Category Archives: Now working on…

New Thinking on the Medieval Frontier: Call for Papers, IMC 2015

Perhaps there is a certain ridiculousness in soliciting papers for the 2015 International Medieval Congress in Leeds on a blog that has only just managed to start reporting on the 2013 one. If it helps, I meant to try something like this last year but the supporting collaboration fell apart, so even this is backlogged… anyway. You will have seen from some of the recent posts here that I and others have been getting increasingly bothered by how we as medievalists don’t seem to have thought very hard about what frontiers are and do for quite a while: now I want to start showing that we can. Consequently, I’m organising sessions for next year about it and here’s the CFP:

New Thinking on the Medieval Frontier: Call for Papers

Medieval studies since the 1970s have seen many conferences and essay volumes on frontiers and borders, but medievalists’ answers to what these were or how they worked are still framed in anachronistic and outdated terms borrowed from obsolescing works on other periods. We deal in terms of zone versus line or open versus closed that fail to conjure or explain the complexity of a medieval borderland. In 2002 Ronnie Ellenblum wrote of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem:

“Every person knew what the border of his property was and what belonged to his neighbour. But such a property could have been divided between two or more rulers. The owner of the property knew to whom he was obliged to pay taxes and offer gifts on religious holidays, who would try him if he committed a heinous offence and who would try him if he committed a lesser offence. In the event of war, he usually knew where danger lay and on whose side he should be… But all these spheres did not necessarily overlap.”

What theory of the frontier does this not break? The inapplicability of modern categories here shows that medievalists are well-placed to raise and answer new questions about how to define a society and its limits. I invite you to lead this trend by offering a paper for sessions at the 2015 International Medieval Conference on any aspect or concept of the medieval frontier. Can we define frontiers? Can we characterise them or say how they could be identified? If not, what can we do about that? Participants will be encouraged to respond to others’ papers and engage in comparison, so submissions about shared rather than unique characteristics of societies will be most welcome. If interested, please contact Jonathan Jarrett at j.jarrett@bham.ac.uk or http://barber.academia.edu/JonathanJarrett/ with a prospective title and summary abstract.

Seminar CLXXXII: the return (and beginning) of the intermittent monks of Sant Benet de Bages

I find myself, with some relief, advancing into June 2013 with my seminar report backlog, because on the 5th of that month I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford and I was in fact there as the speaker, with the title “Two men and a monastery: clerical involvements in Manresa before 1000″. This was the first piece of work coming out of what then seemed like my new project, and since I am still trying to work out what to do with its findings, it may be worth explaining here what I thought I was doing.

View of the modern Manresa city cenre from the air

Modern Manresa somewhat drowns out its medieval components, but they’re there, even if not of the tenth century.

At a late stage of my Ph. D. research, when I started having access to the volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia covering Osona and Manresa and thus basically to more than five documents covering Manresa at all, I noticed that there seemed to have been an awful lot of priests around the town, and that at least some of them seemed to write transaction charters involving land in many places around it, which suggested to me that they were in fact working in the town for anyone who wanted a charter written. At that point, all I could really do was bookmark this thought for future reference, but when I started to meet Wendy Davies’s and Carine van Rhijn’s and others’ new work on identifying and characterising the early medieval rural priesthood, I began to think that the Manresa stuff was the contribution I could make to such an endeavour and so when I shook off the slough of 2012 and tried to start doing something new, that’s what I did.1

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikimedia Commons

Armed then with my own copy of Catalunya Carolíngia IV at last, I started pulling together the relevant documentation and the first thing that became very clear was that almost all of it came originally from the monastery of Sant Benet de Bages. That presented two problems: firstly, it probably meant that where the monastery didn’t eventually get property I had no information (and this was what the third paper out of the project came to be about) and secondly, because Sant Benet itself had priests on staff, I needed to be sure that I was able to distinguish them from priests actually based in the city. And as you have already heard complications arose with that very quickly that made this hard-to-impossible to resolve without access to the original documents, which even at this late stage (and still now) I had not been able to persuade the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, where they now largely reside, to give me. So this paper was largely about trying to deal with this complication.

