Category Archives: Resources

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.

Name in Lights VI

[N. B. This post is a chunk of the sticky one above, cobbled into a separate one now that its due place in my backlog has been reached.]

So, in December 2012, a short piece of mine that I mentioned here a while back emerged, a reflective piece on blogging called “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging”, which came out in Literature Compass of all places, something which becomes more comprehensible when you see that it is part of a whole special issue called E-medieval: Teaching, Research, and the Net, with numerous very familiar figures in it… It is, as ever, an honour to appear in such august company for the few who can get at the journal, which has included Brandon Hawk of Modern Medieval, where he long ago reviewed the issue, so if you can’t read the article, you can at least read that! (Full citation, though: Jonathan Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging”, Literature Compass Vol. 9 Issue 12 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991-995, DOI: 10.1111/lic3.12016.)

Name in Lights VII & Print XII

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotski & Jack Dougherty

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty

Some of the announcements I make here, despite backlog, deserve to be made while they’re still current. Such a one is this, though even it is a bit behind-hand: very shortly after my arrival in the new post described below, there emerged a volume edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty called Writing History in the Digital Age. This volume has had an interesting history, because it’s very largely been written and edited in public view online here. They solicited some contributions, got given others, had a couple of dedicated reviewers go through them but also let the authors see each others’ work (for once! why is this not done more often, and why does it make so little difference normally when it is?) and accepted comments from the open web too. These were surprisingly useful, and I know because I’m in it, and as I’ve recounted before wound up as a result in a collaboration I had never expected with a co-author I may never meet. In any case: the results are out, and because it’s in the University of Michigan Press’s digitalculturebooks imprint that means you can read it for free on the web here. Oddly, the title page names no authors, so you would have to be told that my/our piece is near the bottom, entitled, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy”. This may be a direct link to that essay, which is an oddly difficult thing to do. I suppose they would like you to buy the print version, which I believe exists and of which I am hoping some day to receive one.1 In the meantime, though, as well as our piece I would especially recommend the several pieces on teaching with Wikipedia, something many of us may have thought of doing but fewer met the complications and teaching points involved in trying. The whole thing’s pretty good, though, and well worth some browsing time I think. I humbly recommend it to the readership…

Boring statistics: three drafts of my original version, still visible here, and three of the combined one but thrashed out in only two fairly frantic days in 2012; submission of final text to appearance, 1 year 8 months, not bad by the standards of the Academy alas. I still think it’s worth noting these things, because especially when you’re writing about the Internet, as I know all too well, content dates fast. I hope we’re still more or less of relevance, though.


1. Yes, there is still apparently a market for print works about the Internet. Have fun typing in those URLs… Full citation: Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Writing History in the Digital Age, edd. Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty, digitalculturebooks (Detroit 2013), pp. 246-258, doi:10.3998/dh.12230987.0001.001.

Seminars CXLII & CXLIII : tracing text transmission by means old and new

I am back from my international appearance, and fell immediately into a nest of twisting deadlines, most of which I have now beaten and so I resume the slightly foolhardy attempt to get caught up on my seminar reports. Let’s start with 23rd May 2012 (hopefully I won’t actually get a full year behind) when Professor Jo Story spoke to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York”. This was an excellently clear and clever paper that went into the messy question of when exactly York became the second archbishopric of the English. There’s a lot of difficult detail here and Bede, our most important source for it all, was unfortunately up to his neck, it seems, in an attempt to find dubious precedent for the promotion of Bishop Egbert, recipient of that there letter, to the archiepiscopal dignity in 735. The precedent should have been Bishop Paulinus, to whom the pallium that marks the archiepiscopal dignity out from a more usual metropolitan bishop’s was sent by the Pope Honorius I of Professor Story’s title in 634. Unfortunately, by then he had been kicked out of his see at York and his patron king Edwin murdered by King Penda of Mercia, so the precedent is not what you would call ideal. The question then arises what was going on in 735, and here the fact that the new archbishop of Canterbury, Nothelm, had earlier also been responsible for much of the archival research in Rome on which Bede relied, and which would have presumably turned up the relevant papal letters, was probably significant. Also significant, as Alan Thacker pointed out in questions, is that Nothelm may have been from Mercia, to which Roy Flechner then joined the fact that initially, of course, the southern metropolitan was supposed to be based at now-Mercian London, not Kentish Canterbury… There’s room for quite a lot of shifting of ground here and Professor Story certainly gave us good reason to suppose that Bede’s sheet isn’t quite as clean of misrepresentation as once used to be thought. I won’t say more for the very good reason that the paper is now published in English Historical Review so you may be able to see the argument for yourself, but it was fun to hear in advance.1

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

A close-to-contemporary manuscript image of Hraban Maur, he being the young one (from Wikimedia Commons)

Then a week later there was a paper that I was sure Magistra had covered but in fact I can’t see that she has, so I better had. This was Dr Clare Woods of Duke University speaking with the title, “Ninth-Century Networks: books, (gifts), scholarly exchange”. This was a very interesting report on an ongoing attempt to turn network analysis to the service of the study of transmission of manuscripts, specifically manuscripts of the sermons of Hraban Maur, Abbot of Fulda. We do already sort of do this via stemma diagrams, which are a kind of network, but this doesn’t tell us what manuscripts were being used for, if at all, what they are copied with, where they physically are, where they were actually made, and so on, and Dr Woods was interested in seeing just how much of that one could represent and network. The paper was thus a kind of walk-through of methods she’d tried, starting with the most basic (sticking them all on Google Maps with different colour pointers like this), which opens up possibilities of comparison between works and might tell us about where a master’s pupils wound up, moving through putting routes to manuscript movements using tools like Stanford University’s marvellous ORBIS, because after all these things moved with people and those people must have taken routes, and so on. From this kind of location-centric, rather than author-centric or text-centric, networking, we get some idea of what areas were interested in an author’s work, where he was big news and where he was no news, and perhaps some hints of the people to whom he was news. The next step would be GIS, and there is the problem looming that many people who use GIS have found, that in an effort to find the most relevant factor one winds up mapping so much that nothing is distinguishable from it… There are methods to deal with this, though, and we can hope for some interesting things from Dr Woods’s work if I’m any judge.

One interesting question that came up was how to publish this kind of work. If you look at the example above, one of Matt Gabriele’s coming out of the background work on his book on the legend of Charlemagne, you see the beginnings of the problem, which is that the data is dynamic. Lots of what we were being shown in this paper was animated, extra spots appearing on a map, ideally things being added or taken away according to the presenter’s whim. With Matt’s test diagram you could just about publish it as a series of maps to compare with each other, but for something like Dr Woods was doing you’d rapidly head towards a paper that was forty or fifty slides and almost no descriptive text between them apart from a bewildering set of cross-references. The obvious form would seem to be an interactive website but as Dr Woods observed, we have yet to work out how to count such things as peer-reviewed publication (though getting interested and qualified people to spend an hour playing with it would be easy enough, you’d think…). I gamely suggested electronic journal publication with an embedded Flash game, but though I’d love to see it (and I bet somewhere like The Heroic Age would love to host it) I still suspect it’ll be a while before it’s the new form… Wendy Davies raised worries about a species of the Grierson Objection, whether books moving as gifts were behaving the same as books moving as goods, but as Susan Reynolds pointed out, one would only be able to distinguish these cases by first of all mapping the survival, so… Another problem raised by Alice Rio was that the manuscripts might not be moving permanently, but just long enough to be copied; we see that possibility in the letters of Lupus of Ferrières, for example, though with him we mainly see it in theory as Lupus protests that he is going to send the book back, just, like Augustine and chastity, not yet.2 Thus this wound up being one of those best but frightening of IHR Seminars, where the assembled great and good of the field are so piqued with interest by your project that they start trying to work out how they would have done it. I’m not sure how it feels to be the speaker in those circumstances but it’s always slightly awe-striking to see a lot of very agile brains all focused on a single objective for a while like that. Papers and discussions like this are why I always think it worth going, basically…


1. J. Story, “Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York” in English Historical Review Vol. 127 (Oxford 2012), pp. 783-818.

