Tag Archives: Medieval history

Women and law in medieval letters

Logo EpistolaeHow can you correct some of the deceptive perspectives, or even worse, outright biases, without surrendering your own powers of comprehension? What is humanly possible to change your mind? I think we should embrace every sincere invitation to let us listen better to voices easily overlooked in our regular research practice and use of sources. In the project under discussion in this post I will as usually try to look first of all for its qualities, and not only for things to be repaired or bettered. Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters is a project created by Joan Ferrante, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, New York. Its core is a corpus of nearly 2,400 medieval letters, both in English translation and in the original languages. What does this substantial collection contain, and what not? How easy can you use its contents? What is in these letters for legal historians?

Spanning a continent and a millennium

The second logo of Epistolae

The letters in the Epistolae project are written in Latin. They date from the fourth to the thirteenth century, and thus there are texts from Late Antiquity up to the century which often has been seen as the apogee of the Middle Ages. The collection contains both letters sent by women and letters they received. Apart from browsing the entire collection you can search the letters using separate search fields for the title of a letters, senders and recipients, and there is also a global search field. The first three fields automatically generate suggestions for items containing a part of your search which you can select for quicker searching. By clicking on the title of a column in the results view you can change its sorting order. There is a basic bibliography for the resources used for this project, with in many cases only the title of publications and their presence in Columbia’s university library. In the second section of the project you will find biographies about the women figuring in the project.

One of the things I quickly noticed is probably one of the historian’s idols, the absence of years or a period of years in a number of search results. In some cases a global date can be added easily because we know the years in which the sender or recipient lived. Historians prefer to know from which period or year, or when necessary even from which date a source stems. Temporal precision helps you to avoid generalisations for a period like the European Middle Ages which span a continent during a millennium. However, the thing clearly most important here is showing the existence of letters written by women or received by women in a language mostly associated with men and male education.

However large the number of more than 2,300 letters may seem, you will probably want to see as many letters written by women as possible, and in a second set letters written to women, and you might want to have also easy access to letters sent among women, but I do not see here the possibility to create this subset quickly. With this in mind I was rather amazed that you will find for Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) only three letters dictated by her and three sent to her. Her correspondence is good for three volumes in the modern scholarly edition, Hildegardis Bingensis, Epistolarium, Lieven Van Acker and Monika Klaes-Hachmoller (eds.) (Turnhout: 1991-2001; Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis, 91, 91a and 91b), commonly seen as the one of the largest collections of letters written by a medieval woman. Hildegard is justly famed for the wide variety of people she wrote to and writing to her. The examples given here are restricted to letters to Elisabeth von Schonau, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Bernard of Clairvauc, and letters of Bernard of Clairvaux and Elisabeth von Schonau. The entrance for Hildegard of Bingen mentions the English translation [The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford etc., 1994, 1998, 2004)]. I did not find a statement on the website for this severely restricted choice, but it might be a matter of creating a balance between well-known and lesser known women.

A Dutch and Flemish view

You could bet I would look in the database of Epistolae for Dutch women, and this is indeed fruitful and revealing. There are 127 search results for a global search with the term Holland, and 208 results when you search for Flanders. However, something else becomes also visible. Each letter with more than one sender or recipient is recorded as many times as there are senders and recipients. Let’s look for example at the two charters of count William of Holland addressed to Margaret of Constantinople, countess of Flanders, written both May 19, 1250 in Brussels. I could not help spotting that William is according to the first charter only count of Holland, and in the second charter he figures as king of Romans. Ashleigh Imus provided Ebnglish translations of these charters. I checked the text also in the source mentioned at Epistolae, the Oorkondenboek van Holland en Zeeland tot 1299 (OHZ), A.C.F. Koch, J.G. Kruisheer en E.C. Dijkhof (eds.) (5 vol., The Hague 1970-2006) digitized by the Huygens Institute / Institute for Dutch History.

