Tag Archives: Digital archives

A city in distress: Dordrecht and the 1352-1358 interdict

Bull of pope Innocent VI for Dordrecht, 13

Bull of pope Innocent VI with his sentence to lift the interdict from Dordrecht, 1355 June 2 – Regionaal Archief Dordrecht, finding aid 1, Stadsarchieven 1200-1572, no. 274-6

Among the most frequent comments about the COVID-19 virus is the remark this situation is totally new. Historians will remember the 1918-1919 pandemic and the Black Death around 1348. In recent decades my own country faced at least three contagious diseases, some of them badly controlled by the authorities. Whatever our views of current regulations, cities and countries have been confronted with other situations with normal life severely hampered. Events have been cancelled and churches are closed for services. The latter theme prompted me to search for information about and examples of a medieval ecclesiastical punishment, the interdict. What did this mean and how did it work? It was only logical to combine this with a search for online historical resources.

These days I looked in particular at digitized sources held by Dutch archives. There is a wide variety of ways in which they present digitized materials. When I bumped into a bull of pope Innocent VI in the online gallery of the Regionaal Archief Dordrecht I found a charter dealing with an interdict touching the largest and most important city of the medieval county Holland. In this post I will look in particular at the rich set of sources for this period under an interdict in this archive, but also at other resources, the historiography about this interdict and at medieval canon law.

This rather long post has five sections. After looking at the character and impact of an interdict the case in Dordrecht comes into view. The third section deals more in general with archival records and the history of archiving in Dordrecht, followed by a section on online records concerning the medieval papacy. In the fifth section you will meet a very active medieval lawyer with a Dutch origin and international connections. At the end I offer some conclusions.

Defining the medieval interdict

The interdict suffers from the far greater fame of another ecclesiastical punishment, excommunication. Excommunicated persons were cut off from the body of the Christian faithful, and the examples of kings facing excommunication made an impression on contemporaries. Elisabeth Vodola’s Excommunication in the Middle Ages (Berkeley, CA, 1986) still is the classic modern study on this subject. Fred Kloek, my own history teacher, wrote a book about papal excommunication and medieval politics, De pauselijke banvloek. Een geestelijk wapen in de middeleeuwse politiek (Amsterdam 1987). He refused to view excommunication as a weapon that became blunt over the centuries. In his view the power of this punishment was initially due to the relative weakness of kings, and thus the popes were able to ensure support from powerful allies, but this balance clearly shifted. Strategies and tactics were different things.

For a definition of the character and impact of an interdict I follow the explanations of Hartmut Zapp in his lemma ‘Interdikt’ for the Lexikon des Mittelalters 5 (1991) col. 466-467. An interdict meant withelding the administering of the sacrament and a halt to church services (cessatio a divinis). Apart from the interdictum personale the interdictum locale could pertain to entire communities, cities and regions, or just one particular place. It became possible to lessen the harsh impact of an interdict, for example by getting papal dispensation for celebrating mass behind closed doors. Religious orders could receive exemptions from interdicts. Only seldom an interdict led to repentance of culprits. An interdict became increasinlgy only a nuisance, not an effective spiritual punishment.

Peter Clarke wrote the most recent full-scale study on the interdict, The interdict in the thirteenth century. A question of collective guilt (Oxford, etc., 2007). For the Low Countries an article by Marian de Smet and Paul Trio offers a good starting point, ‘De verhouding tussen Kerk en stad in de Nederlanden in de late Middeleeuwen, onderzocht aan de hand van het interdict ‘, Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis 5 (2002) 247-274. In the absence of research for the entire Low Countries De Smet en Trio focused on local and regional cases. Their article helps to see the interdict on Dordrecht in perspective. They disagree with Hartmut Zapp about the diminishing impact of the interdict in the fifteenth century.

Not just one charter

The interdict led on Dordrecht by Jan van Arkel, bishop of Utrecht from 1342 to 1364, came in a period of political strife. After the death of count William IV of Holland in 1345 his sister Margaret, married to emperor Louis of Bavaria, claimed the succession and wanted her son William to act as a governor in her absence. Parties formed quickly around both Margaret and William. During a coup in 1351 William was taken hostage and imposed as the new count. Supporters of Margaret were exiled. This unlashed a chain of events. The influence of aristocratic families, officials of the count and cities with their own interests, and growing interest from other counts and dukes, not to mention the prince-bishops of Utrecht, set the scene for a period of more than a century of endemic conflict between the two parties.

Understanding the meaning of the charters about this interdict and their relations is much helped by the clear paragraph on them in the Geschiedenis van Dordrecht tot 1572, Jan van Herwaarden et alii (eds.) (Dordrecht 1996) 97-101. Innocent VI’s bull of June 2, 1355 states the interdict dured already thirty months, so it seems to have been inflicted before the end of 1352. Henric Scoutate, a former schepen (échevin), had been excommunicated for murdering three citizens of Dordrecht, among them the bailiff of Dordrecht and another schepen. Henric and his complices sought sanctuary at the main parish church, the Grote Kerk, but an outraged mob entered the church and the churchyard and killed them. This shedding of blood was enough reason for bishop Jan van Arkel to place Dordrecht under interdict. Meanwhile the party strife between the supporters of both claimants developed, and on top of that a war started between Holland and Utrecht.

The bull from 1355 is indeed part of an archival context. A quick search for Innocent VI (Etienne Aubert, pope from 1352 to 1362) in the collections of the archive at Dordrecht brings you to the very first archival collection, toegang 1, Stadsarchieven: de grafelijke tijd, 1200-1572, inv.no. 274, the archives of the medieval city Dordrecht. This inventory number contains 24 documents created between 1354 and 1358, mainly charters but also letters, all of them with digitized images; one item contains seven charters. The papal bull is described under inv.no. 274-6. In the Digitale Charterbank Nederland, the portal for charters in the holdings of Dutch archives, you will find currently 90 charters concerning interdicts.

Only one document from the set at Dordrecht, without indication of the year, 1354 according to the inventory, tells us directly something of the moves made by count Willem. In his letter he urged the city Dordrecht to cancel their verdict on two men, Aper Scoutate and his nephew Henric, to be sent on a punitive pilgrimage (no. 274-1). The count said his mother Margaret did not want to let this happen. We can follow the interdict closely only from 1355 onwards. The letter was written in Quesnoy, the main castle of the counts of Hainaut. The medieval notice on the verso is simply wrong. The city empowered on March 27 three men, Johannes de Zeelandia, Petrus de Leeuwenberch and Henric Prijs, one of the four parish priests of Dordrecht, to deal with the bishop to end the interdict (inv.no. 274-2). On the back of this charter you can dimly see some remarks concerning the actions of procuratores – proctors or agents – at the papal curia in Avignon using this mandate when introducing this case. Among the names is a magister Johannes de Cloetinghe, a place in Zeeland. A day later Henric Prijs was promised financial recompensation by the city Dordrecht for any trouble with the bishop; he received also a letter of credit for 400 guilders (no. 274-3), but this has only been written on the back of the former document. On May 11, 1355 Petrus Majoris, an auditor causarum in Avignon, confirmed that notwithstanding the delay for an appeal Henric Prijs is allowed to appeal in this case (no. 274-4).

Surely we miss other documents from Avignon of the case, but in three letters Henric Prijs told in 1355 something about his troubles and matters around the legal conflict, in particular in his letter sent on May 22 (inv.no. 274-5). Gerard van der Veen, the chancellor of Jan van Arkel, was in Avignon and gave to the cardinael van Bolongen 2000 guilders to act on his behalf. This cardinal was in some way a relation of the count of Holland. Guy de Boulogne (1313-1373) was indeed one of the most important cardinals with many connections. Prijs also noted that Ricardus de Anglia, the second advocatus of the Dordrecht case, had a positive attitude towards Maud (Matilda, Machteld) of Lancaster, the spouse of count Willem V. Henric’s letter of credit had not been accepted, and therefore he begged the eldermen for another one from the Lombards or caoursins in Dordrecht. Henric Prijs seems to have perceived rather quickly the importance of (political) connections and the way things worked in and around the curia.

On June 8, 1355 Prijs announced the bull in which the bishop of Cambrai will act as a iudex delegatus (no. 274-7). A month later (July 8) he complained about magister Johannes de Zelandia, the other advocatus who took thirty écus from him (no. 274-8). This letter seems to indicate also some of the tarifs for actions and acts at the papal curia. In yet another letter without a date Henric repeats his plea to send him money (no. 274-9). On August 12 Petrus Maioris, the auditor causarum, confirms the protest of Henric Prijs and the three other parish priests (Wilhelmus de Lantscroene, Wigger Gerardi and Johannes de Tympel) against the accusations of the representants of Jan van Arkel on May 15 (274-10). On August 15, 1355 bishop Peter of Cambrai [Pierre d’André] sealed two charters, one adressed to Ludolphus Abolensis, clearly a kind of auxiliary bishop, and the other to Jan van Arkel, with the text of Innocent VI’s bull (nos. 274-11 and 12).

A procedural note about the relaxation of the interdict - Ra Dordrecht, toegang I, Stadsarchief 1200-1572, no. 274-14

A legal consultation about the relaxation of the interdict – Regionaal Archief Dordrecht, toegang I, Stadsarchief 1200-1572, no. 274-14

Below I will tell you about editions of the majority of these texts, but I can already show here an unedited text which sheds some light on the use of canon law in this conflict. No. 274-14 is an undated note with a splendid number of abbreviated words, fit for any examination in medieval palaeography! Halfway the text a decretal is mentioned, de offi. del. li.vi, pointing to the Liber Sextus (VI. I.14, the title De officio iudicis delegati). Does it read ix after decretalis or scilicet? This text ends with the conclusion the bishop of Utrecht would have to start a new procedure that could start only in the papal consistory. At the end it also becomes clear Ludolphus Abolensis wrote a consilium to this effect which is joined here by an anonymous lawyer.

