Category Archives: Digital projects

Early Modern risks at sea and legal history

Header AveTransRisk, University of Exeter

Transporting goods by ship is a risky business, certainly without modern forms of insurance. In the Early Modern period European merchants, sailors and traders developed a number of ways to mitigate the costs of damage at sea. In the European project Average-Transaction Costs and Risk Management during the First Globalization (Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries) (AveTransRisk) of the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies at the University of Exeter one particular solution comes into view. Interestingly, aspects of legal history come very much into view within this project with maritime history as its core. One of the many results of this project came unexpectedly for me into view, thus bringing a welcome chance to present it here and to look at some of its aspects.

An international project

The ERC-funded project AveTransRisk is led by Maria Fusaro, director of the centre in Exeter and also leader for the other major project of the centre, Sailing into modernity. The project aims at gaining insight into legal institutions helping to divide among parties the risks of costs due to damage during a voyage at sea. As a means to achieve this objective the legal construction of general average forms the focal point of the historical investigation of the large project team. For this project data were collected for the period 1500-1800 from five countries with a large shipping trade: England, France, Italy, the Low Countries and Spain.

A major result of this project is a database accompanied by a glossary and introductions to the source materials. These introductions come with examples of voyages and a filter to select these voyages directly. For Italy sources from Genoa and Tuscany are used. Pisa and Livorno are the two Tuscan ports in this section. The inclusion of Malta is most welcome, even though in this case the nineteenth century is the research period. For France the focus is on the Royal Insurance Chamber, in existence between 1668 and 1689. In the case of Spain the main source of information for this projet is the Casa de la Contratación in Seville. I will discuss some of the example voyages, but I encourage you to investigate these introductions and examples yourself.

Alas currently similar introductions for the two main ports of the Low Countries in the Early Modern period are not yet present, nor have data been entered into the current version of the database, and the same is the case for England. For Antwerp I cannot give you quick guidance except pointing you to the Felixarchief, and to publications by two members of the Exeter team, Gijs Dreijer and Dave de ruysscher. At my blog I discussed in 2014 a number of Dutch and Flemish examples of municipal courts led by aldermen, among them the schepenen of Amsterdam dealing with “Assurantiën, Averijen en Zeezaken” and the resources at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam for studying this tribunal. Luckily, this archive explains itself – only in Dutch – the nature of the averijgrossen for the period 1700-1810 in its holdings, with illustrations, references to other relevant archival records and resoiurces such as digitized newspapers, and examples of some cases. Some 10,000 cases can be searched online using an index leading you directly also to scans of the acts. This is a major difference with the situation in 2013 at the launch of this index. I suppose this information concerning Amsterdam will in some form appear eventually also at the website of the project in Exeter.

Cornelis Mahu (1613-1689), Ships in a storm - painting, Staatliche Museen Schwerin -mimages source RKD
Cornelis Mahu (Antwerp, 1613-1689), Ships in a storm near a rocky coast – painting, Staatliche Museen Schwerin – image source: RKD, The Hague,

In happy cooperation Gijs Dreijer and I contributed an article about an Early Modern legal treatise on average by Quintyn Weytsen to a volume about important Dutch legal works since 1500, ‘Een tractaet van avarien – 1617 – Quintyn Weytsen (1517-1564)’, in: Juristen die schreven en bleven. Nederlandstalige rechtsgeleerde klassiekers, G. Martyn, L. Berkvens and P. Brood (eds.) (Hilversum 2020) 38-41 (also online, Pro Memorie 21/1 (2019) (PDF)). Weytsen’s treatise was often reprinted. In Amsterdam the Kamer van Assurantie en Averij referred to it, and it influenced also customary law in Antwerp. We had liked to add to our article an image of the impressive painting shown here above, but this was not possible, hence my choice here.

Using the AveTransRisk database

It is time to look more closely at the database. Of course there is at the start an example of the way general average was calculated. The vessel, the freight and cargo were all taken into consideration. It helps you to see how costs for damage would become substantially lower than without this legal precaution. The general free search mode of the database allows fuzzy search results. The advanced search mode helps you greatly for many kinds of questions. You can add and remove text fields and choice fields at will. With a choice filed you can select from a dropdown menu with a wide range of categories, and also restrict your search to one or more archives.

The range of fields to choose from is truly luxurious. The advanced search guide does lists and explains the various field types. You can check for particular weather conditions, and for all kind of measures. This helps you also to refine or reframe your own research aims. The guide indicates you can only enter for French records the insurance date, and only for Spanish records the trials section is available. Some of the query results, the ports involved and the events during a voyage can be shown also on a map. You can copy and print your results, or export them as a CSV file, Excel or PDF.

Screen print ATR database in report mode

The database offers also six main list overviews: for averages, events, voyages, vessels, masters, and reports. When you select for example in the ports view Dunkerque you get an overview of all voyages mentioning this harbour town long feared by sailors and traders for its pirates. In my opinion it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the database by using first these lists, and to check at will the information about the voyages in the results. The screenprint here above shows a part of the summary for voyage no. 10016 created from two archival records held at the Archivio di Stato di Pisa. The database allow you to distinguish between ports visited, ports of departure and ports of destination. The locations can be chosen from a dropdown menu, hinting at the obvious need to standardize the names of locations in different languages. For other aspects, too, you can choose the aspect you want to focus on. The maps help you to visualise the voyages and to consider the amount of time a voyage and its aftermath took. The glossary and the table on silver equivalence in currency are most useful, too.

Early Modern shipping news

It is seducing to look at further aspects of this rich database, even when you might have wanted to find now also English, Dutch and Flemish voyages and cases. Of course ports in England, Flanders and the Dutch Republic do figure now, too, in the database. The new thing to highlight in the data available here is the combination of economic, maritime and legal history which mutually enrich each other. It throws new light Early Modern transport.

The examples adduced as sample data deserve our tattention here. Among the example cases for Genoese records is the story of a ship in 1639 first colliding with another vessel while loading (!) and suffering damage by storms at sea (voyage 502297). For cases from Seville just one example is adduced of a voyage in 1585 with damage to the hull of the ship, jettisoned mechandise and angry merchants in court who did not believe the crew’s story (voyage 70011). Here I had expected an example showing one of the typical Spanish flotas, the fleets so typical of Spanish naval voyages. There is a wide range of examples from Tuscany. The Antwerp vessel Corvo Volante – I guess originally named something like the Vlieghende Raef – sailing in 1599 from Brasil with sugar destined for Lisbon had to jettison some of its cargo off the Azores and ended its voyage in Livorno (voyage 10022). A French example adduced by the team cannot be missed here. They mention a voyage in 1670 (no. 92799) from Le Havre to Guinea, hence to the Americas and back to Le Havre, a typical triangle voyage well known in the Transatlantic slave trade, with indeed enslaved persons as its merchandise.

The rich documentation assembled within the database has led the team to a fair stream of publications. The archival background is duly mentioned in the section on datasets. Let’s certainly not forget the fleet of other resources for maritime history brought together by the research centre in Exeter at its website. The guide to naval records in the National Archives, Kew (384 pp., PDF) and its introduction by the centre take for me the palm as something absolutely worth saving whatever your views of the project on general average and its European legal history. The project finally came to my attention again thanks to the transcription model four team members contributed to the Transkribus project for Italian administrative hands (1550-1700), one of just four Italian models now available. As for the Dutch side of these project, it is good to know Sabine Go (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam) leads hetrself in Amstedam the project Risky Business with Giovanni Ceccarelli and Antonio Iodice in her staff, Maria Fusaro on the advisory board, and some other members of the Exeter team (Dave de ruysscher, Guido Rossi and Lewis Wade) in its wider network.

The interplay between the economy, maritime trade, state regulations and city tribunals are at the heart of the AveTransRisk project. Legal historians can hardly complain about the efforts done here to bring general average into the limelight. The assessment of risks and the calculation of damages shed light on a very real aspect of Early Modern trade and commerce. This project is a contribution to comparative (legal) history helping you to compare for instance between city states and centrally governed countries. They bring the necessary details needed to confirm larger hypotheses in a more sophisticated way. Even now without the records from England, Flanders and the Low Countries the database is most valuable.

I will not hide my vivid interest in the very realistic stories told by people about their sometimes dramatic voyages at sea, or even suffering damage already on loading. They bridge the gap between legal abstractions and court narratives. It is great to have so many archival records now accessible online for anyone wanting to gain insight into general average as a matter of morem than average interest for Early Modern and legal historians.

A postscript

You can now learn more about general average and the AveTransRisk project from the volume General Average and Risk Management in Medieval and Early Modern Maritime Business, edited by Maria Fusaro, Andrea Abboddati and Luisa Piccinno (2023), also available online in open access.

Reconstructing Irish history from the ashes

Logo Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland

The loss of archival records by an accident, deliberate destruction or whatever other cause is one of the greatest threats for the collective memory of peoples and nations, and even for humankind in general. How can you substitute things lost for ever? Such thoughts were very much alive after June 30, 1922, when the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin went on fire during the Battle of Dublin. Munition stored in the building was hit by shells and multiple fires destroyed documents from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Only in 1928 the PRO could reopen. On June 30, 1922 the National Archives of Ireland launched the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, a portal with at its heart three reconstructed archival collections. In this post I will look at the new portal, and also at the project of Trinity College, Dublin, for the reconstruction of records for the medieval Irish Chancery.

Lost in one afternoon

Logo National Archives of Ireland

The turns and key moments in irish history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can readily be defined as tragedies. The famine in the mid-nineteenth century became worse by appalling English actions and negligence. With the emigrants to the United States of America Ireland was bereft again of many thousand people. Gladstone could nearly bring Home Rule for Ierland, but both he and Asquith just before the First World War did not succeed in accomplishing it. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the civil war that led to the foundation of the Irish Republic took a heavy toll, and the Troubles since 1969 were another grim period which ended just a few decades ago. After the Brexit the Irish frontier has become again a real political frontier. By the way, the National Archives in Dublin bring the period between 1912 and 1923 to your attention with the apt heading Decade of Centenaries.