Santa Maria de Montserrat

An effective set of defences: Santa Maria de Montserrat

I had started by focusing on two particular men whose names I kept seeing in the documents, Baldemar and Badeleu, and they turned out to have oddly parallel career trajectories that both told me a lot about the situation I was looking at. Baldemar seems to have been the better-connected of the two; he first turns up in Balsareny to the north of Manresa, where he had family property, as a deacon in 961. He was at both the endowment, in 966, and the consecration, in 972, of the then-new monastery of Sant Benet, wrote a lot of documents for them during the 970s and steadily acquired property in two areas near the house (as well as from Count-Marquis Borrell II once); it’s not a complete surprise when in his penultimate appearance in 985 he signs as a monk, and in the ultimate one, a strange kind of Gesta abbatum-type charter from 1002, he is explicitly named among the congregation of Sant Benet. So we have a well-connected local priest who had long dealings with the monastery, probably knew the monks well and eventually joined them to live the life contemplative till his surprisingly late death (given he must have been at least 76 at his last appearance).2 This one is fairly easy to understand, although it is worth noting that we have no record of him ever having given any property to the monastery.

Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096, bearing Baldemar's signature in the middle of the witness list

Baldemar is one of the few of these guys whose signature I do have, in pretty much the middle of the penultimate line of this charter, which is Biblioteca de Catalunya, pergamins 3096.

Badeleu is a bit less obvious. We see him as a cleric in 952 then as a priest in 961, in fact writing a sale of Baldemar’s to the founder of Sant Benet, the vicar Sal·la. Thereafter he appears about as much as scribe as anything else, often for property transfers very close to Sant Benet at Montpeità, and himself bought up quite a lot of land in two Manresa settlements called Vilapicina and la Celada, this going on till 995. In 982, apparently in fear of death, he made a big donation to Sant Benet, but reserved the property till he died, a wise move as it turned out. But he also bought land from Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, who was at this point insisting he was Archbishop of Tarragona and wasn’t entirely an establishment figure, and Badeleu also appeared as witness against Sant Benet de Bages in a court case of 1000. Despite that he also entered the monastery the next year, with a compensatory gift made to a son who doesn’t appear mentioned in any of his other documents, and appears among the monks—but still only as priest—in Baldemar’s final document, and probably his own, in 1002.3 Again it seems clear he would have known the monks for a long time but it’s less clear that he was probably always going to join them.

View of Sant Benet de Bages

Another view of Sant Benet. «Sant Benet de Bages – General» per Josep Renalias – Lohen11Treball propi. Disponible sota la llicència CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This got me looking harder at the rest of the monks, because both of these two suggested in their different ways that one could have been a member of Sant Benet in some sense without fully becoming a monk. And that is where the whole question of intermittent monks discussed in a post of last year came up: I’m not sure any of the first monks of Sant Benet actually consistently operated as such in their documents. They all seem to have continued to buy and hold property outside common and often to have written many non-monastic documents. I think, therefore, that the general conclusion of this paper was not about Manresa but about Sant Benet: just because the vicar Sal·la had founded the place, given it lands and so forth in 966, and even though his children then got its church consecrated in 972 did not make it a going monastery.4 Its monks took a long time to turn up. The first ones seem to do so in 979, but even then they seem to have kept their day jobs, being largely people like Baldemar and Badeleu who had important community rôles they presumably didn’t want to leave behind. This is not the stereotype of monastic foundation in this area, a stereotype which crazy Abbot Cesari had actually lived, of first getting your monks together then moving into the wasteland and building your new home yourself as soon as you had a gift of land on which to do it.5 Nonetheless, this one seems more understandable to me, building and building and not quite being sure whether it was time finally to leave the world or if there was still work to be done in it. But the result is that although I can probably identify 25 people who became monks of Sant Benet from my documents, I’m not sure whether they can or should therefore be excluded from the pool of priests working in or out of Manresa in the pastoral clergy!