2. The standard translation of his letters, Graydon Regenos (trans.), The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (The Hague 1966) is not the easiest book in the world to get hold of, but if you can, you’ll see it is a bit of a theme…

Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England

I’m sorry, did I say ‘the next week‘? Apparently I meant ‘the next month’. Wow, that’s never happened to the blog before, I do apologise. I have, for what it’s worth, been trying to secure the short-term future of my sanity and balance by actually seeing some bands, the medium-term future of history at my college by marking admissions tests and the long-term future of your humble blogger by offering myself as employee to people, and of course if anything comes of that you will hear in due course. But in the meantime, this is the only evening at home I shall have for a while even now so I should put some blog up, and that blog should be seminar reports. Given how immensely behind I am with these, I will skip one that I’ve no useful expertise with, Robert Hoyland speaking to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research on 7th March 2012 to the title, “Theophilus of Edessa and the Historiography of the 7th-8th-Century Near East”—sorry, Byzantinists and early Islamists—because although it had certain detective elements to it as Professor Hoyland was on the trail of a lost source, I knew almost none of the names involved and don’t read any of the languages and I have no means of evaluating how significant what he was saying was. Cool stemma diagram though! If you’re eager to know more I can revisit it, but otherwise I’ll move on to stuff I do have opinions about, those being my erstwhile colleague Emma Cavell, addressing the Late Medieval Seminar at the I. H. R. on the 9th March with the title, “Did Women Cause The Fall of Native Wales?” and Stephen Baxter, Chris Lewis and Duncan Probert addressing the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there on the 14th March with the title, “Profile of a Doomed Élite: the structure of English landed society in 1066″.

View of Clun Castle

Clun Castle: capital of intrigue circa 1281!

Emma’s area of expertise is the March of Wales in the time of the Norman kings of England, and the Marcher lords who made their fortunes there, and even more specifically, the women in the Marcher lords’ families.1 What she had for us on this occasion was that, while becoming yet more expert on these people, she’d come across a number of letters to such women, Maud de Braose wife of Roger Mortimer (the first one) particularly, from local lords on the other side of the frontier, and what these letters were reporting was nothing less than military intelligence about the composition and motions of the army of Prince Llewellyn of Wales. This comes from a time in 1281 when Roger was out on campaign on that frontier because Llewellyn had just fortified it. Maud, meanwhile, was at Clun Castle and apparently running the command post, this information presumably going back out to Roger and the lords getting information back and so on. Unlike my period, we only have the letters in here, whereas I’m more used to having letters out, but nonetheless there she was at the centre of a fifth-column spy ring and she wasn’t the only one; Howys leStrange (good name madam!) is apparently reported commanding the defence of Welshpool when Llewellyn attacked, and the text that tells us this also tells us that while she was doing that she took care to hide all the documents in the castle. Yeah, I’ll bet! That is a relatively rare mention of such activity in the chronicles of the time, but the letters make it clear that there is more to tell. Emma has been working this up since, including details of a juicy family conspiracy between these groups, and I believe it’s now in some kind of print process, so you may be able to find out more soon!

Now, I thought this was pretty exciting myself, spies, spymistresses, treacherous compacts made on battlefields between mutually-cautious relatives and the last-but-one flash of Welsh independence briefly burning bright in the pan, but Emma got quite a grilling from Judith Bennett, no less, about the role her title had given the women and whether it was fair, and whether this evidence told us anything the Paston Letters don’t, and various others likewise sang up saying such behaviour wasn’t unusual in their area. I’ve had these questions (the ‘it’s not unusual’ sort) myself and I’m never sure what they’re supposed to achieve other than perhaps to imply that the questioner’s area of expertise is somehow more developed than the speaker’s.2 Well, great, but the paper isn’t about that area, so, can we talk about what was actually said perhaps? Anyway, you will see from my description that I thought it was good stuff and maybe you also think it sounds like that too.

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

The manuscript of Greater Domesday

Then the next week I was back in the same building to hear about a different native population being subjugated by the Norman yoke (MAYBE), slightly earlier, as Stephen Baxter and his team told us about the first results from the Profile of a Doomed Elite project that he is running at King’s College London. What they are trying to do is to properly, scientifically, electronically and most of all accurately count, identify, locate and describe the landholders of England in 1066 and work out what had happened to them in 1086 via the magic window of Domesday Book. This has, of course, been attempted before, but never so thoroughly, and in work that Stephen described as “riddled with mistakes” and “methodologically flawed”.3 There is a lot to do here, and it’s not easy: starting estimates are 27,000 pieces of property assigned to 1200 different personal names, only a very few of whom have titles and very many of whom might therefore be people with the same names. I am very familiar with that problem, as of course are they from the PASE Domesday project that Stephen also ran, and the digital solutions they were working out here were consequently of a lot of interest to me.4 They involve combining maps and tables of data, frequencies of names, their predecessors on the estates, their wealth and using all this stuff to arrive, not at solid identifications, but at confidence measures for possible identifications. I like this a lot because it avoids the two common problems with prosopographical databases where identification is uncertain, of either the database format forcing the user to decide where someone belongs before they have the full picture of the database completed, thus not actually allowing that database to help with the identification, or else that format not giving a way of assessing or making links at all, so that the identification always has to be done real-time by eye, and therefore not necessarily with consistency.5 Better still, it does not resolve this problem by having the computer do black-box identifications whose basis isn’t flexible. When our data is as variable as the Domesday data, pretending that we won’t sometimes get garbage out when we put it in is just unrealistic. This solution lets one measure how garbagey each result is, and as Stephen explained it’s solid enough to start doing statistics with, because adequate statistical methods can factor in things like confidence and make them part of the measurements. This should allow them to ask questions like: how long is the tail of small free independent English landholders left after the big guys whom we know lose out? how much of English wealth is actually peasant-held? How does the Church compare, how do women do compared to men? (A preliminary take at that last from 1066 suggests, apparently, that ninety per cent of lay wealth then was held by men and half the rest by Queen Edith! Lucky her?)

