium. He intends to launch the project officially in June 2020.

A preview of things to come

After using the database for several days it is time to write about my first impressions. Even though what I saw is really a preview of things to come, I can only applaud the efforts of Rowan Dorin and his team. I would have been happy with having only an online repertory of resources for studying diocesan statutes and provincial synods, but here you get also access to the texts themselves of these resources. The Philologic4 database enables you to study these texts in other ways than you would do when using a printed edition. The European scale of the Corpus synodalium is most welcome. The visualization of results on an online map invites you to make comparisons outside the corner of Europe you happen to be studying.

Of course the database has not yet been completed. The navigation and the visibility of some buttons and search fields certainly can and will change. The user guide will in later editions include guidance for navigating the database. The map does not yet show all its qualities and even adjustable colors, but it will become an example of mapping medieval data on a scalable online map. Dorin is even considering the option of bringing in directly the major texts of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, too, for further enhancing the research possibilities of this project. As for now, it is wise to keep in mind some elements may appear to be incorrect or in need of adjustment in their current state, but you should not hesitate to send your comments and corrections to the team at Stanford which deserves the gratitude of legal historians, of medievalists in general and in particular of all those studying the history of medieval canon law.

The Italian thing: A look at a new palaeography tutorial

Startscreen "Italian Palaeography

How can you embark on studying original manuscripts and archival records or the digital versions of these documents? The number of online tutorials for Italian palaeography is distinctly low in view of the sheer number of digitized resources concerning Italy’s medieval and Early Modern history. The new online tutorial Italian Paleography created by the Newberry Library in Chicago and the University of Toronto Libraries is most welcome. What are its qualities? How does it stand the comparison with the earlier project of both partners for French Renaissance Paleography? Of course I will also look at the presence of elements directly touching upon legal history.

At the outset

Logo of The Newberry Library, Chicago

The activity of The Newberry Library in the field of medieval manuscripts and archival records is not a new phenomenon. A number of its departments and centers deal with resources from Europe. There is a concise page about palaeography. The Newberry Library can be proud of its fleet of introductory guides, too. The Digital Newberry brings you to numerous collections and virtual exhibits. The Newberry has created five crowdsourcing and transcribing projects. In their fine Introduction to manuscript studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007) Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham liberally used manuscripts and other documents from the Middle Ages and Renaissance held at The Newberry.

Logo Medici Archive Project

The University of Toronto Libraries can point among their digital collections to no lesser project than the Medici Archive Project. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has digitized a fair number of its manuscripts, to mention just one example, and it has placed a number of its digitized collections in the Internet Archive. The presence in Toronto of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies is a gem for medievalists. I explored a number of scholarly institutions in a post about the international congress of medieval canon law held at Toronto in 2012.

The number of digital collections with archival records from Italy is every bit as high as you might suppose. I counted some thirty projects for Italy on my web page about digital archives. If you want to get an indication of the number of digitized manuscripts in Italy DMMap quickly shows you some thirty collections, excluding those digitized at the Vatican Library with currently well over 18,000 manuscripts. These high figures should make scholars in and outside the Italian peninsula happy, provided you are able to decipher these documents and manuscripts. In earlier posts here I looked for example at the Progetto Irnerio for medieval legal manuscripts in Bologna and at the book series edited by Giovanna Murano about autograph manuscripts of Italian authors. You can use the tag Italy of my blog to find more relevant posts.

One of the reasons there are only few online manuals for Italian palaeography is the presence at several Archivi di Stato and also at the Vatican of a scuola di archivistica, paleografia e diplomatica. Universities do offer courses in palaeography, too. I have found only three free accessible online resouurces for Italian palaeography, the Materiali didattici per la paleografia Latina created by Antonio Cartelli and Marco Palma (Università degli Studi di Cassino) who deal mainly with medieval manuscripts, and the Lezioni di paleografia of Renata di Simone (Archivio di Stato di Palermo) with an introduction to medieval paleography and book history (PDF), both of them in Italian. There is a tutorial in English for Early Modern and nineteenth-century Italian documents at BYU Script Tutorial. By mistake Spanish is used in the Italian version of this tutorial on the platform created by the Brigham Young University. The thirst for people in the Anglo-American hemisphere to be able to use an introduction in English is understandable. This is a real need, and the new tutorial does tackle this challenge.

The Italian thing

Much what can be said about the website for French Renaissance Paleography applies also to the new tutorial Italian Paleography which was launched on July 25, 2019. The section with manuscripts leads you to a hundred examples of handwritten books (80 items) and documents (20 items). You can filter them by genre, period, script type, reading difficulty, region and holding institution. This choice of examples seems to have been in favor of manuscripts. For the regions the general localisation “Italy” seems a bit vague. For all other aspects the choice seems quite balanced. 31 items touch the field of politics and government, twelve have been labelled “Law”.