1 The first of Wendy’s contributions on this score is now out, I believe, it being W. Davies, “Local priests and the writing of charters in northern Iberia in the tenth century” in Julio Escalona & H. Sirantoine (edd.), Documentos y cartularios como instrumentos de poder. España y el occidente cristiano (ss. viii–xii) (Toulouse 2014), pp. 29-43; Carine’s have already produced at least A. C. van Rhijn, “Priests and the Carolingian reforms: the bottle-necks of local correctio” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel & Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 219-237, but I believe that there is an actual volume of essays in process too.

2. His appearances are Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 881, 975, 977, 985, 995B, 997, 1006, 1014, 1032, 1043, 1057, 1059, 1108, 1114, 1115, 1139, 1143, 1154, 1158, 1160, 1165, 1171, 1187, 1193, 1224, 1225, 1236, 1279, 1280, 1281, 1305, 1316, 1320, 1348, 1405 & 1489 & Jaime Villanueva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo VII: viage a la iglesia de Vique. Año 1806 (Valencia 1821), ap. XIII.

3. Badeleu appears in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 692, 881, 884, 939, 1021, 1109, 1156, 1164, 1181, 1183, 1223, 1225, 1267, 1270, 1278, 1286, 1297, 1299, 1335, 1346, 1360, 1401, 1422, 1432, 1448, 1456, 1487, 1514, 1516, 1527, 1544, 1551, 1554, 1603, 1604, 1701, 1702, 1713, 1750, 1777, 1814, 1840 & 1864 & Villanueva, Viage Literario VII, ap. XIII and at least one other document, his entry to the monastery, mentioned but not cited in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), which I don’t have to consult right now and thus can’t give a page number from, sorry, making me just as bad as them…

4. The most recent version of this story is told in Francesc Junyent i Mayou, Alexandre Mazcuñan i Boix, Albert Benet i Clarà, Joan-Andreu Adell i Gisbert, Jordi Vigué i Viñas & Xavier Barral i Altet, “Sant Benet de Bages” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XI: el Bages, ed. Antoni Pladevall (Barcelona n. d.), pp. 408-438.

5. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 543.

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. As of this week, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one


Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.

Gallery

In Marca Hispanica XXIV: still welcome in Vic

This gallery contains 11 photos.

For the second day of my flying research trip to Catalonia of last May I was back in Vic. In fact I’d been in Vic all along, and commuted into Barcelona, since I knew that I would need longer at … Continue reading

In Marca Hispanica XXII: how hard can it be to get at an actual charter?

Not all of the apparently many things I did in May of last year were in Oxford, however much it might seem that way. I actually managed to squeeze a short research trip to Catalonia in between teaching as well! Because of the short time available, this had to be very targetted, and the strategic priority was the project on priests around Manresa, bits of which have already turned up here. In May 2013 I was set to give two papers on this project in the next two months, and you may remember that while it had become clear that I was going to need access to the original documents to do it properly, so that signatures could be compared, I was not going to be able to get this out of the abbey of Montserrat, where most of Sant Benet de Bages‘s parchments have wound up. So instead, I had to try and get pictures of all the rest, or at least, all the rest where scribes about whom I was suspicious might occur. That actually seemed fairly feasible in a two-day trip, but it meant starting with this place, about which you have heard my reservations before.

Entrance to the Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón

This is of course the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Despite its outward appearance, the ACA is actually quite a nice place to work. They have all the printed editions you might require, it is quiet, there are sufficient terminals to access all the digital resources and there are quite a lot of those, largely excellent, at which you can only get on the premises. There is also lots of desk space, but I don’t know why because the one thing they won’t let you do here is look at original documents. Sit with you and work through a useless microfilm, yes, talk you through the slightly arcane file structure of the digitised documents (based on the equally arcane eighteenth-century archival one, to be fair), but fetch up an actual parchment and put it in front of you, NO. (I subsequently discovered that they do in fact have to write to Madrid for permission to do this, so it’s not something you can achieve in a day at all.1) So I knew already that an order for reproductions was as good as I was going to manage, an order that was unlikely to be fulfilled in time, but which would hopefully stand me in good stead later. And they had actually simplified the process for doing this—there were now only four steps and none of them had to be approved in Madrid!—so I ordered digital reproductions of one charter from the Cancilleria, five from the Monacals d’Hisenda from Santa Cecília de Montserrat and, with some reluctance, one hundred from the Monacals holdings for Sant Benet de Bages, which was apparently the smallest subdivision of that collection one could order. I should have figured out why, but alas…

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals d'Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals d’Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto, reduced from the much large image actually supplied to me. Here I was after Sunyer, whose signature you can probably distinguish at the bottom.

