Tag Archives: Digital humanities

Five days doing digital legal history

Screenshot of the startscreen for "DLH2021"

A few days after the online conference Digital Methods and Resources in Legal History (March 1-5, 2021), organized by Sigrid Amedick and Andreas Wagner for the Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt am Main, it is time to give here some first impressions of a most interesting and lively online event. It is a challenge to do justice to the papers and presentations, but perhaps one of the lessons of this conference is that good presentations dare to focus on a few crucial aspects. If anything came into view it is the sheer variety of subjects, resources and methods. Legal history is truly the discipline of legal histories in plural.

Doing digital legal history

At the start of the conference I had some worries about my stamina: How to deal with long hours behind your computer? During the video sessions a substantial number of some sixty scholars attending did not use the camera, some of them no doubt because their surroundings would distract attention, others because they had other duties to attend to as well. At a second online platform a digital meeting place had been created with three rooms which you could visit between sessions and afterwards. After a hesitant start with few visitors in a space with a desert color background more people decided to venture into this space. Between sessions I could twice pleasantly meet with just one other scholar, but this was exceptional! At other moments the moderators noticed people in this space many hours after sessions.

I will try to avoid plodding through all papers and poster sessions. You can still download the abstracts and the program. The eight posters are available as PDF’s at the congress page. With a total of ten papers, four short presentations and eight posters this was a distinctly small scholarly event, taking place during afternoons and early evenings within just two hours or two and a half hour each day. Unfortunately I could not attend all papers and sessions, but this helped me to keep this post concise. Those participants using the hashtag #dlh2021 at Twitter certainly needed to write short messages about this conference!

One way to look more actively at each paper and poster is to question whether a project tries to cover an entire dataset or a complete period, continent or country, or that it is typically a pilot dealing with for example a part of a text, one year from a longer period or a short period. In most cases at this conference the scope and range of a project is quite clear. Another fruitful question is asking yourself about the possibilities for extension and reuse for other purposes by other scholars.

Let’s keep this two-questions model in mind in the following paragraphs! The juxtaposition of subjects in this conference helps in fact to make a number of aspects more visible. Surely among the more all-encompassing projects were two American contributions. Kellen Funk (Columbia University) looked at the role and significance of legal treatises in Anglo-American law since the early nineteenth-century, dealing with some 25,000 treatises. As in his earlier project showing the impact of state codes of civil procedure upon each other in the nineteenth cnetury he developed this project with Lincoln Mullen. Despite its vast scale not every question about these treatises can be answered using this research tool, but it sheds a fascinating light on the relations between case law, legal codes and treatises.

Decades ago Rowan Dorin (Stanford University) wondered about the impact of a conciliar canon on local ecclesiastical law in the thirteenth century. His question proved eventually the spur for building with his team not only the Corpus Synodalium database, a repertory of synodal decrees in Europe between 1215 and 1400, but also a digital repository with texts, a number of them freshly edited from manuscripts. I discussed his project here in January 2020. A year ago Rowan Dorin warned me already for thinking every synodal statute and decree in late medieval Europe is now available in his database. In fact for large parts of Europe no statutes exist anymore. Dorin warned for putting too much effort in completeness for its own sake. He stressed the need to be clear about such lacks, omissions and silences in projects. Finally Dorin pleaded for choosing carefully formats using standards that will exist and be accessible long after the original tool or application and its versions have become obsolete. Coverage, representativeness and durabiiity are surely things to consider in due depth. For me this was surely one of the most important contributions.

Banner Community of the Realm Scotland

A nice case of showing the possibilities of a tool with only part of a text is the project The community of the realm in Scotland, 1249-1424 led by Alice Taylor (King’s College, London) for editing among other texts a portion of the legal treatise Regiam majestatem which survives in a fairly large number of late medieval manuscripts. The edition aims at faithfulness to individual textual witness instead of leading inexorably to a critical edition of “the” text, a thing clearly not existing. Words, sections and their order were altered at will. The project website contains only a part of the treatise. Dirk Heirbaut (Ghent) rightly remarked the dynamic model with this approach and tool would be helpful also in dealing for example with the various versions of the Libri Feudorum.

The twentieth century is no longer terra incognita for legal historians. In this respect it is useful to compare two talks. Cindarella Petz (Technische Universität, Munich) presented her work concerning cases tried before the two Landesgerichte in Vienna in 1935. She did not create herself the database with some 1,800 case records about persons charged with political crimes. Petz combined statistical analysis and network analysis in order to look at degrees of political bias in the two tribunals. Amazingly no one seemed yet to have done similar research in Austria, and it seems well worth expanding this pilot project to other years right up to the Anschluss in 1938 and afterwards.

Marlene Weck (Universität Freiburg) studied cases heard at the former International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague with a view to the terminology and views used by the court in its own case transcriptions to describe violent actions during the Balkan War of the nineties. In her view as a linguist it is interesting to look at the intersection of historiography in the introductions to cases on one side, and international law at the other side. It took her some time to find the right way to extract information from many thousand individual web pages with transcriptions which are not as neat as you would want them to be.