After Stephen had talked us through that in taut and dynamic style, Duncan and Chris filled in some texture. Duncan talked about the greater accuracy of micro-studies in this method because of small landholders pretty certainly not holding anywhere else so we see all their stuff; but most of a nation’s worth of micro-studies and a big enough computer of course equals one very detailed macro-study, so it will all add up. Chris, on the other hand, focused on the big identifiable people, not least Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury, who now emerges as the third largest landholder in England tempus rex Eadwardi (I presume after Earl Harold and the king?), and actually least, weirdly, Harold’s sister Gunnhild, although she was a professed nun apparently living on her own estates; nonetheless, they were only 30 hides, which makes her the smallest landholder the team can place in a secure family connection. Chris also showed us Danes settled in Wessex (described as such), mixed-name families, northern king’s thegns taking service with Norman earls and many other possibilities. I’m sure some of these have been spotted before, probably largely by Ann Williams, but of course they’re going to catch all that are reasonably catchable through this project and there seems no question that that will give them new things to say about how Normans became Anglo-Normans, how English dealt with or were dealt with by Normans and how that varied from place to place. There were questions, all the same, including a marvellously Heisenbergian one by Susan Reynolds pointing out that since the king’s commissioners themselves didn’t know the answers they were soliciting from the jurors at the inquests that made up the Domesday data, the enquiry was itself presumably changing the data; but, there wasn’t anything that the team didn’t have some means of testing for and trapping via the statistical analyses. It can’t be rock-solid accurate, of course, it just can’t, because of factors like Susan’s but also because of the variable data quality and so on, and also of course because of the large chunks of England not included in Domesday Book, but it might be as close as we can get…


1. For example the widows, as studied in Emma Cavell, “Aristocratic widows and the medieval Welsh frontier: The Shropshire evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 57-82.

2. One would like, generously, to suppose that it was to offer scope for Tom Jones filks, but if so no-one grasped that nettle.

3. I guess that by this was implied Robin Fleming’s Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991), not least because esteemed commentator Levi warned us some time ago that Stephen makes criticisms of this work in his The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2007) but I don’t know if Stephen would also have meant Ann Williams’s The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge 1995).

4. Cf. Chris Lewis, “Joining the Dots: a methodology for identifying the English in Domesday Book” in Katherine Keats-Rohan (ed.), Family Trees and the Roots of Politics. The prosopography of Britain and France from the tenth to the twelfth century (Woodbridge 1997), pp. 69-87; Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), p. 19.

5. I have actually spoken in public about this, at the Digital Diplomatics conference in Naples that I blogged some time ago, and my paper there, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” is, I believe, still under review for possible publication at this time, though it’s possible that it’s in press and no-one’s told me. Now I’ve said this, proofs will probably arrive in my INBOX just as I head out of town this week…

Gallery

I’ll just draw it for you

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Sometimes I have no better excuse for a post than, “I found a shiny thing”, and this is definitely one of those. If I have a wider point, though, it lies in the way that the ongoing digitization of historical … Continue reading

Conferring in Naples, IV and final: clarity, confusion, coffee and photos

The delay in posting is kind of past apology so for once I won’t bother and will just crack on. Despite the sociability of the previous evening, mentioned two posts ago, I was back in the ring on the morning of Saturday 1st October 2011, although it did take me slightly longer to get there because for its final day the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference was in this unassuming little building…

Castel Nuovo, Naples

Castel Nuovo, Naples

And there’ll be more photos of that towards the end of the post, but for now let me just stick with the conference chamber…

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria

… and the view from it…

View from the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

View from the conference room

… all of which made it quite surprising, in some ways, that any of our attentions were directed inside. This was perhaps especially an issue because we started half an hour late for various reasons and then Dr Renata De Lorenzo spoke for ten unscheduled minutes about the hosting body, sending things still further off schedule, but we rallied. And there were good reasons for doing so; the sessions unrolled as follows, with links to abstracts under the titles as before.

Digital Research

  • Michael Hänchen, “Die Erschließung, Formalisierung und Auswertungsmöglichkeit digitaler Urkundencorpora mittels einer Datenbank”, was a start-to-finish summary in masterly order of a digitisation project using the documents of two particular monasteries, Aldersbach and Fürstenzell. What I liked about this was the clearly-theorised approach: somehow in twenty minutes Herr Hänchen managed to explain exactly why they’d built things the way they had, and you could easily use his slides as a how-to for your own monastic archive. What I was less keen on was the expression of trends from a relatively tiny sample, percentages from 38 and 22 documents, and although some of the things he was finding were interesting, with that kind of sample it’s very hard to say if the peaks and troughs of the evidence’s distribution actually show anything.
  • Martin Roland, “Illuminierte Urkunden im digitalen Zeitalter – Mapregeln und Chancen”, was unusual in this company in being an art-historical paper about the relatively few but spectacular illuminated charters from Central Europe, comparisons between which have now become usefully possible because of digitization, but only just, because these are so diverse and so widely-spread that their mark-up varies considerably, meaning that the digitization has in some cases hidden like from like. This demands, felt Dr Roland, a classification endeavour to bring things more properly together. I want to note that he was the only presenter who used a handout as well as slides, which says something either for the digitalization of the conference or else for his determination to stick with traditional methods alongside new ones. His slides, however, were absolutely the best of the conference, so do have a look.
  • Anaïs Wion, “Éditer vs. analyser? L’exemple du projet Ethiopian Manuscript Archives”, took us much further afield than most of other other papers; she has been working with, or sometimes apparently at odds with, the Ethiopian government to digitise the numerous community archives that exist in the country. Much of this material is medieval, running from fourth to twelfth centuries, and the bulk of that is royal, but it has not been studied because those times and cultures are very far away from any modern Ethiopian political consciousness, but some of it is more modern and even some of the historical stuff exists only in oral form, as traditions supposedly handed down, which takes some fitting into a diplomatic schema! Digitization seems the obvious answer because the corpus is very dispersed, but Dr Wion raised the question of whether, once it was all transcribed, marked up and otherwise filed and sorted, it actually still needs editing? There is a question there. I would expect, in a parallel situation, that a big fat book of the country’s heritage would be a nice thing to have achieved, but whether it would be any more use than the database Dr Wion has already achieved might indeed be questioned…

There was then coffee, which by now will not surprise you, but this time the south vs. north thing described before hit really hard; the coffee was all gone before some of us had even left the conference room, and the only good thing about that at all was that it was easier to get people back in there, as long as they weren’t queueing for the single bathroom behind a staffed counter that was all that was available. I’m sure that the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria is a noble institution, and there is no doubt that their premises are medievalist heaven, but I cannot entirely recommend them as a place to hold a conference. Anyway, we continued…

  • Serena Falleta, “Dalla carta al bit. L’edizione digitale del cartulario di Santa Maria Nova di Monreale”, was one of those papers that I think had misjudged its audience, being considerably more basic in what I could pull out of the Italian than this audience really needed, which is a pity because I have been otherwise led to believe that the Monreale documentation is crazy interesting and I would have happily tried to understand more about what was in it and less about why encoding charters isn’t as simple as we might think, which let’s face it, we knew.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics”, was of course probably no better, you’d be asking the wrong guy to tell you really, but what it was supposed to do was stress that sometimes, you don’t want the computer to make the decisions or find the links, because they can only be decided subjectively, and the correct division between computerised interpretation and human interpretation is precisely on that line of what is certain and what is unprovable. This is especially true in the area of trying to find certain persons in a database, for example; when you have fifteen occurrences of people called Miró with no surname in any given sample (I exaggerate, but not by as much as I might be) it’s hard to be sure how many of them are the same guy, so what you want is for the database always to tell you those fifteen are there, and do whatever you may think valid about identifying them elsewhere; the data should not be made to tell you more than it did initially. Of course, a data schema shouldn’t allow that kind of thing anyway, but anyone who’s digitised a large corpus of information from non-digital sources will tell you that you make split-second decisions about what something is every other minute; really, we need to keep those outside so that they can if necessary be revised if we’re making databases that will ever need to be revisited, by ourselves or by others.