So, inevitably, these turned up way after the papers were given, but they did turn up, in an odd-shaped package that turned out to contain a CD-R and a roll of microfilm. The latter was why one could only order a hundred Sant Benet documents at once; the ACA are not, apparently, going to digitise whole microfilms for you on demand. But since I’d chosen and paid for digital images, this was extremely annoying; I was now going to have to digitise them myself, at my own expense. It damped considerably my delight at how good the digital ones they had been able to send me had been (and indeed always are, it seems). And worse was to come.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto, enhanced by me in software and shrunk for web

I’m pretty sure that on my original order form I’d ordered reels 1 & 2 from the collection (not realising that was what I was doing). The confirmation form that is part of the process however listed reels 1 & 8, and I didn’t stop to wonder why. Once I got the film onto a reader at Birmingham, however (because that’s how long this took, though on the other hand it turned out that the library here had just bought some software for digitising microfilm which they were keen to have tested) I found out: I had fifty documents from 1000 to about 1011, and then fifty more from the mid-twelfth century, all very useful I’m sure but sadly not to me. And while some of the relevant ones are like the above, unfortunately rather more are like the below:

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto, after enhancement in software

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto

Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto, likewise after enhancement. The verso image here I just couldn’t distinguish to enhance, I’m still not sure the charter’s actually in it.

I haven’t seen the like of this for a while, because I’ve forgotten what badly-developed films look like. In the room where I was doing the digitisation, which suffers from too much daylight for imaging work, as said in the caption, I couldn’t tell in a couple of cases whether there was a charter in the photograph at all. But this is the official state of access to these documents. There are also several numbers missing in the sequence and two documents photographed twice. I don’t really feel that I got my money’s worth out of this, and it doesn’t seem that ACA did when they paid for the original photography. At least this may constitute an argument that gets me access to the originals next time I try…

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

But folks, it doesn’t have to be like this, as I found even that same day (because since they wouldn’t let me actually see anything, I was done at the ACA quite quickly). So I trekked across town (photos will follow) and got myself to this place, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, which I’d never used before, and it became probably my second-favourite research library within the hour. It was no trouble at all to get a reader’s card, a five-year one even, and then it was equally unproblematic to identify and order up the five documents I wanted to see. And there they were, within half an hour, in plastic folders on my desk. And after I’d been looking for about five minutes, the desk attendant whom I’d asked about photography came back to tell me that actually these documents were all on the website, if that would make things simpler for me?

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto, shrunk for the web

The website’s lovely, too, another obvious point of comparison. The ACA has a portion of a larger state site, and the only means of electronic contact is a form that doesn’t work. The BC not only has all kinds of social media enabled but also a crowd-sourced transcription initiative.2 One could be forgiven for thinking they actually wanted people to use their collections. And it is a lovely place to sit and read, indeed, and I hope to do so more in the future. But the contrast between it and the ACA could really not be more sharply drawn!


1. The person who told me this also suggested that one would need to sacrifice a black goat under a full moon for this to achieve any actual result, but obviously I’d guessed that already. (This is sarcasm, by the way.) The more canonical strategy for Spanish archives beloved of English investigators, to wit, buying the archivist lunch until he decides you’re OK (this is not sarcasm, it’s well tried and tested), won’t work at the ACA because its staff is too large and rotates, and in any case my Castilian’s not up to it…

2. They currently have up requiring transcription an unedited, unpublished tenth- and eleventh-century charter collection from the Priorat d’Organyà, and I tell you, it is very very hard not to procrastinate with that…

Building states on the Iberian frontier, V: what lords and peasants did in Catalonia

I hope that this again delayed conclusion to the series of posts in which I try and work out my position on the importance of different agencies in frontier settlement in the early Middle Ages needn’t be as long as the last one. I’m also planning to concentrate it much more deliberately on Catalonia than the previous four, and if it talks to the Escalona and Reyes case about Castile that started me off on this it will do so more by setting up an alternative and implicitly inviting consideration than by actual address.1 That all said, its first and most important question is one to which their answer is important, which is: whom do we consider a lord in these situations? My answer, however, as usual takes a lot of words, so here’s a picture and you may if you choose pursue the text below the cut.