When even the memory of many periods with turmoil is destroyed more happens than just irreparable loss of documents. It is a cultural disaster, damaging the collective memory and removing a point of reference. Normally I try to avoid writing about centenaries and commemorations, but with the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland you have a very important sign of revival, a kind of light shining and bringing back things that seemed totally lost. For a long period after the Four Courts Blaze only the socalled Salved Records, charred record remains, survived as did rather miraculously the finding aids, catalogues and the staff library.

Let´s go immediately to the core of the new portal. Three collections are presented in a new digital form, starting in chronological order with the medieval exchequer from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the Cromwellian Surveys from the late seventeenth century, and the 1766 religious census. If anything this choice of records ornamented with the lofty title Gold Seams shows already the range in time of the holdings at the National Archives of ireland.

The medieval exchequer

Example of a record from the Exchequer for Ireland, TNA E 101/237/5 - image source VRT / TNA
Example of a record from the Exchequer for Ireland, TNA E 101/237/5 – image source VRT / TNA

The collection concerning records of the medieval exchequer for Ireland is not entirely characteristic of the Virtual Record Treasury, because almost all these records are held at the National Archives, Kew. Three main record types are presented: issue rolls, receipt rolls, enrolled parchments and two memoranda rolls (NAI, EX 1/1 and EX 1/2) from the fourteenth century. Luckily the Irish Record Commission had made summaries of the memoranda rolls; a digital version of the 43 volumes is a desideratum. The web page with illustrated examples of these records series and related documents (Manuscripts Gallery) is very instructive. In the section Delving Deeper you will find more historical background and additional images, including editorial conventions and a liost of recurring phrases. The section with stories does what it promises.

Navigating the images of records can be done in several ways. The free text search filed offers the most simple search mode, but you can alo filter for reference code, title and creator. The advanced search mode functions for the whole Virtual Record Treasury. You can start with the fields for title, creator and reference code, and chnage them or add a field for repository and/or transcription. After scrolling down you can find under the heading Further search options filters for a particular time range, Gold Seam, query expansion, fuzzy search, and items without images. Apart from a particular Gold Seam you can also limit your search to the Treasures.

The option Gold Seam Highlight in the navigation menu for the exchequer brings you not only a number of useful general descriptions of medieval record genres, but also access to records

Document view screen in the highlights section for the medieval exchequer


Document view screen in the highlights section for the medieval exchequer

Only after trying to use this view I succeeded in accessing actual images. By clicking on a record title you can access them in a kind of workspace with at your left several view options. Some way of highlighting the choices when you hover over them would be helpful. I did not yet find a concise user manual for this workspace. The use of the term manifests and the presence in the left corner of the distinctive logo are normally sufficient signs for indicating the use of the IIIF compliant Mirador viewer, but due to tropical temperatures I clearly failed to recognize them at first!

At this point I would like to mention the general User Guide which does not just help a casual visitor or a curious historian. In my opinion the National Archives of Ireland succeed here splendidly in explaining not only the features of the Virtual Record Treasury, but also a number of archival matters in an exemplary way. The distinctions between several possible grades of documents in relation to an original are given, and also a number of key description terms. A four colour code is used to indicate linked records in the three Gold Seams, the three core collections of this portal.

The Cromwellian surveys of the seventeenth century

The next core collection brings you to Early Modern Ireland in the period starting with the revolt of 1641 that eventually led to the end of landholding by the Catholic gentry and aristocracy. The landowners’ surveys of the 1650s formed a key element in this development. In the nineteenth century the Irish Manuscript Commission created a massive index for the socalled Down Surveys or Cromwellian Surveys. The digitized surveys are reinforced by some 2,000 digitized maps. These resources show landed property in a very detailed way. The starting page of this section leads you also to a video and a background essay.

The Barony of Sheelburne in the County of Wexford by George Tuffin alias Johnson - London BL, 72868, f. 077


The Barony of Sheelburne in the County of Wexford by George Tuffin alias Johnson – London BL, add. ms.72868, f. 077

Exactly the combination of records and maps helps you to view matters in telling detail. The manuscript gallery for this section shows a fine example how using a number of survey records gives you a much fuller view than each of them separately. Land already owned by Protestant supporters of Cromwell is shown as blank spaces in the Down Survey. Among the items shown are also some editions of records, but the coloured maps attract your attention, too. I could not readily spot clear references for the resources shown. The highlights for the Cromwellian surveys contain documents held at Dublin, Belfast, London and Paris. Here, too, you can use the IIIF-compliant Mirador viewer to view images of records. I must again admit I was initially a bit confused by the way of navigating to the record images. However, I realize that until now I met the Mirador viewer exclusively for viewing medieval manuscripts, not for archival records or record series.

For understanding the Cromwellian Surveys it pays off to start with the page Delving Deeper. You can read here about the historical background of the plans for confiscation and their aftermath. There is precious information about parish maps and barony maps, on further archival resources elsewhere, editorial explanations, and information about some relevant publications about the digitization project. By the way the subdomain The Down Survey of Trinity College Dublin, offers another digital road to this survey.

The 1766 religious census

The importance of the 1766 religious census is the wealth of historical and genealogical information it provides concerning the period before the census of 1813. Just 59 original items survived the 1922 disaster, but luckily transcripts and records held elsewhere can now supplement this information bringing you some 50,000 names.

This time I started with the page Delving Deeper in order to get a good view of the documents and their background. The information for each parish was not uniformly recorded, and thus it is by chance some very rich records have survived. In some cases ministers added social or political comments in their record. The archival history and use of this census before 1922 is traced here, too. Some remnants of editorial remarks for preparing this webpage made me smile abou the efforts of the webteam preparing this splendid portal. We should not complain about every small blemish and forget the overall quality!

A Parliamentary Return, here for Cullen (detail) – Dublin, National Archives of Ireland, IHP/1/688

The manuscripts gallery for this section gives further illustrations of the record genres themselves and of the whole process to create and evaluate this census, including diocesan overviews of parishes and the final recording in the Book of Returns. The highlights bring you to six different records, not just the official Parliamentary Returns. Here again a better way of indicating the navigation is most welcome, for example by just adding some marker to each item, perhaps only a streak before each title. Maybe the fact the Mirador viewer was developed with the aim to contain single manuscripts plays a role here, but this viewer has now also been adapted by the Dutch Nationaal Archief for viewing some digitized records of the former Ministerie van Koloniën, and they can be navigated without any ado. Alas this archive did not translate its message of October 11, 2022 about this new feature into English, nor has it been duplicated in the research section. As an addition to the three aspects common to each of the three main collections you will find in the Virtual Record Treasury also a story section, albeit with currently just two essays.

Beyond digitized collections

The Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland is a true treasure trove! It points also nicely to the fact the word treasure is both a noun and a verb. The rich collections of this portal help very much to rekindle interest in several periods of Ireland’s chequered history. Not the least bonus is the way light is shed on the importance of records elsewhere, in particular in England, and on the changing relations between England and Ireland. The word United Kingdom has definitely a hollow ring in view of some dark periods in Irish history where English rule seems to deserve the adjective colonial.

The new portal contains much more that I will only mention briefly here, because you will want to investigate these features yourself. There is a useful glossary of technical terms around digitization. The virtual tour of the old Public Record Office desrves your attention, too. It is also possible to browse the items from particular contributing institutions. The section Thematic collections brings you to more newly digitized collections with additional resources, such as the 1922 Salved Records, the Down Survey and Grand Jury maps. The overview of partners can serve you as a web directory for institutions with relevant holdings for Irish history.

Although I could point you to more corners of the Virtual Treasury of Ireland I would like to mention here a few other online projects well worth visiting. Somehow I had expected to find the respective links also at this portal, but this can readily be redeemed. The records of the medieval Irish exchequer can be supplemented with the project CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Rolls c. 1244-1509, created by Trinity College Dublin in a couple of decades. This institution created also the project The Down Survey: Mapping a century of change. where you can use a HISGIS map next to the survey records. The decision for the Cromwellian Survey came following a period of much turmoil. In particular The 1641 Depositions, another project from Dublin, from a decade before the great surveys, should not be forgotten. The Great Parchment Project of the London Metropolitan Archives focuses on a survey in 1639 of landed property in county Derby.

Header CICLE project, Trinity College Dublin

I promised at the start to look here also at the CIRCLE project of Trinity College Dublin. This project contains some 20,000 charters. Charters in Latin have been translated into English. It is possible to browse and search charters by reign and by roll type (patent rolls or close rolls). The advanced search mode offers you even more. The project helps your research with fine introductions, overviews of medieval and editorial abbreviations, a glossary and a bibliography. In the links section you will find more projects with medieval accounting rolls. For many items there are images. In my view this project is truly much more than just another calendar for medieval sources. Let’s not insist too much on the obvious fact that your research can benefit enormously from combining this resource with the exchequer records now available online in the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland.

I had intended to finish this post much earlier, but surely I mean this contribution as a heartfelt homage to all efforts shown here to bring Irish history to the widest possible public. Twenty years ago the archival building of my own employer, the Regionaal Archief Zuid-Utrecht in Wijk bij Duurstede, was flooded. Thanks to swift, massive and apt efforts almost every damaged record could be salvaged and restored. Such catastrophes make it less normal for me that we are are at all able to consult historical records, and hence my interest and admiration for this most valuable project in Dublin. Keeping archival records safe and creating access to them in various ways, from finding aids and indexes to transcriptions and digital collections, can only happen when we sustain efforts to investigate the past and to cherish cultural heritage for the present and for future generations.

