Tag Archives: Cultural heritage

The legal world around American slavery

The advertisement for the slavery digital collection

Early October 2016 came a surprising announcement from a firm known for its licensed digital law collections which most users will visit only through on and off-campus access at university and research libraries, national libraries and law firms which can afford the costly yearly subscription rates. Although I have no intent to create here a platform to champion only the cause of Open Access I have tried to avoid writing about materials hidden beyond pay walls, because such blog posts would have a tantalizing effect on many readers. Kluwer, LexisNexis and WestLaw, to mention a few firms dealing with legal materials in many countries, and for the humanities for example Chadwyck, Gale, Adam Matthew and ProQuest have not yet figured here. However, when HeinOnline announced to create free access to its digital collection Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture & Law I immediately registered. I present here a personal tour of this project, well aware that this are experiences after just a few weeks, not the results of someone immersed into this subject over the years. On my blog slavery has appeared a few times as a secondary subject, but until now only once as the main subject of a post, ‘Remembering slavery’, about the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863 and its commemoration in 2013.

Making a tour

HeinOnline certainly has done some efforts to make its new collection as invitingly as possible. Paul Finkelman (Albany Law School), the general editor of Slavery in America and the World, gives in the advertisement a concise overview of its main qualities. The core of this digital collection are the statutes and reported law cases concerning slavery in America – both on the state and the federal level – and the Anglophone world. There are more than one thousand pamphlets, many books on slavery and legal commentaries dealing with slavery published in essays and articles which are sometimes very difficult to find. In an introductory essay Finkelman discusses the historiographical background. He places the history of American slavery in the context of slavery worldwide, alas a continuing story in view of human trafficking and labor conditions which amount to slavery, and thus the history of slavery is not confined from around 1450 to the late nineteenth century. The collection contains numerous items from the twentieth century, too. Among libraries contributing to the digital collection Finkelman singles out Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

The start screen of the slavery collection

Even without registering you can download the quick reference guide and the full introduction. Mentioning this you might smile like I do remembering the familiar instructions to students not to jump immediately to the matter you are searching for, but to make yourself familiar with a book by reading the preface and acknowledgements, scanning the chapters, checking for a bibliography, source references, credits for illustrations, and the presence of an index. It is seducing to jump into the ocean and go straight for your destination, but alas there is no plain sailing when studying the history of slavery. One of the assets in Hein’s digital collection are fifty monographs about slavery published by the University of North Carolina Press. Some of these books deal with the Caribbean and Latin-America, and this surely widens the dimensions of the project. The digital collection does allow you to browse all titles, periodicals and scholarly articles, and there are also a bibliographical section and a list of external links, the things users of other HeinOnline collections will expect as normal features. The meta-data of the titles selected for inclusion have been enriched with tagging about their position on slavery, the topics under discussion, the jurisdiction involved, and the document type.

For finding judicial cases the digital collection builds on Helen Tunnicliff Catterall’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (5 vol., Washington, D.C. 1926-1937; reprint Shannon 1968) supplemented by state and federal cases, in particular from the United Stated Supreme Court. The statutes adduced stem not only from American states and the federal government, but also from former colonies. This sounds wonderful indeed, and understand the lure of wanting to write as Finkelman does in his introduction that this collection “brings together, for the first time, all known legal materials on slavery in the United States and the English-speaking world”.

A complete collection?

How complete is this collection? There seems to be a paradox between the second half of the title of this digital collection, History, Culture & Law, and the claim to contain all legal materials. In my view questioning the completeness should probe in two directions in particular: First, are materials included for the periods that individual states had not yet entered the Union, and secondly, do statutes and cases indeed represent “all legal materials”? The collection contains slavery statutes from fifteen states, and federal cases from 24 states. The periodicals selected for inclusion are all marked as anti-slavery. You can imagine that in periodicals in favour of slavery sometimes more moderate views appeared. In theory a periodical might even have changed camps. No one can complain about the thoughtful inclusion of the British journal The Jurist and of sets of Congressional materials.

The section with scholarly articles and other documents has nine rubrics. For articles the year 1900 has been set as a useful divider. There are sections with book reviews, British slavery, cases and “foreign” – meaning non-British – cases. Judges, laws and statutes appear in separate sections, and there is even a section on “Historical Ancient Slavery” with a nice selection of articles in law journals up to a contribution by Paul J. Du Plessis from 2014. Before you start rejoicing too much it is time to read the notice these articles are only available online to subscribers or their subscribing institutions. As a bibliographical asset this section is certainly most valuable. This brings me immediately to the section marked “Bibliography”. The first thing to notice here it is rather short. Relatively much space is given to reports, individual speeches and even cases. Some monographs appear twice for no good reason. You can view the titles only in two ways, alphabetically ordered by title or author.

The digital collection scores better with the fifty monographs published by UNC Press between 1985 and 2015. The list is not long enough to merit reworking in a database. Topics have been added to titles, something to consider at the very least for an update of the bibliographical section. With just ten links the choice of external websites is ridiculously small, even though I was pleased to see a link to a French website, Le droit des traites et des esclavages (CNRS). If this has been included to ensure this HeinOnline collection has a truly global coverage it does not come from its own strengths. I can understand to some extent the fear to point to digital collections from competitors in their branch, but this does not show much confidence. It is surely the global aspect that suffers most here.

However, not everything is as appalling as it might seem in these two last paragraphs. HeinOnline merits consideration on its own basic quality, presenting legal cases in a quick and convenient way. The search possibilities to find cases according to different characteristics are great, and you can download, print, enlarge and use other view facilities at will. The feature to link directly to other cases highlighted in the text of a case is most useful. The stream of relevant cases adduced here and readily available is most impressive and deserves praise.

I enjoyed very much looking at the section with digitized printed materials from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. You do not only find for example a nice choice of pamphlet and even volumes with collections of pamphlets, with special mention for the sixteen volumes of the series Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1700-1872: The Pamphlet Literature, edited by Paul Finkelman (Clark, NJ, 2007), and a number of useful bibliographies. The presence of novels, biographies, poems and songs does add a substantial cultural element to the collection. Only some forty items date from before 1800. A quarter of all digitized publications in the set stem from the period 1826-1850, and more than 400 items cover the period 1851-1875. The literature can be browsed in several ways (author, title, date and subject), and you can select literature using four filters (position, document type, jurisdiction, topic) with for each filter an apt drop down list of possible choices.

Alas more has to be said. I can accept as a matter of fact the citation forms used for the federal statutes, but would it not have been sensible to supply more information about the various state statutes used for this project? I am aware of The Indigo Book, the liber pauperum version of the Blue Book, with all niceties to refer correctly to all kind of legal materials. The legal problem of slavery in the United States during the nineteenth century was to a great extent a matter of apparent and real differences between state and federal jurisdiction and legislation, and – almost more importantly – their perception. In the bibliography of this digital collection I missed Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York 2010). Strangely Lincoln’s speeches are missing, too. Foner is not content with just following Lincoln’s political actions, but does at many point look at legal matters in particular states and on the national level. Foner looks at some of Lincoln’s 34 cases involving black people among the more than 5,000 cases Lincoln handled as a lawyer. I had expected to find in Hein’s open access digital collection the full texts of all cases, but instead you will find only references to them in the digitized literature and the summary’s or at its best excerpts given by Catterall. No doubt this information will lead you elsewhere to the complete text of the relevant cases, but the claim “all legal materials” is diminished.

Logo of The Revised Dred Scott Collection

For one of the most influential cases in American legal history it is not only possible but necessary to look at the period between the original case before a circuit court and the epochal case before the Supreme Court ten years later. The new free digital collection does of course contain the Dred Scott case [Dred Scott, Plaintiff in Error, v. John F. A. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1856)]. I could not help noticing in the HeinOnline version under discussion how not every reference to cases adduced in this long verdict and the opinions of the judges has been highlighted and linked. In fact I would expect also highlights for and links to for the statutes invoked or mentioned in passing. The Dred Scott case started in 1846, and there is historical documentation for the subsequent phases of the case at the state level. Washington University, St. Louis, MO, has not only created The Revised Dred Scott Case Collection, but also a digital collection for St. Louis Circuit Court Records where you can find the original Dred Scott case and documents concerning seven (!) subsequent cases at St. Louis. In its section for judicial cases HeinOnline does not give a single federal case from Missouri, nor is any link to external resources given, not even at the Library of Congress. In this case Wikipedia does a better job.

