Tag Archives: Digital archives

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.

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 with a view to the Transkribus tool which has to digest the letter forms and writing patterns in order to become a functional reading tool. The registers contain documents from 1586, 1603, 1607 and 1643. The Universitätsarchiv Greifswald has digitized several series, among them immatriculation registers and charters, but the Spruchakten are not mentioned in this overview. On the other hand the university archive and library are currently present with the largest collections in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The other institutional partners in this project are the Universitätsbibliothek Greifswald, the Stadtarchiv Wismar and the Landesarchiv Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin. The Stadtarchiv Wismar has a web page about the creation of finding aids for the records of the Wismarer Tribunal in its holdings and also those in other archives, with some references to relevant literature.

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

Using the Transkribus tool

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

On Tuesday October 29, 2019 Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent) and Jeroen Vandommele gave a webinar at the Dutch Royal Library about using Transkribus. Provided you can follow Dutch viewing this webuinar 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 wa sin 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 knownfor 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.

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 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).