Roads to foreign legal gazettes

Startscreen interactive map Foreign Law Gazettes, Law Library of Congress

To find current laws you will probably start by going to a national portal for legislation. Until two decades ago it was quite normal to search for new laws in legal gazettes, many of them now only appearing in an electronic format. Finding foreign legal gazettes can be a real challenge, especially for older issues. In this post I will look at some directories for foreign legal gazettes, and I will fcous in particular on the interactive map for finding legal gazettes created recently by the Law Library of Congress. This library is without any doubt the largest law library in the world. For me it meant a welcome opportunity to update the concise information about this subject on my legal history website Rechtshistorie and to write here at greater length about ways to trace legal gazettes.

Protecting the law

I was alerted to the new interactive map of the Law Library of Congress by a post at its blog In Custodia Legis. In fact several recent posts concern the efforts to create access to the LoC’s own vast collection of legal gazettes, for example a post from January 2021 with a video about the cataloging project leading to the interactive map, and a post in May 2022 about recent additions ot the digital collection of legal gazettes at the LoC.

Logo Law Library of Congress

Apart from navigating the interactive map you can also use the search filters provided at the start screen of the interactive legal gazettes map. It is most thoughtful to distinguish between national and subnational gazettes. In the overview below the map historical and municipal jurisdictions have not been forgotten, too, as is a succinct notice about the coverage of a legal gazette. You can also filter for six preset formats. There is also a mobile version of the interactive map. The menu button in the top right corner of the online map leads you to the LoC’s digital collection of legal gazettes, back to the main LoC website, or to the Ask a Librarian service. It would be helpful to provide here also a direct link to the Law Library itself which is not easily found from the startscreen of the Library of Congress. Its dimensions and importance make better visibility in my view an absolute must.

Strangely the website of the Library of Congress currently lacks a separate page devoted to its gazettes collection. The link to such a page does lead you only to its digital collection. The interactive map cum database is not included in the list with available databases, nor does it merit a guide among the rich choice of research guides. However, the LoC’s digital collection of legal gazettes – with currently nearly 8,500 items – is supported by a current number of 34 web archives of online legal gazettes worldwide. Maybe a kind of Quick Links section can help visitors of the website of the Law Library of Congress, at the collections page or its section Nations of the World of its Guide to Law Online. Internal references at such points can be most helpful, as are the directions provided in the introduction to its own important digital collection for this subject. I suppose we have to keep in mind the website of the Library of Congress is actually a portal site. It mirrors faithfully its vast dimensions and manifold qualities. The Law Library is one of the jewels in the crown of the Library of Congress that should shine more brighly at this great online portal! When you take into consideration the many positive aspects going often far beyond your expectations my remarks are not meant to diminish these qualities which I greatly admire.

Other roads to foreign legal gazettes

When writing this post it seemed the Library of Congress’ online repertory wins in importance by the fact I could not reach the online repertory for foreign legal gazettes created by the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) in Chicago. In fact I could not reach the CRL and its digital collections at all. There is a more restricted Directory of Online Government Gazettes at a personal web page of the University of Michigan. It can be helpful to use the list of government gazettes at Wikipedia, even when considering the very succinct listing with few details wihtin the list, but for a number of these gazettes dedicated Wikipedia pages exist. The similar list of the German Wikipedia, called Liste gesamtstaatlicher Vorschriftensammlungen shows more details. The version at the Spanish Wikipedia is just a list, giving you only fifteen gazettes for Europe and most national gazettes for Latin America, and also regional gazettes for Spain and Mexico.

Startscreen FLARE Foreign Offical Govenment Gazettes search, IALDS, London

Luckily the FLARE Foreign Official Government Gazettes Database of the IALS, School of Advanced Legal Studies, London, is up and running. With a free text search field and six fields for advanced search some reassuring care for bibliographical and practical information of this database is clearly present. However, when you click on results you will not always find exact information about the publication period of a gazette, but surely the notes are helpful, such as no more than one year is missing in holdings, and sometimes there is very full information about legal online portals for a particular country.

For some regions and continents you can benefit from special online portals. Thus for Latin America you might want to look at the Red de Boletines Oficiales Americanos, but alas this link, too, did not function. The Digital Library of the Caribbean (DLoC) contains a number of official gazettes. The International Union List of South Asian Newspapers and Gazettes is a searchable database of the Digital South Asia Library, University of Chicago.

The digital collection of some African and South Asian legal gazettes created by Harvard Law School Library has vanished from the HLS library website, nor can you quickly find an overview of all its digital collections after the latest overhaul of its website. It might be useful indeed to give some direction to the digital collections of Harvard University Library which brings you to these gazettes within its digital collections. Some kind of list or overview at a logical point would be helpful and certainly feasible, but this seems to have been only an element of earlier online forms of these rich collections. You will be happy to use the Excel sheet created in 2019 by LLMC Digital for holding of African legal prints at the Library of Congress and eighteen other libraries in the United States and Canada, with information about legal gazettes. law codes and legal journals. For Africa you can luckily use the subdomain for gazettes of Laws.Africa.

Some concluding remarks

From this brief post it becomes clear finding foreign legal gazettes can indeed be daunting, but the interactive map of the Library of Congress is surely a fine point to start your search for this document type, as is the database of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies. Both institutions offer more than just ionformation on current legal gazettes. The paragraph for the main portals to legal gazettes at my website needs definitely some updating. It is disturbing to note some very respected institutions do not longer offer the full information about the legal gazettes they hold, nor indicate the current gateway to their materials. For some continents addiitional overviews exists, and their information is a welcome addition. The longevity of Internet and digital collections is not as complete as you would like it to be. In my view legal historians should take due notice of the fact many overviews of legal gazettes focus on their current form and presence. Historical overviews are a rarity on the main online portals for foreign law, and also in library guides for the laws of paricular countries.

Whenever I come across digital collections with a substantial number of older issues or earlier gazettes I try to list them, but of course I cannot guarantee complete coverage. We should very much appreciate and welcome the efforts of teams at some of the world’s most renown libraries to create effective overviews of particular resources. Such initiatives should be a spur for research institutions to create better visibility for their libraries which offer so much more than just stacks for holdings in print and access to databases, online repositories and digital collections.

A postscript

The Center for Research Libraries repeated in January 2022 the Foreign Official Gazettes Database has not been updated since 2007 and is now only maintained as a legacy project. The digitized legal gazettes formerly available throught CRL can now be consulted at LLMC Digital in licensed access.

Medieval sources for Normandy’s (legal) history

Startscreen Norécrit (detail)

Musing about a possible goal for a holiday this summer France is bound to enter my thoughts! Thus it made me really happy to find a new portal about French regional history with an European dimension. The portal Norécrit. Aus sources de la Normandie. Pratiques de l’écrit das la Normandie médiévale is a project at the Université de Caen Normandie bringing you a tripartite online corpus with sources for legal history, ecclesiastical administration and the history of medieval archives and libraries, in particular for the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. In earlier posts I looked here at Norman customary law and at the cultural heritage in the form of manuscripts from Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. What kind of sources can you find at Norécrit? How does the version presented at the new portal differ from earlier (online) editions?

Familiar and unfamiliar

Logo Craham, Université de Caen Normandie / CNRS

The portal Norécrit came to my attention thanks to the Réseau des médiévistes belges de langue française (RMBLF) which offers a calendar of scholarly events concerning medieval studies in Europe, and much else, too, such as notices about new publications and online projects. Let’s first chart the institutional constellation for Norécrit. The portal is the fruit of a team at the Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines (MRSH), and more specifically its unit Centre Michel de Boüard – CRAHAM (UMR 6273). Earlier on this centre launched in cooperation with numerous other institutions already the Bibliothèque virtuelle du Mont Saint-Michel. You can read more about the CRAHAM also at its blog Les Échos du Craham.

Law in medieval Normandy

The first section of Norécrit is directly concerned with medieval legal history. The équipe for this section is led by the director of CRAHAM, Laurence Jean-Marie. Under the heading Ecrits nomratif et vitalité économique. Les coutumes des villes et des ports you will find nineteen texts with customary law. Those for harbors contain regulations for tolls, they are not just tariff lists. The introduction states clearly we should not expect too much uniformity. Many texts are not official statements, but instead more privately produced text collections. Texts concerning forestry law have not been included. The Grand Coutumier de Normandie is not mentioned at all, since these texts have clearly a more local range. The Coutumes de la prévôté d’Harfleur (1387) is the first text edited at Norécrit, and the edition comes with a useful introduction and a presentation of the sources. A nineteenth-century edition used only one archival source, but here three medieval sources have been used for the new edition. You can browse the text using the sommaire or use the search function (recherche). This section brings a most valuable addition for the study of customary law in Normandy.

Viewing church life in the archdiocese Rouen

Administration par l’écrit dans l’Église du XIIIe siècle is the theme of the second section, led by Grégory Combalbert, and more specifically the development of the use of written records in the archdiocese Rouen covering the territory of Normandy. Three sources brought together here can show you church life during the thirteenth century in great detail. Apart from a pouillé, an overview of parishes in this archdiocese and episcopal acts from four archbishops the main resource here is the famous register of archiepiscopal visitations created by Eudes (Odo) Rigaud, archbishop from 1248 until 1275.

I suppose I am not the only scholar remembering reading about him in the great synthesis of medieval ecclesiastical history by the late Sir Richard William Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth 1970). The concise introduction to the visitations refers to both old and modern literature about this very active archbishop and his register. The edition by Théodose Bonnin, Regestrum visitationum archiepiscopi Rothomagensis : journal des visites pastorales d’Eude Rigaud, archevêque de Rouen 1248-1269 (Rouen 1852) can be consulted online at Gallica as can also the manuscript Paris, BnF, ms. latin 1245, alas only taken from an old but serviceable microfilm. It is wise to look at the full description of this manuscript at the website of the BnF, too, because it points you to some scholarly articles and the English translation by Sidney M. Brown with an introduction by Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, The register of Eudes of Rigaud (New York-London 1964).