Let my plea about this digital collection not only rest on the presence or absence of cases! Among the fugitive slave laws the Fugitive Slave Act of September 18, 1850, often referred to as the Compromise of 1850, stands out. It belongs in every collection dealing with this subject. To my utter disbelief I could not trace here the text of this land mark piece of legislation. In my search for an online version the exact text I seldom saw a correct and complete reference to the original act of Congress, let alone a legal reference. Here again Wikipedia got it right, although it does not include the text of 9 Stat. 462 [Chapter 20, 31. Congress, Session 1]. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 [1 Stat. 302] and even the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 are present; the latter is the very first federal statute of Slavery in America. It might be useful to add a concordance of popular names of laws and their official names.

Cases and statutes in context

I will not completely dismiss the efforts of HeinOnline for this new collection, but I can hardly avoid making some negative statements about it. It seems this firm thought it would suffice to create a historical version of their normal case finding system with the Catterall set as its heart, enhance it with a generous amount of relevant statutes, one thousand interesting (legal) pamphlets, and a thoughtful choice of recent scholarly literature, and launch it perhaps in conjunction with the long-awaited opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Is it only a guess that HeinOnline has been blinded by its own success in making systems adapted to the needs of law schools? This new collection seems to me ideal as a tool on which law students in their first year can show some of their talents in finding legal information. However, even from a point of the development of American legal doctrine Slavery in America does not offer what it promises to do. With sometimes only incomplete cases it is impossible to determine what has been filtered out for any reason. If you believe legal history cannot exist properly without sufficient attention to legal institutions and social history, this digital collection is just a tool to be supplemented by other now widely available online, too, and a lot of them in open access.

As for the position of other countries you had better start inside the United States of America, by looking at the Territories, the states in North America that joined the United States between 1776 and 1861 but somehow are here undocumented, i.e. without cases and statutes. You might argue the materials from these territories are not United States legal materials, but they constitute certainly legal materials fit for inclusion. It is startling to see a collection marred by such barriers. Far more important is the fact that the subject of the place of slavery in law and society surfaced every time a new state wanted to enter the Union. Changes in political geography such as the Mason-Dixie line had immediate consequences regarding slavery, slaves and slave-owners, and former slaves. The thing that you would expect most here are the debates in Congress and in the various state senates concerning aspects of slavery. Of course I am aware this would result in a much larger digital collection, but I think this is necessary for a better understanding of statutes and cases.

To sum up my first impressions, HeinOnline has created an important but flawed digital collection. The 1,100 digitized publications form a great asset as do the digitized scholarly articles and periodicals. The digitized version of the Catterall set is most helpful. There are some distinct problems with the cases included and the internal references. In my view the choice of state statutes is too limited. The historical bibliography has some merits, but the list with external links is a howler. However, I pointed also to some real problems in creating a digital collection on this wide-ranging subject. Alas as for now you cannot find here “all legal materials” in open access. However, it does take courage and experience to bring such materials together in an easy navigable way. No doubt some of my criticisms can be easily repaired. Others should be addressed in a thorough explanation of the choices made in creating this digital collection. This will not only help law students and lawyers to benefit from this collection. On purpose I have not looked while writing this post at other reviews of Slavery in America and the World, but in fact I could only find a short announcement at the blog of the Canadian Osgoode Hall Law School Library.

Legal materials in open access

It would be wrong to create a picture of American law online as a treasure completely beyond the reach of normal people, but it certainly takes efforts to find legal materials for the United States online in open access. Creating here a full guide would take up too much space, but I can offer a kind of nutshell guide. To assess the role of commercial databases for American law you might want to look at Legal Databases: A Comparative Analysis (Center for Research Libraries). In particular the Hathi Trust Digital Library contains substantial materials in open access. Harvard Law School has a fine guide to legal materials in open access. The Legal Information Institute (Cornell University Law School) has an overview of state statutes in open access. The Jerome Hall Law Library (Indiana University) has created an online research guide for state legislative history. Sources in open access do not primarily bring you historical materials. Among the exceptions is The Supreme Court Database (Washington University), but this is primarily a indispensable search tool for decisions of the Supreme Coort. The website of the American Society for Legal History has a fine links section guiding you to many aspects of US legal history. Anyway it is wise to start your online searches with the Law Library of the Library of Congress. Its web guide for U.S. States and territories is very helpful. Congress.gov is extending its coverage in the near future. Among the digital collections of the LoC you will find much that has relevance for the history of slavery, both in the section on government, law and politics, and in the African-American section. The American Memory portal of the LoC is sometimes more helpful in finding these collections.

By the way, HeinOnline is not the first firm in its branch to place some of its products in open access. LLMC Digital has created free access to The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, Maeva Marcus et alii (eds.) (8 vol., New York, 1985-2004).

Slavery is a vast subject. On my legal history portal I hesitate to dedicate a complete page to it, but I do give there at least some of the websites which should help your research. The Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal is a good starting point, as are the digital collection of the institute behind it, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition. You will not want to miss The Bibliography of Slavery and World Slaving, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. I urge you to look for relevant online exhibitions in the superb database for online exhibits created by the Smithsonian Institution. Among the best known digital collection concerning American slavery is the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University Library, but there is certainly more. If you want to check the quality of Paul Finkelman’s work in creating a set with a selection of pamphlets concerning slavery and abolition in facsimile you might want to look at some of the digitized pamphlet collections in the United States. For me it is a good thing to see that it matters indeed to look at pamphlets, too, when doing legal history. I feel happy to bring together commented links to relevant digitized pamphlet collections. If I have failed to detect things not clearly immediately transparent in Slavery in America and the World I welcome any constructive guidance to do more justice to it!

Mixed seductions: Combining global history with digital research

Tag cloud of Putnam's article created with WordItOutHaving a daily increasing number of digital resources within your reach can be both a blessing and a bane. It is seducing to think you can find everything in digitized sources. Lara Putnam (University of Pittsburgh) challenges historians in her article ‘The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast’, American Historical Review 121/2 (2016) 377-402, to reflect about their research practice and research methods. She warns us to distinguish carefully between getting data and searching results in a digital world, and gaining real insight into historical developments. How realistic is her image of historians sitting behind the computer screen wallowing in online sources at one side, and historians immersing themselves in actual historical sources? Putnam’s article invites us to rethink the essential qualities of being a historian. At my blog you can find contributions dealing with many countries, and the transnational turn is often combined with the use of texts available in digital formats. The practices Putnam wants to signal are present here at my own blog, and thus it is not only understandable but a must to look carefully at this article.

Logo World History Association

Global history might at first seem a subject way out of your normal territory or territories. However, I could count on the congress calendar for legal history at my blog for 2016 at least four conferences which aim at dealing with world history, starting in Heidelberg (June 20-22, 2016): Law, Empire and Global Intellectual History, Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) (August 23-25, 2016): Law in a Global Context / El derecho en el contexto de la globalización, Berne (September 7-10, 2016): The World of Prisons. The History of Confinement in Global Perspective, Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century, and Helsinki (October 3-5, 2016): Law between Global and Colonial: Techniques of Empire. The 25th World History Association Conference was held quite close to my country, in Ghent (July 2-5, 2016).

Blessings and curses

When you download the free accessible PDF-version of Putnam’s article it seems at first something went wrong. You look at a wordle showing terms around the word progress using the content of G.G. Iggers’ 1965 study The Idea of Progress. It prepares to some extent the way to an article in which Putnam wants us to rethink the way we do history today as scholars. I felt invited to process Putnam’s text with another tag cloud generator. Let’s first summarize the main line of her article. With the transnational turn, the growing possibility to transcend national borders, a second major change, the digital turn, follows closely. We can swiftly procure and access digitized sources from other continents, and we might even forget we are strictly speaking dealing with foreign territories for which our training has not quite prepared us. Historians do not yet use commonly digital techniques, but they do hunt texts using a host of websites, search machines and portals. This almost unreflected use is rather in contrast with the continuing reflection of those scholars developing and pioneering digital tools and methods. To a far greater extent than we tend to see the way we can search the internet has reshaped the practice of working in the field of international history. The digital landscape has no borders, and this might tempt one to forget about real borders and the impact of topography and local conditions for you research.

In a large second section of her article Putnam looks at a number of cases from her personal research experience in Latin America. Already the sheer preparation of a voyage to find something literally outside your province could be immense. The rule-of-thumb sequence of your own institution’ library/libraries, the nearest large university, the nearest former capital of some empire (Rome, London, Washington), and (large) archives and libraries near or in the region you wanted to study is still recognizable, but today it tends to fade away. Studying a country which was at some point part of an empire often means that cultural institutions have been organized along national lines, or worse, such institutions embody nationalism. In the nineties Putnam faced this situation in Costa Rica.