A second talk on a subject which figured here in 2020 was the subject of Franziska Quaas (Universität Hamburg) on the use of collections with early medieval collections with formulae for the project Formulae-Litterae-Chartae at Hamburg. The database with access to digital images and transcriptions of manuscripts with formulae, digitized editions of charters and letter collections, makes it possible to dispense with the nineteenth-century opinion medieval scribes used formulae as strict models for their work. The online workspace of the project makes comparisons between texts and textual witnesses much easier than it was for scholars such as De Rosière and Zeumer.

In his presentation Christoph Schöch (Universität Trier) talked about the project Lost in Beccaria, a project with a team of scholars looking at early translations of the famous treatise on criminal law Dei delitti et delle pene by Cesare Beccaria, first published in 1764. Translations of his work followed rather quickly. Currently only English, French and German translations up to 1800 are under scrutiny by the team. They aim at tracing the way translation differed from each other, sometimes even adding elements with or without clear marking of these additions. The team emphasized the need to establish a kind of basic vocabulary or even a legal taxonomy for comparing the translations. I could not help thinking that studying the way the very arguments and words within textual units would certainly be as interesting, but probably less open to a computerized approach.

There is a third subject which figured here already last year, but now it came into view side by side with a much older project for which a digital repertory has been created. In 2020 Annemiek Romein (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, Amsterdam) could create with her team at the Royal Library in The Hague datasets for a substantial number of printed collections with Early Modern ordinances from the Dutch Republic in the project Entangled Histories. In the conference she was joined by Karl Härter of the MPILHLT at Frankfurt am Main, one of the scholars responsible for the Repertorium der Policeyordnungen der Frühen Neuzeit which led to a series of volumes dealing with territories and cities in the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden. Härter presented the new online version of this repertory. The German ordinances have been studied more often than those from the Dutch Republic. A repertory for the German collections was a must, creating it took over decades. The swiftly created datasets for the Dutch Republic in various formats simply show another possible phase in scientific research into the history of ordinances.

Header of the IURA portal

In presenting IURA: Źródła prawa dawnego / Sources from old laws, the multifaceted project for sources concerning the history of Polish law, Maciej Mikula (Cracow) showed the difficulties of his team in dealing with sources in Polish, German, Latin, Lithuanian and other languages for various themes from the Middle Ages up to the twentieth century. Creating a working search engine which can deal correctly with this variety of sources is as difficult as creating digital editions for these resources. The project aims at becoming a general resource for Polish history. IURA aims at becoming a part of the portal for Polish digital libraries, Federacja biblioteka cyfrowych (FDC).

Interestingly the theme of general use came very much into view in a very different talk by Stephen Robertson (Georg Mason University, Fairfax, VA) on his project on the history of the 1935 Harlem riot. He created Harlem in Disorder. A spatial history of race and violence in the Great Depression, a website in progress which gives both a spatial history of the first Afro-American riot against racism with interactive maps and timelines, and online access to legal records, archival records, newspapers and other digitized resources as a kind of citizens’archive. Spatial history could be expected from the creator of Digital Harlem. Everyday Life 1915-1930, but here he wants it to be a multi-layered public history project where everyone can directly consult historical sources. The legal records here are just a part of a larger whole. For Robertson public history is not just a matter of service to the public, but a necessary and vital way of restoring public faith in history and historians. Its focus on race and gender is of course most timely for the current debates about racism, police violence and the working of democracy.

Space and good wisdom forbid me to discuss here at length the eight poster sessions. Scholars presenting a poster had to held an elevator pitch, a brief and seducing talk of just one minute, to make people curious enough to select afterwards an online breakout room for further discussion. I would like to mention three posters. Fredrik Thomasson (Uppsala) and his presentation on Swedish colonial law in the Caribbean. During a century the Swedish kingdom had a colony at Saint-Barthelemy. Ilya Kotlyar (Ghent) presented a way to visualize medieval dialectical methods and concepts. Jörg Wettlaufer (Göttingen) talked about the digital platform Shame Studies.

Stacks with the Postiones registers

Apart from two scholars in the main program other scholars from the institute at Frankfurt am Main, too, presented some examples of their current digital research in four short talks. The longest of them was given by Benedetta Albani and her team about their project for one of the Roman congregations of the Catholic church, the Congregatio Sacri Concilii founded in 1564. The team created not only the first inventory for this archival collection held at the Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, but also digitized and indexed the Positiiones, Early Modern case registers, to mention just its two central assets. Manuela Bragagnolo, who incidentally acted also as a co-moderator during the conference, presented her project HyperAzpilcueta centred around the Manual de confesores of Martin de Azpilcueta and its development through successive editions and translations. For me it seems worth mentioning in particular as a counterpart to the project for the School of Salamanca (Academy of Sciences, Mainz and MPILHLT) where for each legal text from the Spnish empire just one version has been digitized. The website of the MPILHLT contains of course more information about these projects.