Miniature of an oath of homage from the Liber feudorum maior of the counts of Barcelona

At least one of these people is a lord even though one’s a lady. “Maior8” by Anonymous – http://www.mcu.es/archivos/MC/ACA/Miniaturas/miniaturas/llibre02/007.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading

I should arguably be using newer software

Let’s have another post about processes. We’ve seen here before that my ways of handling my data in software are probably more than slightly crazy: I have been trying to think about this and how to improve matters. For those of you without long memories, my primary source of historical information is charter material, which can be approached in two ways (at least): as a text, or as data in a formalised pattern. For the former, digital full-texts are the obvious searchable storage medium: the context of the form is vital for its understanding, so little less will do. Very little of my stuff is digitised: that which is is not so in any marked-up form, but in the form of PDFs of editions for the most part, courtesy of the Fundació Noguera, and there is a subsidiary debate about the best software to handle referencing such things that I’m not going to have here, though it was involved in two blog posts that resolved me to write about such things in, oh dear, November 2012.1 So it’s the latter dataset, the content of the form, that I have lately been trying to handle differently.

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Screenshot from my Catalan comital charters database

Basically, I use Microsoft Word and Access, at two levels. Those levels arise because I have come to think that it is necessary to try to separate storage and manipulation of this data from its interpretation.2 This is obviously tricky in as much as by even building a database and defining fields, you are applying structure to the data you’re going to put in it, and anyone who has done this will probably remember the moment when you hit something that wouldn’t fit your schema and had to redesign, which is to really say that your interpretation was wrong. You may also have had the experience of the bit of data that nearly fits and which you then fudge, which is basically to say that you know better than that data… Well, we can’t avoid this entirely but I try and minimise it by using as my data categories ones the ones that seem to be present in my documents, the transacting parties, the witnesses, the land that is transferred and that which is excluded, the payment, and so on, all of which are handled in distinct parts of the text. It’s not perfect, but it can done in such a way at least as to avoid judgements about whether the actor Crispió in that document is the same as one in this one. It may be perfectly obvious that it is! But for me, that bit goes in the Word files, not in the Access database. What I want my database to give me is the basis for the judgements I make outside it.

Screen capture from my notes file for Ramon Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carol&iacutengia IV: els comtats d'Osona i de Manresa, searched for `Crispi`

Screen capture of where I have made that decision, in my file for Ordeig’s Catalunya Carolíngia IV so often cited here

So, OK, I think that is defensible, but what’s not, as I’ve admitted before, is my use of Word as a kind of thought-container. It is at least electronically searchable, and when I started with these files I also thought they would be interlinkable in a way that, if I’d used hyperlinks and not DDE, they probably would have been. But as I’ve also said before, that is basically to admit that what I needed was a free-text wiki, not MS Word, and since the Access part of my data storage seems more or less to work and only really to have the problem of being Microsoft, it’s on the less structured side of things that I’ve been putting the research effort.

The first things that passed across my radar in this light were sort of general knowledge organisers. Rachel Leow, one of the people with whom I used to share Cliopatria, used to argue fervently for a tool called DevonThink, on which she managed to get a methods article published, and that started alerting me to the potential to store interrelated data of several kinds.3 I also came across a thing called AskSam myself, which seems to aim for the same kind of multi-format indexing, and since finding the various blogs of Doug Moncur have also heard a lot about Evernote, which seems like a lighter-weight version of the same idea. I didn’t ever really get round to trying these out, however, the first ones because I found them while still even making my awful old Word files with a Ph. D. to finish, but in all cases because they all seemed to aim to do in one thing what I wanted to do in two for the reasons explained above, replacing at least part of the rigorous database component as well as the baggy notes component.