Among the interesting points Putnam makes is how in some fields of Early Modern history, in particular international history and diplomatic history, it still is possible to view matters in many countries thanks to specific sources, for example diplomatic correspondence and reports. However, here, too, the information you use tends to focus on centers and powers. Peripheral regions and movements were difficult to view, because it was very expensive to look sideward and to find out about regional resources, let alone visit these regions for a research period.

The rapid growth of digitization has made it possible to look at much more materials than before. Knowing about a particular publication was sometimes already a feat, but now you can almost instantaneously view inside a book, be it thank to the preview function of The Inevitable Web Firm or in an ever-growing number of digital collections. Putnam remembers how she used microfilm reels of the Limón Searchlight, a newspaper published in the twenties in Costa Rica. Now you can consult two other Costa Rican newspapers at home, and find out much about people who she had encountered only in a rather cryptic notice in this newspaper. In fact digitization helped her to establish the presence of networks that had been almost invisible before. Even leafing through the Limón Searchlight has become different now, because you know about the way a digital search can open new vistas.

However, the benefits of digital research can have also negative effects. The way you can immerse yourself in the particular sources within your physical reach is radically different from using digital resources which connect records to each other in just a few minutes. You might boast about the sheer number of digital collections and the number of countries you deal with in a publication, but somehow you blend out the tradition of slowly but undeniable becoming intimately familiar with a subject and your resources. Apart from the specific items you might want to track down in a newspaper you would get from it a panorama of what seemed important to people, what surrounded them and gave a place and a time its singular color and flavor. Here Putnam challenges historians to realize how much their practice has changed by the digital turn. It is high time to reflect on the impact of digitization for all aspects of historical research.

At this point I would like to stress the fact any summary can hardly do justice to the thoughtful argument put forward by Putnam. If you only use her article to track down in her footnotes relevant publications about transnational history, digital tools and research methods you would definitely learn a lot, but there is more than a gold mine of references. Putnam urges scholars to distinguish carefully between world history, global history and transnational history. The latter proposes to not just transcend political borders, but any kind of border, and look at subjects, themes and problems at multiple levels and angles.

The most telling danger of relying too exclusively on digital research might be that you can access materials from any point on earth without placing yourself in the very environment you want to study. You will miss the help of local historians and other scholars in a particular region, you will be less aware of their focus, traditions and bias. The translating function of the same multifaceted and omnipresent Web Firm will give you only a rough indication of their language and writing styles. The predominance of Anglo-American digital resources might have weakened, but there is a tendency to follow the lead of American and British scholars and institutions, not to mention the gap between those able to use digital resources to which institutions within your vicinity subscribe, and those unable to get access to them. Instead of an insider’s unique perspective you might unduly distance yourself, and thus lose grip and understanding which nothing can replace.

Matters to debate

The main thrust of Putnam’s article is certainly recognizable. I fully agree with her about the necessity to reflect about the influence of the digital turn which slowly but decisively changes the methods and practice of historical research. You might wonder why a European historian would want to learn something from this article focusing on North and Latin America. It is the very distance that helps me to discern patterns better than when looking at examples from research for European history. At the same time some of the differences can be telling.

While reading Putnam I remembered a book which I had to read as a student with a very particular title, Apparaat voor de studie van de geschiedenis, originally written by Jan Romein, and in later editions edited by J. Haak and J.G.F. Hasekamp. This “Apparatus for the Study of History” gave you indeed what its seemingly odd title promised to offer, a kind of crossover between a library guide, a reading list and a set of basic country and subject bibliographies, including references to works for the historical auxiliary sciences. Surely a similar book exists for American history. German scholars have the Baumgart, a guide for doing research in German history, but here, too, the scope is sometimes amazingly wide [Winfried Baumgart, B’ücherverzeichnis zur deutschen Geschichte. Hilfsmittel, Handbücher, Quellen]The Apparaat did not only contain titles of works in Dutch, but also in English, German and French, and only when strictly necessary in other foreign languages. Spanish works are present at a number of points.

I wonder which languages would figure in the American counterpart of the Apparaat and the Baumgart, because I remembered someone else, too, from my student days, a young American historian working for his Ph.D. thesis at Utrecht with marvellous command of the Dutch language. He told me how lucky he had been to visit a high school which offered a wide range of languages to its students, something not commonly encountered. I could not help asking myself while reading the paragraphs about Costa Rica and the Caribbean whether it would be a natural matter to have sufficient command of Spanish to include resources in Spanish already in a preparatory phase. I am sure there were and are country guides in print for any Caribbean country, but Putnam is right in stressing the fact that guidance often has the national level as its focus.

Yet another basic fact of your training comes to mind, having access to printed works in open stacks or having to rely much more on the catalogs of your institution(s). At Utrecht we had at the history institute not only open stacks but also a special room with rare books. This cabinet served also as a official deposit site for archival records on loan from archival institutions elsewhere. Legal historians, too, can take many books from the shelves of the open stacks at the new premises of the law library inside the city location of Utrecht University Library. At the old location at the Janskerkhof there were even two rooms with rariora for Roman law and Old Dutch Law, ans also materials from other European countries. I am convinced this background does influence you more than you might be aware.

As for locating books in my country the Royal Library in The Hague is home to the Nederlandse Centrale Catalogus (NCC), the Dutch central catalogue for the holdings of university libraries, and there is a second catalogue for a number of regional libraries. In my opinion the online version of the NCC should be available in open access. If I had to start looking for materials concerning the Caribbean I would think about visiting and using the resources of the Royal Netherlands Institute for South Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, the Royal Tropical Institute and the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. You could envisage the main cities in the west of my country as a single agglomeration with The Hague, Leiden, Amsterdam and Utrecht all really close to each other. Thus the problem with the 2009 online Guía del investigador americanista en Ámsterdam by Moira Cristiá is not only its brevity and focus on the IISH, but the utter failure to understand how close other Dutch cities with relevant research institutions are.

In Putnam’s list of nearby capitals of former empires Paris and Berlin are conspicuously absent, but you might also question the absence of Madrid, Simancas or Sevilla, all of which figure in other issues of the online Guía del investigador americanista, a service of the multilingual online journal Nuevo Mundo/NuevosMundos. Putnam mentions of course the LANIC (Latin American Network Information Center) in Texas. She mentions in her article only once bibliographies. I leave it to you to think about a punch line to discern between those who use bibliographies and those who do not… The National Union Catalog (NUC), in modern eyes perhaps the forerunner in print of WorldCat, nowadays also available and searchable online thanks to the Hathi Trust Digital Library consortium, does not figure at all. The Hathi Trust has digitized Thomas Leonard’s A guide to Central American collections in the United States (Westport, Conn., 1994), and you might want look there for more. I suppose Putnam left the NUC and the Library of Congress out precisely because it is so natural to start with them. The online version of the Handbook of Latin American Studies and the Hispanic Reading Room are only two starting points at the Library of Congress.

Banner Censo-Guía

However, libraries are probably not so much the problem, but finding out about relevant archives. Each country has not only very different archives, but their coverage is also not uniform. A number of countries have major municipal archives, in other countries these are rare. In some countries university libraries have large archival collections, and in yet another country you find a network of regional archives. It can be hard to find archives outside the governmental system of archival institutions, for example ecclesiastical archives. The famous online Repositories of Primary Resources (University of Idaho), once a familiar landmark on the web, is now only accessible in an archived version at the Internet Archive, and you will agree with Putnam about its incomplete coverage and bias. Sometimes you are lucky your chosen country figured in the eighty volumes of the country guides created by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Dutch website Archiefnet can be viewed also in English, but alas this overview of archives worldwide is no longer updated, and here, too, the attention outside Europe is for national archives. For many years the Nederlands Archievenblad, the journal of the Dutch Society of Archvists, ran a series with articles about archives abroad. Since many years the Unesco Archives Portal is no longer active. At LANIC you can be disappointed at first by seeing in the country archives guide for Costa Rica only the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, but this national archive has created an online Censo Guía de Archivos. LANIC provides you with links to four online directories for archives in the Ibero-American World. The Spanish Censo-Guía de Archivos de España e Iberoamérica will tell you about the great variety of archives and archival collections.