A page of the pouillé for Rouen, 1236-1306 - Paris, BNF, ms. Latin 11052, fol, 5v - image source: Paris, BnF
A page of the pouillé for Rouen, 1236-1306 – Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 11052, fol, 5v – image source: Paris, BnF

The document with an overview of parishes in the archdiocese Rouen between 1236 and 1306, too, is preserved in a manuscript held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Ms. Latin 11052). Léopold Delisle published an edition of the text in 1894. The manuscript has been digitized in full color at Gallica, and you can find a succinct description in the online Archives et manuscrits catalog of the BnF.

Acts of four archbishops of Rouen between 1231 and 1275 form the third and last element in this section. Currently only acts up to 1257 are presented in the online edition. For some acts of Eudes Rigaud copies are found in his register. The edition contains both the texts of original charters and of later copies. The critical apparatus and annotation are all you can desire. It has to be noted that some seventy acts of the 154 acts stem from Eudes Rigaud. This Franciscan scholar and archbishop was clearly in many ways exceptional, but even when you acknowledge the bias caused by his zealous personality he remains most remarkable.

The archives and libraries of monasteries

The third axe of the project at the Université de Caen is led by Marie Bisson and focuses on one particular and very singular abbey, the Benedictine abbey under royal protection of the Mont Saint-Michel. The projected corpus of texts at Norécrit has not yet been completed. As for now you will find liturgical texts, followed by De abbatibus, the chronicle written by abbot Robert de Torigni about earlier abbots, and a subsection with sources concerning miracles happening at or touching Mont Saint-Michel. In a later phase of the project a corpus of texts written and reunited by Dom Thomas Le Roy in 1647 and 1648 will be published, and also the Constitutiones abbatiae Sancti Michaelis (1258) and statutes issued by pope Gregory IX. The constitutions will be edited from the manuscript Avranches, BM, 214, f. 9-16, and the papal statutes are at fol. 8-9 of this manuscript which you can view online in the Bibliothèque virtuelle du Mont Saint-Michel. In fact you will find there a description of this manuscript and already the incipits and explicits. It would be helpful if the French team provides this link at Norécrit, too. As an excuse for not doing this they can point to the online journal Tabularia. Sources écrits des mondes normands médiévaux with in the 2019 issue a critical edition of De abbatibus with translations in English and Italian by Pierre Bouet, Marie Bisson and others [‘Écrire l’histoire des abbés du Mont Saint-Michel 3. Édition critique et traduction’]. As a bonus they can point to the blog Mondes nordidiques et normands médiévaux.

Three windows on medieval Normandy

After creating the Bibliothèque virtuell du Mont Saint-Michel with numerous digitized manuscripts, most of them held at Avranches, it is not by coincidence this abbey figures large, too, at the new Norécrit portal. Its preeminence simply cannot be denied, but the portal helps to create a more balanced view in the two other sections. It is is splendid to see customary law at a local and municipal level, thus helping to place the Grand Coutumier de Normandie in its original context. In the Bibliothèque David Hoüard, Bibliothèque numérique de droit normand you can find numerous digitized resources concerning law in Normandy from the Middle Ages onwards. You might want to look also at the blog for the project RIN CONDÉ  (Constitution d’un Droit européen : six siècles de coutumiers normands). By the way, Gallica has among its Essentiels du droit a fine section with books and medieval manuscripts around the Coutume de Normandie. The second section of Norécrit brings together precious and interesting sources on medieval church administration and canon law. When searching for synodal statutes from Rouen you can find fourteen texts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the Corpus synodalium created at Stanford University.

The connections between Normandy and England, and the position of this duchy within France are obvious reasons for looking at Normandy as a region with European importance already in the medieval period. Hopefully my brief introduction to Norécrit and references to some accompanying projects and blogs helps you to put Normandy into perspective as more than just a lovely region for a summer holiday in France!

A postscript

At the CRAHAM Grégory Combalbert has created an online edition for acts of the bishops of Évreux from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Actes des évêques d’Évreux (xie siècle-1223), surely worth mentioning here, too. You can view also images of these charters and acts.

A digital approach to the Early Modern inquisition in Portugal

Banner e-Inquisition

Sometimes a word evokes almost automatically an association with a distinct historical period. The word inquisition is first and foremost linked with medieval Europe. On this blog and website I explain why speaking about the inquisition is misleading. In Early Modern Europe the Spanish and Italian inquisition received most attention from historians, but in Italy you have to distinguish between Rome and Venice. Recently the project TraPrInq started for the transcription and study of records of the inquisition in Portugal between 1536 and 1821. The project is accompanied by the blog e-Inquisition hosted by the international Hypotheses network. In this post I will look at the plans of the project team and its importance for studying both Portuguese and Brazilian history.

Records from four centuries

The blog for TraPrInq itself show nicely how much this project is in a starting phase. While preparing this post its layout changed. At the blog a concise presentation of the project is offered in French, Portuguese and English. The core of the current team is the Centro de Humanidades (CHAM) at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Alas I could not find any information about this project running in 2022 and 2023 at the website of the CHAM. However, it is stated TraPrInq is connected with an earlier CHAM project on censorship and the Portuguese inquisition. One of the main objectives is to create transcriptions of court records using the Transkribus technology, discussed here earlier in a post about Early Modern court records and legal consultations in Germany. In fact Hervé Baudry, the blog editor, is responsible for the Transkribus model for Latin-Portuguese print from the seventeenth century. By the way, this and other models are also present for free use without registration at the recently launched platform Transkribus AI.


As for now 140 records have been transcribed, good for some 190,000 words, a fair base for a HTR (Handwritten Text Recogniition) model in Transkribus. I was somewhat mystified by the utter absence of information about the actual location of the records to be transcribed and studied. The clue for a unmistakable identification is the fact the records stem from a tribunal with jurisdiction both in Portugal and Brazil. The Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (ANTT) in Lisbon is the holding institution. It is not a bad idea to start with one of its four virtual exhibitions concerning the inquisition in Portugal. preferably with Inquisição da Lisboa online telling you about the nearly 20,000 registers for which 2,3 million digital images have been put online. The ANTT has within the archive of the Tribunal de Santo Oficio (TSO) records of the Inquisição de Lisboa (IL). The scope note and inventory in Portuguese of this archival subfonds is available online at the :Portuguese Digitarq portal. Series 028 contains the processos. Digital images of documents are directly linked to numerous items.

Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the Portuguese inquisition I tried to look a bit wider for information about its archival traces. The wiki of FamilySearch brings you only to records for a few years digitized earlier and available at SephardicGen. The online inventory of the ANTT is mentioned by Family Search, but not its inclusion of digitized records. It is a nice exercise to compare versions of the relevant Wikipedia articles in English, Portuguese and Spanish, in particular for their bibliographies and linguistic preferences. Luckily I found a special of the Brazilian journal Politeia: Historie e Sociedade 20/1 (2021) with a Dossiê Temático Tribunal do Santo Ofício Português, 200 anos após extinção: História e Historiografia opening with a contribution by Grayce Mayre Bonfim Souza about the archive of the Tribunal do Santo Oficio.

Let me not forget to note here the CHAM has created an online index of the fonds Manuscritos do Brasil held at the ANTT. The e-Inquisition blog contains currently apart from the brief introduction five articles,four in Portuguese and one in English touching a wide variety of themes, The recent brief article in English brings you an overview of the palaeographers and historians in the project team. Baudry wrote for example about censorship in the books of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa and (in French) about the famous trial of Manuel Maria de Barbosa du Bocage, with images and transcriptions of four documents. Baudry’s article about Pedro Lupina Freire brings a seventeenth-century notary into the spotlights who became an agent for the tribunal. A most fascinating article is concerned with the double use of asterisks by censors, both to hide information and to highlight matters.

No doubt more information about the TraPrInq project will soon appear at the e-Inquisition blog and at the website of the CHAM, in particular concerning the progress at Transkribus of the creation of the new HTR model for Portuguese Early Modern script, and the location where transcriptions will become available online for the wider scholarly community. Thanks to this transcription project the records of the Inquisição de Lisboa will surely show more of their rich content touching many parts of the Early Modern world, not just Jewish and colonial history. The combination of a detailed inventory, digitized images and digital transcriptions will make it possible to ask different questions. This project shows at least the very real need for trained palaeographers, but I am sure the knowledge of legal historians, too, will be necessary to tap this wealth of information.

An addendum

In Spring 2022 the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal held the exposition Bibliotecas limpas. Censura dos livros impressos nos séculos XV a XIX curated by Hervé Baudry. The virtual exposition Bocage 1735-1805 created by the BN brings you to the life and works of this poet; the chronology mentions his trial in 1802.

Censorship by the Portuguese inquisition is the subject of the portal Inquisition in Action launched on June 20, 2022 by the CIUHCT, also in Lisbon.

Getting close to medieval papal registers

Logo Archivio Apostolico VaticanoEven when you are interested in totally different subjects in medieval history emperors, kings and popes attract your attention. Their power and authority make them a natural focus for research, also because the most powerful people and institutions leave a rich track in archival records and manuscripts. Upheavals such as wars, fires and revolutions destroyed parts of this legacy in parchment and paper, but a massive amount of information has survived five or more centuries. The papal curia is rightly seen as one of the earliest and most active medieval bureaucracies. In 2019 the Vatican archives received a new name, Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (AAV) instead of the familiar Archivio Segreto Vaticano, a term which could led people to believe enormous secrets still await discovery. In my view the sheer number of documents, the challenge of languages, medieval scripts and intricate legal matters form the real barrier for abundant use of this archive in a class of its own. In this post I will look at the ways medieval papal registers are now made accessible in print and online. However, it is necessary and useful, too, to look also at least briefly at ways to find documents held at the AAV.

