What I’m doing: Hincmar and charters

As you will have noticed, things have been very quiet on this blog for ages, because I’ve been busy on a lot of other things. The busyness will be continuing for several more months, but some of the results of it are now becoming available.

1) The Making of Charlemagne’s database is now online and our blog will continue to be updated. I will also be giving a seminar on Tuesday 3rd February at Leeds on the project, as part of the series Medieval Studies in the Digital Age. (This is a free event, but you need to register).

2) The book of essays on Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims I have been co-editing with Charles West is now at the proof stage. According to Manchester University Press, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work will be appearing in July 2015. This contains the research of an international cast of scholars (British, French, German, Dutch, US and Canadian) and will answer almost all your Hincmar-related research needs. The rest will be answered by our forthcoming translation of De Divortio, also from MUP, which is making steady progress: this will replace the translation of this text we have currently made available on the Collaborative Hincmar project blog.

3) My new project (until July) is working on Charles’ Turbulent Priests project. I will be focusing on priests and their representation in original charters from the eighth and ninth centuries.

I hope to get back to more regular blogging in a couple of months, but until then, I hope some of this interests you.

Kalamazoo 2014 report 3: women and Carolingians

I started off Saturday at the 49th Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies with a roundtable on women and power, which I’ve already discussed and then I went to the first of two sessions organised by Medieval Prosopography. Prosopography is always particularly prone to the so what problem: what do you get out of a presentation if you’re not interested in the particular people/region covered by it? But I think all the papers did a good job of tying in wider themes of interest.

First up was Adam Matthews talking about the alliance between the family of the widowed Odila and the monastery of St Florent of Samur in the eleventh century. Adam reconstructed a series of sales by a widow called Odila and her family to the monks over several generations, which was combined with several family members becoming monks there. This looked like a way for Odila to hang onto her property (I was immediately thinking about Jinty Nelson’s wary widow), since she may possibly have been threatened by her dead husband’s relatives. Adam also made the important point that although we tend to think about monasteries in the period either as mediators or in need of protection, here in the relative stable county of Anjou, we have monks as protectors of others.

The second paper was the most relevant to my interests: Constance Brittain Bouchard on “The Capetians’ Merovingian-era origins”. This was an extension of a topic that she’s written on before, about royal and noble families’ understanding of their own genealogies. It’s very hard for researchers to trace any lineages from the eighth and ninth century back to the sixth or seventh. We can see the Robertines in the ninth century, but although they don’t look like parvenus, it’s very hard to link them up with earlier Roberts who might be their ancestors. Constance’s argument was that this isn’t just due to scanty sources, but also to the Capetians’ own understanding of their past. By the thirteenth century, for example, you might not get Robert the Strong, Odo and Robert I mentioned: the emphasis was on a royal lineage and those who didn’t fit neatly into this were smoothed over. Constance contrasted this with the Carolingian dynasty, who were more assiduous in creating the memory of their ancestors, and in new ways. She pointed out the paradox that modern researchers know more Capetian ancestors than the Capetians themselves did: by the time they needed a memory of ancestors, with a developing emphasis on strict patrilineages, it was too late for the Capetian family to create one.

The final paper in the session moved us to late medieval England, with Anne DeWindt on “Social mobility in late medieval England: evidence provided by a family of fifteenth-century villeins.” This was a study of the Berenger family of Warboys in Huntingdonshire, trying to work out how we can assess social mobility. Anne was looking at changes in the size of land-holding, in office-holding and also occupation, with the usual issues about patchy evidence. But she also made the interesting point that geographical mobility didn’t necessarily mean social mobility and raised the possibility that members of the family who were moving elsewhere, even to London, may in fact have ended up in an urban underclass, both for women (as servants) and men (as low-status chaplains). She linked this up to work by Gregory Clark on long-term social mobility. He has apparently argued for regression to the mean by both rich and poor – i.e. that that the averaging out effects from one generation to another mean that any rate of social mobility is slow.

On Saturday afternoon I went off to another early medieval session: Session 465 on “Carolingian Culture”. This yet again revealed how many Carolingian texts there are that I don’t know at all well. The session started with Jared Wielfaert talking about “Prudentius of Troyes and the Accumulative Aesthetic in the Carolingian Period”. Jared is working on Prudentius’ Contra Eriugenam, part of the bitter controversy over predestination in the ninth century. The text comes from several rounds into the dispute: this is Prudentius writing in opposition to John Scotus Eriugenia, who in turn had been encouraged by Hincmar to write against Gottschalk’s views.

Jared has been studying the one surviving manuscript witness of Prudentius’ text (BnF lat. 2445) and was arguing for the visual force of the manuscript, a force lost in Migne’s Patrologia Latina edition. The original has a hierarchy of scripts and an elaborate system of sigla. Prudentius’ work is essentially a theological Fisking of John’s Treatise on Divine Predestination. Prudentius quotes a short section from John (with a theta symbol), follows this with a chi-rho symbol to mark his own responses, which mainly consist of long (and sometimes barely relevant) passages from patristic sources. The names of the quoted authors are in large rustic capitals, sometimes barely abbreviated. Jared described the visual effect as that of the Fathers shouting down John.

The manuscript was compiled in a number of stages, and we probably have it in an unfinished state. It includes a lot of marginal and interlineal comments with extra quotes, all probably added by Prudentius himself. At some points parchment tabs were put in for extra quotes. Jared was interested in why the book was compiled so inefficiently, with such excessive quotations and linked this to Carolingian architecture and art, which has been described as having a “cumulative aesthetic”, wanting to juxtapose old and new material, reusing spolia and generally believing that “more is more”. John Scotus Eriugena’s text appeared visually as a thin, weak booklet; Prudentius’ big book was an argument in itself.

Prudentius’ way of work sounded very familiar from what I knew about Hincmar’s techniques of writing and in response to my questions Jared suggested Hincmar may have learned from Prudentius (which is possible, although Hincmar would never have admitted it). But it’s also another reminder that what counts as a good argument is historically specific (and can’t just be reduced to the idea of Carolingian authors as incapable of thinking logically).

Jared was followed by Leanne Good on “Taming the Medieval Wilderness through Hagiography”. This was looking at the hagiography surrounding the monastery of Fulda, and how it made a “wilderness” from an area that was actually already inhabited. What I found particularly interesting was how Leanne was linking up some of the symbolic acts found in the Vita Sturmi with those in early Iberian colonial texts talking about to how claim “new” land, such as by the clearing of land and the making of small buildings. (Sturm built a corral for his donkey). She cited work by Michael Curry on how places are legally created. As in some of the previous talks at Kalamazoo, this was a distinctively New World take on a medieval text that gave me a viewpoint I hadn’t thought of before.

Finally, Laura Carlson who I knew from Oxford, but is now in Canada, talked about “The Bonds and Bounds of Friendship: Amicitia Vocabulary in Carolingian Model Letter Collections”. As Laura pointed out, studies of friendship have been revitalised by modern social networking tools, which have revealed the carefully constructed and formal nature that friendships can take. Laura was trying to develop some of the ideas of Gerd Althoff on friendship further using letters from Frankish formularies. Her research is not helped by the editor of the MGH Formularies collection omitting bits of letters or whole letters from such collections that he decided were too emotional. But enough remains to suggest that “friend” could be something akin to a formal title, and that there is more use of “amicus” than had been previously thought. (I was also interested to hear that women could be addressed in such friendship letters). To complicate things further, Theo Riches in questions pointed out that talk of “friendship” could be a power move: it isn’t necessarily friendly to use the language of friendship. Given the well-known problems of dating and locating formularies, all this means that using such texts is going to be difficult, but it does sound like a possible way to get material that might be comparable to Altoff’s Ottonian situations.