Banner Maps in the Crowd

For Putnam the way the presence of digitized materials can lead you astray is the true heart of the matter. You might be tempted to equate the absence of digital collections with the absence of any relevant archival institution with collections interesting for your research. How can the digital turn and the transnational turn combine into a way of doing research that comes closer to the aims of both movements and developments? Among developments enabling to create a positive influence for the transnational turn Putnam mentions the importance of projects for georeferencing maps. Such maps help in a very concrete way to free yourself from the national perspective, even if such maps were often created by governmental agencies. This example speaks to me a bit more forceful at the very moment Leiden University Library is close to finishing a crowdsourcing project to georeference some 7,000 maps from the collections of the KITLV, Maps in the Crowd. The old search interface is still there, and the accompanying blog can tell you more about this project. The British Library is also working along similar roads to georeference its maps, to give just one other example.

While writing this post I could not help noticing the role of Pittsburgh in global history and digital initiatives. The Carnegie Mellon University has created the Universal Digital Library, with some 26,000 books concerning law and in particular large collections concerning India and China. The East Asia Library of the University of Pittsburgh has digitized a substantial number of rare books in Chinese. The history department has made transnational history into a major focus; regional fields are certainly present, too, surprisingly they cover whole continents!

Cover of GPLH 7: El Jurista en el Nuevo Mundo

All this should remind you at the end of a rather long contribution that the armchair and computer screen historian with his and her armada of digital resource is in a way just as limited as the traditional historian. Digital progress is not only progress, but brings also losses. It is urgent to consider again our methods and practices for legal history, too. The publication series Global Perspectives on Legal History (GPLH) of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main reached in its second year already its seventh volume. You can consult online or download the volumes or buy the printed version. These volumes contain telling examples of research facing the challenges of transnational legal history, in particular for Latin America. The latest issue of the journal Legal History / Rechtsgeschichte [Rg 24 (2016)], another publication from Frankfurt am Main, contains a series of short reports solicited by Christiane Birr on current practices of legal historians who have entered the world of digital humanities. Putnam invites us cordially to rethink our methods and practices, and to consider carefully the traditional strengths and core values of the historian’s trade. Even alerting to some minor and major points with her article should not stop you from doing just that!

Of manors, towers and castles

Living near Utrecht with its beautiful old inner city and many monuments from earlier centuries can make you wish to look around this town in the heart of the Netherlands to find more monumental buildings or remains of them. People watching last year on television the start of the Tour de France from Utrecht may have looked at some point to a spectacular aerial photo of a castle and the park around it. The castle of Haarzuilens is the largest castle in my country, and it is really in a class of its own. Since 2013 I live almost in the backyard of the former manor Huis Voorn of which only the two eighteenth-century dovecotes survive, a memorial of seigniorial rights, worthy of a post here. Some castles show all the archetypical elements of the fairy castle with one or more towers, battlements and a moot surrounding the premises. Some are accompanied by follies, nineteenth-century – or even earlier – fake buildings, some have become themselves to a large extent reinvented houses.

Thus many buildings are only castles by virtue of their name. The importance of castles for legal history is surely their connection with jurisdiction and rights, and in my country even with the very shape of newly cultivated grounds, in particular in marshy regions. In this post the walking historian rides again! In fact I did ride to these houses by bike. Most of my examples will come from the southeast corner of the province Utrecht, the Kromme Rijngebied, an area named after an old meandering branch of the Rhine. Along and near the Langbroekerwetering, a stream made for drainage of this originally swamp area, there were some forty fortified houses, and luckily for you I will not visit them all, but you might become curious for more indeed.

A tour of castles in Utrecht

The tower of Den Ham, VleutenLet’s start with a most imposing tower at Den Ham near Vleuten, nowadays part of the city of Utrecht. In the mid-nineteenth century most of the fortified house around it has been demolished. The freestanding tower with seven floors is the largest one still standing in my country. The tower is actually for sale, now for only (!) € 1,750,000. I did not put here on purpose a picture made in January 2015, but it can serve to remind you of the problem of heating an old building enough to be comfortable for people in our century! The fortified house ranked as many other stately buildings in Utrecht as a ridderhofstad, literally a knightly manor giving its owner entrance to the States of Utrecht as a member of the gentry. This rule only developed during the sixteenth-century when a first version of a list was published. Thus the States of Utrecht tried to deal with the proliferation of castles, manors and other major private homes and possible claims to qualify for its membership.

Kasteel Heemstede, Houten - photo November 2013The range of castles and manors in the province of Utrecht goes from the tower of Den Ham to almost fairy-tale castles such as Haarzuilens, but I would like to look here at an example closer to the Kromme Rijn river, Heemstede near the former village Houten, now a garden-city to the south-east of Utrecht. Its splendid outlook could convince you it was always as grandiose as it looks now. However, its present incarnation is in fact just a faithful copy of the original building which was destroyed by fire some fifteen years ago. It is now home to a hotel. The surrounding grounds have been converted into a golf course. The Amsterdam-Rhine canal with its busy traffic runs close to it.

Castle Beverweerd, Odijk Near the village of Odijk is castle Beverweerd. Until a few years ago it was home to a public school. As you can gather from my picture it is situated in lush surroundings. From the meadow across the castle it becomes clear a number of medieval elements have been added quite recently. Adding such elements is not a new development, it follows closely practices starting in the nineteenth century. I will show you an example in the next section of this post.


Another tower not far from Odijk is located almost at the beginning of the Langbroekerwetering, the main stream created to develop the marshes into a cultivated area. Sterkenburg, “strong fortress”, certainly looks as a stronghold. The flag at the top of the tower adds an element familiar from television series with tales about courageous knights and damsels in distress. Alas I could not take a photograoh to this fortified house because the trees surrounding it make it impossible to view this house completely. To the left of the tower is the main building. In order to make up for the lack of details I could think of nothing else but turning around and taking a picture of the dovecote in the meadow adjacent to Sterkenburg and its grounds. To be sure, this dovecote is indeed a nineteenth-century folly, but something more is the matter in the south-east corner of the province of Utrecht. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century it became fashionable for rich Dutchmen to buy old castles and manors as summer houses.

A matter of rights

The folly of SterkenburgBuying yourself as a landowner a nice large summer resort is one thing, gaining access to the States of Utrecht by getting hold of a place with the eagerly sought rank of a ridderhofstad was surely as important. The presence of other buildings around your reinvented castle or old manor helped to show off your wealth, the sheer size of your landed property. In the case of follies or other embellishments your taste, too, became visible.

Rhynestein, CothenSome castle-like manors suggest a particular right. In the village of Cothen Huis Rhynestein is located at the Kromme Rijn river directly opposite to the village church. Not only a manor, but also a gate survive. The local situation might suggest the lords of Rhynestein did nominate the vicar of this parish. In his book Het Kromme Rijngebied in de middeleeuwen (Zutphen, 1993), the most important and detailed study on the medieval geographic and institutional history of the Kromme Rijn area Cees Dekker showed at many turns that you cannot reach any of such easy conclusions. The sheer number of institutions and people with claims and rights in this area is truly bewildering. Only long familiarity with the relevant archival collections, the experience and all other qualities of a medievalist-archivist par excellence which Dekker impersonated, and a keen personal knowledge of this region could bring his research to bear such rich fruits.

Huis Hardenbroek, Driebergen-RijsenburgOften the key to in-depth knowledge of a castle is getting hold of its archives. Castle Hardenbroek has been and still is in the possession of its founders, probably at least since the early fourteenth-century, with the exception of a dire period of nearly a century when the family had been forced to sell the ancestral home. Twenty years ago the castle archives were entrusted to the care of Het Utrechts Archief, the combined municipal and provincial archives of Utrecht. Hardenboek is located in the village Driebergen-Rijsenburg, but it is actually very close to Langbroek and Cothen.

A note on Dutch archival collections

Logo Het Utrechts ArchiefMany archival collections of castles and manors in the province Utrecht are kept at Het Utrechts Archief, a central point in this small province, and not in the smaller regional archives at Amersfoort, Breukelen, Woerden and Wijk bij Duurstede. Luckily the portal site of the Utrechts Archiefnet makes it possible to search directly in the online finding aids of both Het Utrechts Archief and the four regional archives in the province of Utrecht. Lately the arrival at Utrecht of a very substantial number of archival records for Hardenbroek from the Nationaal Archief in The Hague and the Gelders Archief in Arnhem has given a new push to finish the new inventories for Hardenbroek that will replace the provisional finding aids published in 2000. I use the plural inventories on purpose. In a way the new finding aids will open the road closed by the beautiful gate on my picture.

