Tag Archives: digital medievalism

Picturing Abbess Emma’s associations

Really long-time readers of this blog will maybe remember a debate that got going on this blog in June 2008, apropos of a paper in the Journal of Neurocomputing that was using medieval charter information to showcase visualisation of social networks data.1 I was initially sceptical but talking to two of the authors got me much more interested and I subsequently talked one of them into delivering a paper in the final Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session at Leeds, a paper that we did want to publish but which sadly in the end could not be included in the final publication.2 That’s still a shame as there was good stuff to think with there, but of course what any historian dealing with dense social data is going to want to know about such software and techniques is, ‘how will it help me with my stuff?’ And since answering that question usually involves a lot of data entry, it has tended to rest there.

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm" from Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

There is also the question of how much a “Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm” like this from Boulet et al., “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis”, fig. 1, can tell you by itself, which is why of course in that article they then spend a lot of time breaking it down

For my area of interest, this was changed in mid-2012 as the indefatigable Joan Vilaseca of the Cathalaunia website began to investigate applying such techniques to the database he maintains there, which includes quite a lot of the documents from which I ply my trade. Magistra et Mater, who was getting interested in the possibilities of these things around then too, wrote some initial thoughts about what Joan and others were doing at hers in December 2012, and I had already made a stub note to talk about it in October of that year but, well, it’s been queued ever since. There is still plenty to say, though!

The thing that particularly caught my interest was that Joan put up a post on his blog in which he produced a list of the best-connected people in his database, the ones who appear with the most other people, and once the kings who appear in dating clauses and their notaries were filtered out, pretty much top of the list was Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll. Since there is perhaps no-one in the world who cares more about Abbess Emma than me,3 this seemed like a really good type-case with which to answer the quesion: does this kind of analysis actually tell us very much that we didn’t already know? And, weirdly, I think that my conclusion is that for me it’s perhaps most valuable for emphasising what we don’t.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

To talk about this it’s necessary to get you the reader clear about exactly what Joan has actually done here, of course. As simply as I can put it, what we have above is a graph built in the following way. In Joan’s database Emma appears in 50 documents and in those 50 documents she occurs with an awful lot of people. Looking for only the most meaningful, Joan excluded from the count all persons with whom Emma turned up only once, which is a lot given that she orchestrated the Vall de Sant Joan hearing in which about 500 people swore testimony for her and then there’s still 48 more documents with her in. That still leaves 112 people with whom she is recorded associating more than once, in fact the total of associations still in the count is 1292. Many of these people also relate to each other and what you have above is a computer-aided display of all those links, with Emma at the centre and everyone else pulled out to where you can see the links. But you can already see from the way that some of the links are made with thicker bands of darker colour that some of these people dominate the sample much more than others. So, who are these people? Well, if you load up the SVG version of this graph on Joan’s blog you can just click straight through to his database records, which is marvellous, but in short the top five are two priests called Gentiles and Guisad, and then three laymen, namely Reinoard, Guimarà and Tudiscle.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version), with Gentiles’s signature lower left centre

This all sounds more or less sensible to me: though I think only Gentiles and Reinoard, maybe Tudiscle, would have been in a top five I’d guessed, I can see why they’re all here. Gentiles was something like the chief scribe of Sant Joan: he appears in Emma’s first appearance as an adult, he went on appearing some six to ten years after her death, and in that time an awful lot of the documents of the abbey carried his scribal signature, even though as Federico Udina pointed out when he edited these documents, they’re not all in the same hand. This presumably means that he had subordinates signing stuff off for him and that his name was important enough that it still had to be there.4 Guisad was another frequent scribe for the abbey, apparently older, and he also appeared on the panel of a couple of the hearings in which Emma pursused people for her rights over their land.5 Reinoard was headman of one of the settlements in the Vall de Sant Joan and worked as court enforcer for Emma once as well as appearing in court when she called them, he was a collaborator of hers whom I’ve discussed elsewhere.6 Tudiscle and Guimarà present a more interesting case: these are two of the landowners whom Emma took to court, but in both cases those episodes were part of a longer relationship with the abbey which had here broken down. I’ve written about these two as well precisely because I think that in Tudiscle’s case the hearing was part of mending that relationship, as his importance seems not to have suffered subsequently, whereas Guimarà seems subsequently not to have worked with the abbess and in fact seems to have managed to shift quite a lot of property once donated to the nunnery onto Emma’s little brother, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, as part of Sunyer’s campaign to clip his sister’s independently-ruled abbey’s wings.7 But before that he had worked for Emma, and these people certainly make good people to study if you want to understand how Emma worked, which is of course why I did.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database, sorted by modularity