Logo XVIth congress 2022

This post is also meant as a salute to the upcoming XVIth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, to be held at St. Louis, MO, from July 17 to 23, 2022, and as a service to anyone interested in studying pivotal documents for the study of papal history and medieval canon law. For a real understanding of the documents mentioned here it will not do to merely having a glance at them, you will need to immerse yourself into them, and this will enrich you.

In this post the focus will be on access to the original documents, and much less on projects with databases for papal documents. A number of databases and projects for medieval charters is presented in a recent post.

Finding papal registers from the Middle Ages

Two years ago I stated in a post about digital resources rather flatly you cannot find any online inventory at the website of the AAV. This was not entirely true. In fact the four series of medieval papal registers are the very exception to my observation. I had better give you immediately the links to the inventories for these series:

Registra Avenioniensia (RA) 1-349
Registra Lateranensia (RL) 1-138 / 498-534 / 925-1126, 1128
Registra Supplicationum (RS) 1-265 / 479 – 509 / 961-1169
Registra Vaticana (RV) 1-545 / 772-884

These inventories can be found in the section for publications of the AAV website. I had not realized that the lists with the contents of the four cd-rom sets give you in fact at least a partial inventory of these registers. The cd-roms are only available at research libraries and cannot be accessed worldwide online. You will notice with me these four inventories seemingly do not list all registers of the four series, and I will come back to this fact quickly. For your convenience the overview of papal registers in chronological order by pope from Innocent III to Benedict XIII offered by the Centre Pontifical d’Avignon is very useful.

The modern editions of papal registers from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries form the core of the subscription-only online resource Ut per litteras apostolicas hosted by Brepols. The overview of the Brepolis resources portal gives you a useful concise list of the modern editions published by French scholars since the late nineteenth century. In a period with no or very limited physical access to libraries I felt hard pressed to find a list of these editions in print. My copy of Raoul van Caenegem and François Ganshof, Encyclopedie van de geschiedenis der middeleeuwen (Ghrnt 1962) is a bit old. This first edition in Dutch contains relevant information at pages 211 to 215. Somewhat newer is my copy of Winfried Baumgart, Bücherverzeichnis zur deutschen Geschichte. Hilfsmittel-Handbücher-Quellen (12th ed., Munich 1997) with information on pages 170 to 173. The information given by Olivier Guyotjeannin, Jacques Pycke and Benoît-Michel Tock (eds.), Diplomatique médiévale (Turnhout 1993) at pp. 333-338 contains less details for the two major French edition series, but the editors send you rightly to the book of Thomas Frenz, Papsturkunden des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Stuttgart 1986).

On April 24, 2021 Yvonne Searle published a valuable post with links to various resources with editions of medieval papal documents. The editions of papal registers from the thirteenth and fourteenth century form just a section of her contribution. For these editions she points mainly to digitized versions in the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust Digital Library. I hesitated to add here for a number of these registers links to Gallica and Princeton Theological Commons, but it would have been repeating a job already sufficiently well done.

Not only for English readers you might sooner or later, but preferably as soon as possible turn to the guide by the late Leonard Boyle, A survey of the Vatican Archives and of its medieval holdings (Toronto 1972; new edition 2001). Almost seventy pages of this book deal with medieval papal registers. Even a cursory reading of these pages should make you aware of the danger of any superficial approach of these registers. The general remarks in my post should be seen in the light of Boyle’s detailed explanations and telling examples. As a student I was explicitly told to read first this classic guide before going to Rome or Vatican City. His book should for once and all teach you the fact you need to know not only about the inventories or the editions, but also use every reliable guide you can find. Just reading Boyle’s remark that some Avignonese registers have been placed among the Registra Vaticana and vice versa should serve as a wake up call. For English readers his remarks about the contents of the various calendars created in England from papal registers are a must read. Instead of going blissfully unaware to digitized calendars at the British History portal reading Boyle’s explanations should alert you to many things concerning the study of papal registers.

Guidance to records of the medieval papacy

Logo ArchiveGrid

Far more voluminous than the surprisingly concise guide offered by Boyle is the guide created by Francis Blouin et alii (eds.), An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (Oxford 1998). First of all this fruit of the Michigan project (1984-2004) goes beyond the AAV also to other archives in Rome. There is an online version of Blouin’s guide at ArchiveGrid showing introductions to many hundred archival collections, including to the series with papal registers from the High Middle Ages. You can also benefit from the 2019 edition of the Indice dei Fondi e relativi mezzi di descrizione e di ricerca dell’Archivio segreto Vaticano is available online (PDF). The concise introduction to medieval papal records offered at the website of the Vatican Film Library should be mentioned here, too.

For studying records of the medieval papacy there is a wealth of scholarly literature. Some most useful basic introductions to the most important relevant works can be found in the section Analyzing Sources of the multilingual Swiss history portal Ad fontes (Universität Zurich). Searching for relevant scholarly literature is much helped by the online bibliography of the Regesta Imperii project in Mainz. The Regesta Imperii lists among its publications also the volumes of Papstregesten, systematic summaries of papal charters for the period 800 to 1198, an important help in studying this resource. An online resource in Munich, the Bibliographischer Datenbank Historische Grundwissenschaften, can be helpful, too, for finding literature. Both the database in Mainz and Munich can be searched with keywords (Schlagwort), the Munich database only in German. The portal LEO-BW (Landeskunde Entdecken Online-Baden Württemberg) has within its Südwestedeutsche Archivalienkunde [Archivistics for South-West Germany) in the section on charters (Urkunden) an illustrated introduction to papal charters, Papsturkunden by Anja Thaller. She points to online resources and mentions literature on several aspects.

Finding digitized papal records and manuscripts

In the compass of just one blog contribution it would in the end not help much to put in here literally everything. At my legal history website Rechtshistorie the page about canon law mentions a fair number of online projects concerning the medieval papacy. Over the years I have written here several posts on documents and manuscripts connected with the medieval papacy. In 2016 I published for example a post about the Palatini, the manuscripts originally from the library of the dukes of the Pfalz in Heidelberg brought to the Vatican Library in 1623 and now being digitized. Some manuscripts returned to Heidelberg, others remain in Vatican City.

Finding digitized manuscripts in the Vatican Library is easy thanks to the portal Digital Vatican Library. Perhaps it is more surprising to find also digitized archival records of the papacy at this portal. In my 2020 post about the 1352-1358 interdict on the city of Dordrecht I mentioned a number of digitized source editions, not only for the Avignonese papacy, but also for Dutch medieval history and the Vatican. My biographical research into a particularly interesting lawyer connected with the Dordrecht case led me to a latarium, a digitized register of verdicts and fines from the civil tribunal in Avignon (BAV, Vat. lat. 14774). Fourteen lataria ( BAV, Vat. lat. 14761 to 14774) have been digitized. Within the section for archives of this digital library you can find several small archival collections. There are also five notarial registers from Orange. I am quite aware that it might be possible to find more archival records among the digitized manuscripts of the BAV, and I hope to add them here or elsewhere.

It is harder to find digitized records online from the Archivio Apostolico Vaticano. Registers Introitus et Exitus of the Camera Apostolica between 1316 and 1324 (John XXII) 1334 and 1342 (Benedict XII) are the subject of digital editions as part of the project Ressources comptables en Dauphiné, Provence, Savoie et Venaissin (XIIIe-XVe siècle) with medieval accounts from four French regions and the papacy in Avignon and the region around this city, the Venaissin. Here, too, figures a papal register (Reg.Av. 46) among quite different resources, but it contains indeed accounts. In 2020 I thought this edition included also digitized images, but this is not the case.

Logo Metascripta, Vatican Film Library

Sometimes an approach from another direction can be helpful. We are used nowadays to viewing online digitized manuscripts and archival records in full color. The manuscripts digitized by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana show a sometimes irritating watermark. Aaron Macks helps you every week to information about recently digitized manuscripts from the BAV. In former times scholars would often have no choice but to use black-and-white microfilms. The Vatican Film Library at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO, offers not only microfilms but also a useful overview by genre of manuscripts at the Vatican Library, an overview of papal registers, and the Metascripta portal for online research with Vatican manuscripts, mainly Vaticani Latini. On the page for medieval law of my website I mention more (digitized) microfilm collections.

A few years ago a team at the Università Roma Tre started the project In Codice Ratio for creating computerized character recognition in order to make possible automate transcription of handwritten text. In this project archival records from the AAV will be transcribed. As for now you can find the data set with the initial input and the ground truth, the set of images and transcriptions with a degree of error free results.

Many roads, many wishes

This post brings you perhaps less than you had expected, but it is longer than I assumed. Originally I planned a post dealing with text editions, digital libraries, inventories and digitized archival records. In the end I am happy I could recently write here about databases with medieval charters, among them papal charters, and in 2020 the papacy at Avignon figured large in a post. Thus the results here are at least less confusing and profuse. However, it was necessary to show indeed the variety of resources and some of the difficulties in using them for historical research, and in particular for legal history. If there had been a clear starting point for using online digitized records at the AAV I would surely have started here with them. The sheer mass of relevant text editions is overwhelming, although the Online Medieval Sources Bibliography is perhaps too generous in adding the label Papacy to many editions. Using multiple resources has as one implication thinking out of the box and working interdisciplinary without much ado. Legal history, too, should not be a confined discipline, a kind of silo as is the current phrase. Our discipline is well placed to question the use of digital resources when you or your students do not have the necessary skills and training to use them to their full extent. Combining such training and experience in using original sources should help you to tap the wealth of digitized medieval sources, and at the same time to be aware of what more can be found, what has been lost and which traces of such lost resources can enrich your research.

A postscript

Of course I was curious enough to find out quickly more about digitized registers among the manuscripts in the digital Vatican Library. For example, the manuscript BAV, Ross. 733 is a fifteenth-century register of taxes paid for the collation of diocesan sees. However, I should first of all add some registers from Avignon, starting with Vat. Lat 14775 with criminal inquests for the years 1365-1368 (copy in black and white), Vat. lat 14776 and Vat. lat. 14777 with verdicts in civil cases from 1364 and 1372, 14478, 14479 (fragments) and 14780, also from the fourteenth century. The descriptions of these registers clearly lack the word latarium for quick identification and grouping of Vat. Lat. 14761 to 14780.