Logo NKSYou can find more about Dutch castles for example at the website of the Dutch center for castles and manors with a good links section and also at Kastelen in Nederland. There is a special website Utrechtse buitenplaatsen for manors and castles in the province Utrecht. Relevant images can be found online for example in the image database of the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, the Dutch National Service for Cultural Heritage that has also created a database to search for monumental buildings. Het Utrechts Archief offers online access to almost all its finding aids. You might still benefit from the printed guide to archives in the province Utrecht by A.N. Beets, H.L.Ph. Leeuwenberg and J.G. Riphaagen (eds.), De archieven in Utrecht (Alphen aan den Rijn 1985), the eleventh volume of the series with overviews of Dutch public archival collections (PDF, 9 MB). At present only the volumes 3 to 14 of this important series with a deceivingly long title, Overzichten van de archieven en verzamelingen in de openbare archiefbewaarplaatsen in Nederland, are available online at the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren, however among them at least also the last volume, the guide to private archival collections in the Netherlands [H.J.H.A.G. Metselaars (ed.), Particuliere archieven in Nederland (1992)]. The volumes for Drenthe and Gelderland have not yet been digitized, but the separate volume concerning archives in Amsterdam can be viewed online. Even if you have no particular interest in the history of castles and manor these invaluable guides merit your attention for legal history, because the volumes start with a map of jurisdictions before 1795. Sometimes the venom is in the end, but here there is a bait waiting for you!

For the common good: International legal history and collective action

Every month there is a growing chance of encountering some kind of commemoration of historical events and figures. Sometimes these festivities are indeed an opportunity to look at them with fresh eyes, but often these occasions can seem too much of a good thing. In recent years there has been a proliferation of international days, some of them just a funny parody, for example on March 31 the sixth Hug A Medievalist Day! On April 14, 2016 it is the International Legal History Day. At least one university, Harvard, organizes today a seminar about the practices and challenges of doing international legal history. It seems Harvard Law School wants to launch this day as a new tradition.

In this post I will look at two initiatives dealing with a concept which touches many countries and regions all over the world. Commons are shared stretches of land used and owned by several people. Commons can be defined as a type of collective action. An international research project is at the heart of this post, and I will also look at a digital library which helps you to trace relevant literature about commons. One of the features of this post will be the combination of global phenomena with local examples transcending the boundaries of nations and states.

Sharing lands, goods and much more

Header Institutions for Collective Action

When I first saw the portal of Institutions for Collective Action (ICA) I was genuinely surprised by the all-encompassing umbrella used to bring a number of institutions under one denominator. Commons are perhaps the institution most quickly associated with collective action, and they will certainly fill much space here, but there is more. Merely contemplating what kind of actions you will define as collective actions is in my view already a fruitful exercise. Five types of collective actions figure at the portal: commons, guilds, waterboards, beguinages and co-operatives. The ICA portal cites on its homepage Bertrand Russell’s dictum ‘The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation’. Currently there is a set of case studies from eight countries for the five types, with 23 examples for commons, four for guilds, eight for waterboards and only two for co-operatives, and typically for beguinages six examples from the Netherlands and Belgium. The eight countries are apart from Belgium and the Netherlands the United Kingdom, Greece, Portugal, Rumania, Spain and Uganda. The cases from Rumania concern commons, the example for Uganda is a co-operative project for micro-finance. In fact there are more countries: in the section for guilds France, Italy, Germany and China are added.

One of the strengths of this portal is the comprehensive coverage of many aspects of research into institutions for collective actions, and thus you are really looking at a veritable portal. You can consult not only the case studies and general overviews, but also online bibliographies, glossaries, datasets and sources, and you might be interested in the announcements of scholarly events. The section with debates highlights a number of general and specific questions about the types of collective actions figuring on the portal. These questions will certainly help you to refine your own analysis. I found in particular the discussion of the various forms of institutions for water management illuminating. The perspective on Dutch institutions becomes sharper thanks to the comparison with Spanish institutions. I really learned here something also about the Dutch variety of these institutions and the need to look at them more closely. The page with links to related projects shows the context of this project in which scholars at Utrecht have substantial roles. An offspring of the ICA portal are several projects which work with crowdsourcing. Inviting the public to participate in research projects by transcribing or indexing sources is in itself a kind of collective action. The heading Citizen Science is fitting indeed.

Website Vele Handen and the Ja, ik wil project

At least one of them should attract your curiosity because of its legal nature, the project Ja, ik wil (“Yes, I do”) for the transcription of pre-marriage acts between 1578 and 1811 from the municipal archive in Amsterdam, a resource with much more information about people going to be married than you will find elsewhere. The transcribing portal Vele Handen (“Many Hands”) contains more information about the project (in Dutch). In its turn this project serves a much larger research project of the ICA team to compare marriage patterns.

Banner Digital Library of the Commons

The main organization dealing with the history and current situation of common is the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). At the website of IASC, too, you can find an overview of online resources. Some years ago I already encountered the Digital Library for the Commons, a digital collection at Indiana University, but so far I had not started to place this initiative in a wider context. The digitized literature in this library deals with commons on literally every continent, even Antarctica, but not the Arctic region. The simple search mode, the advanced search mode and the filters for browsing are most helpful. In my view it is stimulating to look here, even if you do not quite find what you are searching for.

Although it is easy to expand the fairly summarized information presented here it might work better to keep this contribution shorter than usual. Environmental history is just an example that can be connected with studying commons. At the blog Environment, Law and History you can pursue this direction. Global legal history and comparative legal history do not appear here for the first time. The theme of international legal history deserves attention, and not just on one particular day every year, but the idea is surely valuable. When I started this blog I promised my readers to look for themes and subjects from around the world. There are enough countries, regions and landscapes about which I can write here. Perhaps it is more important to discuss them here not for the sake of completeness, but preferably and more interestingly in connection with the kind of problems and questions which belong to the world of legal history.

Messages on stones and histories in fragments

Banner Epigrafia 3-D

How can you make the memory of past actions last for later generations? In the Ancient World important matters were often committed in writing on stones. Studying inscriptions is one of the way historians dealing with Classical Antiquity approach their subject. Since the sixteenth century scholars versed in epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, help to gain insights into a vast subject which deals with three continents and roughly two millennia. Only a fraction of possible sources have survived, and thus it is understandable and necessary historians want to make the most out of them. Access to new resources and wider access to existing sources are most helpful in refining and re-adjusting our insights about this period.

Lately a number of online projects has come to my attention which bring ancient inscriptions closer to our century. You can do this in particular by just following the notices about epigraphy at the indispensable blog Ancient World Online of Charles Jones. Old editions have been digitized, new inscriptions are increasingly edited immediately in the digital domain, and some projects literally give us a wider view of these sources. A few years ago I already noted here a project sponsored by a Californian firm to present clay tablets from Mesopotamia in three-dimensional view. A Spanish project, Epigraphia 3D, dealing with Roman inscriptions in 3D-view prompted me to write here again about inscriptions. In some cases I will also look at other ancient sources, in particular papyri, but Roman inscriptions will be the main focus point.

Preserved in stone

Logo Hispania Epigraphica

The project Epigraphia 3D is the result of the combined efforts of the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (Madrid) and the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano in Mérida. Even if your Spanish is rather weak navigating the website is easy. Two galleries with three-dimensional images of inscriptions form the heart of the project. The first gallery (Galería 3D MAN) for the archeological museum at Madrid contains 37 images, the second gallery (Galería 3D MNAR) shows nearly 60 images from the collections at Mérida. It is simply great to look at stones with inscriptions and to view them as if you were walking around them. Inscriptions mentioning slaves should remind you about an element of Roman society and law calling for particular attention. The variety of formats is in itself already a lesson widening your horizons. For every object the relevant epigraphical databases referring to them are mentioned. It would be a great service to have for each object direct links to these databases. However, you can at least use the link to its original location at the well-known Pleiades interactive map of the ancient world. For Roman inscriptions in Spain the main online resource is Hispanica Epigraphica (Universidad de Alcalá) with an interface in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Epigraphy as a historical auxiliary discipline has long been dominated by scholars writing in German, French and English, and therefore a Spanish point of reference is actually very welcome. In fact there is even an impressive and extensive online guide (labeled Recursos) introducing you to epigraphy. The section with enlaces (links) will bring you to many of the more traditional online resources. Some of these projects try to cover not just Roman of Greek inscriptions. Trismegistos, a platform created at Cologne and Louvain dealing with papyri and materials restricted to ancient Egypt and the Nile valley, recently started covering also inscriptions from other regions. By the way, the list of the Trismegistos partners and contributors is another fine overview of the main projects for papyri and ancient inscriptions. The mighty Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss-Slaby (EDCS) features now also a searchable map for Roman inscriptions all over Europe.