That ended my sessions for Saturday, though I did go to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship reception (and have now joined the SMFS) and also to the dance. Maybe it was just because I didn’t stay till late (because of needing a bus back to my hotel), but I didn’t find it as crazily fun as the Leeds disco.

I was speaking in the graveyard slot, on the last session on Sunday morning, so skipped the first session, since I wasn’t sure I could get between locations on time (I had excessive amounts of luggage with me because my trip was so long). So the end of my first-ever Kalamazoo was my panel (on “New Approaches to Carolingian Charters”), at which I managed to do a live demo of the Making of Charlemagne Europe database without it falling over. I was followed by two of my friends. Julie Hofmann gave a paper entitled “Databases and Diplomatic: Is Context Worth Anything?” This was worrying away at the problem of what we lose by making charter databases. How does the extra level of abstraction affect our relationship to a document and our sense of it? And how do we get the resources to train people in the specialist skills to get beyond the database?

Julie’s points are important and we need to consider them before we get too euphoric about the possibilities of charter databases. Though I must add that at the moment I’m not exactly euphoric at the moment about these possibilities. There is a reason that our project’s unofficial motto is RTFC: Carolingian charters are hard to fit into a structured database. We’re also going to try and provide background context for the charters, but the database will still never be more than a tool for users, not the be-all and end-all.

After the pros and cons of databases, the final paper, by Jenny Davis was rather lower-tech, but managed to be new by the simple approach of making us realise that much of what we thought we know about Charlemagne’s charters is incorrect. Geoff Koziol contrasted the later West Frankish kings’ political use of charters with their more routine use in earlier periods, but Jenny argued that in fact Charlemagne’s charters were carefully targeted and slightly unexpected. He didn’t grant much land (either in terms of numbers of charters or size of estates) and he often didn’t give his own patrimonial land, but land acquired in court cases or taken from the Lombard fisc. He also gave less to monasteries than later kings.

Similarly, the traditional view of Charlemagne as building up networks of royal institutions in the heartlands of the empire needs to be nuanced. The monasteries in the heartlands who got multiple charters tended to have long-established links to the Carolingians: Charlemagne wasn’t buying loyalty there, although there is more evidence for him doing so in Italy. Jenny thought this was responding to Italian circumstances and contrasted this with the lack of grants to Bavarian churches or monasteries. It’s also hard to see strategic purposes by Charlemagne in the majority of his grants, though this may reflect a lack of our local knowledge as well.

Jenny also pointed out the changes chronologically: we get fewer charters after 790, just at the point where we start getting more sources of other kinds. Again, this suggests that charters couldn’t be expected. Charlemagne seems to have reacted opportunistically to events (such as Lorsch’s dispute with the family of its founder in 772). Charters were already an old tool in his time, but although he continued a tradition of giving, he did so in different ways.

So that was my four days of Kalamazoo wrapped up (although with a few more medievalist encounters all the way back to Chicago). I think as an early medievalist I still prefer the IMC in Leeds, but once you get to Kalamazoo it’s cheaper than Leeds (especially if you stay in the dorms), the bookfair is amazing, and I heard some interesting people speak whom I suspect I would never hear elsewhere. I can’t see myself being able to afford to go back over there soon, but I would like to go again at some point (preferably with a spare suitcase for taking books home).

Fifty years of historical database angst

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 1830–1860 and 1930–1960…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 activity—but 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 formation’s 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.

Leeds 2013 report 3: charters and non-charters

My time at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds this year was a slightly strange one, alternating between thinking about the work I do in the day job (as research associate on the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe charters project) and going to papers about all the other things in which I’m still interested (gender and religion and culture and shiny stuff). And also a lot of meeting friends and making new ones. I forgot to mention in my first report on the IMC that I finished Monday evening with the bloggers’ meet-up, in which, according to Leeds tradition, some old-hand Leeds bloggers turned up (myself, Jonathan Jarrett and L’historien errant), others didn’t (Gesta, Another Damned mMdievalist and Kathleen Neal) and we met some new bloggers: Karen Schousboe of Medieval Histories magazine and the Victorian Librarian (going medieval with a dash of pre-Raphaelite). I had to be reasonably restrained during the evening, however, since I was speaking on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, I started with one of my regular forays into what I am prone to call “Not My Millennium”, i.e. anything happening after the Year 1000. Technically, part of the session was my millennium, since Session 506 on “Law, Violence, and Social Bonds, I: Power, Conflict and Dispute Settlement had one Carolingian paper. The speakers were:

Matthew McHaffie, Lordship and Authority in Anjou, c. 1000 – c. 1150

Kim Esmark, Power and Pressure: The Micropolitics of 11th-Century Aristocratic Networks

Warren C. Brown, Conflict and the Laity in Carolingian Europe

The first two papers were “things to do with charters” ones, but taking very different approaches. Matthew’s was a trawl through nearly 3000 charters from Anjou to find around 120 that dealt with warranty, and he was then focusing on what those could tell us about legal practice. Paul Hyams has argued that warranty provides protection against outside challenge to a donation and also compensation if this protection failed. Looking at the charters, Matthew found very variable diplomatic (probably relating to the oral context in which such warranties were originally given) and evidence that suggested that it wasn’t just legal protection that could be provided. It could be handier just to have someone show up at the court with an intimidating posse. But warrantors weren’t always useful for churches (we don’t have grants to laymen before 1150): some were ineffective, and they might even backfire. For example, Hubert de Tabal gave land to Marmoutier, which was then taken by St Urban. Since Hubert was unable to warrant his gift, he ended up seizing the land back himself.

From a more general point of view, Matthew’s paper was interesting in suggesting something about the frequency of events required to make a large-scale charter trawl worthwhile. In a PhD (lasting presumably 3 years), he’s found 120 warranty clauses out of nearly 3000 charters, a hit-rate of around 4%. He also said he’s found 3 out of 120 in which women act as warrantors and around 10% of the warranty clauses are for exchanges. When you’re getting down to that level of rarity of an event/type (less than 1% of your sources), it’s really not feasible to trawl just for them; it has to be done as an offshoot of other research. One of the questions in using charters is how we can more effectively find such rare but not unique events.

In contrast to this wide-range focus on a particular type of charter, Kim Esmark’s paper was using charters to look narrowly but deeply, carrying out a prosopographical study of Odo of Blaison, a lord in Anjou. He appears in around 70 charters, both as part of the entourage of the counts of Anjou and with his own entourage, settling disputes or consenting to their alienation of property. Kim was mapping Odo’s social networks and arguing that a lay lord like Odo couldn’t easily dominate an area even during the notoriously weak reign of Fulk IV of Anjou. Odo had to provide for his own dependants and this was sometimes tricky: Kim quoted a placitum from the mid 1080s settling a long dispute with the church of St Lezin in Angers. In this, Odo had to give up some revenues from land held by his own men to the canons of St Lezin; Rotaldus, one of his vavassors , refused to consent to the charter and was excommunicated. It took a year before he agreed to the charter. Kim thought we needed to pay more attention to charter witnesses and to look at constraints to lordly power from below as well as above.