Seal of Ludolfus Abolensis

The seal of frater Ludolfus episcopus Abolensis – RA Dordrecht, Stadsarchief 1200-1572, inv.no. 274-17

It is not clear for which diocese Ludolphus Abolensis was the bishop. J.F.AN. Weijling, Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van de wijbisschoppen van Utrecht tot 1580 (diss. Nijmegen; Utrecht 1951; online, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen) mentions him as a bishop who just happened to be in the diocese Utrecht (pp. 185-186). On September 29, 1355, he signed a charter in which he announced in Dordrecht the lifting of the interdict (inv.no. 274-15). A few weeks later he reassured the city this relaxation was effective notwithstanding any action of the bishop of Utrecht (1355 October 14, inv.no. 274-17). Meanwhile the city had already asked a priest, heer Arent, den grauwen priester, to go to Avignon to instruct Henric Prijs to ask for the absolution of the perpetrators of the murders in the church (1355 October 7, inv.no. 274-16). No. 274-21 is a copy of a papal letter dated January 6, 1356 to the abbot of the Norbertine abbey Mariënweerd whom Innocent VI ordered to view the earlier bull as null and void after a succesfull complaint by the bishop of Utrecht about the lifting of his interdict. This letter tells us the names of the three murdered victims, taken from the 1355 bull. At the back of this document is a letter dated May 5, 1356, by Johannes de Zelandia who wrote to the city of Dordrecht he thinks this papal letter is per se legally sound, but he will continue to get the interdict lifted. On the same day Petrus de Leeuwenberch, too, wrote to the city of Dordrecht about the actions by the bishop of Utrecht to cancel the relaxation of the interdict (inv.no. 274-22). According to this letter the cardinalis Boloniensis helped very much to reverse the earlier lifting of the interdict.

For brevity’s sake I would have skipped the three charters of Francesco degli Atti, bishop of Florence, to the city Dordrecht and the dean of Geertruidenberg (nos. 274-18 to 20) about the absolution for citizens of Dordrecht, but it is interesting to note how this bishop refers thrice to the fact he acts as a vice-regens for cardinal Aegidius, Gil Albornoz (1310-1367), clearly the most important cardinal in this period. Almost at the end stands the set of seven transfixed charters, with as the main document the foundation of a chapel at the Grote Kerk by Aper and Henric Scoutate (inv.no. 274-23, 1356 May 10). In my view it seems this could well be the new gesture of reconciliation replacing the earlier pilgrimage. The very last document concerning the interdict is a charter issued by bishop Jan van Arkel and Henricus Mierlaer, archdeacon of Utrecht and provost of the St. Martin’s cathedral on December 6, 1358 (inv.no. 274-24) announcing finally the end of his interdict. In this very short charter all attention should go to the words about dilectus noster consanguineus Arnoldus de Iselsteyn, a nephew of the bishop who had been the bailiff of the city Amersfoort and keeper of the castle Stoutenburg. Earlier Arnoud of IJsselstein had been involved in financing the policies of his uncle. In 1358 he was a councillor of count Willem. A mental illness ended Willem’s short reign.

Searching archival records in Dordrecht

Among the Topstukken [Highlights] at Dordrecht are more documents concerning legal matters, You can look at a charter from 1299 confirming the stapelrecht of Dordrecht which ensured traders had to unload their freights and bring them to the market before continuing their voyages, and at a manuscript from 1525 with municipal ordinances (keuren). For each item a short essay has been added explaining its meaning and importance. However, for these two items and for the 1355 bull no reference is given to the specific fonds or archival collection, as if nobody seeing these documents and reading the essays would want to see them in their archival context.

The set of charters and letters about the interdict at Dordrecht is without any doubt the largest surviving one in the Netherlands. Jacob van Oudenhoven noted them in his Oudt ende nieuw Dordrecht (…) (Haarlem: Vermerck, 1666; online, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek) 357-359 as a part of the official inventory made in 1649 of the records in the IJzeren Kast, the iron chest with city records (pp. 339-367). P.H. van de Wall published the bull in his edition of sources concerning Dordecht, Handvesten, privilegiën (…) der stad Dordrecht (3 vol., Dordrecht: Van Braam, 1770-1777; 2nd ed., Dordrecht: Van Braam, 1790; vol. 1, online, Delpher) 247-249. In his opinion it was not necessary to publish other documents about this case because the case was well known. He mentioned drawer Q where this and other documents were kept, and noted in particular only a charter of September 29, 1355 (Q.12) in which the bishop of Cambrai lifted the interdict (inv. 274-15).

Theologian Guillaume Henri Marie Delprat (1791-1871) was the first to write again at length about this set of documents. He published the majority of them in his article ‘Dordrecht onder kerkelijk interdict, 1352-1356’, Kerkhistorisch Archief 3 (1862) 1-64 [online, Internet Archive]. Delprat did not edit the papal bull, but only referred to Van de Wall, because large parts of the papal bull are repeated in another document (no. XVII). Delprat was a pioneer of research into the fourteenth-century religious movement of the Devotio Moderna. In the same journal he published an article about another interdict, ‘Het bisdom Utrecht en het graafschap Holland onder kerkelijken ban in de jaren 1280 tot 1283’, Kerkhistorisch Archief 3 (1862) 321-397. In both articles Delprat looked at the history of the interdict and at cases in medieval Europe.

The city archives of Dordrecht have rich holdings and a long history, charted by P.J. Horsman in his study Abuysen ende desordiën : archiefvorming en archivering in Dordrecht, 1200-1920 [Abuses and disorder: the formation of archives and archiving in Dordrecht, 1200-1920] (PhD thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2009; online). The oldest surviving medieval municipal accounts from the Northern Low Countries stem from Dordrecht. In the inventory by P. van den Brandeler, Inventaris van het archief der gemeente Dordrecht (3 vol., Dordrecht, 1862-1869; online, Hathi Trust Digital Library) the documents about this interdict had been placed in a separate rubric (I, 56-63) with twenty items. Van den Brandeler gave also the old signatures for these documents, most of them kept in the Iron Chest, and he referred when possible to the edition by Delprat. The inventory by J.L. van Dalen, Inventaris van het archief der gemeente Dordrecht (2 vol., Dordrecht 1909-1912) is basically still in use and searchable online in the search system of the Regionaal Archief Dordrecht, last edited in 2014. The references to Delprat have not been included in the descriptions. The current finding aid gives the documents concerning the interdict in chronological order. Horsman tells specifically Van Dalen added to each item the number given by Van den Brandeler and the old signatures. In my view references to editions are meta-data which enrich a finding aid. On closer inspection these references have been assembled by Van Dalen in the regestenlijst in the second volume of his inventory. These regesten give one-line summaries of the juridical content of documents in chronological order.

Photo of J.L. van Dalen at website Regionaal Archief Dordrecht

Jan Leendert van Dalen (1864-1936) is the man sitting at his desk on the website of the Regionaal Archief Dordrecht. He wrote twice at some length about the interdict on Dordrecht. In his book on the history of the Grote Kerk [De Groote Kerk (Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk) te Dordrecht (Dordrecht 1927; online, Delpher] he discussed the affair (pp. 30-34) and he gave the text of the four letters by Henric Prijs [inv.no. 275-5 to 8, pp. 171-174], followed by summaries of the pieces not published by Delprat. Perhaps this explained his somewhat fatigued tone in the second volume of his history of Dordrecht a few years later [Geschiedenis van Dordrecht (2 vol., Dordrecht 1931-1933; vol. I, vol. II, Delpher]. Van Dalen devoted just one paragraph (II, 687) to the interdict in a distinctly tired tone, as if alread all that could be said had been written. Perhaps he was thinking about the study by G.D.J. Schotel, Een keizerlijk, stadhouderlijk en koninklijk bezoek in de O.L. Vrouwe-Kerk te Dordrecht (Amsterdam 1859; reprint Schiedam 1987; online, The Memory of the Netherlands) where you can find editions of five documents (pp. 94-98). Four of them had just been published by Delprat. In the fifth document Schotel succeeded in missing twice a crucial word, and his indications of gaps are wilful. Before I saw his edition I had already transcribed this document, the letter of count William, and you will find it in an appendix to this post.

It is ironical to see how Van de Wall not only edited the bull, but gave its exact signature in the IJzeren Kast (Q.5), how Delprat omitted it in his edition, and how Van Dalen put his references into regesten, as a kind of end notes. At that time it was a long standing tradition for Dutch archivists to create such short summaries which focused on the legal actions documented in archival records. If you think this is too much irony, you should ponder the sentence in the accompanying essay on the website of the archive at Dordrecht stating the papal bull should have been returned to the diocesan archive of Cambrai, because this bishop was ordered by pope Innocent VI to lift the interdict. The information has been condensed from the volume of essays about the archives of Dordrecht, Van ijzeren kast tot hamam. Topstukken uit het archief van Dordrecht, Jan Alleblas et alii (eds.) (Zwolle-Dordrecht 2011), with on pp. 23-24 the papal document, and on pp. 10-11 an article about the Iron Chest.

Papal records

Whatever you think about the chequered history of these records in Dordrecht, you will have to consider also I could at the moment of writing not visit a library to consult a number of important resources. I had no access to a copy of the Suppliques d’Innocent VI (1352-1362), U. Berlière (ed.) (Rome 1911; Analecta Vaticano-Belgica, V) nor to the Lettres d’Innocent VI (1352-1362), G. Despy (ed.) (Brussels, etc., 1953; Analecta Vaticano-Belgica, XVII, 1) or Innocent VI (1352 – 1362). Lettres secrètes et curiales, publiées d’aprés les registres des Archives Vaticanes, Pierre Gasnault, M.H. Laurent, Nicole Gotteri (eds.) (5 vol., Paris 1958-2006). Through the services of the bibliographic database of the Regesta Imperii you can quickly consult online the entry for Innocent VI by Pierre Gasnault for the Dizionario Biografico Treccani (2004).

Thus finding online resources was not just a question for the resources of the Regionaal Archief Dordrecht, a regional archive because it holds also archival collections of other cities and villages around Dordrecht, but also for finding access to more general sources and editions, in particular for papal documents. I could not access the database Ut per litteras apostolicas which covers the editions of medieval papal registers, nor did I have access to CD-ROM’s with images of these registers. An article by Yves Renouard, ‘Les minutes d’Innocent VI au Vatican’, Archivi d’Italia e rassegna internazionale degli archivi 2 (1935) 12-26 – online, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Rome – taught me an object lesson how difficult it is to approach the papal registers from the period in Avignon. Even having them in front of you does not make things a straightforward task, because acts of Innocent VI have been mixed with those of other popes.