Contemporary Diplomatics

  • Luciana Duranti, “The Return of Diplomatics as a Forensic Discipline”, was a paper I was looking forward to because Professor Duranti was one of the few people here whose work I had already met; she has had interesting things to say about what counts as an original that I recommend to you.1 Here she was transporting some of these concepts into the digital realm, arguing most notably for a separation between the concepts of reliability, accuracy and authenticity. The latter is especially problematic in a digital sphere where all the information of a digitally-presented document may be being pulled dynamically from a database, in which there is no document per se, just a set of encoded fields which are reassembled on the fly every time a record is invoked. All of this was coming from a very different context, work in digital forensics intended to establish legal authenticity criteria for things like e-mails, database contents, etc., where it becomes vital to know if what it now says was what it said at the relevant time; perhaps not unsurprisingly, it turns out that diplomatic concepts actually make quite good tools for structuring such an enquiry…
  • Antonella Ambrosio & Maura Striano, “Insegnare la diplomatica con le nuove technologie. Uno del percorsi possibili”, I’m afraid, fell on an unreceptive audience where your blogger was concerned. This was partly shortage of caffeine, I think, and partly shortage of food, but also it was that teaching diplomatic is something that seems basically pretty unlikely from a UK perspective, and that my Italian wasn’t good enough to get what might have been relevant to my experience out of the presentation. So I’m afraid my notes for this one only say, “(Comic Sans!)”, which is not the kind of review I ought to be giving people and I apologise.

Lunch was a more equable occasion than the coffee break had been, a buffet served in the very anteroom where the coffee had been extinguished, and all extremely nice, so we settled down for the final strait more cheerfully, even though it was entitled…

Theory

  • Gunter Vasold, “Work in Progress: Editionen als multidimensionale Wissensräume”, was looking at what it means for scholarship and the way we access it that a digital project may never in fact be complete, or that it may be available before that point and then sometimes updated after it. This makes for very complex information flows (as his slides make clearer), especially if different parts of the project pull on shared information that one of them updates without reference to others. In questions I urged that it be kept in mind that old versions would need to be openly archived, or else information from such a project could never safely be cited; we already face this problem with the world-wide web but making it a feature of scholarly editions is going a bit too far in my opinion. Happily this was also the speaker’s opinion so there’s an extra technical complication to consider…
  • Manfred Thaller, “What is an Environment for Charters?”, addressed some of the higher-level questions of the process of digitisation and mark-up, related to how one gets the data out to users in such a way that they can do what they want with it rather than what one had in mind without prejudicing the accuracy and completeness of the results they get. One either reports work of this complexity in bald outline like that or basically transcribes, and I can only now do the former, but the slides and abstract may help you if you want to look into these questions further.
  • Georg Vogeler, “Conclusion”, tried to pull out the themes of the conference, not a small task given the range of papers, but he identified four headings, one of which had three subheadings: that one was the digital preservation of European charter history, within which we had discussed the choice of what to digitise and for what purpose; the respective roles of hand and machine, intuitive versus automatic processing of information; the issues about how far we should smooth data to allow similarity to be evident; and how to store our data in a lasting fashion, which as Georg said, we had not really discussed but is a real issue that deserved mention. The other headings were: sharing of data, the obvious point of all this and yet done by very few people comparatively speaking;2 the different problems of source-rich and source-poor areas, the latter breeding analytical sloppiness because unverifiable but the former inhibiting complexity because of sheer bulk of data to process; and lastly, given the new possibilities and techniques at issue here, are we really still doing diplomatic and how can we teach people the same old stuff? So the closing note was something quite like What Would Bresslau Do, and that is actually very rarely a bad question to ask in medieval studies.3 I will leave it with you.

This still left a little time to look around the castle, however, before it was necessary to head back out into the wider world, and there were a few things worth seeing therein, which I will just briefly display some of…

Once again I absolutely wasn’t taking illicit photos in a museum, naturally. I mean, someone would surely have stopped me. Besides, some views you can’t copyright.

Cruise-liners in Naples harbour with Vesuvius in background

I don't care about perspective, ships should not look bigger than buildings or obscure dormant volcanoes

It turns out that we were only in the lower castle, even once as high on it as we could easily get.

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio in Naples

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio

And finally, once fortified with gelato, back to the hotel, and then away the next morning. I think this may be the only photo I’ve ever taken from an aeroplane window that’s been any use at all so I cannot help but share it with you as a parting shot. Next post but one it’s back to London and Oxford reports at last!

View of the Italian coast from the air

View of the Italian coast from the air


1. For a start, have a look at her “Reliability and Authenticity: the concepts and their implications” in Archivaria Vol. 39 (Ottawa 1995), pp. 5-9, online at http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12063/13035, last modified 15th August 2005 as of 20th August 2008. Now, it might somewhat cruelly be said that here she was doing no more than update and publicise concepts first broached by Pierre Chaplais in, among other places, his “The Origin and Authenticity of the Royal Anglo-Saxon Diploma” in Journal of the Society of Archivists Vol. 3 (London 1965), pp. 48-61, repr. in Felicity Ranger (ed.), Prisca Munimenta: studies in archival and administrative history presented to Dr. A. E. J. Hollaender (London 1973), pp. 28-42, but the thing is, nobody else seems to know that exists and I don’t believe Professor Duranti did either, and so what this basically means is she’s as sharp as Pierre Chaplais was, which is not a small thing to say.

2. Here of course I am among the guilty: sharing my actual data would be of little use to people given how irregularly it is stored, but the format might be some use and might, in some other discipline, be publishable in itself. I want to hold onto it, however, precisely in case it becomes so…

3. For those who might not know, this is a reference to Harry Bresslau, medievalist and editor of the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, who as well as editing many many things for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and indeed writing its first history also wrote, slowly, an eventually three-volume work with a very complicated publication history, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 3 vols (Leipzig 1905-1931 and Berlin 1960; 4th edn, Berlin 1968-1969) that has become the standard textbook on diplomatic for a great many German-reading medievalists and is one of those things you go to and find out that the author already had your idea a century ago and spent three lines on it in the middle of something else he thought was more interesting….

Conferring in Naples, III: a full day’s talking

So, term started, and there was a short hiatus, for most of which this post was in draft. But, it’s actually a little hard to work out how to address the papers given at the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference briefly. I don’t want to go on at the length of the previous post, and ordinarily therefore I’d start by listing the programme, but since it, the abstracts and indeed the slideshows from the papers are all already online, it seems as if you’d already have gone there if you wanted. Still, I can’t think of another structure, and maybe the few things I want to say will spark your interest, so I’m going to use my usual one anyway, but with a cut at the halfway mark because, well, this goes on a bit.