Klaus Graf alerts at Archivalia to the fact a number of digitized edition of papal registers within the Hathi Trust Digital Library can be reached in open access only from the United States. Thus there is indeed space for another list of digital copies of these editions. Graf points also to some resources from Germany.

Social justice and American legal history

Banner "Gun Regulation and Legislation", HeinOnline (detail)

This week I received a message about free access to four portals touching the theme of social justice in the USA. Several times I expressed here my wish not to forget themes such as injustice, discrimination, violence and abuse of law. Sometimes good laws can be indeed the remedy to set things right, but alas there are examples where law and justice themselves are the very core and root of evil situations instead of doing what they are meant to do. I seldom discuss here the licensed products of the major firms offering online legal information, not just because they focus on contemporary law, but because access is restricted to those working or studying at universities, research centers and law firms. Many of these products figure prominently in online guides to legal resources, and I do not need to repeat them here.

In 2016 I looked here at some length at the slavery portal of HeinOnline. The same firm has now created a Social Justice portal with free access after registration to four more or less related resources. Apart from the slavery portal legislation about guns, the struggle for human rights and social justice since the second half of the last century, and the Open Society Justice Initiative are available, the latter with a clear focus on the contemporary world. In 2018 I looked here at the historic gun laws database created at Duke University, and it is only logical to compare both resources in some detail. Even if a number of these resources are already a few years available it is interesting to look at them here.

Social justice in various perspectives

Banner with four items at the Social Justice portal (detail)

The four resources now available through the new Social Justice portal are not completely new. Slavery in America and the World was launched in 2016. Gun Regulation and Legislation in America appeared online in 2019. A year later came Civil Rights and Social Justice, and in 2021 HeinOnline launched the digital library for the Open Society Justice Initiative. I could quickly register for combined open access to the four portals

Let’s start here with the resource on gun regulation and legislation in America. This resource is a digital library, and not a database as offered with the Repository of Historical Gun Laws by the team of Duke University. Only a few items date from before 1900, and the vast majority, more than 600 items, date from the period since 1950. In fact it seems this resource takes at its starting point the end of the long period covered by Duke’s database. Here you will find various types of documents, such as congressional hearings, legislative histories, reports of the CRS and the GAO, three periodicals, Supreme Court briefs, and also scholarly articles. The digital library is about relevant regulation and legislation, but not a resource for actual laws, statutes and other legislative acts. You can browse all items and sort them by title, author, date or subject, but you will probably want to use the advanced search mode where you can create sharply defined searches, in particular for document types. The real snag comes with scholarly articles. Being able to sort them in many ways should not hide the fact they are only accessible online to subscribers of the respective legal journals, a thing noted in the introduction. You cannot search these articles with the advanced search mode. Some solace is certainly offered by the bibliography, but alas you can only browse it ordered by title and author.

My first impression of HeinOnline’s resource on gun regulation is that it offers a digital library around gun regulation and legislation documenting legislative history with some additional information, in particular a bibliography. This resource does offer you much in open access, but not everything. I suppose you might be able to find preprint versions of more recent scholarly articles in a number of American institutional repositories, giving you at least the factual information of articles, but not automatically in a legally citable format. It seems to me this resource can be viewed to some extent as the sequel to Duke’s gun laws database, but with a focus on the legal history around laws and regulation. There seems to be room for a similar digital library dealing with pre-1950 legal history, and also for a database containing federal and state regulations in whatever form after 1930. HeinOnline certainly scores with the accompanying LibGuide to this resource. an element visible also without registration, as are a total of currently 65 guides.

The road to civil rights and social justice

The second resource which I would like to present is the portal on civil rights and social justice. The introduction rightly points to the long march, the pitfalls and setbacks during the long and slow march to equal rights, and most specifically to the role played by law and justice. I started using the advanced search mode sorting all items, more than 36,000, in ascending chronological order. Some undated items and items from the 1940s appeared first, followed by publications from 1734 and 1761. With item 100 you reach the year 1846. The main focus of this digital library is the period 1950 to 2000 with some 20,000 items, and it is good to note already some 10,000 items from the current century. Some 7,000 items stem from the Commission on Civil Rights. Some document types are present here as in the gun regulation digital library, but the Statements on Essential Human Rights Archive is a distinguishing feature. By the way, the icon in the advanced search mode pointing to Venn-Diagram Search only helps you to create search strings with AND. There is also a feature to use the FastCase system for subscribers to this system. The scholarly articles here, too, cannot be searched within the advanced search mode, but instead there are five sorting options and just two search fields. I am not familiar with HeinOnline’s subscribed resources, but this seems definitely below its usual standard of searchability. All in all there are some clear blemishes, but Civil Rights and Social Justice is a rich and most interesting resource, and its existence in open access is indeed most welcome. It is a true companion to the earlier slavery portal.

Justice and open society

Logo Open Society

Living in an open society is easily taken for granted when it looks like all roads are open to you and that you can choose at will what to do and how to live and express yourself. Alas for many people this is not their reality. After looking here at two resources of the new portal, and in 2016 already at the slavery portal, should bring the message home that much needs to be done and much patience is needed in creating and maintaining a stable open society. It is a bit confusing that both the initiative of the Open Society Foundatione and HeinOnline’s digital resource have the same name. Adding the word Publications as on the actual search page would repair this quickly.

This small digital library has a worldwide scope and range. You can select three document types (briefing paper, publication and report). Only after selecting a document type you can put them in a chronological order. Alas only with the latest item you see immediately a publication date. A look at library catalogs and their standard features would decidedly enhance the overview of items. There are currently 45 publications, 127 briefing papers and 126 reports. It is a bit irritating that you have to navigate back to choose another document type. The advanced search mode makes things easier indeed.

Before you think I am just in a grumbling mood I decided to look for items specifically aiming at my own country within this digital library. There is a 2015 report from the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the Dutch branch of Amnesty International on ethnic profiling. These institutions wrote in 2018 a report for the UN Committee against Torture on ill-treatment in the context of counter-terrorism and high-security prisons. OSJI and TRIAL International published together in 2019 a briefing paper on universal jurisdiction law and practice in the Netherlands. As in my 2020 post ‘Against racism, for justice’ it is sensible to look first at your own country or situation before trying to assess the situation elsewhere. Seeing these three publications is a sobering thing for me.

Commercial core business and additional open access

How should one look at the open access activities of HeinOnline? Answering this question is not a straightforward thing to do, at least not for me. I suppose similar firms have their own open access products as well, but at this moment I can only immediately remember LLMC Digital which since a few years brings increasingly resources in open access for US legal history, both on the federal and state level, and for some other countries, too, at its open access section. Its Civil and Human Rights Law portal offers some documents in open access, but it is mostly a portal, as is the Indigenous Law portal.

However, today my main aim is bringing to your attention the four resources in open access created by HeinOnline, one of them for an institution acting worldwide for the cause of rights making a truly open society possible. HeinOnline has chosen themes connecting the past with the present in a very clear way. I mentioned in particular the good use of the LibGuides system with clear commented information, only lacking the touch of distinguishing with symbols between licensed resources and resources in open access. This seems to me a thing too often neglected in the guides offered by libraries, even after two years of lockdowns and restricted live access to scholarly and cultural heritage institutions. At some points the four resources clearly betray their origin from a firm focusing on contemporary law, sometimes as an advantage and sometimes as an obstacle for historical research. Let’s use them for your own benefit as a researcher, but I think they should indeed enjoy wider circulation as an addition to digital public history.

A legal window on late medieval material culture

Banner of the DALME project

Archaeologists and historians in general do things differently. Archaeologists search and interpret material objects and traces of human history hidden from sight in the soil, and historians look at still existing documentary evidence, be they written documents or artefacts above ground level. Thus the title of the digital project The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe (DALME) created at Harvard University is at least intriguing. The core and clue of this projects are written documents telling us about objects sometimes no longer existing which offer a glimpse of medieval households.

Without twisting the evidence of these inventories you can view a number of them as the results of actions required by law or statutes. In this post I want to highlight these legal dimensions and look at the qualities of the DALME project which has been awarded the 2022 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize of the Medieval Academy of America.

Precious traces of material surroundings

Many scholars are involved with this project, both at Harvard and elsewhere. The project is led by Daniel Lord Smail, Gabriel Pizzorno and Laura Morreale. The principal objective of the DALME project is to bring together both inventories in the holdings of archives and objects nowadays kept by museums. The project aims also at developing a common vocabulary and a digital infrastructure facilitating research from various disciplines. The inventories and objects can be approached in several ways and will be accompanied by essays. Until now only three essays have been published at the project website. The latest essay by Marcus Tomaszewski published in January 2022 looks at a German tradition of poems with inventories. Laura Morreale looked in her 2020 essay on enslaved persons in fourteenth-century Florence. In the general overview much stress is put on the difficulties of reading and deciphering medieval scripts and languages, but this is not an unique feature for studying medieval history. Classicists dealing with for example the Near East face similar obstacles.

The introduction to the methodology of the DALME project stresses a kind of material turn that has influenced scholars in many disciplines in the past decades. Inventories are much valued as a window on daily life. Objects are every bit as important to tell us the history of humanity as written sources. It seems logical to bring them together to enhance making relevant comparisons of material life and circumstances.

It is important,too,to have a look also at the DALME workflow for inventories. Before images of documents gain their final form in the system behind DALME a lot of steps are to be set. These images are used to create transcriptions and to provide annotation. The information thus created is subsequently parsed and re-encoded. For creating a uniform and searchable terminology the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) of The Getty is used.