You can find digitized images of Van Dalen’s regesten within collection 131, Archiefdienst van de gemeente Dordrecht, inv.no. 1851, the archival collection of the archival service at Dordrecht. In my view they would become more useful when added as an appendix to finding aid 1 for the early municipal records until 1572. I created a concordance between the works of Van den Brandeler, the old signatures in the IJzeren Kast, Delprat’s edition, Van Dalen’s inventory and his regesten. Among the digitized resources which I could use is the Bullarium Trajectense for papal charters until 1378 concerning the medieval diocese Utrecht, edited by Gisbert Brom (2 vol., The Hague 1891-1896; online, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, vol. I and II). Brom, Bullarium, no. 1548, gives a summary of the charter of January 6, 1356 (inv.no. 274-21) registered in Reg. Av. t. 12, fol. 534. The bull of 1355 is summarized in Brom, Bullarium, no. 1533 (p. II, 71), present in Reg. Av. t. 11, fol. 496v.

It would have been wonderful to use also the riches of the Repertorium Germanicum, but this resource starts only for the period from 1378 onwards. However, with some luck I could use an edition of supplications to the pope from the diocese of Utrecht in the fourteenth century. The edition of Supplieken gericht aan de pausen Clemens VI, Innocentius VI en Urbanus V, 1342-1366, R.R. Post (ed.) (‘s-Gravenhage 1937) has not yet been digitized, but it appeared also in the journal Archief voor de geschiedenis van het Aartsbisdom Utrecht 60 (1936) and 61 (1937), accessible at the Trajecta Portal for Belgian and Dutch ecclesiastical history.

Some supplications give you reason to think they did came into existence with a particular background, or they contain precious information about some persons. Wigger Gerards was a parish priest in Dordrecht, but also a chaplain of count William V [Post, no. 19 = Brom I, no. 1058 and Berlière I, 302, 1343 February 10]. Nicolaas de Stuyc from Dordrecht, a canon of the cathedral chapter in Utrecht acted in 1355 as a messenger for the clergy of the diocese Utrecht at the papal curia [Post, no. 14, 1342 Oct. 16 = Berlière I, no 251, and Post no. 458, 1355 Nov. 9 = Berlière II, no. 724]. He had been a councillor of countess Johanna of Brabant who was married to William IV of Holland [1349 March 26, Post, no. 213 = Berlière I, no. 1537]. Peter van Leeuwenberch was a baccalareus in canonibus and dean of St. Mary’s chapter, Utrecht [Brom, II, no. 1465, 1353 Feb. 6]. Chancellor Gerard de Veno comes into view in the supplications, too. Post noted he obtained numerous canonries during his career, starting in 1347 with a canonry of the cathedral chapter in Utrecht [Post, no. 153, 1347 July 3]. Johannes de Zelandia is first mentioned as a legum doctor and iudex curie vestre temporalis civitatis Avinionensis [Post, no. 502, 1358 April 6], and slightly later also as a vestri sacri palatii advocatus [Post, no. 506, 1358 May 22]. In a later request he used also the title advocatus fiscalis [Post, no. 523, 1359 Jan. 26]. In this request he tried to obtain a canonry at the St. Peter’s chapter in Utrecht for his brother Wisso, a cleric in Zierikzee, a town in the province Zeeland.

Not only priests did ask favors from the popes. On December 10, 1353, Margaret, duchess of Hainaut, received papal permission to have masses read in locis interdictis and the same day she gets also permission to enter cloisters with six women, to be able to have mass celebrated before sunrise, and to use a portable altar [Post no. 413 = Berlière II, no. 371; Brom, II, nos. 1494-1497]. The duchess clearly reckoned it would be wise to be prepared encountering interdicts anywhere. William V and his wife Maud of Lancaster, and John of Blois, too, requested only much later such a similar permisson [Post, nos. 473-474, 1357 April 30].

Some older source editions and studies relevant for the papacy at Avignon have been digitized, too. Among them are works such as Die päpstlichen Kollektorien in Deutschland während des XIV. Jahrhunderts, Johann Peter Kirsch (ed.) (Paderborn 1894; online, Internet Archive) and Claude Faure, Étude sur l’administration et l’histoire du Comtat Venaissin du XIIIe au XVe siècle (1229-1417) (Paris-Avignon 1909; online, Gallica). Most instructive is also a formulary with models for supplications created by a papal procurator from Hamburg working at Avignon, Das Formelbuch des Heinrich Bucglant. An die päpstliche Kurie in Avignon gerichtete Suppliken aus der ersten Hälfte des 14. Jahrhunderts (…), Jakob Schwalm (ed.) (Hamburg 1910; online, Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Hamburg). As for late medieval accounts, you might want to look at digitized accounts from four French regions and the papacy at Avignon in the project Ressources comptables en Dauphiné, Provence, Savoie et Venaissin (XIIIe-XVe siècle) with for example seven registers Introitus et Exitus of the Camera Apostolica between 1334 and 1342. I mention some of these resource on purpose, becaus they figure also in a most interesting article which provides crucial clues in the next section. The relevant chapters and the select bibliography in the History of courts and procedure in medieval canon law, Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington (eds.) (Washington, DC, 2016) are of course the first place to look for more resources.

Back of document 274-2

The note on the verso of the mandate issued by the city Dordrecht, May 27, 1355 – RA Dordrecht, Stadsarchief 1200-1572, inv.no. 274-2 (enlarged and contrast enhanced)

In view of the large number of documents concerning this case edited by Delprat it seems only natural to supply here transcriptions of those documents that have not yet been published. I decided to edit the papal bull of 1355, after all the very document which prompted my investigations, and three other documents, the letter of count Willem, the short legal consultation and the charter of the bishop of Utrecht that ended in the interdict in 1358. I hesitated to edit also the rather long letter with the mandate for the agents of the city Dordrecht (inv.no 274-2), but perhaps I had better leave something to do for others, too! For those wanting to start I placed here an enlarged and sharpend image of the notes made in Avignon on the verso of the mandate as an invitation to look at the documents yourself.

Focusing on Johannes de Zelandia

One person in the Dordrecht documents, magister Johannes de Zelandia, stands out for his functions and legal degree. While contemplating his faits et gestes I could luckily use a scanned version at the website of the MGH in Munich of an article by Knut Schulz, ‘Bemerkungen zu zwei deutschen Juristen im Umfeld des päpstlichen Hofes in Avignon im 14. Jahrhundert. Johannes Henrici (von Seeland) und Wilhelm Horborch’, in: Formen internationaler Beziehungen in der Frühen Neuzeit. Frankreich und das Alte Reich im europäischen Staatensystem. Festschrift für Klaus Malettke zum 65. Geburtstag, Sven Externbrink and Jörg Ulbert (eds.) (Berlin 2001) 159-178.The complaints by Henric Prijs about Johannes’ need for money have some ground indeed. Johannes not only reached high offices, but later on possessed several houses in Cologne. Schulz thought there was no biographical notice about Johannes, but in fact there is a very short notice “Henrici (Johannes)” by J. van Kuyk in the Nieuw Nederlandsch Biographisch Woordenboek III (Leiden 1914; online, Huygens Institute for Dutch History) col. 579.The article of L.Ph.C. van den Bergh, ‘Aanteekeningen over de geschiedenis der advocatuur in Holland’, Nieuwe Bijdragen voor Regtsgeleerdheid en Wetgeving 5 (1855) 486-505, is from 1855, not 1885 as wrongly indicated by Van Kuyk [online, Hathi Trust]. Van den Bergh mentioned Johannes just once (p. 489), and I will come back to this reference.

Schulz doubts rightly whether Johannes was an auditor sacri palatii. Post records one request presenting him as a vestri sacri palatii advocatus [Post, no 506, 1358 May 22]. In one of the documents in Dordrecht Johannes calls himself in Romana curia advocatus [inv.no. 274-21, 1355 May]. Schulz shows him foremost as one of the procuratores at the curia for the city Hamburg, in particular for an interdict case richly documented in the edition of sources by Richard Salomon und Jürgen Reetz (eds.), Rat und Domkapitel von Hamburg um die Mitte des 14. Jahrhunderts (3 vol., Hamburg 1968-1975). You can read the accounts of the Hamburg agents with payments to Johannes online in the edition of Th. Schrader, Die Rechnungsbücher der hamburgischen Gesandten in Avignon 1338 bis 1355 (Leipzig 1907; online, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg). In a safeconduct issued in 1359 Johannes is mentioned as a legum doctor and causarum fiscalium patronus [Brom, Bullarium II, no. 1624, 1359 June 20]. With three other lawyers he contributed a legal consultation on a conflict between the clerics and the city of Speyer in 1373, and here, too, he is a sacri pallacii apostolici advocatus. I could trace not only the manuscript Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 277 Helmst., fol. 211r-213v, but you can even look online at his consultation in another manuscript, Frankfurt am Main, Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek, Ms. Praed. 88, fol. 34r-36v. Schulz noted Johannes became in 1357 with four other magistri at the curia an advocatus for the dean and chapter of Trier. Among them was a Richardus de Anglia who earlier on had acted also for Dordrecht. The image of the papal curia as a busy beehive where people circled around the pope and cardinals for their favor and money comes readily to your mind. The multiple tasks and charges, and the money coming with them, give his note “Vester totus”, yours truly or literally “completely of you”, in his letter of May 5, 1356 to the city of Dordrecht a hollow ring [inv.no. 274-21].

Schulz’s main scoop was the rediscovery of an article by Léon-Honoré Labande, ‘Liquidation de la succession d’un magistrat pontifical du XIVe siècle, l’Allemand Jean Heinrich (1375-1376)’, Annales d’Avignon et du Comtat Venaissin 1 (1912) 177-199 [online, fascicule 2 and fascicule 3, Gallica]. Labande edited the last will of Johannes de Zelandia; unfortunately only half its text has been preserved. A charter published in the Oorkondenboek van Groningen en Drenthe, P.J. Blok et alii (eds.) (2 vol., Groningen 1896-1899), searchable at Cartago, mentioned Johannes with the nickname dicto Lalaman, which definitively sounds as a phonetic rendition of the word l’allemand. No. 458 (1358 May 14) contains a verdict in a case heard by Petrus Majoristhe auditor sacri palatii we already met, concerning Gerardus de Veno, yet another figure in the documents at Dordrecht, who had to surrender his income from a prebend in Groningen. The first witness to this charter is our Johannes de Zelandia, in Romana curia advocatus. In his will Johannes donated his manuscript of the Lectura Codicis by Cino da Pistoia to another lawyer, Pons de Lagnes (Lecturam Chini super Codice, Labande, p. 185).