Kim’s paper was also interesting for my own work because in theory, charter projects such as Charlemagne’s Europe should provide the possibility to locate and analyse multiple Odos quickly: important men below comital status who turn up in a number of different sources and whose dependents/connections we also want to trace. In particular, I think we need to make our database structures and schematics as openly available as possible, so that they can be reused by people working on charters for different periods. But how that could be done technically I don’t yet know.

After two papers on things to do with high medieval charters, we then had Warren Brown discuss things to do with early medieval formulae. Having found Warren’s work very useful in the past, I found this a slightly disappointing paper: it was mainly a tour of the formularies, pointing out some of the interesting topics they dealt with (and his paper made surprisingly little mention of the work of Alice Rio, who’s done ground-breaking work on these). But overall it was an enjoyable session, if in an over-crowded room.

The rest of the day was mainly giving and preparing for my own sessions. I did, however, get to Session 702 on early medieval queenship. I’ve already discussed the paper by Val Garver on textile working by queens. The other two papers were by Grzegorz Pac and Hailey La Voy. Grzergorz was talking about the C10 and C11 iconography of queenship, focusing on images of the Virgin Mary being crowned or crowning others.

His main point was that although the idea of Mary as a queen became a doctrine in the fifth-century and images of her being crowned or crowning others were common from the Ottonian period onwards, we need to be careful considering the gendered implications of this: as the images he used showed, Mary could also be used in scenes as an indication of male ecclesiastical authority (e.g. her role in Bernward of Hildesheim’s Gospels) or depicted as crowning a king:

Virgin crowning OttoVirgin Crowning Otto III (or I?), folio 160v, Cod. LXXXVI, Biblioteca Capitolare, Ivrea, c. 966-1002.

(For more details on this sacramentary, see Evan Gatti’s article in Peregrinations vol 3 (2010), from which this image was taken).

Hailey, meanwhile, was focusing on letters from popes to queens and empresses, and in particular several letters from Popes Nicholas I and John VIII to queens at the Carolingian and Byzantine courts (many of which are available in translation via Epistolae. In particular, she was suggesting the importance of the model of Esther, as a royal wife being encouraged to give good advice to her husband, and warned of the evil consequences if she did not. In contrast, the Virgin Mary isn’t mentioned as an intercessor in such letters; Hailey was arguing that the image of her as a queen intervening with her Son developed as a result of earthly models of queenship, rather than the other way round.

I was involved in two sessions on Tuesday afternoon and evening: the first was session 808, organised by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller,who also gave us a typically erudite and high-speed trip through the possibilities of combining Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, object biography, spatial analysis via the new mapping tools available on the web and social network analysis. Johannes’ presentation, “Medieval entanglements: trans-border networks in Byzantium and China in comparison (300-900 CE)” is already available on the internet. My rather more low-key and downbeat paper, “Caught in Charlemagne’s web”, will also be available online shortly: its main point is that scaling up social network analysis of charters is going to be complicated, and will need a lot of careful thought about how we generate the networks.

If I was being somewhat sceptical about the possibility of using the “Making of Charlemagne’s Europe” database for social network analysis in this session, I was a lot more enthusiastic about its other possibilities in the final session of the day (910), when we were showing off our database alongside the Nomen et Gens database. This was definitely a session for early medieval charter nerds with a good sense of direction, since we were in one of the harder-to-find seminar rooms, but we got a surprisingly large audience and a positive reaction to our demonstration. Most of the presentation was pre-prepared Power Points (which again, will be up on the new project website soon), but we even managed a brief live link, quite impressive since the prototype user interface was still being built when the conference started. All in all, it was a good end to the first couple of days of the conference.

Charters as a political language

A few years ago, I remember Charlie Insley telling me that “charters were the new black”. I’m not sure I was convinced at the time, but there does seem to be an increasing interest in the use of charters for understanding the ideology of power. A couple of seminars at the IHR earlier this year both looked at the charters of particular rulers and I want to bring them together and see if the result tells us anything wider about the topic.

First of all, Kathryn Dutton from Manchester was talking about “Countship: concept and practice in twelfth-century Anjou”. Kathryn is at the start of a project examining non-royal power in twelfth-century France, which will compare the ideology of three territorial principalities: Greater Anjou, Brittany and Aquitaine. Her paper was looking at Geoffrey V of Anjou, on whom she’d written her thesis.

Enamel from Geoffrey’s tomb at Le Mans

Geoffrey married the Empress Matilda of England, and was the father of Henry II, but his most important family connection for propaganda purposes seemed to be that his father, Fulk V of Anjou, became king of Jerusalem, after marrying Queen Melisande. (It’s only as I come to write up it that it occurs to me it’s unusual to become a ruler of your father’s previous territory while your father’s still alive).

Kathryn was talking about a variety of methods, charter and non-charter that Geoffrey used to enhance his status. One was the use of relics and physical symbols: one of his ancestors, Fulk III had brought back a fragment of the True Cross from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and gifted it to St-Laud of Angers. Geoffrey was the abbot of St-Laud, and it’s possible that he wore the reliquary containing it. Fulk V sent back from the east an ivory tau-staff given to him by the wazir of Egypt, which Geoffrey may have used for adventus ceremonies.

Geoffrey never went on pilgrimage or crusade himself (though he may have considered doing so), but he probably used relics and his charters for Anjou often refer to him as “son of the King of Jerusalem”. In contrast, his charters in Normandy, which he conquered in 1144, don’t use this expression. Several of his charters refer to his military successes, e.g. his capture of Gerald of Montreuil-Bellay after a lengthy siege in 1151. He then seems to have led Gerald and his family in chains in something of a triumph, giving charters at a number of places to celebrate this victory. This caused outrage at the Capetian court, especially when Geoffrey took Gerald as a prisoner to Paris. Bernard of Clairvaux threatened him with excommunication and prophesied his imminent death (which indeed happened).

Charters, then, were only one part of Geoffrey’s projection of power, though obviously an important one. In contrast, Roberta Cimino from St Andrews, a couple of months later focused specifically on charters, in a paper entitled “The queen’s title in Italian diplomas (9th-10th centuries)”. Roberta was looking at one particular title, that of “consors regni”, implying the sharer of an empire, which was used in mid-ninth to mid-tenth century Italian royal diplomas but rarely elsewhere. “Consors imperii” was a title first used in the late Roman empire for the ruler and his heir, and it was revived for this purpose at the start of the ninth century, in texts such as Einhard’s Vita Karoli or the Royal Frankish Annals. From the mid-ninth century it started to be used for the king or emperor’s wife.

There’s been a lot of discussion about why the meaning of the term shifted, with some researchers, such as Carlo Guido Mor, seeing the use of title as reflecting the existence of a specific institution of co-regency, and others, such as Paolo Delogu seeing it as an honorific title, introduced into Carolingian diplomatics from literature. Roberta was arguing that the title didn’t have a fixed meaning, but was instead a fluid instrument, used in some, but not all charters mentioning the queen. Diplomas, she argued, were performances in total and all the elements contributed to them.