The first charter, no. 851 in the OHZ, reads clearly “Willelmus Dei gratia Romanorum rex semper augustus, comes Hollandie,” both king and count, with for Margaret, “Margareta Flandrie et Hainonie comitissa”, yet another county, Hainault. In the second charter (OHZ, no. 856) William is called only king of Romans, “Willelmus Dei gratia Romanorum rex semper augustus”. When you check the OHZ you will see Margaret figures in more charters dated May 19, 1250. In no. 858 her name is abbreviated. No. 701 of December 16, 1246 is present in the Epistolae database, but this charter was not addressed to the abbot and monastery of Doesburg. Thosan is the Flemish monastery at Ter Doest.

In yet another letter, this time addressing pope Gregory IX in 1242, Ashleigh Imus rightly corrected a misprinted location in an old Italian edition. The charter mentions indeed Veurne (Furnes) in Flanders. There is a summary of this charter in the registers of pope Innocent IV [Les Registres d’Innocent IV (1243-1254) I, Elie Berger (ed.) (Paris 1884), p. 52, no. 290], dated “Datum Lateranensi VI Idus Decembris”, December 8, 1243, and not on “III Nonas Decembris”, December 3, and edited from the papal register Reg. Avon. I 289, f. 47. I could not find this charter at the Belgian portal Diplomatica Belgica. Ferrante mentions the conflict about Hainault in her very interesting short biography of Margaret of Constantinople (1202-1280), without however caring to give the date of her birth and death.

You can check the charters of the only Dutch king of the Holy Roman Empire also in Die Urkunden Heinrich Raspes und Wilhelms von Holland, Dieter Hägermann and Jaap Kruisheer (eds.) (Hannover 1989; Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Diplomata), available online at dMGH, the digital platform of the MGH in Munich. The two charters nicely shows the difficulties of recording in a database the presence of multiple people involved with one item, and in this case even two person with two roles in the first charter. Things are clearly not entirely correct when you cannot find Margaret when you use a global search for Hainault. I am afraid that you got to be very much aware of the fact that only 800 letters have been entered into the Epistolae database, even though 2000 letters have been collected and await further treatment.

If you want to follow the trail of charters in the Low Countries you can consult online several modern editions. For Guelders you have the Oorkondenboek van Gelre en Zutphen tot 1326, for the diocese Utrecht Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301, S. Muller Fz. et alii (eds.) (5 vol., Utrecht 1920-‘s-Gravenhage 1959). For Brabant the Digitaal Oorkondenboek van Noord-Brabant brings you even more than the printed editions. Older editions for Frisia, Groningen and Drenthe can be consulted and searched at the Cartago platform.

Letters and charters

My probings in the Epistolae database point in the direction of a conclusion which is not entirely surprising. It seems a good thing to put in both real letters and charters into one database on the same footing, but alas charters need to be treated in a very distinct way in order to become usable for research. The projects for Holland, Utrecht and Guelders give you a searchable database and both OCR-scanned texts and images of the original edition. Of course you want to use all possible relevant sources about particular women, but putting them into a database and creating a reliable scholarly resource is not an easy thing, regardless of the subject you want to investigate. In the Epistolae database you cannot search directly for letters by women sent to other women, a thing many people will want to look for. In many charters women, in particular those of high rank in medieval society, do all kinds of things, in particular actions with legal consequences. It is perfectly understandable that you would like to have as many sources as possible in a single online resource, but one has to accept some consequences. To the philological skills needed to study medieval letters you will have to add the skills of the classic historical auxiliary sciences such as diplomatic,s the study of charters, and palaeography.

Joan Ferrante wisely choose to rely on printed editions for her enterprise. Her knowledge of medieval literature and approaches of this vast subject has led her to launching a database that has its strength primarily in the letters given both in Latin and English. Realizing the idea of wanting to show both writing letters and using the pen for legal matters in charters is not unthinkable, but it will be a tour de force. Finding the voices of medieval women is a quest in itself, but you cannot afford to lose sight of all tools needed and existing.