Johannes de Zelandia was also twice a temporal judge for the city Avignon. In an article by Louis Duval-Arnould, ‘Les registres de la Cour temporelle d’Avignon à la Bibliothèque Vaticane (Vat. lat. 14761-14781)‘, Mélanges de l’école française de Rome 92 (1980) 289-324, he is signalled as Johannes Henrici Alamanni in 1359 and 1375, the last year of his life. The manuscript Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 14774 (description), documents his activity in 1375. In the same issue of this journal Jacques Chiffoleau, too, mentioned Jean de Zélande in a paragraph on the wide variety in background and the difficulties to retrace people at Avignon [‘La violence au quotidien. Avignon au XIVe siècle d’après les registres de la Cour temporelle’, MEFR 92-2 (1980) 325-371, at 330].

Foto van Janskerkhof 18, Utrecht - foto: D.C. Goosen, Het Utrechts Archief, 2011

The claustral house Janskerkhof 18 – image: Het Utrechts Archief, cat.no 819349, photo by Dick Goosen, 2011

Much to my surprise Samuel Muller Fzn., the famous archivist at Utrecht, wrote a century ago about a claustral house of the St. John’s chapter in Utrecht which meester Jan van Zeeland bought in 1364 [S. Muller Fzn., Over claustraliteit: bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van den grondeigendom in de middeleeuwsche steden (Amsterdam 1890; Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, vol. 19; online, Internet Archive) 137; Utrecht, Het Utrechts Archief, toegang 222, Kapittel van St. Jan, inv.no. 135-4, 1364 Aug. 31]. Muller supposed Johannes was a lay person. Thanks to the study about the jurisdiction on immovable property in the medieval city Utrecht by Martin de Bruijn, Husinghe ende hofstede. Een institutioneel-geografische studie van de rechtspraak over onroerend goed in de stad Utrecht in de middeleeuwen (Utrecht 1994) 194, we can even identify this house at the present Janskerkhof square no. 18, located somewhat backwards.

It would not help to bring together here all possible bits of information about Johannes de Zelandia, but some of them make you think again about this most interesting figure. Labande shows for example he was married to Amantia. If you think he was only active in Avignon in these years, the safeconduct I mentioned points in another direction. You will be less surprised by a charter from 1356 showing Johannes Heynrici de Zelandia at the abbey of Egmond, an institution under the protection of the counts of Holland [Haarlem, Noord-Hollands Archief, toegang 356, Abdij van Egmond, inv.no. 127 (1356 Dec. 17)]. This charter was copied into a cartulary (inv.no. 3, fol. 67v), a thing noted only in a regest (no. 367). It has not been included in the Digitale Charterbank Nederland, because the description is only given in a regest. It is the very document Van den Bergh noticed in 1855 in the Egmond cartulary. Johannes acted as the procurator of this abbey, too. Brom recorded him paying in 1357 for abbot Hugo the yearly sum to the papacy [Brom, Bullarium II, p. XXXVIII, also in G. Brom (ed.), Archivalia in Italië belangrijk voor de geschiedenis van Nederland I.1 (The Hague 1908); online, Huygens Instituut for Dutch History) p. 389, no. 1092].

Robert Fruin, the founding father of Dutch historiography in the nineteenth century, mentioned him appearing in an account of the counts of Holland in 1356 [R. Fruin, Verspreide geschriften I, P.J. Blok, S. Muller Fzn. and P.L. Muller (eds.) (The Hague 1900; online, Internet Archive) 137]: Item gegeven Meester Philips van Leyden voor sinen cost, die hi dede tutrecht met Meester Jan van Zeeland om den zoene te verclaren . . . , “given to master Philips of Leyden for his costs when was at Utrecht with master Jan of Zeeland to explain the reconciliation” [The Hague, Nationaal Archief, toegang 3.01.01, Graven van Holland, registers inv.no. 221, EL 22, fol. 64, and inv.no. 223, EL 27, fol. 100]. Philips of Leyden (1326/27-1382) is famous for his treatise on the care for the common good and the power of princes, De cura reipublicae et sorte principantis, first published in 1516. I searched in vain for any reference to the interdict for Dordrecht in his work. The reconciliation is surely the one between count Willem V and the bishop of Utrecht. Anyway, it shows Johannes again in action within the diocese of Utrecht. In 1357 Philips was sent to Avignon as an ambassador for count Willem.

Apart from a lack of access to archival records and printed editions, I had to find out things without the help of the most important scholarly literature. Two fairly recent volumes concerning the papacy in Avignon are accessible in open access, Offices et papauté (XIVe-XVIIe siècle) (Rome 2005; online, Open Edition) and Offices, écrits et papauté (XIIIe-XVIIe siècle) (Rome 2007; online, Open Edition), both edited by Armand Jamme et Olivier Poncet, provide very interesting articles and also a number of lists of functionaries for a good deal exactly at Avignon during the fourteenth century.

As for Dutch sources I acutely felt the need to look at accounts of the counts of Holland. The editions by H.G. Hamaker, De rekeningen der grafelijkheid van Holland onder het Henegeouwsche huis (3 vol., Utrecht 1875-1878) cover mainly the first half of the fourteenth century. The sequel edited by H.J. Smit, De rekeningen der graven en gravinnen uit het Henegouwsche huis (3 vol., Utrecht 1924-1939) is not available online. I could check one relevant volume of other accounts, De rekeningen van de grafelijkheid van Holland uit de Beierse periode, I, De hofrekeningen en de dijkgraafsrekeningen van de Grote Waard, I: 1358-1361, D.E.H. de Boer and J.W. Marsilje (eds.) (The Hague 1997; online, Huygens Institute for Dutch History). It would expand this post too much to give here a survey of relevant digitized sources at the portal of the Huygens Institute. I looked rather closely at some of them, but to no avail. However, you can benefit form the digitized guide by M.J. van Gent and M.-Ch. Le Bailly, Gids voor de landsheerlijke archieven van Gelre, Holland, Zeeland en het Sticht. Bestuurlijke, economische en sociale geschiedenis vóór 1500 (The Hague 2003).

Local history and European history

The Dordrecht city archivist Van Dalen was decidedly a man doing local history. Despite its great length my post has indeed the purpose of showing wider connections which come together at a particular place in a particular period. While researching this post I was also reading the Wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland, edited by Lex Heerma van Voss and others for the Huygens Institute for Dutch History (Amsterdam 2018). The aim of this book to show world history inside the history of one country holds a strong appeal for anyone who likes to transcend the borders of your usual territory. I am woefully aware that my foray into papal history has been hampered by not having access to a number of vital printed editions and modern works about the papal curia in Avignon, and I could not investigate other persons and subjects sufficiently. I would dearly want to check relevant registers and accounts of the counts of Holland at the Dutch national archives (Nationaal Archief, toegang 3.01.01, Graven van Holland) and similar sources for the bishops of Utrecht held at Het Utrechts Archief (toegang 218-1, Bisschoppen van Utrecht), even if the period 1340 to 1380 is only partially covered in the latter.

A significant catch in this post is insight in the way regests can both be helpful and most irritating. Putting information about document both in descriptions and in regests goes against the principle of a single point of definition. When the regests are not clearly and actually connected to the documents they describe, and in the case of a digital finding aid, literally and preferably linked directly and correctly to each other, you can miss crucial information. When you check for example for the abbey of Egmond the charters of this abbey held at the Noord-Hollands Archief Haarlem in the Digitale Charterbank Nederland you will find 811 charters in this database, but the regestenlijst added to finding aid 356 contains some 1,550 summaries. If this random example is only one occurrence of a serious problem, this database needs serious tuning and updating. In some cases rather old regesten currently get a new lease of life, even as additions to refurbished and reorganized inventories, but this cannot be done properly by just copying and pasting. The problem with these old summaries is not their focus on legal matters, but the way they can form a second information layer which should be consistently connected to finding aids and the items within them. The example of the regesten in Dordrecht surviving as part of another collection is rather extreme.

Originally I had planned a rather concise post with just some notes on an interesting papal bull, but the documents around it contain much more than had surfaced until now. The paragraph on Johannes de Zelandia became almost an independent post, but I decided to put it right in the centre of this contribution. Johannes was not just a proctor for one particular case. He put his mouth where the money was, in Trier and Hamburg among other places, and he did have other important functions as well. His possessions included houses in the Provence, in Cologne and Utrecht. The variant versions and spellings of his name and his nickname make him difficult to trace. Nearly forty years ago Wybe Jappe Alberts wrote an article ‘Tussen Keulen en Parijs. Overpeinzingen bij vijftig jaren bisdomgeschiedenis’, Jaarboek Oud-Utrecht 1981, pp. 26-34 [online, Utrecht University Repository], where he looked at the importance for Utrecht of the archbishops of Cologne in the first half of the fourteenth century. Between Cologne and Paris runs the road to Avignon and Rome. This post shows some rather curved parts of that road, and some of the wider views you might encounter. It is definitely possible to view a local interdict in a much wider context.

A postscript

I would like to point here to the bibliography on medieval ecclesiastical punishments at the blog FULMEN: Excommunication et autres censures spirituelles de l’Anqituité à nos jours.

Searching digitized Dutch archival collections

The archives and records are accissibleThe crisis around the COVID-19 virus has stopped normal life in many countries. Many people work at home using digital connections to their office. Public institutions are closed, including archives, libraries and museums. Websites offering easy access to cultural heritage resources and other platforms for their virtual presence with digitized resources and open data have become quite important for everyone who wants to know about the holdings of archives, libraries and museums, let alone for scholars wanting to do research about subjects connected with resources in these institutions. For them having access to online finding aids and catalogues is one thing, being able to investigate sources using indexes, transcriptions and digitized images is a second much valued matter.

Some institutions are rightly famous for their clear presentation of digitized resources, others present some highlights, others have digitized materials, but these are not always easily found. In this post I report from my own experience in March 2020 in finding and accessing their resources. Of course I will focus here on resources for legal history. I could have reported a bit earlier but for the pleasant reason at least one Dutch archive seduced me to start researching some very interesting documents. However, in this case is perhaps better to report from work in progress, and to help first people wanting to start doing research with materials from Dutch archival institutions. The other post will follow soon.

Visible and hidden treasures

When creating a website or digital platform one can design it mainly with a view to the own institution or much more with current and new visitors in mind. I have seen many websites with two menus, one at the top aiming more at the expected public and the other with often practical things such as office hours and background information. In view of their rich holdings many archives face the challenge not to focus too much on famous collections, but to offer also a general introduction.