Among the items at Italian Paleography concerning law is a register of criminals executed in Venice, written around 1775 (The Newberry, VAULT Case Ms 6A 34). Its resource type has been indicated as manuscript book, but surely this is not a manuscript in the codicological sense, but an archival document in book form, with bound leaves. The tutorial show only four of the 59 pages. With respect to the type of resource the descriptions have been made in accordance with the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials.

Supplication, 1469 - The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 recto

Supplication, Milan 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1.469 recto (detail)

A document from 1469 is perhaps a better example to show here, a supplication to the lord of Milan to reverse a condemnation.

The address of the supplication, 1469 - image: The Newberry

The address of the supplication, 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 (detail of verso)

This document is of course shown in its entirety. The supplication has been written in a very fluent hand, but the address on the back and the note below it show a less polished handwriting. In fact the main text of the document was written by a writing master. For each item of the tutorial a link is provided to the catalog description, a transcription and a background essay. This is really helpful, and anyone learning to read these documents should learn also not to turn to the transcriptions too soon. I will come back to the detailed description of the script(s) in documents given in each background essay.

The second section of the website is a concise handbook on the development of scripts used in Italy and the rise of the vernacular language. Two much older items have been included among the examples to show the most important points of departure. At the core of this website is not just the study of books and documents from Italy, but also very much the study of books and documents written in the Italian language. The description of the writing hands for the examples is given in Italian. For each phase and script type the relevant examples are listed.

The next section, the appendix, offers you access to a number of digitized calligraphy manuals and historic maps. The resources section leaves little to desire. There is not only a handy overview of the transcriptions and background essays, but also a glossary of palaeographic terms, an overview of relevant dictionaries, a bibliographical section and a section on transcription standards and metadata standards. The sections on abbreviations and symbols, teaching materials and the history of the project do not yet contain information.

I have saved perhaps the best thing for the end. At the start page of Italian Paleography you will find a number of short introductions to palaeography as a subject, its history, some tips and tricks, and also two videos in the right hand menu. In particular the page New to palaeography helps you for quick orientation into Gothic, mercantesca, cancelleresca, humanistic and italic (cursive) script. After creating an account for this website you can make transcriptions at this website using T-PEN (Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation). Thus this online tutorial offers you also a way to familiarize yourself with this important integrated tool.

Some differences

Banner French Renaissance Paleography

When you compare Italian Paleography with its older sister French Renaissance Paleography it is understandable some sections have simply not yet been filled. The website for France has a very similar structure. A clear visual difference are the interactive map and the clickable tags for topics and time periods. Reference materials can be found under a separate heading, not as a part of the resources section. The main parts of the website are listed on the start page. The section “About French documents” is empty. The presence of its logo on the start page declares more openly the use of T-PEN. There is a page Get started which in my view helps you initially as good as the videos of Italian Paleography. These differences amount mainly to a judicious remix of elements.

Logo UTL

Both websites are hosted by the University of Toronto Libraries. Their logo deserves a place next to that of The Newberry at the top of both online tutorials. At the bottom other institutions are mentioned as well. A number of libraries and institutions in the United States have graciously provided materials for this website. It is fair to conclude after this quick tour that both tutorials fulfill their purpose eminently. The combination of attention to documents with the Italian vernacular and the use of Italian for a very particular part of the descriptions rightly stress also the need to master the Italian language to some degree if you want to study sources in Italian. This linguistic demand combines with the need to be able to read the various kinds of scripts, some of them really challenging, and makes it clear doing history is not just a matter of reading texts translated into your own language and reasoning about them. Thus material and very physical aspects can help teaching you to look beyond the content of a document to its context. You simply need training for a number of essential activities in doing historical research.

The Italian tutorial shows an agreement from 1466 with an artist about the decoration of a chapel in the Sant’Antonio basilica in Padua. Art historians might be tempted to contemplate the very interesting sketch of the decoration plan in this document, and to forget the legally binding agreement. Legal historians should be seduced to look not only at the agreement itself, but also at the matter at stake and the possibility of putting artistic purposes and procedures into a clear legal framework. It is my sincere wish to the team for Italian Paleography that many students and scholars may benefit from their work. Just like its counterpart for French palaeography the training it offers can greatly assist your research in Italian manuscripts and archival documents. It will save you time and the efforts to learn things only when you arrive in Italy or have found the digitized items you are looking for at your computer screen.