The same relationships now displayed according to their modularity, that is, by the size of the groups internal to the data

So, the first answer to the great question about whether this tells me anything looks like ‘no’; I had already found these people by older methods. But I’m arguably not the target here: the thing is that those methods were very like what Joan’s programming all but automates. I went through the documents, made note of the names who recurred most, assembled profiles of their appearances and decided who were the people I could tell the story with. Joan’s database and graphing together mean that I could, if I was starting again, do in about ten minutes the same exercise that took me weeks when I actually did it. I could do (and may do) the same thing now with Count-Marquis Guifré II Borrell, Sunyer’s predecessor and brother, for whom I haven’t done the same kind of background data-crunching, with far less trouble than I was anticipating. So in terms of research facilitation for others, this is a huge step forward even if it doesn’t help me. I can in fact only tell how much use it is precisely because I’d done it already by another means! (Whether Joan had to put fewer hours in to make it happen than I did for my research is another question of course…)

All the same, as I said above, what it now makes me think is how imperfect our data sometimes is for the kind of questions we might like to ask. If, on first principles, we asked ourselves who the principal contacts of an early medieval abbess was, we would probably presume that the main ones were her nuns. So indeed they may have been here, but as I’ve observed in a supposedly-forthcoming paper, while Emma was in charge of Sant Joan we know the names of only two other nuns, and those are only seen as they join the nunnery, we’ve no idea what Emma’s relations with them were like.8 If we then allowed ourselves to remember that this abbess was a count’s daughter, we might then think about her family as an important second string. But Emma hardly shows up with her family, and when she does it needs very careful reading: I think she only occurs alive and in person with brother Sunyer in the Vall de Sant Joan hearing where she was in theory taking him to court, for example.9 (She also turns up as a neighbour of land he was transferring twice, but of course she wasn’t actually there for that, though it gives us another reason to suppose they had other dealings.10) Also on the defending end on that occasion was their probably-elder brother Miró, Count of Cerdanya, who in his will named Emma one of his executors and had her called ‘my most dear sister’; I think she occurs with him once otherwise.11 She got Radulf to consecrate a church with her once, I think that’s it though.12 We can more or less see from this that this set of siblings were close collaborators even if not always very willing ones but the quantity of occurrences doesn’t really reflect what we can guess the importance of those relationships would have been.

The memorial stone for Abbess Emma in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Abbess Emma’s memorial in the medieval church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The information we get from this, therefore, is not wrong but it is partial. Emma probably did see Gentiles and talk with him most days of her adult life. It’s not clear whether Guisad was also a priest of the abbey but if so, he also would have been a regular feature of her days. She placed a lot of reliance on Reinoard, and that relationship was probably important to both of them in raising Reinoard above his fellows and showing those fellows how Emma could reward her collaborators. Tudiscle and Guimarà, at least at first, were more of that sort of person and even if the relationships probably didn’t mean as much to Emma as that with brother Miró did, for example, they’re historically very interesting and anyone working on Emma would be well served by being pointed towards them. But there is also quiet and missing data that must have made up a great deal more of her life, and that we can’t really reconstruct. It’s not by any means the fault of this technology that it can’t bring that to our notice: it obviously can’t give us back information we didn’t put in. But that also means that the technology is no more than one of the tools we have to use to understand that information in its context, some of which context is simply what isn’t there.13


1. Romain Boulet, Bertrand Jouse, Fabrice Rossi & Nathalie Villa, “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis” in Journal of Neurocomputing Vol. 71 (Amsterdam 2008), pp. 1579-1573.

2. What final publication, you ask? Why, Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013). You could buy it here if you wanted!

3. See J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

4. Ibid. pp. 29-30; see Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205 for the argument.

5. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 59 n. 162.

6. Ibid. pp. 39, 41-42.

7. Ibid. pp. 52-53 (Tudiscle), 53-57 (Guimarà) & 64-65 (Sunyer’s pressure on the nunnery).

8. J. Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, to appear in a Festschrift for Rosamond McKitterick first planned in 2010.

9. The hearing is best printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 119 & 120, though the palæographic notes of Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 38, are still very useful.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 103, 105 & 155. There are a few other cases where she and Sunyer both turn up as neighbours, but not of the same properties, so I don’t think that really counts here.

11. The will is only printed in Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), 2 vols. I pp. 88-90. In Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 57 Miró presided over a hearing where Emma was the plaintiff, but she was represented by a mandatory and not present herself.

12. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 73. The two also occur as common neighbours in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 155 & 419, but again that only tells us that they probably met at some other point.

13. Cf. Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Georg Vogeler & Antonella Ambrosiani (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302.

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.