In this post I will scarcely mention the guides and help offered for genealogical research. Registers for baptism, marriage and burials and the modern civic registration have almost everywhere been indexed and even digitized. Searching for persons is often made easier by using the personen view which enables you to search for persons in several archival collections with one search action. Dutch archives often have a beeldbank (image gallery) for digitized drawings, prints and photographs. Building plans, a particular kind of drawings, can not always been shown at websites due to copyright reasons. Archives increasingly put a special button or link on their homepage with an explanation how to get access to building plans. Historic newspapers (kranten) are often displayed on a separate website. The archival systems and the choice of software play a role here, too, in deciding where to place specific materials. In January 2019 I wrote a post about the launch of the Digitale Charterbank Nederland, a portal presenting medieval and later charters in Dutch holdings, a project which literally was built using the system of the firm behind the Archieven portal.

There are several ways to put digitized archival records online. In some cases there is a dedicated platform for particular resources, or they are presented at a subdomain. Other options are a partnership with other local or regional institutions for cultural heritage with its own platform or international cooperation with other archives. In a fairly large number of cases digitized items are connected directly with the online finding aids of Dutch archives. Depending on the system an icon appears either at the collection level or at the series or item level signalling their presence. Digital library catalogues often offer the choice to search only for digitized items. It is amazing to see Dutch archives only rarely offer a similar search facility.

At this point it is maybe wise to point to my own experience of the past week. A showcase at the website of an archive made me curious about a particular document which was presented without a reference. Even though the image suggested it might indeed been digitized, I had to start with a general search action, not with entering a special digital entrance. The point is that in some cases you will find out about things, however difficult the way to find something you might want to call a hidden gem. However, when offering finding aids archivists most certainly give access to their collections. “Hidden” can be a relative matter, not pointing to obvious ways and entrances is something else.

Logo Dutch Digital Heritage Network

In 2019 Dutch archives themselves were called upon by the foundation Digitaal Erfgoed Nederland (Digital Heritage Netherlands, DEN) to contribute to visible, usable and sustainable digital heritage, and to participate in the efforts of the Dutch Digital Heritage Network, available in Dutch and English. For many years DEN presented the projectendatabank, a database for Dutch digitization projects on its website, but this did not return after a redesign of the website. In the section for visible digital heritage the envisaged users are divided into three kinds, the general public, education and professional users. Alas the English section is somewhat reticent about this matter. After a preparatory report on the situation in 2017 (Nulmeting digitaal erfgoed) reports have been made about behavorial profiles of users, the availability and usability of resources for education, and a report on customer travels (Klantreizen Digitaal Erfgoed, 2019). None of these reports is available in English. It seems a report about the specific wishes of professional users has not yet appeared. Eight profiles have been defined for potential users, ranging from people searching entertainment and gaming to persons wanting to search or experience. The ninth user, the visitor who goes to an institution in person, is not forgotten. Better visibility of highlights and treasures is a clear wish, but not the one most often expressed. The report on customer travels tells about the ways users find information and their comments on the experience to reach their goals. it is sobering to read the comment it was not encouraging having to search yourself when you finally arrived at the website of an archive or museum.

Surely archives are aware their holdings are not immediately visible and tangible as the objects in a museum and the books in a library, but on the other hand they hold the keys to surprises and research adventures. Items in an archival collection are part of a context which is every bit as important as the items. I must confess my shame when I saw the derelict website of an earlier combined effort of Dutch archives to present themselves at Ons DNA | De Nederlandse Archieven (Our DNA: The Dutch Archives), its ugliness crowned by a notice “© 2020”. Its initiative for a yearly prize for the most interesting archival item of the year, the Stuk van het jaar competition, stopped after four editions. The project for the yearly History Month supported this initiative, yet another platform that certainly can help to bring archives into view.

Against these negative results stands the appreciation of the biographical-genealogical tv series Verborgen Verleden, the Dutch version of Who do you think you are?, and the tv series Historisch Bewijs of the Rijksmuseum about historical objects put to the test. Forensic research and archival research are combined in this series that amounts to a kind of historical crime scene investigation, but it does shed light on some famous objects and periods in Dutch history. The episodes about the sword used to behead Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and the question of determing which is the real book chest among three chests used by Hugo Grotius to escape in 1621 from castle Loevestein even have a legal history twist. It is not clear whether activities surrounding the commemoration of 75 years liberation can continue, but here Dutch archives certainly contributed successfully to the Second World War portal Netwerk Oorlogsbronnen. Its bilingual offspring Oorloglevens [War lives] just won a prestigious GLAMi Award.

However important the efforts led by DEN for a common approach and a national infrastructure for access to digitized cultural heritage in the Netherlands, these efforts will not led to immediate changes in the visibility of digitized archival records. In March 2020 DEN called for the creation of a national digital collection Coronavirus in Nederland, and many archival institutions quickly responded with initiatives which will eventually will be assembled in a central digital collection. The focus of Dutch Digital Heritage Network seems to be on access at thematic portals, portals for specific sectors and provincial heritage portals, as indicated in the recent report Organisatie van het aggregatielandschap (PDF). I looked at the portals Brabants Erfgoed and Collectie Gelderland where you will find from archives mainly their image collections.

Mapping digitized archives

Logo ICA

The heading of this paragraph would have been a fine title for this post, but it only came into view when I saw the new interactive map of digitized archives created by the International Council for Archives. The announcement by ICA (@ICArchiv) of the map and the invitation to join in this action comes with an online form to add your institution and fill in details about finding aids, digital collection(s) or a crowdsourcing project you would like to highlight. I cannot blame you for going immediately to the interactive map launched on April 1, 2020. This is serious indeed and not a joke for April Fools’ Day.

As announced my overview of digital collections in Dutch archives does not mention image galleries, projects for newspapers and digitized records for genealogical resources. Such digital collections luckily already exist for a couple of years, and publishing digitized finding aids is common practice. My overview aims at the levels following these services which have proved to be very helpful for many people, be they ordinary citizens, history aficionados or scholars.

Some archives use the trick to create a subset within their archival collections for those which have been digitized. Thus the Zeeuws Archief (Zeeland Archives) in Middelburg present fifteen digitized collections. You can view this website also in English. I had expected to find very quickly, within a few steps, the digitized archival collections of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, but they were not immediately visible. I distinctly remember some years ago you could reach them quicker.

Clear overviews of digitized resources can be found for a number of regional archives, for example the Regionaal Archief Tilburg, with both images and transcriptions for charters on a subdomain, at the Streekarchief Langstraat Heusden Altena in Heusden, and at the Regionaal Archief Zuid-Utrecht in Wijk bij Duurstede with a special collection for digitized transcriptions and indexes. The Waterlands Archief in Purmerend has a section for digitized highlights. At the Historisch Centrum Overijssel (Zwolle and Deventer) you can find digitized microfiches and microfilms, including those for some of the medieval manuscripts in the Collectie Emmanuelshuizen.

Logo Koloniën van Weldadigheid

A number of archives works with separate platforms. In the three northern provinces Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe the regional archives have set up platforms with both digitized genealogical records and other resources. At Alle Friezen you can find by clicking on the tab Bron (Resource) for instance records of the nedergerechten, lower tribunals, and also notarial records and registers of other tribunals. For Groningen Alle Groningers offers in the field of justice and order access to acts of lower tribunals and inheritance taxation documents. The Drents Archief in Assen offers for the province of Drenthe not just resources at Alle Drenten, but also a nifty subset with records of Alle Kolonisten, the “colonists” of several nineteenth-century colonies for the poor with the collective name Koloniën van Weldadigheid. You can use indexes, browse images of original registers and also read letters. By the way, these three provinces all have a special website for its archival network, the Groninger Archiefnet, the Fries Archiefnet (interface Dutch. Frisian and English) and the Drents Archiefnet which offer searchable overviews of online finding aids and also thematic overviews. A good example in this category is also the municipal archive of Bois-le-Duc, Erfgoed ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which put notarial acts, a number of other collections and especially the famous scabinal registers of the Bosch Protocol on a dedicated platform.

Other archives offer good access to a number of digital collections. The Brabants Historisch Informatie Centrum (BHIC) in Den Bosch offers access to criminal sentences between 1811 and 1930, and to the resources concerning the juges de paix (1811-1838). The central search page of the BHIC for archival collections contains rich digitized resoures for legal historians, in particular concerning the court of the Raad van Brabant (1586-1811), and also access to notarial acts, seals and permissions for having weapons. However, it is not immediately clear you will find here digitized materials. Only after starting searching in these collections icons indicate this. You might expect icons, too, in the Archievenoverzicht, the overview of archival collections. Perhaps the firm of this archival system used by many Dutch archive can quickly come with a simple additional icon within the archival overview. The West-Brabants Archief, Bergen op Zoom, indicates with icons in its browsing view for archival records the presence of scans; by clicking on Bron you can filter for particular document genres.

For the province Utrecht Het Utrechts Archief has several almost completely or partially digitized collections. At least one partially digitized collection, toegang 1128, Verzameling fotokopieën en transcripties [Collection photocopies and transcriptions] contains a number of digitized transcriptions of medieval and sixteenth-century records, mainly for the city Utrecht, but some also for the States of Utrecht. It seems inside knowledge is necessary to realize that the medieval materials of the Domkapittel, the cathedral chapter (toegang 216-1), and also the medieval records of the city Utrecht (1122 to 1577, toegang 701) have been digitized quite recently. A biblical proverb says your left hand should not know what your right hand is doing, but this does not hold true for the subject of digitization. Not just now, in a period of social isolation and virtual contacts, but generally such information should be communicated swiftly. It is a most natural thing to do, moreover because it has been financed ultimately by tax payers.

Let’s end here with an example from Limburg. The Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg in Maastricht has both a digitized collection on its own website, for notarial acts, and a collection on an external platform, the Early Modern visitation registers of the diocese Roermond held at the diocesan archive.

And now…

It would not bring very much here if I added here also information about the provinces Overijssel, Flevoland, Gelderland, Noord-Holland en Zuid-Holland. You might think I mentioned all regional archives in Brabant or Utrecht, but in fact I am not even close to presenting them all. I want to make one exception. When I saw the webpage with an overview of transcriptions at the Regionaal Archief Alkmaar I knew this would at some point return here in a post, because a substantial number of these transcriptions deal with legal records. It seems most practical to create a PDF with my current overview. Of course there are oversights and omissions, but this is natural for work in progress, to be updated as soon as possible.

