The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project website has now gone live, and includes a post by me on interconnecting charter databases. I mention in that a recent argument when we were trying to decide which of several different categories of transaction a particular document fell into. Just to show that such problems of coding documents are not new, here are some quotes from a recent article on Charles Tilly, a historical sociologist and a pioneer of using databases for historical research.
The Codebook for Intensive Sample of Disturbances guides more than 60 researchers in the minutiae of a herculean coding project of violent civil conflicts in French historical documents and periodicals between 18301860 and 19301960…The Codebook contains information about violent civic conflict events and charts the action and interaction sequences of various actors (called there formations) over time….we find fine-grained detail and frequent provision made for textual commentary on the thousands of computer punch cards involved.
(John Krinsky and Ann Mische, “Formations and Formalisms: Charles Tilly and the Paradox of the Actor”, Annual Review of Sociology, 39 (2013), p. 3)
The article then goes on to quote the Codebook on the issue of subformations (when political groups split up):
In the FORMATION SEQUENCE codes,treat the subformation as a formation for the period of its collective activitybut place 01 (“formation does not exist as such at this time”) in the intervals before and after. If two or more subformations comprise the entire membership of the formation from which they emerge, place 01 in that formations code for the intervals during which they are acting. But if a small fragment breaks off from a larger formation,continue to record the activities of the main formation as well as the new subformation.
If a formation breaks up, reforms and then breaks up in a different way, assign new subformation numbers the second time.
If fragments of different formations merge into new formations, hop around the room on one foot, shouting ILLEGITIMIS NON CARBORUNDUM.
(Krinsky and Mische, p 4, citing Charles Tilly, Codebook for intensive sample of disturbances. Res.DataCollect. ICPSR 0051, Inter-Univ. Consort. Polit. Soc. Res., Ann Arbor, Mich. (1966), p. 95)
In nearly fifty years, we’ve gone from punch-cards to open source web application frameworks, but we still haven’t solved the problem of historical data (and the people behind it) not fitting neatly into the framework we create, however flexible we try and be.