Building infrastructures and a scholarly community

The conference ended with a panel session in which four scholars individually tried to answer questions prepared by Andreas Wagner. This helped certainly to get a better focus on specific aspects, but alas the space for discussion was very limited. However, one could visit afterwards the dedicated virtual meeting room. I will mention here only few remarks. Benedetta Albani talked in particular about the importance of open access and the accessibiblity in general of digital projects. Michael Kaiser (Bonn) spoke about the way digital humanities can contribute to more classical research in legal history, a good thing because part of the German scientific community still has grave douts about its added value and shows reluctance to support digital humanities. Wim Peters, involved for example in the project for the Aberdeen Council Registers, noted especially digital legal history projects containing less than 10 million words are distinctively small when compared to projects for current legal resources.

The fourth panelist, Jo Guldi (Southern Methodist University, Dallas), held a passionate plea for building strong infrastructures for legal history research. She stresses the importance of exchanging experiences and inviting historians from adjacent fields, a thing that helps decidedly her own current research using parliamentary resources. Guldi pointed out how paradoxically the bibliographical work of Elinor Ostrom on forms of legal commons was part of the basis for receiving the Nobel Prize in economics in 1988. Few bibliographic projects have received such honour, few have had such far-reaching impact as the Common-Pool-Resources Database. Guldi urged scholars not just to write about the subject of your research, describing the pipeline from hypotheses to final results, but to include also information about the actual research conditions and restrictions, and in particular about the funding of projects.

Doing digital legal history is not just a matter of digital tools, methods and resources, but also fostered by creating its own infrastrcutures with elements such as a dedicated bibliiography, incidentally already started at Zotero by Andreas Wagner and a small team of contributors, regular meetings and other elements. One of the closing remarks at the conference was about the creation of a regular section for reviews of digital projects in the journal Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History. Creating a journal for digital legal history is another thing already contemplated by some scholars. The MPILHLT helps in creating an online contact platform, and things as organzing instruction weeks, seminars or webinars about aspects of digital humanities are definitely under consideration now.

In my view the first online international conference on digital legal history is certainly a success, showing a variety of results, sometimes as pilot projects, sometimes as large scale portals, sometimes as digital versions of earlier projects. The width of resources, periods and methods was large, even when for example Antiquity did not figure and only scholars from Europe and the United States attended it. The themes, too, concerned mainly Europe and America. The questions raised by participants are certainly as important as this showcase. Candidness about the limitations of online resources, open discussions about mistakes, pitfalls and dead ends is another valuable thing. The need to work from the beginning of a project onwards for its durability and survival in new forms leads to attention for common standards of interoperability, and for choosing the right online location and support to ensure results can remain online and preferably available in open access.

Jo Guldi’s strong plea for contacting scholars and specialists outside your own province and exchanging views regularly resounds with me, as do her words about building sound infrastructures. Guldi’s recent article on scholarly infrastructure as critical argument in the Digital Humanities Quarterly 14/3 (2020) should provide you with further stuff for thought and rethinking. Searching for her article I bumped into the portal Critical Infrastructure Studies, no doubt a source of inspiration for Guldi. It is one thing to be critical about The History Manifesto she co-authored in 2014 as I did here some years ago, but her plea for building digital history amounts to a most constructive and generous reply. As for digital infrastructure, my general overview of resources and methods, research structures and examples in digital humanities at my portal Rechtshistorie is my own contribution to digital legal history, as are my overviews of museums and legal history and other resource genres on my website.

The second thing resounding in my mind is the contribution (digital) legal history might be able to make within our society for the cause of public history and history in general, as advocated by Stephen Robertson. When law and justice are key elements in societies past and present, just as their counterparts injustice and inequity, legal history should by all means make its voices heard. If digital methods and resources can help to achieve this, we should not hesitate to make carefully and courageously use of them as open as possible. In fact the contrast between the immense role of subscribers-only resources in current law and the growing use of online resources in open access for legal history should become as clear as possible as a distinguishing characteristic of scientific research being in touch with society at large.

Questioning how to do legal history in a virtual world

Banner MPI Legal History and Legal Theory, 2021

This week I received a message from Andreas Wagner of the Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt am Main, about an online survey concerning our views on scholarly events in a virtual world. I had already planned to look at the website of this institute and to ponder the impact of its new name. The word European did no longer fit the actual width and coverage of the scholarly research at the institute. Legal theory has come to the institute as a third branch with its own director. Even the name of the institutional Twitter account has been changed (@mpilhlt)!

With Sigrid Amedick Andreas Wagner is the convenor of the online conference Digital Methods and Resources in Legal History (March 1-5, 2021), originally planned as a normal scholarly event in 2020. At this Max-Planck-Institute Wagner is involved with digital humanities and the project concerning the School of Salamanca.

Let’s not hesitate and give you here right below the message about the questionnaire. Hopefully the answers scholars give will help to establish best practices for online scholarly events and help fostering critical thought about the way digital humanities and online research have an impact on doing legal history.

The questionnaire

Dear colleagues,

After roughly one year of covid-19 pandemic, working from home office, online team meetings and many other online things have come to shape our academic lives. Even academic conferences nowadays are starting to be organized as virtual events rather than be postponed indefinitely. However, no clear picture of benefits and drawbacks of virtual conference formats has emerged, let alone a common knowledge about best practices and about the many different forms that such virtual events can take.