A few months ago I read with great interest the study of Huub Sanders, Het virus der betrokkenheid. Het Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1935-1989 (Amsterdam 2019; online, OAPEN / AUP). Sanders tells us not only about the vital role of  some of the early foreign staff members of the IISH in acquiring important collections. In general some staff members gained superb knowledge of materials, but they could be very reluctant to share information. It took a lengthy reorganization to foster the communication of such tacit knowledge (Michael Polanyi). Many people will simply know the Stadsarchief Amsterdam is most famous for its scanning on demand of archival records. The set of indexes with digitized images is justly famous, and the crowdsourcing project for Alle Amsterdamse Akten is one of the largest of its kind (access after free registration). However, the recently redesigned central website of this rich archive still lacks an English version, but when searching the finding aids you can tick a field for only results with scans. On the other hand, the page of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam about the approach and practice of digitization is very interesting.

Dutch archives have successfully digitized finding aids, genealogical records, images, newspapers and charters, and they offer quick and clear access to them. A number of other collections has been partially or entirely digitized, too. These efforts of archivists deserve our thankfullness and appreciation. The segment with these other collections should become more visible, either on the websites of archives or on a portal. The data about Dutch archives at the Archiefwiki can help in creating an interactive map or adding to the ICA map. In my view the most used archival system in the Netherlands allows for the quick creation of a subset of largely digitized collections, following the example of the Digitale Charterbank Nederland where you can filter directly for charters with or without images. I mentioned also the subset Alle kolonisten of Alle Drenten. Knowing this already exists makes its implementation elsewhere in the systems of the same provider more urgent.

It is up to archives to place the link to their subset at the startpage of their websites or at any spot they deem logical. Digitizing materials is one of the things archives now regularly do. I cannot see any good reason to hide this anymore. Excuses about communication strategies, difficult access to the layout of a website or the way to change the display and filters of the finding aids should no longer stop anyone doing this. One of the oldest firms for computer technology used the slogan “The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer”. Archives are now closed, but every bit as much open as normal, and archivists are busy helping the public. The hashtag #closedbutopen has a special dimension for any archival institutions with digitized collections.

Digitized Dutch archives – Indexes, transcriptions and images – March 2020 (PDF)

An addition

In my post I did not mention two most valuable projects helping you to find transcriptions and indexes. An important guide to indexes and transcriptions of archival records held by Dutch archives is offered at Digitale Bronbewerkingen Nederland en België, available online since 1997. The English version is no longer updated, but it still exists. In a number of cases digitized materials are noted as well. The same team has created more platforms. For legal historians Regelgeving in de Nederlanden offers an overview of transcribed resources ranging from ordinances to versions of the Dutch constitution since 1798.

As for actions concerning Dutch digital heritage, there is not just a manifesto issued in 2018 about the visibility and durability of collections, but even an interactive map where you can check which institutions signed their adherence to it. KVANBRAIN, since two years the platform of the Dutch Society of Archivists and the BRAIN initiative for archives, shows on its website a quality handbook, Kwaliteitshandboek voor de Nederlandse archieven, developed by BRAIN in 2013, with in particular on pages 19 and 20 statements about the visibility of digitized records and the duty to mention what has not been digitized. A kind of seven-year itch is not strange…

Seals as signs and objects of medieval legal history

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

Seals make connections

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

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

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

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

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

Logo Sigillvm network

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

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

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

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

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

Start screen Sigillvm Portugalliae

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

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

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

A postscript

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

Banner DigiSig

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

Learning to read German legal responsa

Banner "rechtsprechung im Osteeraum

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

Scribal varieties and the use of computers


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

A "Spruckakte" from 1586

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

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

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

Using the Transkribus tool

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

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

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

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

The second Transkribus logo

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

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

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

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

A postscript

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

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

De rebus digitalibus: Doing digital legal history

Logo DH 2019 at UtrechtWhile the virtual world and the real world steadily become interwoven, it can sometimes seem legal history is only at the fringe of the digital turn. On the other hand all kinds of information and resources can be found online today. Using such resources does have an impact on the form and practices of legal history. Some scholarly events aim among other things at creating space for reflection and discussion about the tensions between older forms of doing history and alluring new ways and methods to pursue research goals. This year’s international congress of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) will be held at Utrecht from July 9 to 12. In this post I will look at its program of DH2019, and also at the call for papers of a conference on digital legal history to be held at Frankfurt am Main on March 19-20, 2020, organized by the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte. It is only logical to compare the program and aims of DH2019 with the call for papers of DLH2020. Even if using the tools and methods of digital humanities may seem Latin to you, the importance of this digital approach will certainly grow, and knowing about them is useful.

Varieties and complexities

The main theme of next month’s conference in Utrecht is complexities. The way complex models are created to represent complex realities is to be addressed, as are the manifold questions about digital scholarship itself on a theoretical, social and cultural level. There is a variety of networks and mazes at work in the field of digital humanities. New generations of scholars arrive, with different perspectives and skills. If this sounds almost too much of a good thing for a four-day conference, you will see that some workshops start already on July 8. For the special focus of this conference, digital humanities in Africa, a workshop for African scholars, DH – the perspective of Africa, will be held from July 1 to 5 at the Lorenz Center of Leiden University. On July 8 there will be a workshop at the Royal Library in The Hague on Libraries as Research Partner in Digital Humanities. The venue of DH2019 is not a university building, a conference center or a large section of an hotel, but the TivoliVredenburg music center where hosting music from many periods and styles in five concert halls has become regular business.

The variety of subjects in the conference programme is truly impressive. Let’s look first of all for subjects in close connection with legal history. Renana Keydar and Yael Netzar will talk about finding out about the perception of threat by the Israelian police force. Georg Vogeler and two of his colleagues will discuss the ways to export charters into TEI P5 (Text Encoding Initiative). Marie Lavorel will talk about ways to preserve the oral histories of survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. The opening address of DH2019 will be held by Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town). He will make a case for being aware of the complexities, not only as a challenge, but as chances. In her closing keynote Johanna Drucker (UCLA) will speak about ecological sustainability and its impact on the ethics of digital humanities. The use of energy for computers leaves a large footprint on our planet. Tito Orlandi will give the Busa Lecture in which he will discuss the history of digital humanities and the apparent lack of a paradigm for this field. The lecture is named after Roberto Busa (1913-2011), the pioneer of using computers to deal with a textual corpus, the Corpus Thomisticum with the works of Thomas Aquinas. In 1980 his Index Thomisticus was completed.

The ADHO has a number of special interest groups (SIG) which nicely show the sheer width of digital humanities. Apart from libraries and DH currently SIG’s exist for literary stylistics, audiovisual data, global outlook, geospatial software and its uses, and for linked open data. Just looking at these subjects helps you to view digital humanities as a house with many rooms and space for more things to come.

My first impression of the program and the variation in themes and subject is that this conference deals with a number of territories that seem largely uncharted by legal historians. In particular subjects in world history can seem sometimes unconnected to legal history. In the second half of this post we will see how the MPIeR steps in to bridge such gaps.

Digital legal history

In some posts at my blog I have tried to look at the presence of digitized materials for doing legal history outside the Anglo-American and European sphere. Thus I looked for example in 2010 at South Africa and in 2014 at Brazil. In 2017 I discussed here digitized resources for the legal history of Suriname and last year more specifically the digitized slavery registers of Suriname. The death of Fidel Castro prompted me in 2016 to write about Cuban legal history. In yet another post I looked here at HISGIS and legal history. Digital projects are very often here discussed here.

However, digital humanities are not absent around more traditional themes and subjects. A nice combination of studying both the United Kingdom and Australia in the field of criminal law is found within the projects of the Digital Panopticon cluster, concisely presented here. The Exon Domesday, the manuscript with the Domesday register for South-West England held at Exeter Cathedral, is the subject of a project using a number of tools from the field of digital humanities.

Logo Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

It is perhaps wiser to look at the call for papers of DLH2020. The call starts with a summary of the various ways digitization and computers affect the field of legal history. Digital tools are used to gather information, they can assist in the exploration and analysis of information, and they help you to publish and connect research results. Databases offer access to legislation and to case law, in a number of cases for considerable historical periods, too. A second main point is the way digital humanities transcend the borders of disciplines. Apart from the problems inter- and transdiscplinarity pose themselves, adjusting existing digital tools, approaches and methods to meet such problems can have a major impact even when changes seem slight. Such unexpected turns can in the end also prove to be most helpful and literally path-breaking. However, the presence of digital humanities has not yet led to decisive changes in the ordinary practice of legal historians. The MPIeR dedicated in 2016 a part of issue 24 of the journal Rg/Rechtsgeschichte-Legal History to contributions discussing the role of digital humanities for legal history. The Law and History Review, too, published an issue on Digital Law and History [34/4 (2016)] with a focus on Anglo-American practice.

The purpose of the DLH 2020 conference will be first of all to get a more complete and balanced view of digital humanities and legal history, both on the theoretical level and in actual practice. The call of papers contains a fair number of possible questions for papers and posters: What do digital humanities bring that would not have been possible without them? How do they influence your approach and methods? Can we use methods of analysis common to DH also for legal history? What chances are there to use modelling to deal with questions concerning legal history? What about using Big Data or engaging in data-driven research? Which limits confront legal historians? Are there possibilities in DH we clearly can use to our benefit? An important question comes at the end of the call of papers: what resources are lacking until now? Proposals can be submitted before September 15, 2019 to dlh@rg.mpg.de.

The set of questions reminds me very much of the question medievalists asked and ask about other disciplines. You might not be able to use approaches, tools and methods without some modification, but it is by all means interesting and important to know about them. I think that it is wise to be aware with Tito Orlandi that no clear paradigm for DH bhas yet been developed, and this means it is also possible to contribute to the construction of this paradigm or at least to building best practices from many perspectives. Digital humanities will touch almost every field of humanities. Scholars of Classical Antiquity have perhaps taken a lead in using elements of digital humanities, not only for their own benefit, but also for making their set of disciplines – discipline in the singular will not do here! – also accessible to a wider public. Entering the fields of digital humanities can hold its surprises, but it is no longer an uncharted world where angels fear to tread. The conferences in Utrecht and Frankfurt am Main can surely help you to get in contact with those people who have taken the plunge into the world of digital humanities.