Another thing that needs stressing is attention to the epistolary genre with its own particularities. You can get an idea of a further mixture of matters relevant to legal history by looking for example at a recent volume concerning the papacy and letters, Kuriale Briefkultur im späteren Mittelalter. Gestaltung – Überlieferung – Rezeption, Tanja Broser, Andreas Fischer and Matthias Thumser (eds.) (Cologne-Weimar Vienna, 2015; Regesta Imperii Beihefte, 37), available online at the website of the Regesta Imperii. In his contribution in this volume,  ‘Letter-Collections in the Middle Ages’ (pp. 35-50), Giles Constable explains medieval letters are most often transmitted within collections. A real letter could be expanded and refined to serve as a literary text. He stresses the double nature of letters and charters which can have both a personal and businesslike character. Constable urges scholars to look carefully at each individual letter, and not to conclude things hastily because it is preserved in a particular collection. Wise words from not just one of the best known medievalists, but from a doyen in the field of medieval letters. His volume on Letters and letter-collections (Turnhout 1976; Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental, 17) has been digitized by the MGH. You can learn basic things about medieval letters also in the chapter ‘Epistolography’ by Julian Heseldine in Medieval latin: An introduction and bibliographical guide, Frank Mantello and Arthur Rigg (eds.) (Washington, D.C., 1997) 650-658. On the resources page of Epistolae this guide is mentioned without a reference to this chapter.

Logo MGH, Munich

Speaking of the MGH, it is now possible to find at their dMGH platform also editions of letters in the Epistolae series, in particular the volumes of the Epistolae saeculi XIII e regestis pontificum Romanorum selectae, Karl Rodenberg (ed.) (3 vol., Berlin 1883-1897; MGH Epp. saec. XIII) in which you will find both real letters and more official correspondence. A letter to Joan of Constantinople, countess of Flanders and Hainault, sent by pope Gregory IX on November 5, 1235 (I, 563, no. 666) can be added in the Epistolae database. Among the latest publications of the MGH is the Codex Udalrici, Klauss Nass (ed.) (Wiesbaden 2017; MGH, Die Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit, 10) with early twelfth-century letters around the investiture conflict compiled by a cleric at Bamberg.

Visible and invisible filters

When finishing this post I could look also at the remarks about medieval letters in the first edition in Dutch from 1962 of the famous Guide to the sources of medieval history (Oxford 1995), also translated and updated as Introduction aux sources de l’histoire médiévale: typologie, histoire de l’érudition médiévale, grandes collections, sciences auxiliaires, bibliographie (Turnhout 1997) by Raoul van Caenegem and François Ganshof, to mention only the latest versions. Both authors mentioned in 1962 already everything I summarized here from later introductions to a rewarding genre which you cannot approach as if you can read everything at face value.

Banner Feminae

The most paradoxical thing about the project of Joan Ferrante is her apparent neglect as a professor of medieval literature of a thing which any student would know and duly acknowledge. It is one thing to set out to correct the bias filtering medieval women out of view, another thing to tackle the apparent biases in two distinct kinds of sources, medieval letters and charters. Both genres share a mixture of objective matters and personal touches. I am convinced of the need to use gender perspectives, but perhaps I am also too much a medievalist to forget about the challenges medieval sources pose for any kind of research. What can and has been done in research about medieval women can be traced in the online bibliography at Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index. You should not miss the bibliographies at Queens in the Middle Ages, too. A portal such as Monastic Matrix concerning medieval women’s religious communities is a model of its kind. The presence of English translations and accompanying biographies is surely most valuable for the Epistolae project, but the mélange of letters and charters has resulted in a rather unexpected mixture. It would be wonderful to use both genres together in one database, but one has to overcome some very real problems before you are able to hear the true voices of medieval women. In my opinion this database deserves a remix, an update with the 1200 letters waiting to be entered, and some tuning of the biographies and search interface to become fully operational as a search tool which can fulfill many needs.