For example, although the title was used for Empress Ermengarde (wife of Lothar I) in 848, it didn’t appear again until the 860s, when it started to be used for Angilberga, the wife of Louis II. Even then, it wasn’t used in all the charters which mention her. Roberta was arguing that Louis’s chancery practice changed after his expedition to south Italy in 866, both because he had a very limited chancery staff and because he was concerned to promote his imperial authority. There was an orchestrated campaign of imperial propaganda which included solemn titles for the queen. Very unusually, there are also silver deniers from 871-872 which have Angilberga’s name on the reverse.


Roberta also looked at the use of “consors imperii” for Ageltrude, the wife of Guy of Spoleto. Guy was the first non-Carolingian emperor, and had a very strong imperial ideology. Ageltrude is not always given the title “consors imperii,” but she is in two clusters of charters: four from 891, issued on her imperial coronation and two from 894, at a time when Guy was experiencing political problems. The properties being given to Ageltrude at that point had previous associations with Carolingian women. Overall, the title is applied to Ageltrude only when she’s recipient of properties associated with the Carolingians.

Roberta then finished with a diploma from 948, in which “consors imperii” was used to demonstrate the relationship between two men: a diploma of Lothar II of Italy calls Berengar of Ivrea, the effective ruler of Italy, “summus consors regni”, showing the negotiation of power between them.

Roberta’s examples showed the flexibility of the term, suggesting it was not referring to an institution, but the combination of the two papers gets us back to the thorny question of authors and audiences of charters as well. On the one hand, there are historians like Geoff Koziol arguing that every charter is a carefully calibrated demonstration of royal authority; on the other hand, Jon Jarrett is worrying about whether these processes (and the charters themselves) are being driven by granters or recipients: are the different titles etc used just because different recipients are responsible for drawing up the diplomas?

But there’s another issue with audiences: should we be talking about the audience for a charter or for charters? If the audience for a charter is essentially one-off (those present at a particular solemn occasion, plus later readers) then why don’t all charters aim for maximum impressiveness? If this is a ruler’s big chance to show how impressive he/she is, surely they should go for broke every time? Now possibly they don’t always have the parchment and high-quality scribes available to produce a first-class looking diploma, but terms like “consors regni” are cheap and easy to add. And yet they don’t get added automatically to every charter, just as Geoffrey V doesn’t always call himself the son of the king of Jerusalem.

I think this means that if we’re going to see charters as a language deliberately controlled by the granters, we’re going to have to presume a common audience for a whole sequence of charters, not just one. Language gets dulled by repetition, and using every possible title in every charter is the charter diplomatic equivalent of shouting all the time. Maybe we need to turn this analysis of the political language of charters round and ask why some phrases don’t get used all the time and what that may tell us about the audiences for different charters of the same ruler.

Charters, women and networking

Yesterday, when inputting the details of a new book on early medieval charters and the laity into my bibliographical software, I was idly musing on the fact that you had to be unlucky to have a surname beginning with K and still end up as the fourth of four editors in alphabetical order. Then I noticed something else that seemed statistically implausible. There are four editors and six other authors in the book, and all ten of them are male.

I want to say at once that I’m not accusing Warren Brown et al. of sexism. As was discussed after one session at Leeds this year, you can end up with a noticeably unbalanced panel entirely by accident, if particular people you want to include aren’t able to participate. And in many subfields of history there is a bias towards one sex in the numbers of researchers, which may only exacerbate this situation. But it did get me thinking about scholarly networks more generally. Conference panels and edited books are often assembled largely via connections: your friends and contacts. They are thus always liable to bias in terms of geography, status and scholarly approaches taken, as well as sex. (Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages is also an Anglosphere book; I don’t know whether or not that aspect of it was deliberate). And there is a potential danger with such reliance on existing networks : that those at less prestigious institutions or women or men, or those working in Holland etc can get shut out from conferences and publishing opportunities for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their scholarship.

This is where the networking of my title comes in. Networking at conferences such as the International Medieval Congress sometimes gets regarded rather negatively, as if the whole point of it is just to suck up to the influential and further your own career. There are sometimes suggestions that it’s better, or somehow more authentic, to spend time mainly with your friends at such conferences. But my ideal of networking at such events is about creating intellectual networks: finding people there of whatever status whose research is relevant to yours in some way and from whom you can learn. And in turn, I see part of my role there as connecting other people together: putting someone working on facial disfigurement in contact with someone who’s just written a book on Merovingian attitudes to warfare etc. If we take such opportunities, we can help create contact networks that do cross boundaries of location, status, period and sex, and I hope that the result is that academics from all sorts of backgrounds get more opportunities to be involved in interesting collaborations.

ChartEx: data technologies and charters

York chartex imageYork, corner of Stonegate and Petergate – image taken from one of the ChartEx presentations

I will gradually be talking about the sessions I went to at this year’s International Medieval Congress, but I’ve had a special request to report on the session organised by the ChartEx project, because of its possible relevance to many of the other current charter database projects. Most of the presentations that the ChartEx team gave are now up on their project site, so that’s the first place to look. This post is more giving my personal views of what the wider significance of the project might be, judging on the basis of what were inevitably fairly brief presentations.

I’ll start by making three points that the team themselves made: this is a proof-of-concept project (i.e. the emphasis is on a relatively short intense project to see if the technology can work effectively), they’re working with existing digitised resources, and their aim is to provide tools for expert historians rather than end-results accessible to non-specialists. So any assessment of what they’ve achieved has to acknowledge the limits of what’s possible in the time, the sources they had to start from and who they’re designing things for.

There are three main areas on which they were focusing: Natural Language Processing (NLP), data mining and a virtual workbench. First of all, the NLP is attempting to create a system which will automatically mark-up charter texts or transcriptions, e.g. tagging people, places, occupations, relationships, charter features etc. So the obvious questions I was interested in were 1) can such automatic marking-up be done and 2) is it useful if you do succeed in doing it? To which the answers seemed to me to be 1) “yes, but” and 2) more useful when combined with data-mining than I’d previously appreciated.

From what we heard of the methods and successes of the NLP part of the project, there are certain limits on what it can effectively do:

a) You need a large training set to start with: they were talking about 200 charters that had to be marked-up by hand, which means it’s probably only a process worth doing if you have at least a thousand charters you want marked-up.

b) It works better on marking-up names (of people or places) than on relationships, beyond the most immediately adjacent in the text, e.g. it can cope with finding the father-son relationship in “Thomas son of Josce”, but not necessarily both of the relationships in “Thomas son of Josce goldsmith and citizen of York to his younger son Jeremy”.

c) One of the reasons it works more effectively on names is because it’s using existing editorial conventions, e.g. capitalisation of proper nouns. That means that if you get an editor who’s decided they’re not going to use this convention (e.g. as with the Farfa charters), you have problems.

d) It also sounded as if it would work reasonably well where you had a list of likely terms you could give it to look for, e.g. occupation names/titles.

e) Overall, it’s likely to work best on texts that are relatively standardised: the demonstrations we had were using modern English translations or summaries of charters from late medieval York. One of the team suggested that if you used the original Latin texts instead, you might get some extra relationships clearer because of grammatical case (e.g. you could distinguish the recipient from the donor in a sentence). However, that relies crucially on the writer of the Latin texts observing some consistent rules of grammar, which early medieval scribes frankly don’t.

f) There’s also what I now think of as the “Judas Iscariot problem”, after an example in my IMC 2013 paper. In other words, the names of people and places that you don’t want (e.g. Biblical figures in sanctions clauses, or those mentioned in pro anima clauses in this example), also get marked-up.