Logo Digital Epigraphy and Archaeology

The Digital Epigraphy and Archeology Project led by the University of Florida has as one of its aims creating a toolbox for making three-dimensional inscriptions from squeezes, paper casts of inscriptions. with a nice showcase of 3D images of various ancient and medieval objects. The other projects on this website are a virtual museum of world heritage with 3D-images, seemingly now filled with just one object, and a section on interactive classical theatre. My first impression is that of a pilot project, and in fact it made me search again for projects showing more results. i could fairly quickly find a very relevant example which uses the freeware Sketchfab technology, a 3D-image of the famous Law of Gortyn, a legal text cut into the stones of a city wall on the island of Crete. You can find the Greek text online in the Searching Greek Inscriptions database, and an English translation in Paul Halsall’s Ancient History Sourcebook (Fordham University).

A bird-eye’s view

Logo Europeana Eagle

Reading about maps helping you to trace quickly inscriptions all over Europe – in fact I spotted a number of them found within my own neighbourhood – wets the appetite for more. You would like to be like an eagle finding inscriptions everywhere! The Epigraphia project shows in its bottom banner a number of logo’s, unfortunately not directly clickable, and one of them is to the Europeana Eagle project, a new branch of the Europeana network with magnificent online portals for several major subjects and themes in European history. It is infuriating that Europeana fails to give a quick list to them at its galaxy of sites. I have looked here in two posts especially at Europeana Regia with manuscripts from the libraries of three medieval kings. Currently the Eagle project covers nine online collections, including Hispania Epigraphica, the EDCS and the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg (EDH). The EDH has a clickable map of Europe bringing you to specific regions. Eagle contains now some 300,000 items.

Somehow I must be a bit old-fashioned when I worry about not seeing immediately at Eagle any reference to the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, but surely this has been connected to the main databases for searching Roman inscriptions. For those worrying about a too exclusive view at and use of inscriptions it is reassuring to see among the nine collections harvested at Eagle the Arachne database (Universität Köln) for archaeological objects. In my view Eagle scores with one particular feature, a mobile app for the two main platforms which enables you to view inscriptions in situ and check for their presence within Eagle. The app can even tell you whether Eagle contains similar inscriptions.

For scholars and everybody

Banner Ancient Lives

Greek and Latin can be formidable barriers to understand the classical world, yet the attraction of Classical Antiquity remains strong as ever. Precisely the inventive use of digital technologies has opened the world of classical studies to a much wider public. Interestingly the inverse connection, too, has started. Recently I encountered the crowdsourcing project Ancient Lives, a partnership between the Classics Faculty of the University of Oxford and the Zooniverse initiative. It is most remarkable that the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection (P. Oxy), almost the Holy Grail of papyri from ancient Egypt, should figure in a collaboration of classicists and the general public. Asking people to get involved in transcribing papyri is audacious indeed, even if you can see the appeal of this treasure to scholars worldwide. The Oxyrhynchus papyri is also one of the largest papyri collections. Nearly 80 volumes have been published for their critical edition. In view of the many aspects of creating this edition it becomes understandable to call upon people outside Oxford to help with one phase of the editorial process, creating reliable transcriptions which of course have to be checked and fortified by a critical apparatus. Imaging Papyri is the main project dealing with the Oxyrhynchus papyri.

On purpose I mention this project for papyri at Oxford, even if it seems to be a turn away from inscriptions. Exactly this effect can be viewed, too, at Oxford. There are at least two other epigraphical projects at Oxford I would like to include here. A focus on Egyptian papyri might almost blend out another project for sources from Egypt, the Corpus of Ptolemaic Inscriptions for the study of some 550 inscriptions and monuments with inscriptions. It is important to notice here the use of EpiDoc, an international initiative to develop a tailor-made version of TEI XML for publishing inscriptions online. With the Vindolanda Tablets from Northern England in the first and second centuries CE we encounter a resource particular close to daily life in a Roman province. The Vindolanda fort was situated south of Hadrian’s Wall. A concise virtual exhibition accompanies the online edition. The tablets contain not only complete documents and letters, but also drafts and school exercises. The presentation with at the left an image of a tablet, in the middle a transcription and at the right a translation is readily usable, and the search functions are most helpful. These tablets help you to look at Roman law in the context of daily life. They show encounters between the Latin culture and the peoples newly brought into the Roman empire or living at its borders.

A number of the websites highlighted here contain lists of links to other epigraphical projects, and thus you can easily expand my post to look beyond my personal interests. To round off my tour of projects I would like to look briefly at two other British projects dealing with inscriptions in regions where their very survival has become a matter of grave concern. King’s College London has created websites for the Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (IRT) and for the Inscriptions of Roman Cyrenaica (IRCyr), regions in modern Libya, a nation with currently almost no functioning state, where ancient monuments a prey to rivalling armed groups.

Histories in fragments

Lately I looked at the project portal Fragmentary Texts which aims at bringing together research concerning lost texts from Antiquity and their afterlife in fragments. The links section of this portal gives you a nice overview of various projects dealing with the fragments of ancient authors. One of the reasons this project resonates for me is the fact that the study of legal history in ancient times also very often deals with fragments. Complete texts are actually exceptional. We might forget that for example the Twelve Tables, the praetorian edict and the texts of classical lawyers are mainly known from reconstructions. The textual transmission of Justinian’s Digest is nearly complete, but in its turn it contains enough elements of elder texts to allow scholars to reconstruct such texts which no longer exist independently. Only since two centuries we have a complete text of Gaius’ Institutiones when a palimpsest manuscript was finally discovered in Verona.

Inscriptions can help completing ancient texts or show a different textual transmission. Graffiti in Pompei sometimes help scholars to find the right wordings of famous quotes from literary texts. When you study Justinian’s Digest and Code you will note the inscriptiones, the preliminary references giving the names of consuls or the reference to the work of a classical lawyer. The very word inscriptio might remind you to look beyond manuscript sources, and to study law also in relation to its role in society. Reading for instance about the special inheritance rights of Roman legionnaires who had served many years with the Roman army, something linked with the concept of the peculium castrense, comes much more into life when you can look at military diplomas and inscriptions bearing witness to their lives and activities. Instead of only admiring such objects in a museum or knowing about editions of the texts engraved on them it is now possible to connect your own research and interests with them on many levels.

Let’s end here with pointing to three blogs. Two blogs of the Hypotheses network deal with ancient epigraphy, the French blog Épigraphie en réseau of the EpiDoc project, worth reading even if not updated seriously since 2012, and the Spanish blog e-pigraphia: Epigrafia en Internet, very much kicking and alive. Current Epigraphy is another blog that you might want to consult to keep up with developments in an old but vital part of Classical Studies. Studying inscriptions from other periods is of course also a most interesting theme, but here I prefer to remain close to Classical Antiquity.

A postscript

Both for those who think my post was too short and those who think it was (again!) too long follow here for your benefit and quick reference some of the newest additions about epigraphy at Ancient World Online: the Claros database (Madrid) with a concordance for Greek inscriptions, Axon; Silloge di Iscrizioni Storiche Greche (Università Ca’Foscari, Venice) the projects at Berlin for the Inscriptiones Graecae (IG) and Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae (ICG) with Christian inscriptions in Greece and Asia Minor, the Inscriptions of Israel / Palestine (Brown University) and even some of the latest issues of the Année Epigraphique in open access. All of them would perfectly suit another post on epigraphy. I should have pointed also to the digital library of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), New York, home to the AWOL blog, and at at the very least I can give here a link to the digitized publications about ancient law and inscriptions.

On March 10, 2016, Sarah E. Bond published Epigraphy Enchiridion, a post on her blog about online handbooks and guides for Greek and Latin Epigraphy.

The power of words: Some thoughts about Umberto Eco

Image of Umbert Eco - photographer unknown - source: Wikimedia Commons

Umbert Eco – photographer unknown – source: Wikimedia Commons

The death of Umberto Eco (1932-2016) makes the world mourn a most versatile author. In fact you might do him justice by seeing him almost as a true uomo universale. In his writings, both his scholarly work and his novels, the thing resonating within you long afterwards was and is the encounter with a mind full of curiosity about the world, culture and life at large. As a small contribution in remembrance of a great intellectual I will look here at a few aspects of a period close to his heart, the Middle Ages. With The Name of the Rose Eco did not only write a great detective novel and a philosophical treatise about visions of reality and truth, but he returned in a way to the territory where his career started. This novel is marked by elements of law and justice, reason enough to have a look at it here.