Seals as signs and objects of medieval legal history

Earlier this year I looked here at the portal Medieval Digital Resources, and even though I did not mention them, I looked there for the presence of particular telling objects. When I discussed here in January a new project concerning charters in Dutch archives one of the questions about this database is the visibility of and attention to seals. Lately I noticed there is a substantial number of recent projects around medieval seals. Two recent publications help to view seals in a larger setting than your sight suppose at first sight. Seals represent also legal power, and the images on seals should have a niche in the field of legal iconography.

Seals make connections

Seal of the Roman King William, 1252 - Utrecht, HUA, Stadsbestuur 1122-1577, no. 47

Seal of the Roman king William at a charter for the city Utrecht, 1252 June 18 (OSU III, no. 1261; OHZ II, no. 931; MGH Dipl., Heinrich von Raspe und Wilhelm von Holland, no. 281) – Utrecht, Het Utrechts Archief, collection 701, Stadsbestuur van Utrecht 1122-1577, 47

Searching for a fitting image for this post I decided to put here an image of a seal fixed to a charter held at Utrecht by Het Utrechts Archief. The seal shown shows the figure of count William II of Holland, the only Dutch Roman king (1248-1256). A quick search in the Digitale Charterbank Nederland brings you at first to some twenty charters issued by William, only nine of them with images. In a few cases his seal has been disfigured by the way it was fixed to the charter. William’s charters figure in the oorkondenboeken for the diocese Utrecht and the county Holland, the critical editions of charters for these regions, and they have been edited by Dieter Hägermann, Jaap Kruisheer and Alfred Gawlik, Die Urkunden Heinrich Raspes und Wilhelm von Holland 1246-1256 (MGH Diplomata, Die Urkunden der deutsche Könige und Kaiser, 18; 2 vol., Hannover 1989-2006).

Let’s turn to the two new books. The book edited by Laura Whatley, A companion to seals in the Middle Ages (Leiden 2019) is actually a volume of essays on several themes around and with seals. Its price can seem formidable. In the same series Reading Medieval Sources appeared in 2019 a volume on Money and coinage in the Middle Ages, Rory Naismith (ed.) (Leiden: Brill, 2019) which can be viewed online in open access.

The second book to mention here is the volume Seals – Making and Marking Connections across the Medieval World, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, (Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2019), available in hardprint and as an e-book. This book, too, comes at a very substantial prize. However, you can download the introduction.

Logo Sigillvm network

Instead of speculating about the policies behind the prizes of these works it is perhaps wiser to start with a tour of websites devoted to medieval seals. The presence of the international network SIGILLVM is a natural point of departure. This website provides basic information about research before and after 1800. In fact there is a concise PDF by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak on research perspectives. There is a section about collections of seals in archives and museums and also a section for seals created by individual persons.

The Sigillvm network does not provide a section with web links. The number of blogs about seals is a surprise. I might as well start with projects and websites in France. At the ARCHIM portal, the showcase of the French national archives, is a section with seals from Burgundy. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has created the blog Trésors de cire [Treasures in wax] where you can find among others things bibliographies about the conservation and restauration of medieval seals. In the Sigilla database you can find digital images of seals in French collections. The database can be searched for themes such as seals of for example Cistercians, the corporations of Bruges and the bishops of Paris, and for major collections, including those with seal impressions and casts of seals. SigiAl is a blog dealing with seals in the Alsace and Upper Rhine regions, territories with a place both in French and German history.

In Germany you might start with having a look at the Siegelblog with the subtitel Sphragistik als historische Hilfswissenschaft, sigilography as a historica auxiliairy science. The blog Verkörperung kommunaler Identität [Embodiment of communal identity] brings you clearly into the fields of legal history. Seals held at the Stadtarchiv Speyer are the focal point, and in particular the impressions made by fingers on the back of seals. Some seals have another seal on the back, but the beautiful seal of the city Speyer showing the mighty cathedral show also fingerprints. We will follow this track later on. Christian Lohmer has created a digital collection of casts held at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich, mainly for seals of German kings, emperors and princes. The digital collection links as far as possible for each seal to the work of Otto Posse, Die Siegel der Deutschen Kaiser und Könige (5 vol., Dresden 1909-1913), digitized at Göttingen. The Historische Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen has created a database for the Welfensiegel, the seals of the House of Welf, one of the oldest still existing aristocratic families in Europe. The database contains currently some, 1,450 seals.

From Austria comes the project Siegel der Bischöfe der Salzburger Metropole [Seals of the bishops under the metropolitan see of Salzburg], a title meaning seals of the bishops within the archdiocese Salzburg and the archbishop himself, too. Thus you will find seals from the dioceses Gurk, Chiemsee, Seckau, Lavant, Innsbruck and Feldkirch, all in all some 750 seals.