Systems

  • Jeroen Deploige & Guy de Tré, “When Were Medieval Benefactors Generous? Time Modelling in the Development of the Database Diplomatica Belgica
  • Žarko Vujošević, “The Medieval Serbian Chancery: challenge of digital diplomatics”
  • Richard Higgins, “Cataloguing medieval charters: a repository perspective”
  • This first session had been supposed to feature Christian Emil Ore, but he had now been moved to a slot later in the program, and Mr Vujošević moved up to compensate because of a later speaker not being available as planned. The organiser were keen on keeping papers together that could talk to each other. Dr Higgins’s was however, I think, always going to be an outlier: hailing from Durham University Library, which has a charter or two, although his primary concern was as most others’ getting stuff on the web so it could be used, he was trying to do so as part of a much larger project of which very little else was charters, and much of what he said of trying to find data schemes that would do it all struck close to my old experiences. It helped explain to the more hardcore audience, I think, why libraries so rarely seem to do things with charters the way that digital diplomatists might wish. The paper by Deploige and de Tré, meanwhile showed the kind of thing that we should be able to do with large-scale diplomatic corpora—things like, for example, did people give more to the Church when they were rich and there was peace, or when the Black Death was right around the corner?—but was actually more about quite how difficult it is to digitise medieval dates into something computers can actually compare. They had the compromise of a reference date, computer-readable and therefore unhistorically precise for the most part, and a text field always displayed with it showing the range of possible dates, but this is a kludge, I know because I do it myself, it leads to sorting of documents that may be completely awry, and they had a range of improvements they were hoping to try. And Mr Vujošević, meanwhile, spoke almost as a voice in the wilderness, because although Serbian medieval charters are plentiful they are very variably edited, if at all, and much of his work had turned into battles to simply get the texts out of archives and into a single uniformly-featured database. All the speakers were therefore giving work-in-progress reports on fairly intractable technical and archival problems, but I’m not sure this was the theme the organisers had expected to emerge.

Coffee, however, restored our spirits, and I was able to swap stories as well as some useful software tips with Dr Higgins, so the sessions resumed in good order.

  • Pierluigi Feliciati, “Descrizione digitale e digitalizzazione di pergamene e sigilli nel contesto di un sistema informativo archivistico nazionale: l’esperienza del SIAS”
  • Francesca Capochiani, Chiara Leoni & Roberto Rosselli Del Turco, “Open Source Tools for Online Publication of Charters”
  • François Bougard, Antonella Ghignoli & Wolfgang Huschner, “Il progetto ‘Italia Regia’ & il suo sistema informatico”
  • The latter two of these papers were given in Italian, or so my notes suggest, whereas the first one, with an Italian title, was presented in English! Figure that one out. Anyway, I don’t speak Italian, and though I was surprised by how much I could muddle out of it by reading the English abstracts at the same time as they spoke, nonetheless I didn’t get much. I will just note that the second paper was actually presented by all three authors, in segments, whereas the last was presented by Ghignoli alone, a pity as I’d like to have met M. Bougard, he does things that interest me. The first paper, although I did understand it, was essentially a verbal poster for this SIAS program, which is slowly chomping through Italy’s national archives and cataloguing them all. Since some 20-25% apparently don’t have indices for their charters at all, some exciting stuff will doubtless come out of this but that wasn’t what the paper was about. The second paper I could follow more or less because it was essentially a how-to guide on publishing such material, a presentation that may have missed its audience here. The third was where my language really just wasn’t up to it and I don’t know if what was being said was a demonstration of a remarkable project or just another one, but the project is a digital database with images of all Italian royal charters, seventh to twentieth centuries, and if you wonder as do I about what the later end of that might even be I guess we can go look

By now we were running some way behind, and there was a brief attempt to cancel the next coffee break, which had already been over-run. This was largely ignored—punctuation for the day, as I had that morning been told—but with some grumbling things were got going with some time clawed back, and we continued.

  • Camille Desenclos & Vincent Jolivet, “Diple, propositions pour la convergence de schémas XML/TEI dédiés à l’édition de sources diplomatiques”
  • Daniel Piñol Alabart, “Proyecto ARQUIBANC. Digitalización de archivos privados catalanes: una herramienta para la investigación”
  • The former of these papers was notable for containing more acronyms and programming languages I think than any other at the conference, but this was partly because it was trying to explain the sheer variety of data schemas in use for charter material out there. By the end of this conference I think it was fairly clear to us all how this was happening: either new researchers don’t realise that there’s a toolset and a set of standards available to them and build their own, or, much more frequently it seemed (but then the former sort largely wouldn’t know about the conference, either…) they are aware of the tools but find them inadequate for their precise enquiry or sample and so modify them for their own purposes. The presenters argued that the widespread use of the TEI standard (explained last post but one) was making this easier for people to do, but that it also made it easier to link things back up again. The other paper, meanwhile, gave me great glee because it had my sort of material in it, documents in happily-familiar scripts and layouts, but what it also alerted me to was that for the period from when records begin in Catalonia to now, as a whole, a full 70% of surviving documentary material (of all kinds) is in private hands. Getting people to let the state digitise it, the point of the ARQUIBANC project, thus presents a number of problems, starting with arrant distrust and moving onto uncatalogued archives and getting scanners into somebody’s attic. Where this has been done, medieval material does come out, as indeed I knew from reading of the Catalunya Carolíngia for Osona and Manresa, where four of the tenth-century documents were revealed precisely by going and knocking on the doors of really old manors, but the size of the project as compared to the resources makes their considerable successes seem puny.

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Not this document! But documents like it! Hurray!

You will also imagine that I had much to ask Senyor Piñol, in shaky Catalan, afterwards on the subject of private archives, and he was helpful, but before very long we were being shuffled off to lunch, where I ate more pizza margarita than even I would have thought plausible in excellent company and felt pretty good about both these things on returning for the poster session and the last six papers. Continue reading

Conferring in Naples, II: papers in the p. m.

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

Sala Conferenze in the Palazzo degli Uffici, Università degli Studi Federico II, Naples

The reason I had all the time I had to go sight-seeing in Naples was that the conference I was at didn’t start till the somewhat advanced hour of three o’clock the same afternoon. It then ran on till after eight, mind, but if you’re used to Mediterranean time-keeping that’s actually perfectly sensible. Anyway, I arrived slightly early, things started slightly later so I had the chance to catch up on old acquaintance here and there before the papers commenced. The venue for the first two days was the newer, less splendid part of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in the Palazzo degli Uffici, but on the other hand it was one of the most technically well-equipped conference centres I’ve been lucky enough to present in, full PA and three projection screens, etc. One thing to its detriment was that the designers seemed to have expected people to be using all three screens at once; everyone who was on only one found, I think, that the detail of their slides was hard to see at the size it finished up at. This may be another way of saying that all digital diplomatists pack their slides too full.