I think all these factors combined together means that NLP is only likely to be of substantial use where you’ve got big and fairly homogeneous corpora of charters: the only early medieval dataset ChartEx were considering working with was the online edition of the Cluny charters.

The part of the project that I found most interesting (and potentially more relevant to early medievalists) was the discussion of data mining. This was using statistical methods on marked-up text to suggest possible identifications, both person-to-person, and also (more complicated), site-to-site. More specifically the aim was to match people/families in charters from late medieval York with one another and combine this with boundary information to try and identify a series of charters all dealing with the same urban plot.

This is the kind of matching that Sarah Rees Jones and scholars like her have tried to do for urban landscapes by manual methods for many years. What is so useful about computer techniques is that they can combine multiple factors and compare different charters very rapidly. If you look at the demonstration of this (slides 10-12) , you can see how a phrase such as “Thomas, son of Josce, goldsmith”, can be broken down into a set of statements with probabilities and the likelihood of a match between two people with similar descriptors in two different charters can then be quantified. (For the mathematically inclined among us, the speaker admitted that the probabilities for names and profession weren’t necessarily entirely independent, but he didn’t think that distorted the results too much).

The speakers also demonstrated how it was possible to do transaction/transaction clustering, i.e. to spot the charters which were most like each other in terms of the boundaries of the property transferred and the people involved. That kind of large-scale matching (they were carrying out complete cross-matching of sets of 100 items or more) is extremely difficult for human brains, which find it hard to take multiple factors into account simultaneously.

It’s that combination of mark-up (automated or not) and data-mining that struck me as the most useful general application of the project. The mapping of plots is only likely to be relevant for collections where we have lots of data on the same small areas, which means urban areas with large amounts of charters. The person-to-person identification techniques work well if you’ve got people identified in some detail in relatively formalised ways. My immediate thought is that it would have been a useful tool to have had for the project team on Profile of a Doomed Elite. But the matching process can only be as effective as the quality of data you’ve got, and I don’t think most early medieval charter collections do give you enough identifying details. I’d be very interested to hear the team’s result on matching Cluny data, or what you’d get from e.g. twelfth century Scottish charters.

But in theory, you could apply the same matching techniques to any data in the charter that had been marked up, either by hand or via NLP. I’ve previously been sceptical about what you can do with a list of curses from Anglo-Saxon charters, but this kind of data mining probably could do some very interesting clustering of them, especially using some of the methods for matching texts that DEEDS has expertise in. And in particular, that means that it might be possible at last to do something systematic with early medieval formulae (for those of us who aren’t Wendy Davies).

Particular types of formulae, such as appurtenance clauses, are at once so standardised that they must be being derived from one another (or from shared earlier models) and at the same time so subtly different from one another that tracing their connections is extremely complicated. If you have the text of enough early medieval charters online it wouldn’t be that time-consuming to mark-up just the relevant few sections in each charter (either manually or possibly via NLP) and then turn such data-mining techniques on them. I suspect you would get some genuinely interesting suggested clusters as a result. And the whole point of this project is that it’s not intended to replace scholars, but to give them short-cuts to looking at data in a way that’s otherwise excessively time-consuming.

And it’s at this point that I want to go onto the final aim of the ChartEx project, which is to produce a virtual workbench for historians working with charters. The main novelty here seemed to be the involvement of specialists in human-computer interaction, but at this stage in the project we were told more about the methodology they were using for designing the interface than what was actually in it. So it’s a bit hard to know how different it will be from the kind of interface that KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities is now designing, e.g. the mapping and statistics possible with Domesday Book data. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, but the project as a whole already seems to have some methods that those of us interested in charters from other periods might well find worth investigating and adapting.

Italians and emperors

In January, I went to a couple of seminars on early medieval Italy, which reminded me not only how badly informed I am about its tenth and eleventh century Italian history, but also how difficult it is to interpret the sources for that period, at a time when the Holy Roman emperors were attempting to exercise control in the north of Italy against local resistance. First of all, at the IHR Early Medieval Seminar we had Rob Houghton from St Andrews on “The vocabulary of groups in eleventh-century Mantua”. Rob was focussing on two imperial charters for the Mantuans: Henry II’s charter from 1014 (MGH DD H II no. 278) and Henry III’s from 1055 (MGH DD H III, no 356).

The first of these grants privileges to the “arimanni” of Mantua, the second to the “arimanni” and “cives” of the city. Rob was arguing that this changing vocabulary cannot be taken as simply reflecting the social structures of the city, as those arguing over whether or not the communes were a uniquely Italian development have tended to think. Instead, they reflected imperial claims to power, while the two emperors were attempting to balance or even undermine the power of the Canossan family. Rob argued that both these charters were produced at times of relatively cool relations between the emperors and this family. The vocabulary of “arimanni” and “cives” don’t appear in other Mantua documents from the centuries before and after, only these ones. Instead, the purpose of this use of vocabulary was to link the emperors back to earlier rulers of Italy, drawing first on Lombard law traditions and then later also Roman law ones.

From lying charters (or at least unrealistic ones), a couple of weeks later one of Rob’s supervisors, Simon MacLean, was talking at CLANS (the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar) on “Otto I’s invasion of Italy and the writing of Ottonian queenship”.

Otto I’s wife Adelheid has been seen as the first “superqueen”, the particularly powerful queens visible in the late tenth century. She was the widow of Lothar, king of Italy when Otto married her, and there was a “founding myth” of how she miraculously escaped from the captivity imposed on her by Berengar II of Italy after Lothar’s death and was then rescued by Otto. This story is reported by Hrotsvita and also by Odilo of Cluny.

Simon said that Adelheid’s power has rarely been explained, but assumed to be either due to her personality or her wealth and prestige. But although she was certainly unusually rich (she got a huge dower in 937 when she married Lothar), she doesn’t look particularly influential early on; in 950, when Lothar died she was probably only 18, and had only been mentioned as queen in a couple of Italian charters. The dominant figure in Italy in the 940s is Berengar, who became king after Lothar’s death, but because we don’t have sources written from his side, he appears as a villain and also as less powerful than he actually was. Simon argued that although Berengar was persuaded to visit Otto in Saxony in 951 and Otto ritually humiliated there, making Berengar submit in public, Otto didn’t, in fact, control Italy after 952. Berengar held the real power and was, for example, able to depose Otto’s supporters from bishoprics.

In 961, however, Otto again attempted to gain control of Italy. Berengar had been ruling for almost ten years by then, and it was Otto who appeared as a usurper, which Simon argued did actually matter to would-be rulers in the early Middle Ages. As a result, Otto’s charters from the period reclassified Berengar from a client king to a rebel, and also developed the idea that Adalheid had been ruler of Italy and Berengar had usurped the throne from her. Adelheid’s power was thus a construction of the 960s, not the 950s, reflected in the vastly increased numbers of Otto’s charters which now referred to her and called her queen. But as Simon put it, Adelheid’s queenliness was an argument, not an objective fact.