At the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, we thus had the idea to launch a survey in order to solicit the opinions of the legal historians’ community on these things. This survey is meant to establish a glimpse of the state of virtual events in our discipline: the expectations and demands of scholars, the traps to avoid, and maybe even some ideas worth probing.

We cordially invite legal historians of all shades to participate and fill out our questionnaire. It contains about 40 questions in 5 groups/pages (General Questions, Activity Formats, Socializing, Publishing, General Comment) and it should take you roughly 15 minutes to complete. We will be very thankful for every response.


The questionnaire will remain open throughout all of February, closing on Feb 28 at 23:59:59 UTC. Results will be published on our homepage (https://www.rg.mpg.de/) and announced or reported on at various media like twitter, newsletters, blogs and journal sites. The survey adheres to very strict rules about data protection, which is one reason why we will not be able to send you a confirmation message or information about the results individually (the questionnaire is simply not asking for your e-mail address).

If you have any questions about the survey, please send a message to dlh@rg.mpg.de and we will be happy to answer.

Best regards,

Andreas Wagner

Approaching digitized pamphlets, broadsides and chapbooks

Cover of a sixteenth century pamphlet - image: The Newberry, ChicagoAmong digital collections with old printed works pamphlets, broadsides, broadside ballads and chapbooks have theit own place. You can find a fair number of them in the largest digital libraries. Commercial firms, too, have created some vast pamphlet collections. However, the number of digital collections in open access for this genre is surprisingly large, and not restricted to the Anglophone world. In some ways these cheap printed works have become priceless, because they record ephemeral and fleating information with a resemblance to social media in our own time. Finding such digital collections is one thing, making them better accessible proved to be another challenge. Recently I completed at Zotero a new searchable form of my list of digital collections devoted to these genres which in my view makes them much more accessible.

Adding value to a list

Logo Zotero

When I started to create a list of digital pamphlet collections my purpose was already not to list them only in whatever sensible order, but to present them with comments on their contents and scope. For years a division in a section with some general themes and periods, and a section in alphabetical order by country seemed sufficient. Occasionally people thanked me for my efforts in compiling this information, no complaints about shortcomings have ever been filed. Of course I could benefit from remarks about lacunae and oversights.

However, a tiny third section with “Other themes” certainly was visible and stood as a kind of question mark about this order of things. Some themes touched only a few countries, others illustrated the growing impact of Europe in other parts of the world, some of them would merit inclusion under another heading, too. At some point I started a section on chapbooks, and later on also for broadside ballads. A post here about complaintes criminelles, French broadside ballads about crimes and trials, prompted me into making space for this genre as well. Politics, government, law and crimes are among the themes of ephemeral printed works. However cheap the paper or crude the illustrations, they, too, form a source for legal history, in particular for the image of law and justice, and even for legal iconography. Festival books, too, deserved inclusion on my list. In 2018 I discussed here a number of digital collections with festival books.

In order not to make anyone unhappy when seeing an interesting collection only accessible at subscribing institutions and for their cardholders, I focused almost exclusively on collections in open access. I listed only those licensed collections when you can at least browse and search them, leaving you with at least some substantial information, even without final complete access. Some licensed collections contain many thousand items, but some digital collections in open access are equally rich in numbers. The first image in this post shows a pamphlet printed in Lyon in 1561 from the holdings of The Newberry Library in Chicago, a collection with 38,000 items in the Internet Archive, also searchable with Philologic4 (ARTFL, University of Chicago). On a separate section of its website The Newberry informs you about many aspects of this project, including data versions of the entire set.

Some projects give you not only digitized items, but also access to an online catalogue or a virtual exhibit. For some subjects bibliographies exist. Sometimes even more can be found: The catalogue of the priceless collection of early editions of works by Martin Luther at the Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, many of them pamphlets, amounts to a bibliography worth mentioning. When you start counting the number of similar cases it becomes clear that even a commented list can offer you only a restricted number of services, let alone a bare list.

Qualities and quantity

How can you make the various kinds of information in a list better accessible? Having information at your hand is one thing, using it to gain knowledge leading eventually to insight is another thing. When you reach a certain number of items in a list, catalogue or bibliography it may become advisable to store them electronically, not only in a text program, but in some kind of information storage and retrieval system. I contemplated creating an online database, either in a specially created format or at an existing platform. A few months ago I looked rather closely at an online database for the humanities in order to deal with a much longer list. The benefit of accompanying visualization seemed most interesting. For this shorter list a chance encounter with a sophisticated bibliography at Zotero quickly led me to this platform.

At Zotero you can create online bibliographies with facilities for rapid reshuffling and exporting in any layout according to the styles preferred by research institutions and journals. You can restrict access to yourself or a group, or invite people to work together on a project. It is possible to create sections in a bibliography, and, for me very interesting, you can create and use tags, labels and classifications at will. Combining tags is very easy and effective for finding information and relating it to a wider context. Thus Zotero can function to a certain extent as a relational database. Using tags is also most sensible when you deal with collections in a variety of languages. Zotero uses icons for particular kinds of information,, be they books, videos, web pages, statutes or cases. It is also possible to import data using scripts.