Where on Google Earth, reverse home edition

I don’t know if you’ve run across the game Where on Google Earth. This is a thing that occasionally crosses the archæological blogs that I read, and the way it works is that the previous winner posts an image captured from Google Earth of an archæological site, whose identity readers are then invited to guess. As with I Spy, the person who guesses correctly gets to set the next challenge. Having met it, I was put sharply in mind of it a while back when still working through the charters in volume 4 of the Catalunya Carolíngia.1 As readers of such things will be aware, when geographical boundaries are used in a charter to describe and locate the land being transferred – that is, mountains, rivers and so on, things that don’t move or perish unlike say, the ‘homesteads of Oliba’ – sometimes those bounds are so specific that it is tempting to try and place them on a map, and the existence of Google Maps makes it exceedingly easy to give into this temptation.2 This can sometimes lead to moments of great serendipity: in one particular case, when searching for a farm in Avinyó, I had narrowed it down to this.3

And then I flipped from map to satellite view, as you too can do above, and behold! There was a flipping farm dead centre of the screen. This was less likely than it seems now, as at the time I did this the buildings were not marked on the map view. Of course it’s unlikely to be the same site, but it was fun to have happen all the same, and I would rather like to ask the owner of that farm about pottery fragments that may turn up in their fields… However, let me try another one for you, this being that mill I mentioned a little while back that had another mill on its boundary.4 That may not help us much, but since the mill was on an island in the middle of the Riu Cardener, one might be forgiven for having a hope. Actually, it’s not a good hope, because rivers tend to be very hard to track in satellite view here because of tree cover and also tend to be marked only as lines in map view. But an island big enough to put a mill on, how many can there be? Admittedly, if for example it was the Riu Ter I was dealing with here, things like the subsequent flooding of one of its valleys for use as a reservoir would mean that the photos would not tell us much about the ancient geography, but that could never happen twice…

Ah. Bother. I’m sure it’s beautiful, of course. But actually, this is a long long way north of where our case must have been, in the old county of Manresa. And, lo, follow the Cardener down far enough and we get to the city of Manresa itself, and there, there are islands in the river. Even here, though, there are weirs and it’s hard to tell how big anything was before humans started really intervening here. There were probably islands in different places and the entire course of the river must have been badly bent by all the canalisation around the city. The place we’re looking for must be here somewhere, between Cardona and the confluence with the Riu Llobregat, but that’s a long trek (and as it now lies, definitely in the ‘extreme’ range to navigate given the weirs and rapids). I’m going to pick this one, but there’s no way to know for sure unless someone were to want to get across there next time they’re in Manresa and kick the grass up a bit… I might have a go myself. Still: till then, there’s a kind of Schrödinger’s Mill here, and until the waveform is collapsed, we can imagine…

Not the most rigorous piece of research-based blogging I’ve ever done, this, but hopefully a bit of fun.


1. As usual, this is Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), documents from the which I reference as CC4 plus their number in what follows.

2. It might well be more academically rigorous to check them out in the series of excellent historical atlases by Jordi Bolòs i Masclans and Victor Hurtado, under the series title Atles dels comtats de Catalunya carolíngia, of course. In fact it definitely is, but you can’t zoom in on buildings from the sky that way or, occasionally, get street view…

3. This being CC4 1446, where the searcher is guided by the fact that the Riu d’Oló bounded two sides and a ridge ran along the third; the estate had several solaria, dovecotes and mills so must have stretched out a bit between those boundaries. This seems like the only plausible spot, being in that bend of the river.

4. CC4 1411.

Name in print IX & X

While I wait for information to reach me that will enable the next in our very delayed series of seminar reports, it’s about time I returned to the blog’s primary purpose, that being of course to publicise me and my work. 26th March—yes, I’m as badly behind with the personal stuff as the seminar reports—was a big day for publication-related milestones. I sent off the second submission version of what will now become Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, editors me and the inestimable Allan Scott McKinley; I received notice that Paul Freedman, no less, had reviewed my Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010 in Catholic Historical Review,1 and then when I got to my pigeonhole in college I found this in it!

Cover of volume 1 issue 2 of The Mediæval Journal

This is issue 2 of volume 1 of St Andrews’s new medieval flagship, The Mediaeval Journal, and I’m pleased to say that the first twenty-one pages of it contain my “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III”, a revised and improved version of my 2010 paper from the Leeds International Medieval Congress.2 That allows me to do my usual count of statistics and say: 3 drafts total, of which only 2 for actual publication; Brepols, who publish TMJ, have excellent copy-editors in whose hands I’m pleased now to have Problems and Possibilities, though I still wish the third round of changes they asked for had actually been input but hey; and, all-importantly, time from first submission to publication, 18 months, which is just about a quarter below average, so I’m pleased with it—I think it’s a good article, too, but it was also easy to get through the process of publishing it.