Frontage of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

The old building's kind of nice too, mind, and much easier to find

Anyway, there was an opening address that I understood only a third of (the third that was in French) and then there were some sessions. I’m conscious that much of the below is a bit technical, combining as it does computers and diplomatic, neither of them fields averse to labelling things with their own new words, so feel free to tune in next post if you’d rather. I’m guessing, though, that there are some people who would like to hear about it so I’m not skimping what’s necessary to make it meaningful for them. (Abstracts of all the papers are online, too, from this page which also has links to all our slides, so I’ll link the abstracts from the titles. Almost like being there!)

Linguistical Statistics

  • Nicolas Perreaux, “From Accumulation to Exploitation? Experiments and Proposals for Indexing and for the Use of Diplomatics Databases“, opened up with a dilemma that we would keep coming back to again and again through the conference: there are now some really impressive digital corpora of charters online or otherwise available, about 150,000 documents at the time of presentation, with which some incredible work ought to be possible, and very few projects actually exploiting them.1 He suggested that it might be because it still all needs sorting out and indexing, but really wanted to tell us about the testing of traditional diplomatic categories of document that he’d done in trying to work out if this could be done automatically. Basically, by lexical analysis as he did it, looking for distinct groups of words, only notitiae and episcopal acta are typologically distinct.2 Even this, he thought, was a start in separating things out, but I thought that actually he’d shown that the categories themselves are pretty much bunk. This fits with a documented tendency of mine to ignore work coming from the German Rechtschule however, and it’s hard to say which of us is thinking more progressively here. The advantage of it as a technique is that it’s interested in what the sources themselves emphasise, rather than looking for what we think they meant, but in that case I think we should be ready to define new categories. But then would anyone outside the digital field ever use the stuff? He ended, however, with another big point, which I’ve noted as: “There is no perfect software: what questions do you have?” This, also, many people would pick up, and I thought this paper was a marvellous choice for an opener as it really turned out to encapsulate some of the conference’s agenda.
  • I’ve gone on in detail about this one, because I resonated with a lot of it as you can tell (both in and out of phase), but I must be briefer with the rest.

  • Olivier Canteaut & Frédéric Glorieux, “Essai de classificiation automatique des actes royaux français (XIVe-XVe siècles)“, was as you can see related, and trying to get at the chancery practice revealed by a 13,000 document sample without being swamped by it. Their first problem was how much Latin inflection messes up searches for word groupings; their results were much better with French-language documents. This is going to have to be dealt with: surely we can come up with a Latin parser that rolls words back to their stems for these purposes? But it’s a bit of an overhead. They were instead going to come back round by assessing institutional culture and then matching the phenomena there to linguistic data, but again this seems to me to be giving up and using external models rather than letting the data speak for itself. Some useful issues highlighted all the same, however!
  • Michael Gervers & Gelila Tilahun, “Statistical Methods for Dating Collections of Medieval Documents“, was talking about the DEEDS project at the University of Toronto. I’ve heard a lot of flak for this project from outside so it was interesting to get a view from inside on what it was actually doing, of which however this was only a tiny part. Basically, DEEDS have the problem that most of their documents aren’t dated, so they were using linguistic analysis to see if they could do a sort of linguistical palæography and date them by language use.3 Here again the key turned out to be very small word-groups, ‘shingles’ as they were calling them, and with an analysis based on two-word shingles deployed on a test set with known dates they were able to get a mean error in dating down as small as nine years, although in some periods when documents were fewer the results were a lot less certain. Still far better than `undated’ however! Professor Gervers was happy to admit that the method still needed work but that it works at all was fun to see.
  • The session was split over a coffee break, which was the first time I came across an important regional phenomenon. I am told that the further south you go in Italy, the smaller and stronger ‘a coffee’ gets. The next day on the way to the conference I was introduced to Neapolitan coffee as served in street kiosks and well, yes, it’s about four thimblefuls of espresso for which you pay a Euro twenty, but you don’t need more that soon. My then-companion described it as “punctuation for the day”, which I loved. However, a lot of people at this conference were from a lot further north and expected larger servings. It went quickly. I had two little plastic mugs and then found myself a bit shaky (and as I type this up I’m off caffeine briefly so now I shiver with envy of my autumn self). But I was in no danger of nodding off!

  • Els de Paermentier, “Diplomatica Belgica. Analysing medieval charter texts (dictamen) through a quantitative approach: the case of Flanders and Hainaut (1191-1244)“, was trying something more directed than simple significance-fishing, deliberately looking for ways to recognise documents that were made by the comital chanceries of her two target counties from those that the recipients drafted and just got signed off. She was more or less able to do this, and thus establish that the chancery sometimes issues documents on behalf of relatives of the counts and lesser comital officials as well as just the counts. She also noticed that between 1200 and 1225 the chanceries also stood out for their modifications of phrases that everyone used into their own special versions, which I thought was quite interesting as the assumption is usually that documentary forms are set top-down, but of course over as short a period as that certain individuals could be entirely to blame. I actually don’t think that upsets the point…
  • Robin Sutherland-Harris, “Applications of the DEEDS database to Somerset Charters: dating, diplomatics, and historical context“, was a paper by another member of the DEEDS team but showing the way forward by effectively having used DEEDS as a test set for undigitised records she was using for her own project, which were likewise broadly undated (“thirteenth-century”, sort of level). The things that Robin said that most caught my ear was a mention of a word only two of her charters use for the action of enclosing land, ‘perprisere‘; that is a word I know and was surprised to see here.4 Since her sample was 45 documents, however, it also seemed to me that any changes she is picking up must be personal choices, and she was kind enough to agree that that would be a next step.
  • Timo Korkiakangas, “Challenges for the Linguistic Annotation of an Early Medieval Charter Corpus“, was an analysis of the charters from eighth- and ninth-century Tuscany, and was looking for software that would automate an analysis he was doing of variation from formulae, trying to sort willing alteration from mistakes. So far he had not found such software though he had tested a few! This was I think a good thing for the conference, because it caught again this mismatch between tools and historical enquiry that we had already come up against in the first paper.

Key Note

    The closing presentation of the evening was given by Benoît-Michel Tock, under the title, “Digital Diplomatics, Magic Diplomatics”. This was essentially a retrospective from a man who has seen almost all of this stuff happen, having been involved for a long time with the ARTEM project that eventually went online via TELMA, putting all French original charters from before 1121 on the web. So he knows, and could also tell us that the copies are about to follow the originals up. The problem, of course, is in using these resources together: not all are full-text, different standards of mark-up have been used,5 and of course not everything is very relevant to everything else anyway. Little problems like the fact that many projects only digitise the faces of their charters make certain projects no more possible.6 Even something as basic as lists of what material there is and ideally, where it’s been written about) is often lacking, although weirdly (my point not his) this is where Anglo-Saxon diplomatic began the process, even though its sample is so much smaller. (Perhaps because of that!) There was, too, the very salient and often bitter point that it is both more interesting to do and easier to fund new projects than the maintenance of old ones, something anyone who has worked on an old database which people actually use knows all too well. Also, and this I thought was notable in a very digital conference, he pled for the continuation of publication of printed editions of charter material, arguing that anyone who has worked with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century editions knows that they are far from useless and that they will outlast many a format change and institutional bankruptcy. As long, of course, as we don’t ‘kill all the libraries‘… I think, quite frankly, we should be seeing print now primarily as a stable archive format, which is something we really do not have in the digital world, and so entirely agreed with this point, hence my emphasis here.