New views on digitized medieval manuscripts: Parker Library 2.0

Startscreen Parker Library on the Web

An old advertisement trick is using the words new and better. In this post I will look at a new version of a digital collection with medieval manuscripts which indeed can now be reached to a fuller extent. Parker Library on the Web 2.0 is the fruit of cooperation between the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Stanford University Libraries. The first version of this most varied digital collection did not make everybody happy. Let’s look here at some of the changes, and also make a tour of manuscripts which can be connected to legal history.

Removing the barriers

For some reason Corpus Christi College, Cambridge had until January 10, 2018 granted only partial online access to external users for viewing the more than 500 medieval manuscripts in its rich collections. The main problem was you could not look properly at contextual data for the manuscripts, and you were deprived of viewing bibliographical information. One of the jewels guarded is an illustrated manuscript with the chronicle of Matthew Paris (ms. 16), with one of the most used depictions of a medieval church council at f. 43v. I could not show it to you in my 2015 post about the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. However, the important manuscript catalogue by Montague Rhodes James, A Descriptive Catalogue of The Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, Vol. I (Cambridge, 1909) and Vol. II (Cambridge, 1912) could already be consulted online, but not the information about more recently added manuscripts or about research concerning them since the work of M.R. James was published.

The new version of the digital Parker Library makes up for a lot of these deficiencies. The library now offers an overview of the successive manuscript catalogues where you can view online or download them. The Parker Library owes its start and a substantial number of its earliest manuscripts to archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575). As archbishop of Canterbury he donated in 1574 some 400 books to Corpus Christi College. Many of these books come from monasteries dissolved in 1535. Since 2010 you can follow the Parker Library also on its blog and on Twitter.

Is everything now readily accessible in the new version of this digital library? I could not help proceeding immediately to Matthew Paris’ Chronica majora and f. 43v of ms. 16. The first thing I noticed was the not quite convincing working of the general search field. Searching without filter, using Everything for “Chronica majora”, leads you only to references about this chronicle, and not to the manuscript itself. In 2003 the manuscript and its binding were separated. The manuscript is now called 16II. When searching you have to add a prefix zero, 016. You will have to consult the Hints and Tips section in order to create successful searches. On reaching ms. 016II I looked in vain for the famous illustration. Its presence is not indicated in any way, but you can guess something is missing because you can view only the upper half of this manuscript page. Anyway, you can find perhaps some consolation in the online presence of the study by Suzanne Lewis, The art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica majora (Berkeley, CA, etc., 1987; online, Internet Archive). The image of the cardinals at Lateran IV is shown in black-and-white on page 122.

Logo Parker Library

I had rather not hide the qualities and working of the search function in Parker on the Web 2.0. In fact searching was much easier in the previous version, much more what you would expect concerning search fields than in it 2018 upgraded version. It is a change from a tantalizing distance to things just out of your reach, to a situation where you can go to almost everything, provided you apply your previous knowledge very consciously. In the old situation I would usually skip looking at James’ descriptions, now his clues prove still helpful. The most striking feature is the general search field. Each of the six filters needs careful handling to get useful results. A good example are the 20.000 page details which you can filter using the fields of the general search mode. I had expected these filters to be situated to the left of these results. I suppose also I prefer creating a specific search at the start above applying filters afterwards. Of course I filtered the results for ms. 16II, but the famous illustration is conspicuously absent here, too. However, having a vast bibliography for this manuscript is a thing for rejoicing…

Legal history and the Parker Library

Richardus de Pophis, Summa dictaminis secundum stilum romanae curiae

Richardus de Pophis, Summa dictaminis secundum stilum romanae curiae – Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker Library, ms. 445, p. 3 – image Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