First page of Jarrett, `Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III`

Larger version linked through

Cover of Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture

Then, of course, it’s been so long I’ve taken to mention that that meanwhile, still more has emerged from the pipeline, though this is a piece with a rather long history and my first ever piece of published co-writing. It originated in an international project that involved the Fitzwilliam Museum when I was still working there, and whose findings I was invited to take to a conference in Vienna in 2008 that I mentioned here, but so late that I couldn’t get into the conference proceedings, which were of the sort that get published simultaneously with the conference.3 Subsequently I saw a suitable-looking call for papers on the Heroic Age blog, thanks guys, and was lucky enough to have the paper accepted. Somewhere in there we all had to admit that what I was primarily doing here was writing up other people’s research in reasonably accessible English and so the people who’d done the actual work got their names added, they being Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, of a number more who might have been named if they’d chosen, and the result, finally, is a chapter called “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in that above handsome blue-cloth volume, which is entitled Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and was heroically edited by Brent H. Nelson and Melissa Terras, who have been commendably good-humoured about a print process that has, well, taken long enough to make most digital work outdated.4 (Improvements to Google Image Search have certainly taken some of the zing out of ours, and the fact that the website on which all the project’s downloads were uploaded has now gone and its EU domain been camped by an insurance scammer is also something that time has wrought in defiance of what I actually cited, but what this means is of course that now this paper is about the only way you can find this stuff out…) Statistics here are: 5 drafts, I’m no longer sure how, and two sets of revisions, and time from first submission to publication, well, 3 years 8 months, no easy way to get round that. Still, it’s there, making my CV a weirder place, and it’s in the volume with some really exciting stuff, too, which it’s great to be included amongst. So, there we are, my name continues to be in print and there’s more a-coming, and by the time that emerges, maybe I’ll be announcing things on time again! Or, maybe not…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (Woodbridge 2010), reviewed by Paul Freedman in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 98 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 93-94, DOI:10.1353/cat.2012.0074.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediæval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout 2012 for 2011), pp. 1-22, DOI:10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda & Johann Stockinger (eds), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism. Proceedings of the 2nd EVA 2008 Vienna Conference, Vienna, August 25-28, 2008, books@ocg.at 238 (Vienna 2008).

4. Jonathan Jarrett, Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Huber-Mörk and Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489. No, neither of the books about digitization are online, what would the point in that be, I don’t understand, world-wide what? etc….

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.

Conferring in Naples I: the gratuitous picture post

Having finally finished reporting on July’s Leeds conference (and not even being the last to do so) leaves me now free to leap forward two months in a single bound, leaving me only four behind from reality, and talk about a conference I went to in September, to wit: Digital Diplomatics 2011. The organiser of this, I will admit, largely got me to participate by pointing that it would be (a) in Naples and (b) largely expenses-paid. I was practically packing at that point, because compensations for academic drudgery are sometimes hard to find and that seemed like a good one. But, following the practice of my last (and first) jaunt to Italy for similar purposes, I made sure to leave at least some little time for sight-seeing too, because I have been to too many exciting places and spent my time there in a conference venue drinking bad coffee. (And in Italy drinking bad coffee is kind of a felony.) So even before I got to the conference, having made more or less sure I could find it (wrongly, as it happened, but I had help by then so it was OK), I took the time to take a look round with a camera.

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street


I really took to Naples. My kind of city appears to be one that’s scummy enough that it suggests you could survive and even enjoy yourself if you were poor, that has people having fun in it in the evenings, and ideally has plentiful Italian food and wine in it, so I may need to learn more Italian and advance my intent for a Sicilian comparative project, as plotted here years ago. Naples – well, scummy isn’t the word, the whole city really really needs a clean, but it is full of people having fun and the food was easy to find good and cheap.
A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

It may have helped with this impression that I was in the city the evening the Napoli football team beat Inter Milan, but you know, I’ve been in cities where the local team winning means an outbreak of civic violence and window-breaking, not (as here) spontaneous Vespa parades including stupidly dangerous jumps from scooter pillion to scooter pillion on the move. (There appears to be no public space into which Neapolitan youth will not try to get on the back of a Vespa.) It was all kind of great, if dirty and poorly-maintained. But this is not a tourism blog so I will just concentrate on the medieval stuff for a few photos, which I’ll stick below a cut. But let me at least show you this:

I never even found out what this building was, though some poking at maps now suggests it is part of the Palazzo Reale enclosing the Piazza del Plebiscito, very democratic, but there was much more to be seen here. Continue reading

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.