Among the projects from the United Kingdom the Imprint Project clearly beckons for attention. This projects aims at studying the fingerprints in multiple perspectives. They show not only the process of sealing charters, but also the ritual side of signing. The history of using fingerprints for identification and the development of methods for data capture are addressed by the project team. You can follow its activity also on the aptly named blog First Impressions. Durham University has created both a virtual exhibition about seals of Durham Cathedral and a catalogue for medieval seals with digitized images. While writing this post I looked in disbelief at an empty collection guide to seals at the website of the British Library. Seliau / Seals in medieval Wales is a virtual exhibition of the National Library of Wales, with an accompanying blog, Exploring Medieval Seals. You can download the exhibition catalogue Seals in context. Medieval Wales and the Welsh Marches (PDF). The Berkshire Record Office in Reading has created the virtual exhibition Small Objects of Power introducing you to and showing medieval seals.

Start screen Sigillvm Portugalliae

Let’s end this tour with some projects around the Mediterranean. El Sello Medieval is an already longer existing virtual exhibition about medieval seals, created by the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid. The second website is the home of the project Sigillvm. Corpus dos selos portugueses, a website you can view in Portuguese, English or French. Apart from project information and the database with an inventory of medieval seals in Portugal there is a small digital collection of recent relevant literature and a bibliography, and in particular a generous links selection. The inventory can be accesses only in Portuguese, but you can search with terms (Termos usados). Alas the section for virtual exhibitions is empty.

Of course basic guides to sigillography – sometimes the term sphragistics is used – have been around online now for two decades. The links collection for this theme at the portal Historische Hilfswissenschaften at the Universität München is still useful. You can consult online a PDF of the Vocabulaire internationale de la sigillographie (Rome 1990). Sometimes seal matrices have become objects of art, but more often personal seal matrices have been destroyed when their owners died. The survival of originals seals, the creation of seal casts and the interest to collect these combined with the study of matrices make the study of seals a field with several layers. The web directory of the Portuguese Sigillvm project is a fair attempt to present links for a variety of collections.

The approach of the Imprint project and the project at Speyer which bring fingerprints into view open questions about seals in a new way. Legal historians can note how modern forensic expertise can be applied also to historical materials. Who handled seals and matrices? Is the very act of sealing not just as important as attaching a beautifully looking seal which can indeed make an impression on contemporaries and future generations? It is only natural that disciplines such as semiotics, the study of signs, and cultural anthropology look rather differently at seals than medievalists, art historians and legal historians usually do. Visual culture, politics, government and art come together in seals. If my post looks as part of an object lesson in approaching seals as signs and objects – with not just a front side but also other telltale elements – my brief tour here serves its goal.

A postscript

Travis Baker kindly pointed to the volume Seals and their Context in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2015) with an important article by Paul Brand on seals and the law in medieval England.

Banner DigiSig

For some inexplicable reason I did not include the project DigiSig from St. Louis University in this post, but I had duly bookmarked this project dealing with seals from medieval England. It offers a database for searching seals in a number of British collections, and a search facility for the kind of figures represented on seals with a detailed classification scheme. Both tools are most valuable for sigillographic research.

Learning to read German legal responsa

Banner "rechtsprechung im Osteeraum

Modern technology has taken up the challenge of reading old scripts, the domain of palaeography. One of the best known tools, Transkribus, is currently used in a project on legal resources held at the university archives in Greifswald. The project Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum. Digitization & Handwritten Text Recognition focuses on sources dealing with Germany’s legal history in the region on the borders of the Baltic Sea. The project aims at making accessible 102,000 pages of legal instructions of the Faculty of Law of the Universität Greifswald (Spruchakten der Greifswalder Juristenfakultät, 1580-1800), 130.000 pages of opinions of the judges at the Wismar Tribunal (Relationen der Assessoren am Wismarer Tribunal, 1746-1845) as well as 25,000 pages of opinions of the judges of the Wismar Council Court (Relationen des Wismarer Ratsgericht) (1701-1879). users will get access to images of these sources and they will be able to perform text searches in this corpus. The Transkribus tool is being trained to recognize Early Modern handwriting of very different scribes. Does is succeed indeed in creating reliable transcriptions? What efforts are necessary to make such sources ready for computerized approaches?

Scribal varieties and the use of computers


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

A "Spruckakte" from 1586

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

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

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

Using the Transkribus tool

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

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

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

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

The second Transkribus logo

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

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

At the end of this brief presentation of the Transkribus tool and its current uses for legal history it is fair to mention at least concisely some other available tools, following no particular order. Transcripto is a tool with a German and English interface created at the Universität Trier. Looking at Scripto I thought for some time it might also be a transciption tool like Transkribus, but it is a transcription interface created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media for crowdsourcing projects which can be integrated with several CMS systems. The Università Roma Tre works on the project In Codice Ratio with the aim of automatic text recognition and transcription, in particular for the holdings of the Vatican archives. The French Himanis project has at its core a tool for text recognition used for indexing th text of 68,000 charters and documents in the Trésor des chartes of the Archives nationales.