A story in black and white

Eco’s great story, set in the early fourteenth century, has not just one central narrative thread, the quest of William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso of Melk to solve crimes and the mysteries surrounding them. The Name of the Rose is also a book about confrontations between old and new ways of thinking and action, and of strife even between people at both sides. The Franciscan William of Baskerville meets a formidable opponent when the Dominican friar and inquisitor Bernard Gui arrives on the scene of the monastery in Northern Italy. Both religious orders came into existence shortly after 1200. They almost fought each other to receive able men into their ranks. The different ways of living and preaching inspired them to outshine each other. Now Bernard Gui (around 1262-1331) was a historical figure. Interestingly he was not only the most famous inquisitor of his time, but also a very active historian of his order, see A.-M. Lamarrigue, Bernard Gui. Un historien et sa méthode (Paris, 2000).

Cambridge Uniersity Library, ms. Ff 3.18,fol. 1r

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, start of II-I; England, circa 1320-1340 – Cambridge, UL, ms. Ff 3.18, fol. 1r – image: Cambridge University Library

800 years ago the Dominican order was founded. Part of the worldwide jubilee celebrations is the virtual exhibition A pipeline from heaven: eight centuries of Dominican books created by Cambridge University Library. Among the manuscripts shown in the online gallery you can find the Summa Theologiae, the major work produced by Thomas Aquinas. I searched in this exhibit in vain for the inquisition and Bernard Gui, but let’s first remember how Eco started as a scholar with writing about Thomas Aquinas. Eco’s Ph.D. thesis dealt with the views on art of this Dominican philosopher and theologian. Aquinas wrote many of his works using the scholastic method of distinctions using questions and answers. Argument after argument is dissected in a seemingly cool and calm way. Personal views or involvement seldom surface. Eco succeeded in pinpointing Aquinas’ views of art in his discussions of perception, contrary to the opinions of eminent scholars such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. Once you realize this, it is easier to see how this discovery influenced Eco’s later scholarly and literary works.

When William of Baskerville reads and explains the telling signs which contain clues to unravel what happened at the Benedictine monastery infected by crime, Eco knowingly plays with scholarly views of medieval and modern philosophy. Using and focusing on signs was for some time the very heart of the vogue for microhistory. The Italian word connected with the microhistory paradigm is spie, traces. Eco was virtually the founder – together with Roland Barthes – of semioticsthe theory of signs, their meanings and relations. In the thirteenth century a number of Dominican friars set out to write both manuals and encyclopedias covering all kinds of knowledge. Very soon the papacy realized that their deep theological knowledge made these friars fit to become inquisitors. Bernard Gui himself wrote a manual for inquisitors, edited by Michel Mollat, Bernard Gui. Manuel de l’inquisiteur (Paris 1926, reprint 1964; Les classiques de l’histoire de France au moyen âge, 8-9). Gui made notes and instructions and carefully documented his activity in the Languedoc in another manuscript [Le livre des sentences de l’inquisiteur Bernard Gui (1308-1323), Annette Pales-Gobillard (ed.) (Paris 2002)]. David Burr (Virginia Tech) has translated a number of the texts in this edition, in particular Gui’s views on detecting heresy. Gui mentions among other heretical matters the views on poverty of the Franciscan writer Petrus Olivi which figure in Eco’s novel, too.

As part of the Dutch jubilee celebrations of the Dominican order the journal Tijdschrift voor Geestelijk Leven [Journal for Spiritual Life] published a special about Dominican history [Het hart op de tong. 800 jaar dominicaanse verkondiging (TGL 72/1 (2016)] with an article by legal historian and theologian Daniela Müller (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen) on Bernard Gui (pp. 27-35), summarizing in Dutch at the same time a part of her recent research about medieval heresy and the position of women. Müller writes Gui served his order also as a procurator generalis at the papal court in Avignon, and even became involved in the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas. He also acted as a papal nuntius. Müller’s recent research about Gui’s protest against the decision of pope Clement V compelling bishops and inquisitors to work together is real news (see her article ‘Der Bischof und der Inquisitor’, in: Ketzer und Kirche. Betrachtungen aus zwei Jahrtausenden, Daniela Müller (ed.) (Münster 2014) 237-262).

For Bernard Gui words and views did not stand independent of beliefs and practices. You might say he read the views of people as signs of religious convictions and adherence. He outright connected particular expressions with heretical views, even if he had not yet asked specifically about the latter. Eco succeeded most powerfully in showing one of the major faults of the inquisitorial procedure, the combination of the function of persecuting officer and judge in one person. Is it a play on his own name – Eco means echo in Italian – that the other main character in The Name of the Rose, Jorge of Burgos, the monk killing so many of his brethren, also acted as a staunch persecutor of new views and a terrible self-appointed judge? Eco would have spoilt his novel by placing the motto Only connect used by Virginia Woolf at the start of his first novel, but surely this is the most concise clue to his book.

The joy of writing and sharing knowledge

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Eco involved himself in Italian life and culture with his own column for a newspaper and regular appearances on television. In a number of his books, for example about the history of beauty, he left behind him his familiar territories of medieval history and current philosophy, and reached out to a much larger audience. Among these books I personally most like his work touching on the history of language research, La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993), translated into nearly twenty languages, as you can check in the Index Translationum of UNESCO. The history of the search for the perfect language brought Eco in many cases to authors expressing their own theory about the original language of humanity. Even Dutch was in the seventeenth century sometimes presented as the language spoken in Paradise! Having started with studying the world where Latin was the lingua franca this subject certainly made Eco smile. His command of European languages made him the ideal author for this theme.

I first read The Name of the Rose as a student of medieval history. Although I did find at first his proliferation of extracts from medieval authors close to going through an overturned card file I had no doubt whatsoever of his skills as a great story-teller. The joy of writing and sharing is visible everywhere in his writings. Since I first read this book I have reread it several times, and my admiration for it has grown. While writing this post I noticed how many tags I can use for classifying my musings about Eco. We are lucky to see in Umberto Eco someone defying normal classifications. He was a great scholar, and even his faults and flaws have turned into art. Few scholars have been as candid and full of humour as Eco about his own mistakes. Nobody is perfect, but Eco’s legacy will continue to help us perceiving signs, detecting hidden perceptions and connections. He makes you transcend the world of books and marvel at the Book of the World.

The edges of medieval law

Cover "The edge of the world" (Penguin edition, 2015)Every now and then a book comes along that grabs your attention. The Dutch translation of Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: How The North Sea Made Us Who We Are (2014) with its beautiful cover lured me into buying in the end the Penguin edition (2015) and starting to explore its contents. After a number of recent books about the role in European history of the Mediterranean, in particular the one by David Abulafia, a kind of antidote extolling the importance of the North Sea and the regions around it in medieval times is surely welcome. Michael Pye belongs to the line of British authors outside academia who year after year present us with vigorously written and entertaining history books. Awareness of the many corners of history and the importance of detail studies does not diminish the secret longing for history in the grand manner. Does Michael Pye, trained at Oxford in modern history, succeed in creating a convincing history of this part of Europe? In this post I will look in particular in the way Pye deals with medieval law. Law and justice get a large space in his study, sufficient justification to deal with it here.

Twelve chapters and an introduction

Pye organized his book in twelve chapters with some 320 pages, embellished by two maps and twelve full colour images, and fortified by nearly fifty pages with end notes giving substantial references to scholarly literature. It needs perhaps underlining these facts before starting to analyze its contents. Pye aimed to discuss matters scholars regularly research, he uses their research and thus he deserves attention both by the general public and at a scholarly level. In a captivating introduction Pye skilfully sets the scene for his book and points to some of the problems daunting the historiography of the countries around the North Sea. He is quite right to refer to the bias caused in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by nationalist views, and to warn for their partial survival, in particular our respect for Bede the Venerable and his book on the history of the English people. Bede’s work cannot been read as a historical work of our times. There are clear limits to his knowledge and method, and powers guiding his vision of Christianity and its coming to British isles. The quality of this introduction is most promising for the following chapters.