After this foray into the functioning of the new presentation and attempting to find a very particular illustration it is best to try to uncover the rich manuscripts of the Parker Library in another way. Lately Ben Albritton, involved at Stanford with technology concerning digitized manuscripts, wondered at Twitter why a particular manuscript [CCCC MS 445: Richard de Pophis, Summa dictaminis secundum stilum romanae curiae] was the least visited item of the online Parker Library. This text is concerned with the wording of acts and letters in use at the papal curia, more commonly dubbed the cursus. Let there be no misunderstanding that I could retrieve ms. 445 without any problem. This manuscript is certainly to be linked with medieval canon law, yet it does not occur among the 22 search results for “canon law”. On closer inspection there is no field in the full description for genre and/or subject. A similar search for Roman law brings only four manuscripts. Ms. 77 with Guilhelmus Duranti’s Speculum iudiciale rightly figures among the results in both searches. The variety of texts, including the Decretum Gratiani, the Decretum of Ivo of Chartres, other decretal collections, registers and cartularies, gives you a fair idea of the range of texts concerning medieval canon law. In this respect, too, the Parker Library is indeed interesting.


Wisdom tells me a search for statutes might be more useful than searching for English law, but eventually both yielded some twenty results with not much overlap, another testimony to the rich variety of the Parker Library, but also a fact pointing to the importance of classification. When you search apart from canon law, Roman and English law, for glosses, decretals and judges you will find here most of the manuscripts touching upon legal history. However, the tricky thing is that you cannot be sure you have found all relevant materials without checking also the manuscript catalogues. This diminishes the importance of the new use here of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) for easy and reliable comparison of manuscript images. The Parker Library scores with the easy access to the current and historic manuscript catalogues. For some manuscripts the bibliographical information is excellent. I had some trouble with the Mirador viewer used here to implement IIIF, although this viewer has been optimized for this aim. You can use the arrows to flip through a manuscript, but in the top field with the indication of the page or folio number nothing changes. At other websites I did not have this problem with the Mirador viewer.

Keeping in mind I used here the new version of the Parker Library it seems some problems, such as the counter of the viewer, are typically early user problems which hopefully will be addressed and solved quickly. Finding a particular category of texts or a manuscript genre is not completely possible. I realize I am perhaps too much inclined to the use of categories and tags and to prefer very specific search questions, but I am convinced good classifications are really helpful. Having access to bibliographical information and being able to compare images in a reliable way with manuscripts elsewhere, is certainly among the strengths of the Parker Library. It will be helpful, too, when a correct link to Parker Library on the Web 2.0 is also added to the great portal with the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts App (DMMapp). Let my first impressions not deter you from visiting the new gateway to the medieval manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge!

A personal touch: Chasing autograph manuscripts of medieval lawyers

The Middle Ages span a millennium, and the very term has long darkened our understanding of this period in European history. Somehow the image of the Dark Age keeps to some extent its force for children, the general public and scholars alike. Seemingly out of the dark come the persons whose names we know, and romantic phantasy has often been very active to make them as colourful as possible. Clovis, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Saint Louis, the holy French king pronouncing the law, are among the people for whom we can find out more than only battles, deeds and orders, but we hear seldom the voice of more ordinary people. Thus the counsels of Dhuoda to her son, the visions and songs of abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pisan, a passionate writer and defender of women, stand out even stronger, because they shed light on the history of women, too. In the field of medieval art there has been a hunt to find traces of individual artists. Some works of art still bear their names, but others remain anonymous.

Cover Autographa I.2

Medieval law, too, can seem not only a very masculine, but also a very impersonal affair. However, juridical glosses from the twelfth century in the manuscripts with the main texts of Roman and canon law are sometimes signed with an abbreviated form of the names of lawyers such as Azo, Jacobus Bassianus, Rogerius and Pillius. In the last decades another hunt has brought some astonishing results. Scholars have been able to identify autograph manuscripts of a surprising number of medieval lawyers. Individual scholars succeeded in connecting one or more manuscripts directly to the author of a particular juridical text. Surprisingly this is indeed possible for medieval lawyers, for many scholars not the group in medieval society you would immediately pinpoint.