In my searchable overview I use icons sparingly. Putting the items into Zotero manually gave me a chance to look again at digital collections. Some of them had grown substantially, some of them are at a slightly or completely different web address, some of them lacked sufficient descriptions. It was pleasant to discover for some collections a web directory, a bibliography or other useful information well worth mentioning. I decided to mark the tags for genres within a collection with colours, and also catalogues and bibliographies. Thus for example collections with both pamphlets and broadsides stand out, as do those with a catalogue or a bibliography. I was able to add also the major separate collections with digitized pamphlets from the First World War which you can find at my blog Digital 1418.

Looking at the new overview I am surprised by the ways you can now relate collections to each other in new ways. In fact these combinations sometimes helped me to add or refine tagging, or I could quickly add a collection that should figure here, too. Some gaps have become more visible, too. To mention just a few examples, until now I have included only few collections with pamphlets concerning the Second World War, and the number of collections concerning women is low, too. There is a substantial number of collections from Spain, but Portugal is currently absent. How about links to digitized catalogues for famous pamphlet collections?! Such examples stress the fact overviews will always remain work in progress.

Digital durabiblity and visibility

Logo the Mmeory of the Netherlands 2020

There is always some reason to adduce here my Dutch view, but this time I am not happy with a change in the digital presence of some Dutch pamphlet collections. The relevant collections that could conveniently be found under the aegis of The Memory of the Netherlands portal have been moved to a new subdomain of the Delpher portal for digitized Dutch books, journals and newspapers. At the old web address a project using the same name, Geheugen van Nederland [The Memory of the Netherlands] announces for a general public new efforts for enhanced visibility of digitized cultural heritage collections. You would have expected the creation of redirects for the old links to the relevant collections, both in Dutch and English, but this has not or not yet happened. The old links were definitely not permalinks, and it seems not all old links have already been turned into permanent links.

In view of the ongoing campaign for digital visibility, sustainability and usability led by the Dutch Digital Heritage Network this is simply inexplicable. Creating a new platform with currently just three themes and giving the old portal a new logo seems to have been more important than realizing the impact of the change of addresses. The absence of effective and wide communication this summer about this change adds to the paradox of removing a working portal with substantial contents for an almost empty shop window. Just one example of the impact: The Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, an important contributing institution, still gives links for its web projects at The Memory at the old Dutch version. In the English version of these links for only one collection the link to the new platform has been set, for other collections the old links lead to error messages. The Memory of the Netherlands is a cultural heritage portal with rich collections in open access in need of good maintenance and a new lifespan. In fact, this portal, too, helped me to think about adding yet another genre of popular prints to my overview. Hopefully the current awkward situation can soon end by putting things into order.

Whatever you may think of this unlucky affair, it underlines the fact some efforts are needed for creating and maintaining a digital portal. In my case I commit myself to continuity and renewal for my list and the searchable overview with working URL’s for more than two hundred digitized collections for pamphlets and related genres, and a score of supporting websites. If you spot any broken link in the list or the new overview, please do not hesitate to contact me by mail. Hopefully this service for scholars and anyone interested can achieve its aim of assisting to find your way to these sources in the virtual world.

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…

An update

The Dutch Nationaal Archief did not figure in this post because there were no clear indications on its website about digitized archival collections or parts of them. However, since September 2020 a new version of the NA website offers a clear choice to search for digitized materials, with even a filter for different file types. There is a list indicating which collections contain digitized materials (PDF), also as a .csv file. The announcement on this important changes is only available in Dutch. The Nationaal Archief is also the regional archive for the province Zuid-Holland

In Maastricht the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg has created an overview of digitized archival records in an Excel file. The only quibble with it is the absence of admittedly sometimes very long names of the archival fonds, only the number of the finding aid is given. The digital collections of Tresoar in Leeuwarden for Frisia are currently offline. Luckily the Alle Friezen platform works normally.

The Dutch Republic, order and ordinances

Startscreen Entangled Histories

Last year ordinances rightly figured here in a post about the Dutch book trade in the seventeenth century. Printing and publishing ordinances on behalf of authorities formed a stable core business for printers and publishers. In 2019 a project started to digitize Belgian and Dutch Early Modern printed collections of ordinances, the socalled plakaatboeken. In January 2020 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the Dutch national library, published at KB LAB, its digital humanities platform, the results of the project Entangled Histories: Ordinances of the Low Countries.

For a very particular type of ordinances a study appeared recently, also in January 2020, which forms a perfect candidate for a comparison between research using archival and printed resources at one side, and the use of datasets on the other side. This post shows ordinances also at the crossroads of government, politics and medicine at a point in time where this has become a new reality.

Choosing your approach

In my post on the book trade and ordinances in the Dutch Republic I looked at the study of Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen on Dutch book production and sales during the seventeenth century. They pointed out how vital the task of printing and publishing ordinances was for printers and publishers. Each order for a single ordinance meant printing a fixed number of copies for which a low quantity of paper was needed, and best of all it guaranteed an immediate sum of money from the issuing authority, all factors making publishing and printing a stable business. The authors rightly concluded that the chance of printing and selling ephemeral works on a regular basis was probably essential for the success of the Dutch book trade.