The first chapter has a provocative title, ‘The invention of money’. Were the Frisians the first people to use money in the lands north of the Rhine left empty by the Romans? Pye argues this region became already in the eight century a trading zone where Franks, Frisians and Saxons traded commodities with each other, even luxury goods. I could not detect a clear chronology in this chapter. Putting the town of Tiel between Utrecht and Arnhem is a bit awkward when Tiel is some forty kilometers to the south-east, and Arnhem seventy kilometers to the east of Utrecht. Dorestad makes more sense as a point of reference. The second chapter about the way this early medieval society was to some extent definitely a world of the book, seems to me much more convincing.

The two following chapters are perhaps the best part of Pye’s book. He succeeds in creating a view of the role of the Vikings in Western Europe and Scandinavia which goes way beyond the clichés of savage men from the North destroying the peace brought by Charlemagne to his new empire. There was more to the Vikings than only violence and pillaging. They were traders who enlarged the range of early medieval trade. They traded not only in Russia, but came even to Byzantium. In the end they, too, became settlers who founded even new port towns. A number of new books, for example those written by Anders Winroth, can give you a fuller portrait of the Vikings and their impact, but Pye gives in fifty pages a fresh picture with much relevant material and discussions of important topics.

Laws are everywhere

Let us not plod here through every chapter in chronological order. One of the reasons you might want to read Pye’s book carefully is his attention to medieval law and legal matters. The space he creates for showing and discussing law and justice is a relief after reading history books which relegate law to a tiny corner or dismiss it in a few paragraphs as a dull matter.

Pye’s sixth chapter, ‘Writing the law’, gives in nearly thirty pages his first main discussion of medieval law. He describes the way the early medieval ordeal was succeeded by a new approach to facts. Pye uses Merovingian formulae and carefully notes the views of learned men in the ninth century who already opposed the ordeal, but his indication of time is sloppy. The rise of lawyers as a profession leads him to speculate about the rise of professions in general. Surely this a major development in medieval society which needs a through investigation and explanation. One of my troubles with this chapter is the zigzagging between centuries and subjects, including the use of runes, the creation of letters of exchange and the forgery of charters. For me there is a fine line between telling stories which bring something fundamental, and a way of writing where just one example after another serves to make a point. In the end you read a loose narrative chain posing as a convincing argument, instead of a patient analysis of a number of cases for a single matter, question or hypothesis. There is a distinct tendency in this book to impress with short stories and vignettes, leaving me in the end somewhat breathless.

On the other hand I cannot leave this chapter judged only on some rather external characteristics. Is the waning of the use of the ordeal the only thing that really mattered? Why does Pye look closely at the use of runes on artefacts, but not at Scandinavian laws? Why does he completely miss the renewal of legal procedure and the increasing role of counts and kings, in particular in Flanders, Normandy and England? Pye mentions two articles by Raoul Van Caenegem, but he seems unaware of this scholar’s monographs and editions. He tends to cite very often new literature and to look only seldom at older studies. Scholarly literature in German or Dutch is almost absent, which is remarkable for a book written for a substantial part in Amsterdam with the aid of the staff at the university library of the Universiteit van Amsterdam. He simply misses the fundamental recent articles by Winfried Trusen and Lotte Kéry about the growth and background of the inquisitorial method, nor does he mention any book about medieval judges. Pye writes for example about the importance of judging intention, citing an article from 1964 by John W. Baldwin, but apparently not using his book about the social views of Peter the Chanter.

Pye’s ninth chapter, ‘Dealers rule’, is perhaps the best part. His presentation and discussions of merchants and trade exemplified in the German Hansa is vigorous. The Hansa wanted to be established a rule of its own built on sheer power, trying to keep outside the normal power relations and legal frameworks by concentrating on the sea. Pye has a keen eye for the particular position of merchants in late medieval society. He rightfully shows how the Hansa in a way continued the practices of earlier merchants. This chapter owes it force certainly also to the quick association one can make nowadays with the role of international trade and multinational firms.

The tenth chapter, ‘Love and capital’, very much centers also around law and legal customs. Pye discusses here the role of matrimonial and hereditary law helping women to secure a position within marriage and outside it, for example living as beguines in one of the great Flemish beguinages, or trading in the absence of their husband. Incidentally, when telling the story of a woman living as a beguine at Bruges who was abducted in 1345 by her family, Pye does use an article in Dutch, helped by Dutch scholars, but only in this case. Only two pages after he started telling this story he gives the year when this happened. If it is really important particular developments in Northern Europe were so pivotal in European and world history, I would prefer to know more exactly when and where something happened. Just two maps to figure out the position of a particular town or location mentioned in this book is simply not enough. The British Isles, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the Baltic need separate maps. It weakens an interesting chapter. His case for the growing independence of medieval women, too, would have deserved more careful research. Bringing in medieval views of sexuality seems to mask the somewhat one-sided documentation of this chapter. It is one thing to bring social and economic history together with legal history, but something else to create a convincing chapter which does not consist only of colourful stories and brilliant side remarks. Dutch readers will remember the book by Matthijs Deen about the Frisian isles and the Wadden Sea [De Wadden. Een geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 2013)], a book with both space for good stories and calm analysis.

You should not think I did not like reading this book. It is a splendid read, and some of Pye’s ideas and views are really worth close consideration. The short eleventh chapter offers a captivating sketch of the impact of the plagues, starting with the Black Death in 1348, and the way they serves as a kind of ultimate terror calling for stricter control of social life by laws and regulations. Pye succeeds also in making you aware of medieval views and the changing role of rational thought in them, but here, too, he acts sometimes as if he was the first to discuss this matter. By chance I received this week a select bibliography of current scholarship about the impact of the Black Death, which makes me more cautious about generalizing views. Alas Pye selects his reading list very arbitrarily.

The Book of Everything

In the two last chapters Pye brings his story to his own period, the Early Modern history of Europe. Medieval developments paved the way for the world hegemony of the Dutch empire in the seventeenth century. It was not just a case of the Dutch winning with much luck their struggle for independence against the mighty Spanish forces, but having at their disposal all the skills, knowledge and connections needed to establish a sea-born empire thanks to the migration of merchants from Flanders who head to leave Antwerp. Seemingly novel ways of finance were not so new. I could not help grinning reading the last chapter with on the back of my mind the books by Russell Shorto about Amsterdam and New York. Trade, cultural exchange and fierce convictions to create by all means space for unhampered trade and commerce were surely important for the success of the early Dutch Republic.

The Edge of the World promises to give us a completely new history. One cannot fault an author for his ambition, but Pye has made things difficult for himself. Even Johan Huizinga did not try to tell in The Waning of the Middle Ages the complete story of the fourteenth and fifteenth century in France and the Low Countries, but restricted himself on purpose to medieval literature. Huizinga had published a scholarly edition of legal sources from Haarlem [Rechtsbronnen der Stad Haarlem (‘s-Gravenhage, 1911)]. However, he did not use legal materials and accounts as primary sources in his 1919 book, enough for one critic to remark privately it was only a novel. Pye does refer in his notes to a number of printed editions, but he seldom uses archival records or manuscripts. I am totally convinced a historical novel can sometimes help you to understand a period much better. The Dutch author Hella Haasse succeeded in her 1949 novel Het woud der verwachting [“In a dark wood wandering” (Chicago, 1989)] in evoking France in the late fourteenth century, and at some turns she even surpassed Huizinga’s insights and evocative style.

Too often Pye supposes a particular story can stand for a number of corroborating sources. It makes him somewhat careless and cavalier with his source materials. It is one thing to turn the lights on the many colours of medieval history and society, but the very glitter of little stories too good to leave out has taken over here from critical examination. A round of killing your darlings would have helped very much. Geography and maritime history really suffer. Pye sells too many alluring stories as if only they provide us with the causes of changes and insight into forces behind continuities. His enthusiasm is admirable, but it does also mar this book.

Only on finishing my own review I have looked at some of the reviews of Pye’s book in the Anglo-American World and in Dutch media. The opinions and reviews show a wide spectrum from admiration for a writer choosing narrative above analysis and his own way to deal with a vast subject, to outright dismissal – Adam Nicolson in The Spectator – because at too many turns Pye got his facts wrong, something journalists and historians should truly worry about. Such facts have blunt or sharp edges which can hit equally painful. On the other hand scholars should rightfully and sincerely accept the challenge of doing a better job themselves. We need imagination and vision, keen perception of perspectives, skills to squeeze out the meaning of written sources and artefacts, unflagging attention to get things right, respect for truth, a willingness to question and learn, and the courage to combine fine analyses with good writing. Deep thinking and rethinking will not make the history of Northern Europe grey. It will help to show the many hues of blue and green on the waves sailed by all kinds of medieval people.