On February 8, 2017 the second volume of a series of studies about medieval autograph manuscripts will be presented at the École française de Rome. This post is a small tribute to the scholars contributing to these volumes, and especially to Giovanna Murano, the courageous editor who has set an example herself in approaching legal manuscripts with new questions and sharing her wisdom and results with others. The blog Storia del Diritto medievale e moderno alerted me to the presentation of the new volume, and apart from translating the main information of their message in French I will try to provide some context for this important publication.

The hands of the masters

During the thirteenth century a system for the reproduction of medieval texts used at universities came into existence. Book shops were given controlled master copies, exemplars of these texts. Students could hire quire after quire for scribes to make copies. The pecia system – literally “piece” – was first described for theological manuscripts by Jean Destrez. Last year Frank Soetermeer died, the Dutch scholar who did research about the use of the pecia system for legal texts in Italy and France. Giovanna Murano, too published a book about the pecia system, Opere diffuse per exemplar e pecia (Turnhout 2005). Since a few decades it becomes clear that the chances for survival of original author manuscripts were relatively high. In the sixteenth century, however, printers often discarded the very manuscript(s) they had used to produce printed versions of texts.

Recognizing the handwriting of a specific author can be easy, but first you have to connect an inimitable script with him or her. The almost illegible script of Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225-1274) got nicknamed littera inintelligibilis by his contemporaries, and the mirror writing of Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century is rightly famous. Medieval lawyers signed in particular charters, acts written on parchment, or added some confirming lines in their own hand to consilia, legal consultations. The cover of the new volume shows a consilium with some of such closing lines and signatures. The interest in these consilia has helped very much to make the identification of the handwriting of medieval lawyers possible.

Perhaps the single most important step was the identification of a set of autograph manuscripts in the Vatican Library written by or produced under the direction of Baldo degli Ubaldi (1327-1400), first signalled by Giancarlo Vallone, ‘La raccolta Barberini dei “consilia” originali di Baldo’, Rivista di Storia del Diritto Italiano 62 (1989) 75-135. You can read online (PDF, 9 MB) an article by Vincenzo Colli, ‘Collezioni d’autore di Baldo degli Ubaldi nel MS Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 1398’, Ius Commune 25 (1998) 323-346. Twenty years ago Colli identified more autographs and other manuscripts close to their author for other medieval lawyers as well, for example for Guillelmus Duranti (around 1237-1296), the author of the Speculum iudiciale, a massive legal encyclopaedia, ‘L’apografo dello Speculum iudiciale di Guillaume Durand’, Ius Commune 23 (1996) 271-280 (online, PDF, 3 MB), and together with Giovanna Murano ‘Un codice d’autore con autografi di Giovanni d’Andrea (ms. Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, S.II. 3)’, Ius Commune 24 (1997) 1-23 (online, PDF, 9 MB).

In the second volume of the series on medieval autograph manuscripts [Autographa I.2: Giuristi, giudici e notai (sec. XII-XV)Giovanna Murano (ed.) (Imola 2016)] you will find some eighty images of medieval manuscripts, and very often you will see a medieval consilium and a manuscript of a particular work as evidence for the identification of an author’s hand. Apart from lawyers who published legal works the team looks also at medieval judges (giudici) and notaries (notai). For the second volume twelve scholars have identified 49 authors and consulted more than one thousand manuscripts in more than two hundred libraries. The new volumes contains eighty photographs.