And then there was a very excellent dinner, in which I met some very cool people (despite the geekiness of the subject, there were a lot of cool people here), got to tell my father’s story about a friend of his who turned off a god’s electricity and so on, and it was all very good. Nonetheless, when I get to the second day’s report, it’s going to have to be briefer isn’t it? Sorry about that…


1. To name only some of the resources that he did (i. e. those I knew well enough to note): the numerous databases hanging off TELMA : traitement électronique des manuscrits et des archives, MŌM: Europe’s virtual documents online (a. k. a. Monasterium.net), the various online publications of the Fundació Noguera (on which more here), DEEDS as above and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi (already lauded here).

2. If by some chance you don’t understand these terms but would like to, I’m afraid there is little of use online or (non-exclusive) in English (though it’s possible that there is stuff of use online not in English: anybody know some?) and you should probably start with either Olivier Guyotjeannin, Benoît-Michel Tock and Michel Pycke, Diplomatique Médiévale, L’Atelier du Médiéviste 2 (Turnhout 1993) or now Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter, Historische Hilfswissenschaften (Wien 2011), whichever you’re more linguistically comfortable with, though note that Härtel does not cover royal documents; he gives plentiful reference to those who do. If you are stuck with only English there’s a short piece that by now really needs replacing in the form of Leonard E. Boyle, “Diplomatics” in James M. Powell (ed.), Medieval Studies (Syracuse 1976), pp. 82-113, and that at least is online (as far as I can see completely and free of thumbs) via Google Books.

3. And having heard this paper I must really now get round to reading my copy of the presumably related Michael Gervers (ed.), Dating Undated Medieval Charters (Woodbridge 2000), which was something of an aspirational purchase I-won’t-say-how-long ago.

4. See J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342 at pp. 335-336.

5. There were some jokes made in the papers the next day about the number of different Encoding Initiatives there seem to be in our worlds, all spinning off the Text Encoding Initiative, a project that was begun to develop an International Standard for the digital encoding of texts, but it was an odd truth that the Charters Encoding Initiative, started because TEI didn’t then quite supply the mark-up it was felt charters needed, was not in use by any of the people presenting at this conference, almost all of whom had opted to use TEI instead so as to increase interoperability with other projects.

6. I think that the first team to break the mould here were probably the guys publishing the facsimile editions of the St Gallen material, which very often has preliminary versions drafted on the dorse of its charters, but they may have just been the first ones I noticed: Peter Erhart (ed.), Chartae Latinae Antiquiores (2) 100: Switzerland 3 (Zürich 2006), Erhart & Bernhard Zeller with Karl Heidecker (edd.), … 101: Switzerland 4 (2008), Erhart, Zeller & Heidecker, … 102: Switzerland 5 (2009), eidem (edd.), … 103: Switzerland 6 (2010) and eidem (edd.), … 104: Switzerland 7 (2011), with vol 105, Switzerland 8, to follow. But of course this is neither online nor open-access.

Leeds 2011 report 3: Catalans, coins, churches and computers

[Edit: hideously mixed-up footnotes now all match up and exist and so on.]

Looking back at it, it does seem rather as if the 2011 International Medieval Congress was fairly intense for your humble blogger. Having been called to the warpath the previous day and then entirely surrounded by people with Livejournals, the third day of the conference, Wednesday 13th July, also provoked me in various directions. I’ll try not to relive too much of the drama, not least because I intend a separate post for one of the episodes, but this is roughly how the day went.

1014. Concepts and Levels of Wealth and Poverty in Medieval Catalonia

It is unusual for Catalan scholars to turn up in England, where Spain is usually represented only by Castilians, and I had read work by two of the speakers in this session and also its organiser, so I was determined to show my face. In fact the group had already discovered my book and thus my existence, so it was all quite well-timed and it seemed like a jolly happy meeting. There were also of course some papers and those went like this:

  • Pere Benito Monclús, “Famines and Poverty in XIIth-XIIIth-century Catalonia”, looking closely at who spent their wealth on feeding the poor in time of famine when the usual Church safety net was stretched too far, concluding that it was the public power last of all.
  • Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Rich Nobility and Poor Nobility in Medieval Catalonia, 10th-12th Centuries”, stressing how little we have actually found out about quite a chunk of the medieval Catalan nobility, and how varied it is; this was not really news to me as such, but it was actually really nice to hear someone talking about my research area as if it mattered all the same.
  • Sandrine Victor, “Salaries and Standards of Living in Catalonia according to the example of Girona at the 15th century”, was doing careful quantitative studies of the demographic distribution of wealth, and had a lot to say about labourers and their accommodation (almost always rented, unlike their masters’ owned houses) in the late medieval city.

The last of these papers was perhaps the only one that was presenting new work as such, work in progress even, whereas Senyors Benito and Rodríguez had both elected to give papers that were kind of introductions to their topic for specialists from other fields. There were quite a lot of these papers at Leeds this year, it seemed to me, and though I would rather see more developed or developing work, I understood why they did; they wouldn’t have known there would be anyone who knew the area there and I’m hardly a whole audience anyway. It was impressive how many languages the questions were in, though: English, French, Castilian and Catalan (one question in German, too, that had to be translated), and the conversation afterwards was, well, extremely informative. But we’ll get to that next post.

1121. Making the World Go Round: coinage, currency, credit, recycling, and finance in medieval Europe, II

I got into this session late somehow, probably because of hunting really bad coffee with Catalans and then realising I needed to be across the campus next, but what I caught was interesting.

  • Gareth Williams, “Was the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England a Queen? A Possible Posthumous Coinage in the Name of Harold II”
  • What was going on here, as far as I could divine after my late entry, was that there seems to have been a very short-lived issue of coins in the name of King Harold II from the royal nunnery of Wilton, almost all known from one hoard that also contains 1067-68 coins of William the Conqueror. Gareth suggested that the responsible party might be Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor’s widow, Harold’s brother, who owned the nunnery, and who didn’t submit to William straight away; that seems to make sense of what we’d otherwise have to assume was counterfeiting so that was pretty cool.1

  • Tom J. T. Williams, “Coins in Context: minting in the borough of Wallingford”
  • This was an interesting combination with the archaeological attention that Neil Christie had given Wallingford the previous day, though possibly only really interesting to numismatists; it did however include the fact that we can use Domesday Book to plot where one of Wallingford’s moneyers, Swærtlinc, actually lived in 1086, and he’d struck for Harold II as well so some English at least did come through, even if at a low level.2 One of the questions raised (by Morn Capper) was whether moneyers were too important to remove or too humble, and we still don’t know, but Mr Williams is I believe aiming to try and answer this for the later period as Rory Naismith tried to answer it for the earlier one, so we shall see I guess!3

  • Henry Fairbairn, “The Value and Metrology of Salt in the late 11th Century”
  • As you know I think the salt trade’s important—I must have read something once4—but I don’t really know how important so this was worth hearing. The units involved in salt-measuring are a bit obscure but by working up from tolls, we came out with figures of approximately 150 g of salt per penny in a world where a pig is 8 pence and a sheep 2 and a half. That makes salt less of a bulk product and more of a luxury than one might have thought and it must have been hard to get very much of it if you were a peasant. So that’s not nothing.