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

A postscript

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

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

A fusion of medieval legal systems at St. Andrews

Startscreen CLICME

Some months ago I came across the website of a rather intriguing project which aims at studying not just one medieval legal system, but three. Though the full project title is rather long, Civil Law, Common Law, Customary Law | Consonance, Divergence and Transformation in Western Europe from the late eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, the web address contains a playful variant of the term “Click me”, and of course I could not resist the temptation to visit the project website. In this post I want to look at this project at the University of St. Andrews and comment on some of its features. In particular the legal “encyclopedia” and the section with text editions can be most useful. Comparative legal history was the very theme of the 24th British Legal History Conference held in St. Andrews from July 10 to 13, 2019.

A tour of a threefold project

Logo CL project

The aim of this project is to study three legal systems together in their European setting during the Middle Ages, the common law, the European ius commune and customary law . One of the motivations for this choice is the wish to avoid a picture of common law against European law. Nor doe the team want to celebrate the uniqueness of the common law and its development over the centuries or to propagate a new European ius commune. Similarities, changes, continuities and differences are to receive equal attention.

The leader of the CL project is John Hudson, and the senior researcher of this project is Emanuel Conte (Università Roma Tre/EHESS). The four post-doctoral researchers are Andrew Cecchinato, Will Eves, Attilio Stella and Sarah White, and there are three graduate students working on a PhD thesis, Dan Armstrong, David de Concilio and Kim Thao Le. Andrew Cecchinato will focus on the relevance of the European legal heritage for the formation of William Blackstone’s concept of English law. Will Eves will look at the history of concepts for “ownership” in the common law and the influences on it of the concept proprietas in the European ius commune. Attilio Stella is studying the relations between the learned law and judicial and social practice by looking at archival and court evidence from a number of towns in northern Italy. Sarah White is working with twelfth and thirteenth-century treatises on legal procedure, in particular ordines iudiciarii from England, and also on ecclesiastical and Roman legal procedure in general.

The PhD thesis of Dan Armstrong will deal with politics, law and visions of the church in the relations between England and the papacy from around 1066 to around 1154. David de Concilio’s theme is the use of dialectic in legal texts of the late twelfth century, in particular in the brocarda; he plans an edition of a brocarda collection in canon law. Kim Thao Le has started to research the origin and progress of the English jury in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the notion of reputation. She will look for possible interaction between the common law and canon law. The website of the CL project has a section for research updates of individual researchers.

Research, online editions and more

Under the heading Research issues the first issue poses a trenchant question about proprietary law. Who did first coin the phrase “bundle of rights”? John Hudson found the phrase in works from 1886 and 1873. A quick first search for an earlier occurrence led me to Henry Maine who in his Ancient Law: its connection with the early history of society, and its relation to modern ideas (London 1861, online, Hathi Trust Digital Library) writes in chapter 6 (ed. 1861, p. 178): “The first question leads to the universitas juris; that is, a university (or bundle) of rights and duties”.

However interesting it can be to look here more closely at the individual projects, the presence in itself of a section with online editions of medieval legal texts deserves attention, too. Currently six texts are available online. The first text is a mnemonic poem for remembering the causae and quaestiones of the Decretum Gratiani, edited by Attilio Stella. The next item is a transcription of a mid-thirteenth century procedural treatise, ‘Iudicium est actus trium personarum’. Sarah White explains three different treatises exist with the same incipit. The third page presents a digitized version of the edition by Karl Lehmann, Das langobardische Lehnrecht (Göttingen 1896) of the Vulgata version of the Libri Feudorum, a treatise on feudal law that became a part of the Corpus Iuris Civilis. The team of the CL project promises us an English translation of this text, following perhaps the lead of Jop Spruit and Jeroen Chorus who published in 2016 a Dutch translation of the Libri Feudorum as an addendum to the translation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, discussed here earlier in a post on translations of medieval legal texts.

With the fourth item customary law comes into view. It brings a transcription of the first part of the text known as the Très ancien coutumier de Normandie or Statuta et consuetudines Normanniae transcribed from the manuscript Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ms. Ottobon. 2964In my 2011 post ‘Centuries of law in Normandy’ I devoted some space to this coutumier. The fifth text is a transcription of the Summa feudorum ascribed to Johannes de Revigny, a lawyer from Orleans. The introduction discuss the scholarship since the fifties on the identification of the author. Using the term “Pseudo-Revigny” is a most convenient suggestion of the CL team for the author of this text which survives only in the manuscript Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, ms. Parm. 1227. The sixth text presented here is a Summula de presumptionibus’, transcribed from the manuscript BAV, Pal. lat. 653. This text represents the brocarda genre, and it is safe to assume David de Concilio provided its transcription and a useful introduction.