This back projection then had further impacts on queenship in the second half of the tenth century. For example, because Adalheid was a cousin of Berengar’s queen Willa, writers such as Liutprand or Hrotsvit who wanted to support Otto and Adalheid couldn’t just use a contrast of lineages to laud them against their rivals; instead they had to create barriers artificially. For example, Hrostsvit claimed that Willa had tortured Adalheid when she was imprisoned. Queenship was moved to the centre of Ottonian discourse as a result of such short-term needs: queens became good to think with.

The contingency of queenship is a factor that’s often acknowledged by historians; far-reaching norms develop around queens as a response to immediate circumstances. What the combination of the two papers gave was a reminder of the extent to which this is also true of many other medieval political developments. Henry III’s charter describing the Mantuans as citizens was a response to a particular political situation, not simply a reflection of existing social practices. But it in turn influenced subsequent practice and political thought. This haphazard tendency for political theories to develop may have been particularly prevalent in Italy, which combined a large number of expert propagandists, newly developing legal expertise and particularly convoluted struggles for power. But studying other countries as well, we probably need to avoid too much teleology or abstraction when talking about medieval political developments.

Medieval social networks 2: charters and connections

As a follow-up to my first post on social network analysis, I’m now gradually reading some of the many books and articles on historians’ use of network analysis that readers of my blog suggested. And having read a couple of chapters of Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt, I’m coming to realise that one of the most difficult issues for those of us working with documentary sources is deciding what counts as a connection between two people and what links should therefore be included in the network.

The majority of the late antique/medieval network analysis studies that I’ve looked at work by hand-crafting links. Someone sits down, works their way through their sources and picks out by eye every link between two people (or two places). Often, they also categorise the link. For example, Elizabeth Clark, when studying conflicts between Jerome and Rufinus, divided links into seven different types: “marriage/kinship; religious mentorship; hospitality; travelling companionship; financial patronage, money, and gifts; literature written to, for, or against members of the network; and carriers of literature and information correspondence.”

(Elizabeth A. Clark, “Elite networks and heresy accusations: towards a social description of the Origenist controversy”, Semeia (56) 1991, 79-117 at p. 95).

Similarly, Judith Bennett did the same thing when looking at connections of families recorded in the Brigstock manorial court records:

The content of these transactions has been divided into six qualitative categories that collectively encompass all possible transactions. These categories are based upon whether the network subject interacted with an-other person by whether the network subject interacted with an-other person by (i) receiving assistance, (2) giving assistance, (3) acting jointly, (4) receiving land, (5) giving land, or (6) engaging in a dispute.

(Judith M. Bennett, “The tie that binds: peasant marriages and families in late medieval England”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 15 (1984), 111-129, at p. 115).

And for networks of places, Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Networks of border zones: multiplex relations of power, religion and economy in South-Eastern Europe, 1250-1453 AD”, in Revive the past: proceeding of the 39th conference on computer applications and quantitative methods in archaeology, Beijing, 12-16 April 2011 edited by Mingquan Zhou, Iza Romanowska, Zhongke Wu, Pengfei Xu and Philip Verhagen,. (Amsterdam, Pallas Publications, 2012), 381-393, combined existing geographical datasets on late antique land and sea routes with details of church and state administrative networks he’s compiled from documentary sources.

Such approaches create very reliable networks, but they’re hard to scale up. Clark looks at 26 people; Judith Bennett has 31 people and 1,965 appearances in extant records from 1287-1348. Preiser-Kapeller has around 270 nodes and 680 links in total. Rosé’s study of Odo of Cluny, which I discussed in the previous post, had 860 links. For charters, such hand-crafted networks would probably only allow the exploration of small archives or individual villages.

What is more, researchers often want to carry out social network analysis as an offshoot of more general prosopographical work, such as creating a charter database. But it’s hard to analyse links until you’ve first created a prosopography, because it’s only when you’ve been through all the charters that you have a decent idea of whether two people of the same name are actually the same person. (There’s a further issue here about whether you may end up with circular reasoning between prosopography and network analysis, but I’ll leave that for now). So in theory, you’d need to go through all the charters first to identify people and then have to go back to assess whether or not they are linked in a meaningful way, doubling your work.

As a result, some researchers have started trying to see if there are ways of automatically creating networks from existing databases or files, developing methods for analysing charters that (in theory) can be scaled up relatively easily. In the rest of the post I want to look at the relatively few projects I’m aware of attempting to do this and outline how we might approach the problem with the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe dataset.

The three projects I’m looking at are by Giovanni Ruffini, working on the village of Aphrodito in Egypt (see reference above), Joan Vilaseca, who’s been experimenting on creating graphs from the early medieval sources he’s collected at Cathalaunia.org and a controversial article by Romain Boulet, Bertrand Jouve, Fabrice Rossi, and Nathalie Villa, “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis”, Neurocomputing 71 (2008), 1257-1273.

Ruffini is explicit about how he’s creating his networks and the problems that may result from this (pp. 29-31). He’s taking documents and creating “affiliation networks”: all those who appear in the same document are regarded as connected to one another. As he points out, the immediate problem is that this method can introduce distortions if you have one or two documents with very large numbers of names. For example, one of the texts in his corpus is part of the Aphrodito fiscal register and has 455 names in it, while the average text names only eleven (p. 203). If such a disproportionately large text is included, analysis of connectivity is badly distorted, with all the people appearing in the fiscal register appearing at the top of connectivity lists.

The same effect can be seen in Joan Vilaseca’s graphs. If you look at his first attempts at graphing documents from Catalonia between 898-914, they’re dominated by the famous judgement of Valfogona in 913.

But Joan’s graphs also show an additional problem. His first graphs also give great prominence to Charles the Simple and Louis the Stammerer, because they appear so often in dating clauses. When he starts looking for measures of centrality in his next post he initially finds the most connected people to be St Peter, the Virgin Mary and Judas Iscariot (who appear frequently in sanction clauses).

This brings us to the key question: what does it mean to be in the same charter as another person? The problem is that people are named in charters for so many different reasons: they may be saints, donors, witnesses, relatives to be commemorated, scribes or even the count whose pagus you are in. People may also appear as the objects of transactions: some of our early decisions on the Charlemagne project were deciding how we would treat the unfree (and possibly the free) who were being transferred between one party and another. Such unfree have an obvious connection to the donor and the recipient. But do they have any meaningful relationship to the witnesses or the scribe? At least with witnesses, there’s a reasonable chance in most cases that they all physically met at some point, but I don’t know of any evidence that the unfree would necessarily have been present when their ownership was transferred by a charter.

So simple affiliation networks, even when you eliminate disproportionately large documents and people mentioned only in dating or sanction clauses, can still be inaccurate representations of actual relationships. One possible response to this problem is to include as links only types of relationships that are themselves spelled out in the charters. Joan has some graphs showing only family and neighbourhood relationships, for example. Ruffini (p. 21) suggests the possibility of using data-sets where a link is defined as existing only when there is a clear connection between two parties in a document e.g. between a lessor and a lessee. But as he points out, we would then have much smaller data-sets. And for early medieval charters, in particular, focusing on the main parties to a transaction only would simply demonstrate that most transaction were about people donating or selling land to churches and monasteries, which is not exactly new information.