1202. ‘Reading’ the Romanesque Façade

I had wanted to go to this session partly just to see beautiful things and get my Team Romanesque badge metaphorically stamped, but also because Micky Abel whom I met a long time back was supposed to be presenting. In fact, though, she was unable to be there and then I got distracted by books, and so I missed much of the first paper. I have hardly any notes, but it was gorgeous to look at, because it was about the Conques tympanum and we know how that goes, right?

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques, from Wikimedia Commons

  • Kirk Ambrose, “Attunement to the Damned at Conques”, thus argued that the passivity of the victims on the Hell side of the tympanum was actually supposed to frighten the viewer, and
  • Amanda Dotseth, “Framing Humility at San Quirce de Burgos”, took us through a complex system of sculptural ornament that seems to have been dismantled and put back in a different order at some point in its history, but which also may have encoded the monks of the relevant church into the artwork
San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

1301. Digital Anglo-Saxons: charters, people, and script

This was essentially a session advertising the work of the Department of Digital Humanities of King’s College London, still the Centre for Computing in the Humanities when the conference program was printed. The DDH is one of KCL’s expansion zones, and there’s a lot to advertise, so it was something of a shame that Paul Spence, one of the speakers, had been unable to show, not least because that was the charters one. Instead, however, his paper was kind of combined with one of the others. Thus, we got:

  • John Bradley, “Anglo-Saxon People: PASE II – doing prosopography in the digital age”
  • This put the expanded version of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which now (as you may recall) contains all the people in Domesday Book too, into a wider context and emphasised how they had gone for a structure dictated by information, not by sources or persons, which he called a `factoid’ model. This seems like a really useful way to think about treating this kind of data, actually, and I was impressed with the flexibility it seems to have permitted them. Of course, I’d never then actually attempted to make serious use of PASE and having done so for this post now I’m slightly less sure how much use it is to me…5

  • Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”
  • Dr Stokes’s paper was about ASCluster, the umbrella project that tries to manage all the data that the DDH handle in their various Anglo-Saxonist endeavours together. Since they don’t all focus on the same sorts of data, trying to create a way of making them all connect is actually really tricky. You would think that pulling a personal name out of their charters database and also PASE and getting all the information together should be simple enough but the databases weren’t designed together and they aren’t searched in the same way, and so on. I could feel his pain; I remember these kinds of dilemma all too well. By the sound of it they have some challenges still to defeat, though the ability and lateral thinking on the team demonstrated by these two presentations would encourage one to think that they will in fact defeat them.

You can tell perhaps that I had mixed feelings about the efforts here. This is not just that I doubt that the money they’re likely to sink into this integration of their projects is going to see a return in terms of use; it’s already possible to search these things separately and compare the results oneself, after all. That isn’t actually their problem: they made a case for doing it, got the support and are setting about it, fine. Lack of use is a problem that a lot of this sort of project is suffering and we will hear more about this in future reports. No, my cynicism came from a much simpler source, which is that I had never at this point nor at many points subsequently managed to get their exciting-looking database of the Anglo-Saxon charters, ASChart, the one that I do have a use for, to work. Once I knew of it, I quickly found that the site would never load, from wherever I tried it, home, office, JANET or commercial internet, never. And I tried it many times, in the months after this session, every time I happened to have reason to check on this post whence I’d linked it in fact; nada. They must have known it didn’t work, because it can’t have been serving any pages, and yet it kept being advertised as a completed project, while actually the only recourse was Sean Miller’s scratch pro bono equivalent. This kind of thing annoys me. The result of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate an already-existing resource should not be that your team gets showered with more money and converted into a full department, especially in a time and at an institution where huge cuts had only a little while before been projected across the whole of the humanities. I don’t want them all fired, of course, quod absit but I would like the system to reward and therefore encourage fulfilment of the things that the money was awarded for. But no-one in power checks up and so there’s no consequence, bar slight embarrassment, if those things don’t work, and the system doesn’t actually incentivise them to improve the situation.

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

I was all set up for this rant when I got round to writing this post, therefore, and so it comes as something of an anti-climax to have to say, er, now that I check, it seems to be fixed. But it does, so I do. If the DDH team are reading, therefore, I’d better say thankyou for putting the effort, the bigger server or whatever in that has made this resource finally available, not least because as far as I can see there was little that required you to do so. So, it’s up, and even if the charters after 900, i. e. most of them, are not yet there and the links through to PASE crash in a sea of Tomcat errors, nonetheless it is better—in fact the Tomcat errors have gone away even while I’ve had this post in draft and those links now work!—and I suppose therefore that we may hope for better still. There are now diplomatic indices, linked from marked-up XML texts, which bodes extremely well for the future when the whole corpus is loaded and is something that I would love, especially just now, to have for the Catalan material (albeit that there is something like six times as much of that and no-one has databased any of it except Joan Vilaseca). This also means that when they get the post-900 material up, the whole thing will actually deliver something that Sean’s site doesn’t already do, though his free-text search is still unique and could be used for some of the same things. Well, anyway, we have two online Anglo-Saxon charter databases now, and yes, I have said before that I wish funding bodies would JFGI when they get an application for such a project, in case it already exists, but these two both have their points and I am running out of reasons to be cross with the DDH so perhaps I’ll try and stop?

ASCharters site screen capture

ASCharters site screen capture

Anyway. That was the last session of the day, and then there was dinner and then finally the dance, which was absolutely tremendous fun even if I did miss `Blue Monday’ but about which little can usefully be said here that hasn’t been said already. So with that I’ll wrap this up and move on to the more Catalano-centric post promised at the beginning there.


1. We know an unusual amount about Edith, which is coordinated and analysed in Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith: queenship and women’s power in eleventh-century England (Cambridge 1997).

2. I’m not quite sure I’ve got this right, because try as I might I can’t get him out of PASE—ironically given the above!—but he comes out of a search of the Fitzwilliam’s Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds no problem, and PASE have that data (I know, I gave it them) so he ought to show up. In fact only three people from Wallingford come out of PASE Domesday at all. I must not be using it right. That can’t be broken as well, surely?6 And even EMC doesn’t show any coins for him from Harold’s reign. I can only guess that the British Museum collections must have some unpublished examples; this could certainly be true.

3. Now available in the shiny new R. Naismith, Money and power in Anglo-Saxon England: the southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series 80 (Cambridge 2011).

4. In fact, what I must have read is John Maddicott’s “Trade, Industry and the Wealth of King Alfred” in Past and Present No. 123 (Oxford 1989), pp. 3-51 (to which cf. the following debate, Ross Balzaretti, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. No. 135 (Oxford 1992), pp. 142-150, Janet Nelson, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. pp. 151-163 and John Maddicott, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred: a reply”, ibid. pp. 164-188), since that’s what I have notes on, but what I probably should have read is Maddicott’s “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

5. See n. 2 above.

6. Afterthought: PASE’s About page says it excludes `incomers’, and this is a Norse name.7 Can that be what’s happened here, that the Danish-named moneyer isn’t being included as English? Because, er, that seems analytically questionable to me…

7. Also, if the DDH team are reading, the About PASE link from the Domesday search interface page goes to the Reference page, not the About page as it does from other screens.