Another and much promising part of the CL project is a legal encyclopaedia. There will be three levels within this project. Level 1, already available, offers a dictionary with concise definition of legal terms in common law and both Roman and canon law in their medieval stage. This dictionary is most welcome, and in particular helpful for scholars who want support on unfamiliar grounds. On level 2 a number of terms will be discussed more thoroughly. On the third level conversations will be published around a limited number of terms which seem the most rewarding in discussing aspects of medieval law. Any suggestions, corrections and additions can be sent to the CL team by mail,

Startscreen ILCR for Canterbury Court Records

It is only natural to find on the project website an overview of recent publications concerning the research done for the CL project. The Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research (ILCR) at the University of St. Andrews provides the framework and foundation for the CL project. I could not help looking at particular at the project for Canterbury Court Records. Sarah White has developed a databases with images from the thirteenth-century records held at the Canterbury Cathedral Archives. The direct link to the database leads you to a special St. Andrews login page for which the CL team can help you to register. I found some solace in the image collections of Canterbury Cathedral with a great selection of archival records and manuscripts. One would dearly like to look at these court records, because after all the CL project wets your appetite to search yourself for possible interactions between the common law, customary law and medieval canon law. Having online access to court records at Canterbury will cast a wider net for comparison with court records from the diocese of Ely and the archdiocese York. This comment should not stop you from visiting the website of the ILCR with its interesting projects, including a number of videos.

The team of the CL project has started working on a number of coherent themes that perhaps too often are seen in isolation. The results can be become a mirror in which the interplay between seemingly different legal systems and the ways medieval lawyers worked can be become much clearer. Some rhetoric about the uniqueness English law and the unity of European law will probably not been blown away by it, but for those wanting to look beyond the surface some promising vistas will become visible.

Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, three Asian city states

Sometimes events can seem rather unique, but historians have been trained to be wary of this claim. Since weeks the city state Hong Kong is in the grip of political turmoil. The legal and political status and future of this special administrative region in China is at the core of the disputes and actions. It is not a new idea to look at the law of both Hong Kong and Macau together, but I decided to add a third town in South East Asia to the comparison in this post. What have these city states in common apart from their geographical situation around a harbor? In this post I will look at a number of digital archives and libraries which bring you to important resources for the legal and cultural history of these interesting Asian cities.

Three of a kind?

It is tempting to start here with the colonial period of the three harbors. Macau was the oldest European colonial town in China, founded by the Portuguese in 1557. In and around Hong Kong people have lived already some 5000 years. For Singapore on the Malaysian peninsula there is a reference from the second century BCE. From the fourteenth century onwards there is more continuity for Singapore, but it is also clear the Portuguese destroyed the city in 1613. I prefer to treat the three towns here at first separately.

Startsscreen "Memória de Macau"

With currently some 600,000 inhabitants Macau is the smallest of the three cities. They live on a territory of just 30 square kilometer, making Macau the most densely populated spot on earth. Macau’s fortunes depended initially strongly on the position of the Portuguese commercial empire. Even though the Portuguese influence became weaker, Macau became attractive as a pivotal point in intra-Asiatic commerce. Since 1999 Macau is a special administrative region of China. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, actually a tunnel and a bridge with a length of 42 kilometer, connects since 2018 Hong Kong with Macau.

A search for digital resources concerning Macau yielded quickly some important results. The portal Memória de Macau was only launched in April 2019. It brings you to digitized books, archival records, maps, audiovisual materials and images of museal objects in Macau. The portal offers also a chronology of Macau’s history which you can even filter for events in politics and law, and there are of course sections on the arts and culture. Memória de Macau is accessible in Portuguese and Chinese. For searching the legal history of Macau the Base de Dados de Legislação de Macau (LEGISMAC) brings you not only to current law in Macau, but also to laws and other legislative acts since 1855. At Fontes Macau-China, sécs. XVI-XIX, part of the Observatório da China you will find a digital library with Early Modern books, its contents are viewable with a Portuguese, Chinese and English interface. The Biblioteca Digital da Fundação Jorge Álvares in Lissabon is a small digital library with digitized books about Macau and China. In the UM Digital Library Portal of the Wu Yee Sun Library, Universidade de Macau you can consult among other things Chinese worksWestern books on China and rare Western books. For Macau the digital library at the portal on Portuguese colonial history Memórias de Africa et do Oriente contains only nine titles.

The Arquivo de Macau has digitized the official gazette, the Boletim do Goberno / Boletim official de Macau, for the period 1850-1999, you can view the issues with a Portuguese, Chinese or English interface. In 1993 the Chinese government announced the legal framework for Macau from 1999 onwards. It is referred to as the Basic Law (here the English translation).