Pettegree and Der Weduwen could not only locate rare editions in archives and libraries all over Europe, they also studied stock catalogues and auction catalogues for editions now lost. As members of the team for the Universal Short Title Catalogue they add information about existing copies of newly detected works to this online resource.

Getting hold of ordinances was important also for those authors venturing to create printed collections of ordinances called plakkaatboeken. A number of authors worked at provincial courts where you could expect to find the largest possible relevant collections. Finding out about these printed collections is much helped by using library catalogues with clear information about the nature of these works. The spelling of the very word plakkaatboek was not yet standardized, and thus you can encounter forms such as placaetboeck or placcaetboek. A few months ago I wrestled to locate digitized versions of the main collections for the Dutch Republic and Flanders in order to add them to my web page about Old Dutch Law. This task was hampered by the fact some digital libraries provide a link to an entire multivolume set, but others give you only links to each individual volume of a particular set.

However, even having online access to digital versions of these works, preferably combined with index volumes to them which I mentioned whenever available, is just the beginning of your research. These online versions are only to a limited extent searchable. Some digital versions have behind the screen an OCR-ed version, but it is notoriously difficult to get sufficiently reliable results when scanning Early Modern editions with the ordinary OCR process. These editions use several print types which pose difficulties in correct rendering, not to mention ligatures for certain letter combinations and abbreviations. Exactly for coping with this point the project of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, led by Annemiek Romein, comes into its strength.

The project Entangled Histories: Ordinances of the Low Countries set out to provide reliable texts in three ways. First of all existing scans of digitized books were improved by creating new scans using HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) with the Transkribus software. A second step was establishing each ordinance – or other element – as a distinct textual unit. The third step was enabling computerized categorisation of these units using a pre-established model. The project website provides explanations for each step.

The results of Entangled Histories are given as datasets, decidedly in plural. On the page explaining access to them it is stated the data are available in five formats, Alto, Page, XML, .docx and .txt for each book. An implication of this variety is the absence of a straightforward toolkit to use these data, because you can pick out your own format and determine the way you will handle them. The datasets are accessible at the Zenodo platform, with a separate page at Zenodo giving you a list of all works included. A quick overview is possible when you search with the tag Entangled Histories at Zenodo. The page with examples does not deal with the end result of the digital process, but with the models used for training the computers of Transkribus to read the pages.

Nearly 110 volumes for a total of 40 works have been included in this project. A number of them contain also texts on customary law (coutumes or costumen), statutes and other regulations. It is most thoughtful of the team at the Dutch Royal Library to include these works as well. The title of each dataset begins with an abbreviations pointing to the library from which a copy has been used. It seems only for one index volume accompanyng a plakkaatboek a dataset has been created, the Generale inhoud van alle de placaten (…) Groot Utrechtsch Placaetboek (Utrecht: Van Poolsum, 1733). You can deplore the absence of some editions from the sixteenth century, but this fact highlights only the clear need for decisions for any project.

It is possible to create your own workflow with these datasets and save them online. I had expected Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent), who created the project during her period in 2019 as a researcher in residence at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, to create also a searchable textual corpus which you might access online, but this has not happened. Romein and the project members did not lock the data into only one format allowing only restricted research possibilities. In January 2020 I contacted Annemiek Romein to explain such decisions. She explained to me textmining was not the principal aim of this project. The version of a text coded in XML can be used for an online searchable edition. The focus of this project was more on the use and comparison of OCR and HTR scanning. In the overview of the volumes included you can use the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) address to go directly to a particular dataset. A direct combination of the datasets with the original scans cannot be offered at this moment, because these scans were made by the Grand Omniscient Firm for the cooperating libraries.

In view of this situation it is perhaps wise to remember such decisions for this project with datasets would have been entirely within the reach of the former Dutch NCRD institute for documentation on legal history and legal iconography. The NCRD had its office at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. The institute had been created by the KB and Dutch universities. At some point in its history the board of directors had to decide whether the database with a bibliography and scanned images, still only accessible under license, would run at a single computer or become available on more computers on a network. In my view Dutch and Belgian legal historians should not only start using the datasets of Entangled Histories, but also start working together to create its own infrastructure, both in the real world and in virtualibus, in order to combine knowledge and efforts in the field of digital humanities. No doubt the Foundation for Old Dutch Law could play a role in such matters, too.

Approaching lethal illnesses

Cover "Per imperatief plakkaat"

Until this point you might have become impatient with me about the promised second part of this post, a particular subject which can be linked with our own times. You might have wondered why I seem to search solace in writing about a glorious period in Dutch history which was not so happy for many people, as if nothing else happens in the world right now. The study of A.H.M. Kerkhoff, Per imperatief plakkaat. Overheid en pestbestrijding in de Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden [By strict order. Government and fighting plagues in the Dutch Republic] (Hilversum 2020) deals with policies and ordinances against the plague and other contagious diseases during the Early Modern period. At the publisher’s website is a preview of the first fourteen pages of this book.