Sending a sign by signing: A Dutch petition from 1878

Start screen "Volkspetitionnement 1878"

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

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

Creating attention

Logo Vele Handen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond quick success

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

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

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

Digital approaches to medieval charters

Start screen DCN

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

The third attempt succeeds

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

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

The second half of the DCN starts screen

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

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

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

A look at Diplomata Belgica

Startscreen Diplomata Belgica (detail)

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

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

Two approaches to charters

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

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

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

Logo Huygens Institute / ING

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

Deciphering letters about slavery and abolition

Start screen Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Easy access has become a byword not only for creating online versions of sources, but also for transcribing important source collections as part of efforts to bring them literally better into view for both scholars and the general public. The participants of transcribing and indexing projects certainly stand out from the crowd. Recently Boston Public Library partnered with the Zooniverse crowdsourcing program for a project concerning nineteenth-century letters about abolition and slavery. The Anti-Slavery Manuscripts was launched on January 23, 2018. The collection contains some 40,000 pieces from the 1830’s to the late 1860’s, after the Civil War, with at its heart documents and letters donated by the family of William Lloyd Garrison. Some 12,000 items in the collection have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth, the digital platform for cultural heritage collections in Massachusetts. Nearly 2,200 images have been selected for the first phase of this project. One of the themes in this collection is the role of women in the struggle for abolition. Deciphering these resources can at times be difficult, and it seems right to look here also at palaeography in the United States.

In my discussion of the project for these manuscripts I will look also at other crowdsourcing transcription projects. My search for American palaeography was not as straightforward as you might expect.

A community around abolition

At the start I want to stress the fact this project of Boston Public Library and Zooniverse runs smoothly. Almost four thousand volunteers have registered to transcribe letters, and the progress is good. You can follow the project on a special blog of the Boston Public Library. Besides the letters in the collection there are also pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, books and realia. If the letters show us a more intimate side of the abolitionist movement, the newspaper The Liberator (1831-1866) founded by William Lloyd Garrison might aptly be named the motor and public actor of the movement. Interestingly, in her blog post about the history of The LIberator Kelsey Gustin draws attention to the changes in the masthead of this weekly published newspaper. These images depict not only black and white people, but also use art to convey at least a part of the inspiration behind the movement.

Only issues for the years 1831-1842 and 1861-1862 of The Liberator have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth. You can find information about more complete versions of this Boston newspaper in licensed digital collections in the online database of the International Coalition On Newspapers (ICON), hosted by the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. There are complete digitized runs in open access at Fair Use and The Liberator Files.

The collection at Boston Public Library contains materials from several abolitionist societies, among them the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Unity about opposition to slavery did not take away the very issue of the participation of women and women’s rights in general, and thus these matters, too, appear in the letters. The correspondence preserved here come from both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Transcribing the letters

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

The 12,000 letters to be transcribed will be released in five sets, mostly in chronological order. There is a rather important blog post by Samantha Blickhan (IMLS) on the divisions of the five sets and decisions to exclude a number of letters. Some of them have already been published in critical editions, in particular those of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. In one case, the Ziba B. Oakes Papers, bring a series of letters by a slave trader. The first set now visible contains the oldest letters from 1800 to 1839.

You have to register in order to participate in the project, but anyway when you click on Transcribe in the menu bar you will view the tutorial explaining the way you enter your results. On the right there is a toolbar for navigation. In the top left corner you can enlarge or scale down the image, or go to other pages of a document. The Field Guide gives practical guidance to decipher letter forms and other elements of writing, and instructions to present such elements consistently and correctly in your transcription. After finishing a piece or when you have questions you might want to visit the forum at Talk for news, frequently asked questions, and for discussions about matters presented by the participants. Zooniverse Team member @GrifftinTranscribes answers questions as a specialist in nineteenth-century handwriting.

Screen shot Field Guide

When you notice you can open the Tutorial whenever you click on Transcribe in the menu bar or using the button to the left of the images, you would expect the same navigation for the Field Guide. In fact both elements become visible as pop-up-only screens. I was not able to detect their exact web addresses.Screenshot explanation on abbreviations

The Field Guide deals with fourteen subjects. The team behind the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts takes no risks and instructs participants explicitly to leave abbreviations as they are found in the letters. For further information they point to a web page of the National Archives and Records Administration for their projects under its Citizen Archivists umbrella. However helpful in many ways, this page does not contain every element of a full-grown palaeographical manual. When you visit the History Hub, a support community concerning American history managed by the NARA, you will encounter in the user forums a lot of very useful communities, including one for legislative records, but on this platform questions about handwriting have not yet been given a corner of its own.

An endearing and lively blog post about the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts has been written by Lisa Gilbert, an instructor who reports on the experience of 8th graders (13 tot 14 years old) who tried to read a letter from the collection in Boston. Line after line they struggled to understand the text. The struggle helped the teenagers to get an idea of what it meant to fight for abolition or for any political idea. Awareness of the fact how many questions you can ask from a single document was another thing becoming clear.

The uses of palaeography

If historians had read documents exclusively by fighting their way through original documents, instead of learning how to deal with all kind of scripts, not just from one century or in a single document genre, little could have been accomplished. The study of old scripts and their context is one of the earliest historical auxiliary sciences. Manuals and guides, including classic books on forms of abbreviations, exist in fair numbers. Since February 2017 I have tried to find online tutorials for palaeography and to create a commented overview of them on my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Sometimes it took quite an effort to find a tutorial or at least a digital version of a recent guide, in other cases it was almost a question of choosing the best. One of the things I spotted was a division in the United States and the United Kingdom between manuals aiming at reading genealogical records, and tutorials dealing with other historical records. The United Kingdom is well served with a large number of tutorials for dealing with either manuscripts or archival records, with also at least three websites for Scottish resources, but there seem to be few online tutorials for American palaeography.

You will find sources in American history written in many languages, and certainly not only European. For Southern states you must reckon with Spanish and French resources. The difficulty to read Dutch script from the Early Modern period in archival sources concerning New York has been the subject here of a post in 2015 about the transcriptions and editions of these invaluable materials. For the history of Pennsylvania sources written in German are important. It can be most useful to rely on palaeographical guidance for Early Modern records in these languages, even when they deal more specifically with records written or still held in Spain, France, Germany or the Low Countries. It can be wise to look at resources for Canada, too, but in fact my harvest for Canada is until now distinctly meagre.

Let’s look at these online resources aiming specifically at the United States and Canada. For Canadian history I have not yet found a resource which deserves to be recognized as a tutorial. The only resource I found for Canada after repeated searches is a contribution by Leah Grandy for Early Canadiana, aptly called ‘Skills for historians of the future: palaeography’, and her two posts on palaeography (here the second) at the blog of The Loyalist Collection, University of New Brunswick. There is a Study Guide Colonial Handwriting, created in connection with the Indian Converts Digital Collection, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. The study guide accompanies a digitized version of a 1727 book on Indian converts. You can test your knowledge of Early Modern handwriting with an online tool of Reed College, Early American Handwriting. DoHistory has created How to read 18th century British handwriting, a companion to Martha Ballard’s diary for the years 1785-1812 [Augusta, ME, Maine State Library, ms. B B 189]. The State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh have published three consecutive blog posts, What Does That Say? Deciphering the handwritten records of Early America. The posts present colonial documents. They provide also a bibliography and links to digitized works. Perhaps the most surprising tutorial comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Reading Colonial Handwriting is part of the section Just for Kids! of the virtual exhibition Out of the mails created by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Two of the manuals mentioned in this paragraph deal only with eighteenth-century documents. To say the least, American history covers by all means a much longer period.

The need for an online tutorial for American palaeography was the subject of a short blog post by Ricc Ferrante on the blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ‘Is there a place for palaeography in the archives?’ (January 23, 2018), incidentally also the day the Boston Public Library launched its project. The Smithsonian Institution Archives deal with the history of this research organization with many branches. The SI Archives support also the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers and its transcription center. It provides general tips for transcribing, and also more specific instructions for transcribing historical documents, and eight other sets of guidelines, for example for transcribing the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau which dealt with abandoned properties after 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War. Just as the NARA for Citizen Archivists the Smithsonian Institution provides substantial transcription guidance. Explaining such rules is definitely important, but they do not substitute palaeographical guidance.

Ferrante did not find quickly an online palaeographical manual for American documents, and thus he choose some of the websites mentioned in the fine overview in the Folgerpedia of online resources for English palaeography. The quality of this overview is excellent, but it can suggest no online tutorials for American handwriting exist. Ferrante started his search for an online manual when he tried to read a handwritten journal from the mid-1840’s. He signals also the difficulty to read old cursive scripts for those who have not received any instruction in cursive writing, and he hesitantly admits a place for palaeography for historical periods after the Middle Ages.

The development of palaeography as an auxiliary historical science started mainly for dealing with medieval documents and manuscripts, but it widened its territory soon. Historians can choose to study only printed – or typed – resources, especially for modern history. However, we know how important it is to use letters and diaries, drawings, poems and daily notes – scribbled or in capitals – from the Civil War, First World War, the Depression Era, the New Deal or the Second World War.  These sources help to give us vivid details in order to understand these periods better or to raise questions about our understanding and views. In official records, too, we can encounter handwritten elements. In my training as a historian following courses in palaeography was optional. I still remember the collective sigh of satisfaction after our first lessons, because getting the skills to read original documents felt immensely practical.

The absence of online tutorials covering several periods of American history does not mean nothing can be done. In particular the series Script Tutorials of the Brigham Young University helps you reading texts in seven languages, but the focus is clearly on genealogical records. However, at some point you will want to consult other resources genres, too. Tax registers and military records contain valuable information about your ancestors, and it would be a pity if you are unable to read them by lack of some necessary skills which can be taught and learned without too much effort. Apart from universities archives often offer courses.

Zooniverse has several projects concerning or touching American history, for example on African-American Civil War soldiers, and The American Soldier about the aftermath of the Second World War. Projects on the League of Nations in the digital age and concerning coded information during the Civil War are currently paused. For these telegrams you can benefit from a blog post with the title ‘Now I Know My (19th-Century) ABCs’ by Mario Einaudi (Huntington Library). Of course other crowd transcription projects exist. A cursory look at the overview of such projects provided by the American Historical Association should suffice you of their widespread occurrence.

I could find little about palaeography on the website of the AHA and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The useful and concise AHA Guide to Archival Research has a short paragraph about the need for palaeographical skills, with some lines worth quoting: “Get ready to read script. Do not be surprised when 15th-century documents are not typed”. This piece of advice is found typically in the section on research abroad, but you will read older scripts already when dealing with the colonial period. The fact this guide is also downloadable with the title Research Trip Tips is telling. Skills and competence in dealing with unfamiliar scripts is only implicitly reckoned among the capability to interpret historical records in the 2005 AHA report about essential skills for the MA in history degree. The SAA certainly brings into view the variety of skills archivists do need today.