Hong Kong’s long history

Start screen Historical laws of Hong Kong Online

A similar search for digital collections concerning the (legal) history of Hong Kong took me much more time. Only the Hong Kong Legal Information Institute came immediately into view. This branch of the WorldLII contains not only modern legislation and jurisprudence, but also Privy Council Judgments (1861-1997), historical laws (1890-1964), and also first instance and appeal judgments since 1946. The University of Hong Kong Libraries offer access to Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online as a part of the Hong Kong University Library Digital Initiatives, a portal to several digital collections, including sections for rare books, legislation and war crime trials. I should have spotted at Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online the link to a page with several other online resources, for example Hong Kong Government Reports Online (1842-1941). The Hong Kong Public Libraries have among its digital collections a general Hong Kong Collection and for example old newspapers since 1853. The Run Run Shaw Lbrary of the City University of Hong Kong has a portal for its Digital Special Collections. Hong Kong Memory is a portal for digitized cultural heritage, mainly for the arts, geography, audiovisual collections and oral history. You can consult a number of historical maps at HK Maps. For Chinese rare books there are a digital collection of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Library and the Hok Hoi Collection of the Hong Kong Public Libraries with classic Chinese literature.

Two archives founded by the government of Hong Kong preserve archival records, the Government Records Service, with three digital collections and three virtual exhibits, and the Legislative Council Archives, founded in 2012. Within The Hong Kong Heritage Project you find the archive of the Kadoorie family and much more. A number of digitized archival collection for Hong Kong has been digitized by libraries. The Hong Kong Public libraries have digitized some 48,000 digitized archival records of the city council between 1965 and 2000 in their collection Municipal Council Archives. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Library, too, offers digitized archival records. In the Land Deeds Collection there are 160 land deeds and six volumes of fish-scale registers, from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. In the Sheng Xuanhei Archive you will find digitized documents and transcriptions concerning a very influential merchant and politician (1844-1916) who initiated many projects. At Open Public Records of the UK National Archives this university gives you access to dozens of digitized documents from various series held at Kew. With the Elsie Tu Digital Collection (Hong Kong Baptist University) we come closer to this century. This collection contains speeches and publications of a scholar who followed closely political and legal developments in Hong Kong during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Her university presents also the HKBU Corpora, two linguistic corpora, the Corpus of Political Speeches (1789-2015) and The Chinese/English Political Interpreting Corpus (1997-2017), with in both corpora speeches from the USA, Hong Kong and China.

In Hong Kong some 7,5 million people live on an area of 1,100 square kilometer, which brings this city a rank lower than Macau but still very high in the list of most densely populated places of our planet. The British took over power in 1841, formally stabilized in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The extension of Hong Kong’s territory came about in 1898 with the treaty concerning the 99 year-period of British rule over Hong Kong. During the Second World War the Japanese army occupied Hong Kong. In 1997 British sovereignty was transferred to China, entering the current period of fifty years until 2047 as a special administrative region within China.

A look at Singapore’s history and its digital presence

Heading "Straits Settlements Gazette", 1890Government

Heading of the “Straits Settlements Gazette”, 1890 – image source: Books SG,

With Singapore we go from China to the most southern point of the Malaysian peninsula, close to the Indonesian archipelago. The destruction of this town in 1613 is a clear break in its history. In 1819 a British trading post was established which gained in 1824 the status of a British colony. In 1824 an Anglo-Dutch treaty created a clear separation between Dutch and British territories in Malaysia and the islands of the Dutch East Indies. From 1826 onwards Singapore was a part of the Straits Settlements, governed from British India. From 1867 to 1942 Singapore was a Crown Colony. The harbor became in the twentieth century known for its facilities for the British fleet. Although it was deemed to be unassailable for enemies, the Japanese could take over Singapore in 1942 very quickly. After the Second World War a turbulent period followed from which Singapore eventually emerged in 1965 as an independent republic. Singapore has currently some 5,6 million inhabitants on a territory of 7,800 square kilometer leading to a ranking for population density between Macau and Hong Kong. One of the things I realized while looking at Singapore is the major role of Chinese people in its history.

When you look at digital libraries in South East Asia it is good to start perhaps with the Asean Digital Library, a portal hosted by the National Library Board, Singapore and founded by the Association of South East Asian Nations. For Singapore this digital library contains some 26,000 items. The National Library Board of Singapore presents digitized old books and manuscripts in several subcollections at Books SG. Among the books labelled Politics and government you will find a number of issues of the Straits Settlements government gazette. Among the digitized titles I would like to mention two recent guides, The rare materials collection : selections from the National Library Singapore (2017), readable online, and the volume 50 records from history : highlights from the National Archives of Singapore (2019), downloadable as a PDF (264 MB), with in the latter a number of important documents for Singapore’s legal history.