The main question in Kerkhoff’s study is why it took almost three centuries before the Staten Generaal, the central governing body of the Dutch Republic, decided to enact general measures againt contagion in periods with threats of plague. Kerkhoff starts his study by looking at the first successfull policies against contagion made by Italian cities around 1400. He even translated a statute against the plage issued in Ragusa in 1377. It needs stressing these Italian towns were in some cases large city states, a fact other states might have noticed, too. However, for centuries local Dutch towns issued their own pestordonnanties. Only in 1664 the Staten Generaal came with an ordinance pertaining to all provinces and other regions. Other authors, for example Leo Noordegraaf and Gerrit Vlak, De gave Gods. De pest in Holland vanaf de late middeleeuwen (Amsterdam 1996; online, Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (PDF)), did certainly mention this ordinance, but they and others focused on one region or on a single town. In the Groot Placaet-boek (…) Staten Generael ende (…) Staten van Holland en West-Vrieslandt (…) edited by Cornelis Cau et alii (9 vol., ‘s-Gravenhage-Amsterdam 1658-1795) the second volume contains the ordinance issued on July 31, 1664 by the Court of Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland (II, col. 3171-3174). A few days later the States of Holland came with its own resolution concerning measures to be taken. Kerkhoff combines research in archives with the use of relevant historical studies. Using digitized collections of ordinances or even the new datasets, provided you can tune them quickly to your preferred way to approach them, can be most helpful to support more traditional ways of research, and it will also be most instructive to become better aware of the restrictions and limits of both approaches.

Kerkhoff wants to show that the political will to impose measures in the most general possible way was more important than medical views of contagion control. The author briefly mentions some examples of modern diseases which confronted Dutch authorities in recent decades and reminds us of the clash of interests in the debates about the policies against these diseases. With currently the new corona virus as a very real and growing presence in many countries this study seems to have been written with an uncanny intuition about the return of such matters of grave concern. Medical and epidemological knowledge, wisdom and vision are certainly needed to deal with different views about actions against this virus. With yet another project on its way at the Huygens Instituut for the digitization of the resolutions of the States of the provinces in the Dutch Republic between 1576 and 1795 and their reIease in a open access research environment I am sure a combination of the datasets of Entangled Histories with these resolutions will open new vistas and roads to ask new questions, to probe deeper into them and shed new light on older studies and views.

A postscript

In June 2020 the first tranch of some 5,000 scanned pages with resolutions of the States General appeared on the Dutch crowdsourcing platform Vele Handen. The REPUBLIC project, too, works with Transkribus. Volunteers will check the scans and correct the computerized transcriptions.

Annemiek Romein, Sara Veldhoen and Michiel de Gruijter published the article, ‘The Datafication of Early Modern Ordinances’, DH Benelus Journal 2 (2020) about the Entangled Histories project.

Charters, cartularies and rolls

Startscreen ANR Rotulus

However fragmentary the transmission of medieval sources may be, the sheer number of charters and cartularies is still impressive. Some cartularies saving the text of charters were not made in the usual codex form of manuscripts, but as rolls. This phenomenon is the subject of the French research project ANR Rotulus at the Université de Lorraine and the accompanying blog, also called Rotulus. Looking at material evidence can help you to avoid looking at sources only as texts. In this post I will look at this project, and no doubt there are also examples of such roll cartularies or cartulary rolls outside France. One of the reasons to look at this subject now is an upcoming scholarly event in April.

A different form

The project ANR Rotulus that will run from 2019 to 2021 is an initiative of the Centre de Recherche Universitaire Lorrain d’Histoire (CRULH), based in Nancy and Metz. The project was prompted by the presence of some sixty cartularies in roll format (“cartulaires-rouleaux”) in the French database for cartularies CartulR – Répertoire des cartulaires médievaux et modernes at the Telma platform of the Institut de Recherche d’Histoire des Textes (Paris and Orleans). It was possible to add another sixty cartulary rolls to those already identified. The team of ANR Rotulus has created a very well organized bibliography on the use of rolls in medieval society. Eight years ago I wrote a post about the best known medieval use of rolls, for accounting purposes. In a post about heraldry and legal history I mentioned a number of heraldic rolls.

Logo Rotulus blog

At the Rotulus blog you can find announcement of scholarly events concerning medieval rolls. On April 3 and 4, 2020 a workshop will be held at Yale University on the theme “L’édition numérique et les manuscrits en rouleaux médiévaux” [The digital edition and manuscripts in roll form]. The workshop will deal with subjects such as the palaeography and cataloging of medieval rolls, and with the transcriptions of manuscripts and critical editions. There will be an introduction into best practices in digital editing, and the use of XML and TEI will come into view. The workshop will be hosted by the group of scholars united around the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the project Digital Rolls and Fragments. At the heart of this workshop will be a devotional roll written in Latin and Middle English, dated between circa 1435 and 1450 (Takamiya MS 56, digital version). Of course you can find more (digitized) rolls and scrolls at the Beinecke. You will forgive me mentioning here English Paleography and Manuscript Culture, 1500–1800 by Kathryn James, curator of Early Modern books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Library, just published by Yale University Press. The website of ANR Rotulus mentions a meeting later this year on the theme Fonctions des cartulaires-rouleaux : approches sociales et contextuelles d’un genre documentaire [Functions of cartulary rolls: social and contextual approaches to a documentary genre], to be held at Metz on November 5-6, 2020.