Giovanna Murano contributed an article about the autograph of Antonio de Roselli’s Monarchia for the second volume of the Festschrift for Mario Ascheri, Honos alit artes. Studi per il settantesimo compleanno di Mario AscheriPaola Maffei and Gian Maria Varanini (eds.) (4 vol., 2014), a publication briefly mentioned here, too, available in print and online. In the first volume a whole section is dedicated to articles concerning medieval legal consilia. Murano provides a must-read on this genre with her article ‘I consilia giuridici dalla tradizione manoscritta alla stampa’, Reti medievali. Rivista 15/1 (2014) 1-37. She offers an uptodate illustrated introduction to this medieval genre. It gives you an example of her rigorous thinking and dense argumentation. At every turn Murano makes you think and reconsider matters you had not thought about for a long time or simply not carefully enough. In a similar article she gives a status questionum for the study of the Decretum Gratiani, the great treatise for medieval canon law from the early twelfth century [‘Graziano e il Decretum nel secolo XII’, Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune 26 (2015) 61-139; online].

The first volume of the series Autographa appeared in 2012. In my view both volumes can serve also as a palaeographical atlas for anyone studying the learned law, i.e. the medieval – and Early Modern – use of Roman and canon law. Instead of hunting digitized manuscripts on your computer screen or tablet you might want to sit down and study the variety of handwriting offered by Murano and her international team. The books can be used indeed as a fine guide to medieval legal manuscripts. However, maybe it is simple the urge to come as closely as possible to the hands of the great magistri of Italian and French medieval universities that makes you want to have these books within your reach. The names of medieval lawyers change here from glorious but inevitable dead names into living persons, not just as law professors producing a theoretical frameworks for judges, advisors and officials all over Europe, but at work themselves, counseling parties or pronouncing judgment on cases which show law in action. These manuscripts and archival records offer a splendid window to medieval life and society. My warmest congratulations to Giovanna Murano and the scholars participating in this great project! It deserves your attention by all means.

Digging up cold cases, a useful metaphor

The start of the Cold cases exhibit in Museum Flehite, AmersfoortA few weeks ago I visited an exhibition with a title which I had associated first of all with law and justice, Cold Cases Amersfoort at Museum Flehite in Amersfoort. Even its subtitle Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingen [Old skeletons, new discoveries] did not turn me away from making the short journey by train from Utrecht to the lovely small city of Amersfoort. The exhibition was certainly not exactly what I had in mind, but in fact the very difference between my expectations and the actual exhibition made me think. While walking in beautiful old Amersfoort and visiting two other historic locations it seemed these three locations each bring their own perspective. In a way this post is about some of the metaphors we often use almost without noticing them. In the light of a sunny Saturday afternoon they became visible again.

An archaeological approach
Logo Museum Flehite

Cold cases, these words worked for me like a trigger. You might associate it first with reconstructing and analyzing cases, but here archaeologists worked with some five hundred human skeletons, a reminder that however abstract analysis can become you meet here the physical remains of people who walked on the surface of the earth, just as we do now. These skeletons were found during the excavations of cemeteries on four locations, some of them attached to monasteries. Some excavations took place a few decades ago, but with new technical equipment the skeletons can now be studied in far greater depth than a generation ago. Think only about the way tiny fragments containing DNA can now be analysed in a way simply impossible twenty years ago. In this respect the title Cold cases is certainly aptly chosen.

Harm and violenceIn this exhibition you do not just have complete and incomplete skeletons. There is general information, there are showcases about individuals whose skeleton in some way can tell us vital information about their life. There is for example attention for the way you can determine gender and age, or detect traces of diseases. Some skeletons, in particular skulls, show the signs of accidents or violence, others are marked by the deadly effects of a disease. Syphilis came to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and its harmful presence is clearly visible once you know the tell-tale symptoms.