The NLB has also created a section Newspapers SG with some Malaysian newspapers. The educational portal Roots created by the National Heritage Board looks at Singapore’s history and cultural heritage since 1819. At Legal Heritage the Singapore Academy of Law brings you not a digital library, but a guide to Singapore’s legal history. Lee Su-Lin, a librarian at the National University of Singapore created with Historical sources of Singapore Law a guide to (digitized) materials for researching Singapore’s legal history. You can benefit also from the guide to Singapore Primary Sources by her colleague Nur Diyana. The National University of Singapore offers digitized historical maps of Singapore (from 1846 onwards), a HISGIS for Singapore and the Singapore Biographical Database dealing with Chinese personalities in Singapore’s history The NUS Libraries have a large section with digitized Chinese materials pertaining to Singapore, including historical newspapers. At Singapore Statutes Online you can find three constitutional documents and a few acts from the colonial period.

The holdings of archives, libraries, museums and galleries in Singapore can be searched conveniently using the One Search portal. Thus you can look at inventories of the National Archives of Singapore. At its digital portal Archives Online you can look for example at a section for government records with also parliamentary papers – and at the Straits Settlements Records (1826-1946), Overseas and Private Records. The Singapore Policy History Project of the NAS is also worth your attention.

Of course important collections relevant to the subjects of this post can be found elsewhere. In the Cambridge Digital Library you can find the collection Voices of civilian internment: WWII Singapore. Among digitized items of the vast collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society you find can some panoramic photographs of Hong Kong, Macau and Kanton (Guangzhou) made in the early twentieth century.

Three or four harbors?

When you look at old maps of Macau and Hong Kong the latter is often difficult to spot, but yet another harbor to the north in the Pearl River Delta is quite visible, Guangzhou, to the Western world long known as Canton. Guangzhou is situated some 145 kilometer north of Hong Kong. To mention just one characteristic about Guangzhou, Cantonese is one of the major forms of the Chinese language. Singapore and Guangzhou figure in the top ten of largest harbors of the world. It would have been interesting to look here also at Guangzhou, for example at the Guangzhou National Archives, but it is perhaps better to admit I spotted it rather late.

While preparing this post on the history of three Asian ports another thing became very visible for me. In the Human Development Index of the United Nations, a quite detailed overview with several sections, you will find in the main HDI list just behind the top on place 7 Hong Kong, and on place 9 Singapore. Macau is not included in the HDI, but it would rank around number 17. China currently figures at place 88 of the HDI main list. The three city states of this post simply belong to the richest countries and areas of our world. Two of these three ports hold a stable place among the world’s busiest harbors.

Inevitably there are some clear lacunae in my post. It would be most useful to know about digital versions of the historical gazette(s) for Hong Kong, not just for Macau and Singapore. I referred only briefly to the historical and current constitutions which can be swiftly found using one or more of the portals for constitutions worldwide. Incidentally, I have listed a dozen relevant portals for constitutions at the digital libraries page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie, where you will also see the archives I mention here. The page for digital libraries brings you also to the major portals for official gazettes and treaties. I have not looked closely at the development of the legal systems in the three city states, but this calls for more space, time and knowledge – both of the legal systems involved and of Portuguese, Malay and Chinese! – to engage with them here in real depth and width. The selection of resources for their cultural and legal heritage shows at the very least the need to use multiple perspectives. Perhaps the largest deficit here is the lack of references to (legal) sources in and about China and its history, and the omission of a perspective from China. On my website I mention a number of digital libraries with Chinese books and also a number of archives in China, but I point only to a small number of resources on China’s legal history. Finding digital resources with digitized old books for Malaysia is an even greater challenge, but it is also advisable to turn to bibliographical research. The Asean Digital Library has digitized some 1,300 items from the National Library of Malaysia.

Whatever the outcome of the current conflicts in Hong Kong, it is surely influenced by the fact people live here literally packed on the shores of a thriving harbor and an important Asian economy. The people of Hong Kong are acutely aware of the legal, economical and political differences with China. These differences stand both for the success of Hong Kong and the challenges it faces. All over the world major towns have to deal with problems national governments find difficult to address. A number of cities worldwide cooperate in networks such as Metropolis and United Cities and Local Governments. The city states of this post stand out as not just remarkable legal cases for doing comparative law and comparative legal history, but as communities in densely inhabitated towns at pivotal points in the world economy and at the frontiers of major countries which have and show their own interests in them. The mixed legal systems of Hong Kong and Macau are a mixed blessing. All three towns in this post have a long history of great changes which will encourage them to face current problems, too.