A recent contribution at the Rotulus blog focuses on a cartulaire-rouleau held at the Bibliothèque Municipale of Angers from the abbey of Notre-Dame du Ronceray. This twelfth-century cartulary consists of six rolls, each of them measuring nearly six meters by 29 centimeters and containing six to eight parchment sheets (MS 844, 845, 846, 847, 848 and 848b). The library at Angers posted a somewhat longer and illustrated version of this post on its own blog. This roll cartulary is duly mentioned in the CartulR database (no. 1383), the material units have each its own description on the level called Exemplaire-tradition where it becomes clear it has the form of a roll (rouleau). The database CartulR has a useful glossary showing among other things the variety of cartularies.

On November 14 and 15, 2019 a conference was held at Angers about the diversity of cartulary rollis. Both the material side of these documents as also their place within diplomatics, the historical auxiliary science for studying charters and related resources, came into view. Among the subjects to discuss was the need for creating a special database with a repertory of cartulary rolls. The second day of this event, held at the Archives départementales de Maine-et-Loire in Angers, ended with a presentation of some roll cartularies in the holdings of this regional archive.

The team of ANR Rotulus very sensibly looks at all forms of medieval rolls in order to understand their uses and development. Why did cartulary rolls come into existence? What role could they have? Who did benefit from this particular form? Is it an exclusively ecclesiastical or monastic format? Half of the cartulary rolls repertoried untll now stems from priories. Rolls from Cistercian monks and from nuns form a distinct minority. Approaches to uses of literacy and gender history, too, will have to be invoked to interpret and understand such facts. Of course I checked CartulR for the presence of cartulary rolls. One example among the 65 results is currently held outside France. The Rijksarchief in Bruges has a roll cartulary for the collegiate chapter of Saint Sauveur in Harelbeke (CartulR, no. 5213). The team of ANR Rotulus has not yet added to CartulR the sixty cartulary rolls which they spotted.

Beyond France

Startscreen Materiale Textkulturen

It is only logical to look beyond France for the existence and role of cartulary rolls. CartulR does contain information about some Spanish and Italian cartuiaries, but for these countries no cartulary rolls are mentioned. Recently Stefan G. HolzJörg Peltzer and Maree Shirota edited the volume The Roll in England and France in the late Middle Ages (2019; available in open access), a publication included in the bibliography of ANR Rotulus. This volume is part of a book series published for the Sonderforschungsbereich at the university of Heidelberg concerning Materiale Textkulturen. At the blog of this project you can read a post about this volume (Materiale Textkulturen, Band 28) which is a product of the subproject Rollen im Dienst des Königs [Rolls in the king’s service].

Among cartulary rolls outside France those of Margam Abbey held at the National Library of Wales are easily spotted. The Discovery portal of the National Archives in Kew brings you quickly to at least seven examples in various English archives, but not at the National Archives themselves. I was a bit troubled by the fact the Gaunt Roll held at the East Sussex Record Office (GLY 1139) did not show up at first at Discovery in a simple search for cartulary roll. In the Répertoire des cartulaires d’institutions religieuses médiévales sises dans l’espace wallon actuel (Pratiques médiévales de l’écrit, Université de Namur) you can find in its 2017 overview three examples kept in Tournai. It is tempting to add more examples to this post, but I am confident the interest of some of my readers will be kindled enough to find out more about this remarkable resource type.

An addition

At Archivalia Klaus Graf noted I could have mentioned examples of cartulary rolls from Germany. You could indeed start searching at Archivportal-D with terms such as KopialbuchKopiar and Rotul or Rotulus. Searching with the terms Urkunden and Rotul* brings substantial results.

The situation around COVID-19 led to the posponement of the meeting in November 2020. The new date and program is announced by ANR Rotulus in Metz, March 25-26, 2021: Fonctions des cartulaires-rouleaux : approches sociales et contextuelles d’un genre documentaire.

You might want to look at rolls and other forms of reading in roll form in other periods and settings. The online book of Jack Hacknell, Continuous Page: Scrolls and Scrolling from Papyrus to Hypertext (The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2020) contains twelve chapters on very different subjects connected with continuous reading.

Gathering graphic evidence on false inscriptions

Startscreen Epigraphic Database Falsae

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

Defying a first look

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

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

EDF advanced search

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

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

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

Integrating epigraphic data

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

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

Tracing the records of medieval synods

Header blog Corpus Synodalium

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

A database and a blog

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

Banner Corpus Synodalium

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

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

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

Results screen database Corpus Synodalium

The results screen of the Corpus Synodalium database

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

Example metadata in the Corpus Synodalium

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

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

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

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

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

Looking beyond the database

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

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

A preview of things to come

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

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

The Italian thing: A look at a new palaeography tutorial

Startscreen "Italian Palaeography

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

At the outset

Logo of The Newberry Library, Chicago

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

Logo Medici Archive Project

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

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

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

The Italian thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some differences

Banner French Renaissance Paleography

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

Logo UTL

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

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

An update

In view of the small number of online tutorials for Italian palaeography it is sensible to mention here the Materiale didattico: Paleografia e diplomatica created by Bianca Fadda, Università di Cagliari, who presents images of several medieval scripts and documents.

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.