So the Wiki thing continued to look good as an idea, and in Naples in 2011 I heard mention of a thing called Semantic MediaWiki which sounded like exactly what I wanted. I finally got round to trying that some time in 2013, and, oh, goodness. I knew I was in trouble when I found that the installation readme file (no manual) said straight out that these instructions assumed that I had a functioning PHP installation and webserver on my machine already. I was reading this on a Windows 2000 box already years out of support, and after half an hour spent trying to find versions of PHP that would both install on it and be compatible with the oldest available version of Semantic MediaWiki, I had a moment of clarity, in which I remembered how once upon a time, in the days of Windows 3.1 and even Windows 95, almost all software installations used to be this awful chain of dependencies but then we got better and how nowadays I was used to single-binary installation packages that leave you with a program that is ready to go, and how, actually, that wasn’t a bad thing to want.

So I gave up on Semantic MediaWiki as a bad job, at least for anyone without institutional computing resources, and started looking for much lighter-weight alternatives. I found two obvious contenders, WikidPad and Zim, and of these I probably liked Wikidpad slightly better initially, if I remember rightly largely for how it handled things-that-link-here, but Zim won out on the factor, important to me, that I could run it on both my ancient Windows 2000 desktop and my newer Windows 7 netbook, not in the same version naturally enough but in two versions which would read the same database without corrupting it or losing each others’ changes. (I now hardly use the Win2000 box, but I replaced it with a free second-hand XP one so the problem is only partly forestalled.)

Screen capture of Zim in operation on Catalan charter data from my sample

Screen capture of Zim in operation, opened on the entry for Borrell II (who else?)

In order to reach that judgement, I had entered up some basic test data, but I now decided to road-test it with a larger set, and since I wanted at that point to revisit what I think of as my Lay Archives paper, I started with one of the datasets there, that of St-Pierre de Beaulieu. That was 138 charters from a fairly confusing cartulary and I thought that if I could get something out of that that was as much use as one of my Word files would have been (and ideally more), that would show that this was worth investing time in. And because Zim readily allows you to export your stuff to HTML, and it makes really really light-weight files, you can see yourself what I came up with if you like, it’s here.4 It does do pretty much what I wanted, but it also keeps its links more or less updated automatically, generates pages on the fly where you link to them, it’s a better way of working for me and I have got to like it a lot. So, although for maximum independence I still need to convert the Access database into something freeware and non-proprietary, for now I seem to have found the software that works for what I want to do, no?

Well no, apparently not, because despite that the last two papers I’ve written have both involved rather a lot of panicky data entry into Excel, which seems like a retrograde step especially since the data now in those spreadsheets is not in a structure that can easily be dumped into either of my chosen tools (in fact, the only problem with Zim, which was also a problem with Word of course, is that automatic input isn’t really possible). How has this occurred? And what could I do about it? This is not a rhetorical question, I think I need some advice here. It’s probably easiest if I explain what these spreadsheets are doing.

Screen capture from the spreadsheet I put together to source my 2014 Leeds paper

Screen capture from the spreadsheet I put together to source my Leeds paper

The first one, in fact, is something of an extension of the Access database, and I put about sixty more doocuments into that database before getting this far. The first sheet has a count of documents by place concerned, and a bar-graph based in that data; the second has a breakdown of those documents by preservation context with supporting pie-chart; the third a breakdown of the occurrences of ecclesiastics in those documents by their title, and a pie-chart; the fourth a breakdown of those ecclesiastics’ roles in the documents, and pie-chart; the fifth a breakdown of the titles used by scribes in those documents, and pie-chart; the sixth a breakdown of appearances of ecclesiastics by the same places used in the first sheet, and bar-graph; and the last a breakdown of the frequency of appearance of individual priest as I identify them, and a plot, and by now you can pretty much guess what the paper was about.5 Now, actually, pretty much all of this information was coming out of the database: I had to get the place-names from an atlas, and determine the settlements I was including using that too, but otherwise I got this data by throwing queries at the database and entering the results into the spreadsheet.6 I just kind of feel that a proper database would be able to save me the data entry; it’s already there once! Can I not in fact design a query sophisticated enough to source a report in the form of a pie-chart showing percentage frequency of titles via a filter for null or secular values? Will Access even generate reports as pie-charts? I have never stopped to find out and I didn’t now either. But whatever I’m using probably should be able to pull charts out of my main dataset for me.