Are there any other ways to cut out “irrelevant” connections while keeping those we think are likely to show meaning? Another approach that Joan tries uses affiliation networks, but then removes links where two people occur together in only one document. For his interest in identifying key members of Catalan society, focusing on the most important links may well make sense. But they potentially distort the evidence on one question of wider interest: how significant are weak ties in charter-derived networks? Weak ties, where two people interact only occasionally, may paradoxically be more important for spreading information or practices. Given we have only a small subset of interactions preserved via charter data, significant weak ties may be lost if we start removing data from affiliation networks in this way.

Implicitly, at least, an alternative method for selecting links within what’s broadly an affiliation network is given by Boulet, Jouvet, Rossi and Villa. As they explain in their study of thirteenth and fourteenth century notarial acts, they constructed a graph in the following manner (pp. 1264-1265):

First, nobles and notaries are removed from the analyzed graph because they are named in almost every contracts: they are obvious central individuals in the social relationships and could mask other important tendencies in the organization of the peasant society. Then, two persons are linked together if:

_ they appear in a same contract,
_ they appear in two different contracts which differ from less than 15 years and on which they are related to the same lord or to the same notary.

The three main lords of the area (Calstelnau Ratier II, III and Aymeric de Gourdon) are not taken into account for this last rule because almost all the peasants are related to one of these lords. The links are weighted by the number of contracts satisfying one of the specified conditions.

Though it’s not clear why people are regarded as linked if they use the same notary, the other criteria seem to be ways of trying to filter out distortions that potentially arise from notorial practices. If men are routinely described in terms of their affiliation to a lord e.g. “A the man of B”, then an affiliation network will derive from a sale between “A the man of B” and “C the man of D” not only the justified links A to B, C to D and A to C, but also links that in practice are unlikely to exist or at least are not proven to do so, i.e. A to D, C to B and B to D.

So how might we balance distortions from applying the affiliation network model to charter data against loss of data or an unfeasibly high workload if we don’t use this method? The model for the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe database allows inputting of relationship factoids, which will catch explicit references to people as the relatives or neighbours of others. Graphs using such data will be relatively easy to construct.

We are also, however, recording “agent roles”, used to identify what role a person or an institution plays within an individual charter or transaction (e.g. witness, scribe, object of transaction, granter). At the minimum, any social network analysis application added to the system should probably allow a user to choose which of these roles they want included within the graphs to be created. There should also be some threshold (either chosen by us or user-defined) for excluding documents that contain “too many” different agents. We’re still not going to get the precision graphs that hand-crafting links will give, but we can hopefully still get something that will tell us something useful about how people interact.

Digital diplomatics 1: projects and possibilities

I am currently trying to get up to speed on some of the many projects involving charters online, drawing heavily on accounts from the Digital Diplomatics conferences (and also Jon Jarrett’s useful reports on the 2011 conference). I don’t claim to be an expert on charters, but I have been using (and sometimes developing) databases for 25 years, so some of the issues seem quite familiar from my experience as a librarian. What I want to do in this first post is give a sample of the types of project out there and also note what I consider to be some particularly interesting features.

It’s useful to start with a sketch of the origins of diplomatics (the study of charters) because that explains a lot about how digital developments have been shaped. The starting point was the attempts by early modernists to work out which charters of a particular religious institution were false and which were genuine. For this, the key ability was being able to compare charters with good evidence for being authentic (e.g. held as originals) to other more dubious versions. As a result, charter studies have often been organised either around particular collections/archives (e.g. editions of cartularies, charters of St Gall) or around rulers (e.g. the diplomas of Charles the Bald), because it’s easier to spot the dodgy stuff in a reasonably homogenous corpus.

Charters have also long been a key source for regional history, so eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars produced a lot of editions of regional collections of documents including charters, such as the Histoire générale de Languedoc. Where the corpus is small enough, these have then been extended to national collections or overviews, some of which I mention below.

From the purely print age, we have now, however, begun moving into digital diplomatics and there have been a variety of approaches.

1) Simple retro-digitisation
Because there’s been scholarly interest in diplomatics for several centuries, a lot of early editions are now out of copyright. Simple retro-digitisation of old editions doesn’t often get mentioned in discussions of digital diplomatics (though Georg Vogeler, “Digitale Urkundenbücher. Eine Bestandsaufnahme”, Archiv für Diplomatik, 56 (2010), p. 363?392 has a useful discussion of them), but there are a lot of old charter editions being put online by projects such as Google, Internet Archive, Gallica etc. This data, however, is pretty hard for charter scholars to make use of unless they’re looking for a specific charter (or at most a specific edition). Is there any way in which this material could be deal with more effectively?

Doing something with such data doesn’t strike me as a project that’s likely to possible to fund (it’s not new and exciting enough). The most plausible way of organising it seems to me to be crowd-sourcing of OCR work on charter scans (or checking already OCR’d documents) along with adding some basic XML markup and then sticking them in a repository. Monasterium seems the obvious one to use. Whether there would be enough researchers interested in charters from more than one foundation to make the effort of doing this worthwhile, however, I’m not sure.

2) Databases based on the printed edition model
Printed editions of charters are normally either arranged chronologically or include a chronological index. (There are a few cartulary editions which don’t have this, and I have winced at having to look through hundreds of pages to spot if there are any Carolingian charters). The vast majority of printed editions also have indexes to personal names and place names. In contrast, content analysis of the charter is often fairly limited, in the form of headnotes plus a narrative introduction.

The indexes to printed charters, if they’re done properly, work pretty well for the needs of many people working with these sources. Or, to see it from a different angle, historians studying charters arrange their research into these kind of categories. As a result, where such indexes don’t exist in the original edition, you’ll often find that someone creates them later (like Julius Schmincke doing an index to Dronke’s edition of the charters from Fulda).

A lot of charter databases are still essentially arranged around these traditional print access methods, with digitisation essentially adding (often fairly basic) full text search and remote access. Many of the online charter projects that have got furthest have been digitisations of relatively small and coherent existing charter collections, which have already been published in a single print series. There are several based on national collections, such as Sean Miller’s database of Anglo-Saxon charters, Diplomaticum Norvegicum and Diplomatarium Fennicum. There are also some regional charter databases of the same type (such as the Württembergische Urkundenbuch, and the early twentieth-century edition of the Cluny charters have also been put in a database. And then, of course, there’s the charters section of the digital Monumenta Germaniae Historica.

3) Aggregator databases
There are also a few charter database projects which are based on aggregating multiple printed editions: the two most important are Monasterium and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Aevi.

4) Born digital/hybrid editions
In contrast to the substantial projects of digitising existing editions, most of the born digital (or moved to digital) charter databases seem to be fairly small scale. The one exception I’ve found so far is Codice diplomatico della Lombardia Medievale which has now put over 5,000 Lombard charters from the eighth to twelfth century online.