One should not overlook the section with project publications nor the bibliography pointing to source editions, scholarly literature, glossaries and dictionaries and other relevant publications, often with links to digital versions. Links becomes only visible when your cursor arrives at them. Obviously the study of Daniel Lord Smail, Legal plunder. Households and debt collection in late medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2016) has stimulated the creation of the DALME project; incidentally, you can view his bibliography online. There is no section with general online resources, and thus the name of Joseph Byrne and his online bibliography of medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories is missing. Byrne points for example to a number of articles by Martin Bertram published in the journal Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken (QFIAB) and in other journals on testaments from Bologna. Issues from 1958 onwards of QFIAB can be seen online at the Perspectivia portal. Among general resources for tracing relevant literature and editions the online bibliography for medieval studies of the Regesta Imperii in Mainz, and the Online Medieval Sources Bibliography should take their rightful place. The latter has even a preset filter for material culture. A recent article by R.C. Allen and R.W. Unger about their Global Commodities Prices Database is mentioned, but there is no link to their database. It is good to see the work of Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano, The spoils of the Pope and the pirates, 1357: the complete legal dossier from the Vatican Archives (2nd edition, 2014) has been included.

Eight collections of inventories

I had honestly thought my remarks about the bibliography of the DALME project would form my last grumbles in this post, but when you choose in the Features menu for objects you will find just a few objects discussed in sometimes very short essays. Maybe this section will be enlarged soon, but now it is still nearly empty.

The Collections section brings you to eight collections. You can search or browse them. Both options come with very practical filters. In the browsing mode you can use a filter for record type showing you graphically all kinds of legal documents and the various genres of inventories. When you choose to explore the collections you can navigate an interactive map of Europe. DALME brings you at this moment nearly 500 records.

Two collections show immediately in the title their legal nature, 58 records for Florentine wards (1381-1393) and insolvent households in Bologna (1285-1299) with 41 records. The section with ecclesiastical inventories focuses currently on French priests and canons. It will contain in the near future inventories from some well-known cathedrals and monasteries. DALME shows its strength in particular in presenting 50 Jewish inventories from France, Germany and Spain, a rare resource. Tax seizures, inquests into crimes and notarial acts or services formed the legal ground to create these records. Apart from a collection focusing on records from cities in Northern Lombardy, from Marseille and the region around this town, with 168 records the largest collection, there is a collection for the States of Savoy (24 records) and a miscellaneous collection, good for 121 records. Each collection comes with a general introduction, a section on its goals and objectives, explanations about the sample, some highlights and information about the intellectual owner of and contributors to a particular DALME collection.

In a second section with four categories you can approach partial and fragmentary lists created for seizures, estimates, sales and tariffs. Currently only a small number of sales and estimates can be viewed.

For my own pleasure I searched in Dutch online resource for an inventory made in 1297 of goods found at the convent of the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in Utrecht and transferred to a canon of the Oudmunster collegiate chapter and Jan van Duvenvoorde. The inventory in this charter has been identified as a list of goods belonging to count Floris V of Holland who had stayed there in Utrecht just before he was killed near Muiderberg on June 27, 1296. You can find editions of the charter in the Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301 (1297 April 6, OSU V, no. 2812) and the Oorkondenboek van Holland en Zeeland tot 1299 (OHZ V, no. 3268). The presence of chivalric cloths, many gloves and silver objects is indeed telling. Alas the original of this charter no longer exists, but seventeenth-century copies of it have survived.

Some early impressions

An example of the record view in DALME
An example of the record view in DALME, here with a Florentine inventory from 1381 – Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli avanti il principato 4, f. 71r

When searching inventories at DALME a few things become clear. You can currently only find items in their original languages or when they are mentioned in the record description, and not yet using the promised thesaurus function. In my view a major feature is thus currently not yet present. There is a difference between records taken directly from archival sources and those taken over from existing editions. In some cases a part of a document has not been transcribed because it does not contain a part of the proper household inventory. For the document shown here above with 31 folia this restriction is most sensible.

To be honest, I feel a bit baffled by the laurels given to this project in this stage. In my view the report about the 2022 DHMS Award shows a cavalier attitude to some of the clear deficiencies and missing qualities of DALME in its current state. Of course I can see that bringing together documents in twelve languages, providing images and transcriptions and commentaries is surely a feat. Creating 500 records in one year is not a particularly large number. DALME does aim at open access and easy interoperability, but the report states it is still unclear whether third-party software can harvest directly from DALME. The use of TEI for encoding the records and Zotero for the bibliography is commendable, but why create your own remix of tools for the management systems behind the screens? At GitHub you can find the necessary technical information about the databases of DALME and the mix of tools applied for it, but no direct link is given to the bibliography at Zotero. For all its qualities Zotero is notably weak when it comes to actually searching a group library within it. The twelve languages do not return in the choice of glossaries and dictionaries in the DALME bibliography.

DALME’s relatively low number of records for inventories, the very low number of objects and the lack of integration between them, are quite visible. Add to this the uncertainty about reuse and the absence of a fundamental essay on the legal nature of many documents, and you have grounds for reasonable doubts about the core qualities of this digital project. For some collections you find more or less detailed information about the kind of legal documents, but as for now there are no general essays introducing the various source genres. Contributions by legal historians would here be most welcome.

Header website Medeival Academy of America

Let’s for a moment turn away from DALME and look more generally at criteria and standards for evaluating digital projects. A few years ago the Medieval Academy of America developed a serious basic set of standards for its database Medieval Digital Resources (MDR), discussed here in 2019. For viewing images the use of a standard such as IIIF is recommended, but this has not been used at DALME. However, its images are at least zoomable. Luckily, DALME seems otherwise compliant with the MAA’s standards advocated at its database and guide for medieval digital resources. By the way, I could not help using MDR to search quickly for other projects concerning material culture. Using the preset filter for this subject I could only view the first page of the results; going to the next page ended at an empty search form. MDR does contain numerous online dictionaries and bibliographies. A number of them has been included in the DALME bibliography.

A medeival key - image Portable Antiquties Netherlands
A medieval key, c. 1375-1500, an example of a early comb-bit key, length 52 mm – private collection, PAN no. 00013245 – image Portable Antiquities Netherlands

The DALME project comes with high aims based on sound research. I truly expected 3D images of objects or at least integration with one museum catalogue for medieval objects or a portal for archaeological objects, such as Portable Antiquities Netherlands. A year after its launch some wishes to make DALME outstanding could perhaps have been already fulfilled. I could not help noticing that for example the collections from Florence and Bologna are a century apart of each other, and thus comparisons are not as straightforward as possible, even though such comparisons remain challenging. As for the Florentine documents, a choice from the early fifteenth century would have invited a comparison with data in the Online Catasto for 1427-1429, created by the late David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, and hosted at Brown University. It is reassuring to find a helpful table with some suggested equivalent terms in various languages and a clear list of online dictionaries in the classroom section. In an upcoming seminar Laura Morreale (Georgetown University) will focus on editing and transcribing Florentine documents.


How does this project compare to similar projects elsewhere? I looked briefly at the BoschDoc portal for documents concerning the Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch. Its search possibilities are impressive. Some eighty inventories have been included, many of them with images, transcriptions, translations and references to relevant literature. The background information, in particular for technical matters, is much more restricted than for DALME, but it does contain a useful list of transcription criteria. The difficulty of scripts and languages is bewailed at DALME, but the actual approach to overcome them is not made completely explicit nor are solutions actually implemented or visible. Hopefully Laura Morreale and her colleagues can quickly add their set of transcription criteria to DALME.

The fact I devoted a rather lengthy review to DALME indicates indeed my opinion that in the end we can welcome a valuable resource for medieval historians at large. Its flaws have to be redeemed, but they help in a way to view similar projects much clearer. I must add that navigating the menus for background information was not as easy as using the collections themselves. The larger essays at DALME are certainly worth your attention and wet the appetite for more. I would be hard pressed to determine whether DALME is a pilot project or a project in its beta phase. In my view DALME is not yet a convincing winner of the DHMS award. Despite all drawbacks Smail, Pizzorno and Morreale deserve praise for their initiative, as do the other scholars who worked hard to provide images, transcriptions and additional information. This international project brings us for now a kind of showcase of what can become a resource not just to use for your own goals, but to discuss with historians from other disciplines as an exercise in rethinking your approaches to medieval documents and objects. The lacks and omissions at DALME should help you to raise your own standards, to apply standards for data exchange with other resources, and to reflect on the use of evaluation standards for digital projects.

Some afterthoughts

After publishing this post I quickly realized some additions might be helpful. A fine example of an image database for medieval and Early Modern material culture is REALonline of the Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit (IMAREAL) in Krems an der Donau. In its journal Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture Online (MEMO) the issue no. 7 (December 2020) was devoted to the theme “Textual Thingness”. In this issue the article by Christina Antenhofer, ‘Inventories as Material and Textual Sources for Late Medieval and Early Modern Social, Gender and Cultural History (14th-16th centuries)’, MEMO 7 (2020) 22-46, provides you among other things with a brief discussion of the various forms and (legal) origins of inventories. She mentions the entry for inventories in a German dictionary for legal history by Ruth Mohrmann, ‘Inventar’, in: Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte II (2nd ed. Berlin 2012), cc. 1284–1285.