Screen capture of spreadsheet used for my 2014 Ecclesiastical History Society paper

Screen capture of a lot of data about curses from Vic

The failing that led to the second spreadsheet is quicker to identify but is maybe my biggest problem. Here we have fewer sheets: one calendaring all the documents from before 1000 from the Arxiu Episcopal de Vic, with date, identifier, type of document, first actor, first beneficiary, scribe, spiritual penalty, secular penalty and notes, and then the same information for the cartulary of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, then a sheet listing numbers of documents per year and the number of documents benefiting the Church that sources the two following charts, after which a breakdown of documents by type. This is all information that would be in my database, and again that I feel I ought to be able to extract, but the reason it’s in a spreadsheet this time is that I simply didn’t have time to input all the Vic documents I didn’t have in the database in full, so I did it this quick crappy way instead because what I really needed was the curses and their context and no more. My database design does in fact include curse information because I foresaw exactly this need! But it includes a lot else too, and I did not foresee needing that information with only three days to do the data entry… And this is also a problem with Zim, or at least, with what I want to do with Zim. One of the things I established with the test set was that a charter takes me between twenty minutes and an hour to enter up satisfactorily. When you have maybe four thousand you’d like to include, suddenly that is a second doctoral project, and a very dull one. I should have started with this format; but now that I haven’t, can I ever possibly hope to convert?

XKCD cartoon no. 927 on software standards

As so often, the problem has become one that XKCD has already encapsulated perfectly

All of this then begins to look as if the people using the big baggy eat-everything organisers may have the right idea after all; I attempted to standardise on two softwares and have enough legacy and interoperability issues that I’m actually now using four (and often converting between table formats via search-and-replace in TextPad, so five, because Excel and Access despite being parts of a suite that’s been in development for years and years still don’t read from each other in any simple way). Would it not have been better, would it maybe not still be better, to dump all of this into a single system that can read it all and then update it there? I feel as if this has to be a backwards step, and I am already some way behind, but as yet I do not see a way forward that doesn’t ultimately just involve years of rekeying… Any ideas?


1. The short version of this is that, here as elsewhere in this post, I have low-tech ways of handling this already that software solutions I’ve so far played with don’t offer me a way to replace without fundamentally redoing all the relevant data entry, not time I can justify spending. I need something that picks up things already formatted as citations and auto-loads them. I’m told EndNote will do this but I’m too cheap to try it…

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302; I don’t know where this is, I sent proofs off months ago…

3. R. Leow, “DevonThink, Digital Research, and the Paperless Dream” in Perspectives on History Vol. 50 (Washington DC 2012), online here.

4. The numerous 404s are the web versions of files I created but never actually edited. Only the Beaulieu documents in the index are actually all done. Even then, I’m afraid, anything with special characters in the filename comes out weird in the export, though it works OK inside but has to be pasted in from Character Map; the only bug I’ve found as such is that the program can’t ‘hear’ input of ASCII codes for high-bit characters any direct way.

5. J. Jarrett, “Counting Clergy: The Distribution of Priestly Presence around a 10th-Century Catalan Town”, paper presented in session ‘The Clergy in Western Europe, 700-1200, III: Local Clergy and Parish Clergy‘, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2014.

6. Without that atlas, indeed, and without the basic texts being well edited and printed, I’d be sunk generally, so let’s here note also the regular Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, and Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat de Manresa (798-993), Atles dels comtats del Catalunya carolíngia (Barcelona 2004).

7. J. Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the uses of Spiritual Sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”, paper to be presented to the Summer 2014 meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, University of Sheffield, 24th July 2014.