When you search at the website of the SAA and in The American Archivist (AA) you will find palaeography in many cases associated with medieval and European sources, but you might want to read articles such as Laetitia Yeandle, ‘The evolution of American handwriting in the English-speaking colonies’, AA 43 (1980) 294-311, and Alfred E. Lemmon, ‘The archival legacy of Spanish Louisiana colonial records’, AA 55 (1992) 142-155. Laura Schmidt’s fine guide Using Archives: A guide to effective research – also downloadable (PDF) – mentions reading skills in particular in a paragraph about scheduling time for the unexpected. Sometimes my memory comes back of a visit to an archive more than thirty years ago where I found myself dumbfounded by a document in front of me. I was unable to even start an attempt to decipher it. Online tutorials and many digital collections with archival records can provide you with the same shock which should make you think and reconsider your abilities.

In 2016 The Junto: A group blog on Early American History, an initiative of young historians, brought Archives around the Atlantic, a series of contributions on doing research in archives and libraries in Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Reading skills figure in some of the posts, but seldom as a central or essential skill. The Dutch period of the East Coast has been completely overlooked in this series. Sometimes there is a hint to use the library of an archive to consult relevant literature and manuals. I would agree in principle that you should acquire knowledge of the nation’s palaeography you will encounter probably most times in your particular field of Early American history, but there will be moments when you have to cross linguistic and palaeographical borders. Some areas changed from Spanish into French possession. For Canada you will need both French and English palaeography.

American palaeography, a distinct field

In this post we made a journey from a very particular subject, sources concerning the abolition movement, to sources for American history more generally. Perhaps trained historians are those who generally will less often need online tutorials in their professional life, but others do not benefit from their head start. Relying solely on palaeography from one country ignores the fact migrants to the United States came from many countries, and not only in those states known during the first half of the nineteenth century as The Territories. If people increasingly do not any longer learn cursive writing, any form of training to read cursive scripts becomes necessary. It is paradoxical to create exhaustive transcription guides to ensure enhanced fidelity for editions, and at the same time to assume everything is readable without preparation or instructions. The need for a distinct palaeographical approach of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will steadily grow.

In my opinion Zooniverse is in the position to help creating rather quickly a basic palaeographical manual for American history using both the Field Guide of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts and the blog post of Mario Einaudi created for Decoding the Civil War. If they consider themselves unable to achieve this, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s transcription center is one of the logical directions to take. Surely one or more a state archives, university libraries or major research libraries such as the BPL, the Newberry Library in Chicago or the Huntington Library are capable of combining forces to create it, and perhaps add materials for advanced needs. It will help not only the volunteers in transcription projects, but anyone interested in American history and able to view the massive digital collections with images of American handwritten documents. Of course there are classic printed guides such as Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1998) and Harriet Stryker-Rodda, Understanding colonial handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1986), but there is room for online manuals, too.

Doing history calls for many skills. When you cannot readily start deciphering written records because you do not have reading skills, you are unable to interpret them and use them in your research. Others might help you to read archival records in some cases, but not always. Palaeographical skills can be decisive for the success of your visit to a local archive or to an archive which you can only reach after a voyage. Let reading skills accompany your historical voyages, be they virtual travels at your computer screen, reading books with images of written documents and manuscripts or visiting archives to use historical records!

Suriname’s slavery registers unbound

Start screen slavery regisyers, Nationaal Archief, Suriname

On July 1, 1863 slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. A ten-year transitional period followed during which former slave owners received a monetary compensation for each former slave. Since many years people originally coming from Suriname celebrate in The Netherlands on July 1 the feast of Keti Koti, “The Breaking of the Chains”. It is only fitting that last week the digital version of slave registers kept between 1830 and 1863, now hold by the Nationaal Archief of Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo, was launched by a number of institutions led by Coen van Galen at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Maurits Hassankhan at the Anton de Kom Universiteit van Suriname, with support from the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Last year I reported here on the project to move a number of archival collections concerning the history of Suriname from the Dutch Nationaal Archief to the NAS, and to digitize also a number of these collections. Collections with relevancy to legal history figure large among them. The digitization of the slavery registers is a key element completing the efforts for digital access and conservation, indexing the registers and making them much more accessible for researchers and the general public worldwide. In this post I will look at these registers and their online presence.

A crowdsourcing project

Logo crowdsourcing project "Maak de Surinaamse slavenregisters openbaar"In January 2017 the project for indexation and digitization of these slavery registers started, just after the transfer of important archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo. A campaign with the slogan Maak de Surinaamse slavenregister openbaar, “Make the Surinam slavery registers public”, proved effective. Some 600 people donated money for the project, and some 400 volunteers helped indexing the registers. To put the record straight, anyone could and can come to these archives to gain access to the original volumes, provided their material state is not too fragile. It is safe to assume that you need to come with good arguments to touch them now they can be consulted online. The Dutch National Archives did already provide public access. The operation to bring archival collections back to Suriname created a more urgent need for conservation and digitization.

The digitized registers now in Paramaribo [NAS, toegang (finding aid) 16, inv.nrs. 1-43] can be accessed using an index form shown above. On purpose the NAS has not placed these registers among its forty digitized archival collections. The Dutch National Archives provide also online access to the slavery registers among its ever-growing set of online indexes. You can download the index in its entirety (4,2 MB, zipped file). At this point something becomes clear when you look at the URL of this file, a web address in The Netherlands at the search portal Ga het NA of the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The search form of this digital resource at both archives is almost, but not completely identical.

Accessing the slavery registers

Logo Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

You can use either a simple search form (Eenvoudig zoeken) with three fields, one for a free text search and two fields for setting a period, or go to Uitgebreid (Advanced search) with more fields. In the second mode there are additional fields from the slave name, the name of the mother, and the name of the slave owner. You can click on the search results in order to get both the information on a person, including also gender, references to the registers and the type of register – with its inventory and page number – and an image of the page in question. It is possible to zoom in at will to any image. Each scan has an individual URL, a URL from my country when viewing individual results, meaning there is one single database behind the two versions. By clicking on the field name in the results you can change their order. You will find either the names of owners or the name of the plantation and its location.

NAS, series 16, no. 34, fol. 2667

It is not my purpose to single out here any defects and omissions, but a few things are very visible. First of all the version hosted in The Hague contains additional information which is not or not yet provided at the website of the NAS. The section Achtergrond (Background) informs you about the information given in the search fields, with a second page about slavery in Suriname and the introduction of slavery registers and their survival. There are important losses, not in the least some registers of slaves owned by the Dutch colonial government. In the registers mutations such as birth and death, acquisitions and sales should be written down. A third page on Gebruik (Use) contains instruction on the use of the indexes and the interpretation of results, and also a handy list of common abbreviations in the registers. The other pages contain a colophon about the project and the user license (CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL).

A second thing to note is the incomplete translations in the English version of the search form. Even the simple search form has not yet been translated completely. The field names in the results screen have not been translated. A much sillier thing becomes also visible: In cases where there is no gender information, the volunteers entered the word Leeg (Empty). I suppose there are more concise and effective ways to convey the fact that no data have been entered in a particular field.

Viewing the context

Using to a large extent at this moment only Dutch for this project is not a particular lucky thing, and you can even extend this to the project website. Translations in languages such as English and Sranantongo are not just welcome, they are simply needed to really open this resource to people worldwide with interest in Caribbean history, the history of slavery or Dutch colonial history. For any project on Dutch colonial history in the East Indies contemplating translations into English and/or Bahasa Indonesia is luckily a natural thing. The project team states flatly these registers are a worldwide unique resource, the only series of its kind. On the project website some further, rather important explanations about the actual state of the slavery registers are offered. It appears no general index to the series existed. Some registers could be consulted on microfiches, but without one or more indexes searching would mean wandering in a jungle without much hope for any results. The thing to note here is that only in 2017 the need for an index was perceived as sufficiently urgent to start a project to deal with this sorry situation. Earlier on having only severely hampered access seems not to have led to constructive action. Van Galen and Hassankhan rightly stress the importance of the slavery registers for not only genealogical research, but as a key resource to connect with the manumission registers, neighbourhood registers of the city Paramaribo and other sources for Suriname’s history during the nineteenth century. The historic context and the slavery registers can enrich the information contained in them in both directions.

Surely we need to thank Coen van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan and the army of volunteers who succeeded in getting their tasks completed in time. Van Galen and Hassankhan provide on the project website a very useful page with four PDF’s with information that should immediately be included on the websites of  both versions of the online index. The project leaders provide a list with the names of plantations and other Dutch posts in 1834 (530 kB), a list with the names of free people in Paramaribo in 1846 (2,2 MB), both created by Huub van Helvoort, a list with first names of enslaved people on a number of plantations (70 kB), and even a list of letter forms, letter combinations and some Dutch words in nineteenth-century Dutch script (650 kB). It is good to see some basic historical skills are not forgotten! However, to my disbelief I did not find on the project website the URL of the index, not even after a few days… The slogan Open the slavery registers seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by the web team. More down to earth, the current summer heat in my country, the gulf of enthusiasm about the launch, and the very end of the academic year created perfect excuses for forgetting to open literally the doors to the final results of the project also at the project website. The absence of news items from June and July 2018 is another indication for the sleeping state of the project website.

Such omissions and minor problems can be fixed quickly. I would urge anyone involved with this project to proceed as soon as possible with distributing lacking information to both versions and completing the translations. This succesful project well deserves this last effort to remove the barriers and chains which hindered easy access and practical use. The slavery registers of Suriname deserve interest from many corners.

A postscript

The uniqueness of these slave registers should be considered in the light of the presence of similar registers held at the Nationaal Archief Curaçao (finding aid 005, Archief Koloniale Overheid, nos. 1-1070).

Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with several archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.

A postscript

From December 7, 2018 untill April 7, 2019 the municipal archives in Amsterdam will present the exhibit Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately]. The exhibit will show the use of augmented reality for studying archival records. Some documents damaged by a fire in 1762 have now been digitized. At the educational resource Geschiedenislokaal Amsterdam [History Class Amsterdam] you can find a number of digitized documents concerning Rembrandt from the rich holdings of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

Julie van den Hout has created 17th Century Dutch, at last a blog in English about this phase of the Dutch language with a section on palaeography containing some exercises. There is a PDF of W. Bogtman, Het Nederlandse schrift in 1600 (Haarlem 1973).