Reframing a medieval bureaucracy: Databases for papal charters

Flyer "Papsturkunden ohne Ende"

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

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

Three related perspectives

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

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

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

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

A look at two databases

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

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

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

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

Into the future

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

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

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

Translating Justinian’s Digest with DeepL, a multiple challenge

The clivus Capitolinus, the slope of the Capitol Hill in Rome - image Wikimedia Commons
The clivus Capitolinus, the slope of the Capitol Hill in Rome – image Wikimedia Commons

This post is a tale of the unexpected. Last week I received a message about a new translation of the Digesta Justiniani, the famous sixth-century compilation of texts by the classical Roman lawyers. Soon two things became clear: It was not just a single new translation into one particular language, but into a number of languages, and these translations were not the fruit of just one scholar, but mainly the product of the online translation tool DeepL. Béla Pokol, a Hungarian lawyer at the Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest, used the powerful DeepL tool for translating the Digest into fourteen (!) European languages. For this project he had to process some 45,000 pages. You can download the translations as PDF’s from the section Law Working Papers of the online journal Jogelméleti Szemle. Journal of Legal Theory. A cordial exchange of questions and answers with Béla Pokol followed quickly. Here I will look first of all at the Dutch translation, but whenever necessary other languages will figure here, too. I will try to distinguish carefully between the input of DeepL and Pokol’s own efforts.

DeepL takes the plunge

I suppose normally you would use the translation function of the browser created by one of the Big Tech Firms for occasionally translating some information in languages which are clearly out of your range of linguistic capacities. In these cases you get a rough idea of the core of a text, with for example a number of words even left untranslated. The seduction of DeepL’s offer to bring really good translations from and to a great number of sounds for me simply too good to be true. So far I received just once a translation created by DeepL which I ignored completely by going straight for the English original of an article.

Enter Béla Pokol who at the very least has designed a kind of ultimate test for DeepL, translating from a dead language like Latin into modern languages, and not just a general text from classical literature, but the very core text collection of Roman law. Classical Latin has a complex syntax and a rich idiom. The classical lawyers seem to prefer a less rich vocabulary, but their concise and trenchant arguments set a great challenge for translators. To mention just a few modern examples, the Dutch team led by Job Spruit worked between 1993 and 2011 on their translation in twelve volumes of the Digest, Code, the Justinian Institutes and the Novellae [Corpus Iuris Civilis. Tekst en Vertaling]. The German team led by Okko Behrends started in 1995 and reached with the fifth volume published in 2012 only D. 34. The recent project for a version of the Digest with Latin text and an Italian translation was first published in five volumes between 2005 and 2014; the web version was launched in 2017. In 2011 I wrote here a post on recent and older translations for Roman law. At the page for Roman law of my legal history website Rechtshistorie I mention more translations, a number of them available online.

The idea for using DeepL to tackle the intricacies of the Digest came after Pokol had used DeepL to translate his book Juristocracy from English into seven languages, with surprisingly few errors. He enlisted the help of his daughters to deal with the new challenge of the Digest, because he had noticed only a small number of translations of the Digest into modern European languages. Hence the decision to aim at fourteen languages, starting with Hungarian, followed by French, German, Portuguese, Spanish. Italian, Dutch, Finnish, Rumanian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Polish and Russian. It took Pokol and his daughters a year to produce the 45,000 pages of these translations.

First impressions

For the aim of this post I decided to look first at the translated results, and only afterwards at DeepL. How should one quickly assess the quality of these translations? As a matter of fact many years ago I selected three passages in the Digest for translation into four languages which figure at my legal history website as Exempla iuris Romanorum. D. is a text on fraud, D. 19.2.59 a text about a building agreement, and D. 32.52.3 a text about hereditary law. I add to them the first case from the Digest I ever encountered, D., a case of deadly damage caused by a collision of two carts on the slope of the Capitol. A fifth check was quickly found, too, using the words plumbum, lead, and balneum, bath, both terms frequently used in connection with water, as can be seen in the Topoi database in Berlin on Roman water law discussed here in 2019. As a quick reference I used the Amanuensis tool of Peter Riedlberger and Günther Rosenbaum.

The Dutch translation created by Pokol using DeepL has 3921 pages. The first translation seems really good (p. 261), especially when DeepL succeeds in keeping everything in a single sentence. Spruit and Wubbe, the Dutch team for D. 4, used two sentences in their translation of D. The second example, D. 19.2.59 figures at pp. 1363-1364. Here I hesitate about the building being destroyed (verwoest), the verb concutio does mean to shake heavily. DeepL puts in the word ongeluk as a partial translation of acciderit. The case about a will speaking about books in D. 32.52.3 fares less well (p. 2164). In the first part the word bibliothecas has been translated as bibliotheken (libraries) but it is clear bookshelves are meant. In the second part the word scrinia does not mean writing tables but chests. Some words have more than one meaning, and it is vital to use the one clearly meant in the context of a case.

The case with the mules and two carts on the Capitol hill (D. killing a young slave is somewhat longer than the fragments here above. At first DeepL impressed me with a clear disposition of this complicated case (p. 681). The mule-drivers (muliones) become only once koetsiers, coachmen. However, translating the term lege Aquilia by “Lex van Aquilia” is decidedly odd. This law and another Roman law, with few exceptions, remains in Dutch untranslated. I cannot plod here through every occurrence of the word lead. In D. 32.35.3 the bath of Iulianus becomes the Julianabad (p. 3241), a very early homage to a former Dutch queen, instead of het badhuis van Julianus or het Juliaanse badhuis. Tibur has been left untranslated, but it is clearly Tivoli, and the word scitis has been promoted to Scitis. In the leges preceding this case DeepL has more luck with some difficult names of locations.

A multiple challenge

On closer inspection there are very real problems. The translation of the references to the works of Roman lawyers is a matter of some wonder. The book title membranae is translated as Perkamenten, parchments. Spruit cum suis opt for Notities (Notes). At some point an author Callistratus is mentioned, a name not mentioned at all within the Digest. The title page of the translation provides a clue to the origin of some of these problems. Pokol has not created a translation from the Latin original, but from the English translation by Samuel Scott, The Civil Law, including the Twelve Tables… (17 vol., Cincinnati 1932). This fact alone severely diminishes the value and possible importance of the translation under review here. It does matter much less which faults can be attributed to DeepL or to Pokol since the very starting point is awkward, and not what one would expect someone to do.

In his article ‘The enigma of Samuel Parsons Scott’, Roman Legal Tradition 10 (2014) 1-37 Timothy Kearley devotes pages 29 to 32 to an assessment of the value of Scott’s translation of the Justinian corpus. Reviewers accorded it mostly only value as a introduction for students and as a quick reference tool. Apart from mistakes in his translations they faulted Scott for ignoring the edition by Mommsen and Krüger and generally being less aware of the latest (German) scholarship. Kearley expands his views in his study Lost in Translations. Roman Law Scholarship and Translation in Early Twentieth-Century America (Durham, NC, 2018).

What is the value of Pokol’s efforts? He wrote to me his explicit aim was helping modern lawyers to have “a speedy online help” for Roman law and to make it a living heritage. Alas as a reference tool the current translation is marred by a lack of running titles indicating on each page the title of the Digest. In some titles, in particular D. 50.17, De regulis iuris antiqui, the numbers of the leges are not given correctly. Book 50 ends with leges numbered above 1000. This has simply escaped his attention. Pokol did not include the introductory constitutions and the Index Florentinus. It shows definitely he aims indeed at lawyers in general, and not at students and scholars who want to study Roman law for its own sake. Let it be clear Pokol did not at all attempt to translate the Latin original of the Digest. In his view the Hungarian translation of the Digest by DeepL is quite good.

Looking deeper into DeepL

It brings us to the final question of this post, the value of DeepL for translating classical Latin into any modern European language. DeepL offers currently 26 languages. Apart from European languages only Chinese and Japanese are now included. Arabic, Hindi and Swahili are absent. The inclusion of Finnish and Hungarian, two Finoegrian languages, is remarkable. Polish and Russian, too, are languages with a number of very real difficulties. Swedish and Danish are present as Scandinavian languages. There is simply no Latin to test here with DeepL at the moment of writing. DeepL does succeed in faithfully translating English into Dutch at a notable level for fairly difficult texts as the ones used here as tests. It might make you certainly curious about the way it would work as an assisting tool, for example when translating a textbook for Roman law into another language.

To give DeepL quickly a second chance to prove it can produce something convincingly adequate when faced with a text offering some difficulties I entered the text of my recent contribution ‘A dictionary for the Spanish colonial empire and canon law’ for a translation from English to Dutch. Using the free version of DeepL without a trial period this meant each time only 5,000 signs could be entered, roughly half of my post. The translation of the first half contained only a few problems, and in the second part with many Spanish words these were correctly left untranslated, and only some easily detectable glitches in the syntax occurred.

For your interest – and perhaps consolation! – I looked around briefly for other online translation tools which do include Latin. I found a few websites featuring both Dutch and Latin. Translatiz depends on Google Translate. In its Latin-Dutch translation of D. 32.52.3 the word legatis becomes luitenants, lieutenants. ImTranslator seemed at first to offer besides Google also Microsoft and PROMT for Latin-Dutch, but the two last do not offer this functionality. A search in Dutch for online translating tools made in the Low Countries brought me to Webtran where you get only a word for word translation for Latin-Dutch filled with silly mistakes, and not even clear sentences at all. Opentran and the Dutch version of I Love Translation join the ranks of tools with insufficient qualities for translating legal Latin. Remembering just in time Cicero’s vehement sigh Quousque tandem abutere nostra patientia, Catilina? I will leave it at that for now, even though these tools did solve this particular Latin question correctly.

It is a feat to climb the Capitol Hill of faithful translation from any language and for any subject! No doubt sooner or later an online tool will appear which will be able using artificial knowledge to produce translations from Latin, not only for regular classical texts with their own peculiarities, but also for legal texts. Classicists are keen in using digital humanities to sensible ends. The challenge remains to learn yourself sufficient Latin and to find reliable translations made in years of toil and endless care for details, and secondly to have all necessary capacities for understanding the way Roman lawyers thought, argued and acted. A good translation is an act of interpretation in itself, a necessary foundation for further research. Meanwhile we can benefit from a substantial number of older and newer translations for Roman law. As for having an impact on modern lawyers and legislators the quality and vitality of thinking and writing about law and legal history by legal historians should seduce people to enter the realm of Roman law in all its manifestations through the centuries until now.