Reconstructing a girlPerhaps the most telling part of the exhibition is the room showing the reconstruction of the face of a young girl. She has received the nickname “The Girl with the Ear Clamp” because of the iron clamp used for head caps found in her grave. A lot of techniques and skills are necessary to reach the final result, a startling lifelike face. In order to bring especially young visitors closer to the work done to achieve such results part of the exhibition is a kind of study room with a laboratory. Every Wednesday an archaeologist can give you more explanations about the exhibition and the way archaeologists can now approach human remains. On other days a story-teller takes you back to late medieval Amersfoort, and on Sunday afternoons you can meet the challenge to reconstruct yourself a skeleton.

Food for thought

When I left a bit earlier than expected the exhibition at Museum Flehite I had enough time to visit two other historic locations. I went first to a museum housed in the remaining buildings of an Early Modern hospital, the Sint Pieters en Bloklandsgasthuis at the Westsingel. In fact it is the only still existing one of its kind in my country. The chapel built around 1500 and the men’s hall from 1536 have survived the centuries. On weekdays visitor can meet actors dressed as inhabitants who re-enact some inhabitants in the year 1907, just before the removal to new premises at Achter Davidshof. The choice to play out this situation with as its surroundings the situation of the nineteenth century might seem startling, but it would indeed be more difficult to stage people from the sixteenth century. The actors tell the visitors they do not yet know the new place and that they are excited and anxious about their new housing. Instead of telling in ample detail about their daily life, as indicated in an ordinance you can read in the main hall, they prefigure almost the way a historian approaches the past. You do not know what is around the corner of what someone will day or do in a few moments, unless a lifetime of patient attention, study and reflection over the years has taught you something fundamental about people living in particular times and circumstances.

My third visit on this afternoon in August was to the Mondriaanhuis, a museum documenting the life and works of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), a pioneer of modern art, often associated with the De Stijl [The Style] group whose members favoured cubic forms and sparse use of colors. The museum is located in the very house where Mondrian was born. On the first floor there is a faithful reconstruction of his humble apartment and atelier on the attic of a Parisian house. Even the background noises and fragments of songs from the roaring twenties add to the atmosphere, as if the painter could walk in here any moment. Apart from documenting the life and works of Mondriaan this museum has also space for exhibitions that show his impact on contemporary art. To be honest, the Mondriaanhuis does have only a few works by Mondriaan himself in its holdings. I use the Dutch spelling Mondriaan on purpose!

Looking at the different approaches in these three museums is certainly interesting. At Museum Flehite there is much attention for the how of a reconstruction. At the old hospital there is a sharp contrast between the seemingly timeless space and the expectations of the last inhabitants about their new home. In the Mondriaanhuis the reconstruction of the attic in Paris evokes almost to perfection the surroundings of an artist in the world capital of art. Every approach has its values and shortcomings. I bring these museums together fully aware they cannot be compared completely at the same level, but any comparison goes faulty. We use metaphors from all kind of spheres of life together, often without noticing the funny effect of for example naval terms side by side with agricultural words.

Has archaeology any uses for legal historians? I was hoping this question would show up here sooner or later. When reviewing in my mind the three museums at Amersfoort I would say that any discipline can be important, either on its own or more as a kind of handmaiden in the role of an auxiliary science. At Bordeaux a symposium will be held on February 8-10, 2017 concerning the theme (Re)lecture archéologique de la justice en Europe médiévale et moderne, “An archaeological (re-)reading of justice in medieval and Early Modern Europe”. There will be three main sections, one focusing on justice and space, another on justice and the body, and the third on objects associated with justice. The way archaeological approaches and methods used more commonly by legal historians can interact with each other will be explicitly addressed. The deadline of the call for papers is September 15, 2016. If you think you can convince scholars to use with great benefit the ways archaeologists approach the past, or make inversely them aware of the particular and fruitful ways legal historians work, you are most welcome. Hopefully this post helps you to consider the role of archaeology for legal history, not to solve just one cold case, but to gain perspectives on cases that might be closer connected than you can see at the surface.

Cold cases. Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingenMuseum Flehite, Amersfoort – June 19 to September 25, 2016