5) Databases of originals
There is also a slightly separate strand of digital diplomatics research, which has focused on charters which are preserved in the originals (rather than as cartulary copies, etc). Some of these databases just include the text, others focus on images of charters. Projects include ARTEM and the (basic) database now attached to the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores publishing project. I’m also aware of several more image-focused projects, such as the Marburg Lichtbildarchiv, and Pergamo Online, which contains images of parchments preserved in Pergamo.

I’m not going to discuss the image databases in any detail, because they’re a very different kettle of fish to the textual databases I’m used to working with, but it is worth noting how decisions made on how much detail is recorded for original documents can be fairly arbitrary. As George Vogeler points out, there’s an odd division for the St Gall charters between the early stuff that gets put in horrendously expensive printed ChLA editions and the material from the eleventh century onwards that is available free via Monasterium.

6) Linguistic projects
I also won’t say much about charter database projects that focus on linguistic analysis of texts, such as Corpus der altdeutschen Originalurkunden bis zum Jahr 1300, Langscape and the work being done by people like Rosanna Sornicola and Timo Korkiangas. While this is interesting work, it seems to me of less immediate relevance to most historians.

7) Factoid model
As Patrick Sahle put it in a recent paper (“Vorüberlegungen zur Portalbildung in der Urkundenforschung”, Digitale Diplomatik: Neue Technologien in der historischen Arbeit mit Urkunden. Archiv fur Diplomatik Schriftgeschichte, Siegel-und Wappenkunde, Beiheft 12, edited by Georg Vogeler (Cologne, Böhlau Verlag, 2009), 325-341 at p. 338), the object of diplomatic research is the individual charter. Most database projects are structured in a way that reflects this focus on the charter as a unit.

A contrast is given by the factoid model adopted by a number of KCL projects, such as the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England and what will shortly become the People of Medieval Scotland project. Here, the key unit is the factoid, a statement of the form: “Source S claims Agents X1, X2, X3 etc carried out Action A1 connected with Possessions/Places P1, P2 at date D1.” A charter (or another source) can thus be broken down into a number of factoids, allowing finer grained-access to the content of charters. Although this may not seem an obvious approach to considering charters (and there are a number of practical problems), it does match surprisingly well to the “Who, What, Where, When, How do we know” model that I’ve mentioned before as one approach to working with charters.

What works
As my overview suggests, there are already too many charter databases out there to make it easy to discuss them all in any more depth than “here’s another one that does X, Y and Z”. But there are some projects that seem to me to illuminate particularly important aspects of digital diplomatics:

1) DEEDS: full text done right
I’ve discussed before the problems of searching full-text databases of charters, but most projects don’t seem to respond to such problems. Instead they have very basic full-text facilities, and certainly nothing like the ability to use regular expressions that Jon Jarrett longs for.

The problem with regular expressions, of course, is that they still require an expert user. And as several generations of designers of library catalogues and other kinds of databases know, most users aren’t experts, and they don’t want to have to become so to be able to use your database. Even if you learn the right syntax, how do you know what spelling variations to try searching for before you’ve seen what might be lurking in the database? For example, if know that the MGH edition of one of Charlemagne’s charters (DK 169) refers to a particular county as Drungaoe or Trungaoe, how on earth would it occur to you that the same charter in Monasterium would name the place as “Traungaev”?

DEEDS is the only project I’ve seen so far that has really sophisticated analytical tools for full-text. Its methods of shingles for example, is currently being applied to dating documents, but it strikes me as something that might also very usefully be applied to identifying particular formularies used by someone drawing up a charter. By breaking a document down in this way, you can analyse multiple factors suggesting that a document is “nearer” to one model than another in a way that’s simply not practical with manual methods.

Even more useful, potentially is DEEDS’ use of normalisation. Their alternative spelling option makes their search engine cope with a lot of the more common issues in searching Latin. But the really interesting part to me was their discussion of using normalisation to produce phonetic proxies. This takes a phrase such as “Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Iohannes de Halliwelle” and reduces it to “scnt prsnt cj futr cj eg iohns pr hall”, the bare sounds of the key terms. A full-text search facility with phonetic proxy as option strikes me as one of the few ways that you might be able to produce something that could find you the multiple possible Latin spellings of the Traungau, without you needing to sit down for a week to work them out…

2) ARTEM: bringing in the users
ARTEM, the database of French original charters before 1121 is far from being the biggest or the more sophisticated charter database around. Where the project has succeeded, however, is in getting researchers actually to use the database. There have been several conference publications based on its work, e.g. Marie-José Gasse-Grandjean and Benoît-Michel Tock, eds. Les actes comme expression du pouvoir au haut Moyen âge: actes de la table ronde de Nancy, 26-27 novembre 1999. Atelier de recherches sur les textes médiévaux, 5. (Turnhout, Brepols, 2003).

What I’m not yet sure of is why ARTEM have been more successful than comparable projects in getting other scholars involved. Is it because they’ve been going longer, that they’re more pro-active in arranging roundtables, or is it because France has a weird early medieval charter distribution, with a large number of relatively small collections of charters, and thus researchers desperately need a multi-archive database?

3) Monasterium: Charters 2.0
Monasterium.net describes itself as a “collaborative archive” and it’s the only project I’m so far aware of that takes the idea of user participation seriously. As well as providing tools for working with and annotating individual charters (which I haven’t yet had the chance to try out), it’s also intended to provide a distributed infrastructure into which individual archives from across Europe can add their material. As a means for getting later medieval charters available online, especially for smaller archives, it looks ideal. In terms of data quantity and quality, however, it’s liable to the patchiness inherent to large-scale collaborative projects: some areas get very well-covered, some don’t get referred to at all.

4) CBMA: blending old and new
Chartae Burgundiae Medii Aevi isn’t unusual in its scope ? it’s aiming to put online the 15,000 charters from the region of Burgundy. What’s more unusual is its methods ? it’s putting online both old editions and previously unedited cartularies. There are obvious issues here about whether they can get data consistency, but potentially it seems more practical to start with existing editions (however imperfect) and “grow” a database using them, than to wait for funding to re-edit everything from scratch.

5) Cathalaunia.org: DIY databases
All the databases I’ve discussed so far have been major research projects. However Cathalaunia.org, created by Joan Vilaseca shows the possibility for a dedicated individual to produce their own web-based charter database, using easily available tools.
Joan uses a wiki format, which for the relatively small number of documents he has provides a neat way of showing links between people and places. The unstructured nature of the data may make it harder to search, but it also means that different genres of documents (not just charters, but hagiography etc) can be incorporated easily. It’s a useful reminder that charter information doesn’t have to be stored in relational databases. (For another example of this minimalist approach, see Project FAST, which is putting a Florentine archive online).

Cathalonia.org also raises an interesting point about audiences and the accessibility of charter databases. The site is in Catalan, which makes it far more suitable for what I presume is Joan’s main audience, people interested in the history of their own region. But for those of us who aren’t Catalans (and don’t specialise in its history) the use of a relatively uncommon language is a disadvantage.

Preliminary conclusions
The databases I’ve so far read about or seen prove that there are lots of interesting projects going on, but I do slightly wonder if there’s too much variety. Different audiences and different aims can explain some of the variants, but I think maybe we start needing to adapt more systematically from previous projects. I can see the components of really effective databases in some projects, but so far they’re not being pulled together into something that properly builds on the pioneering work. So, I finish with a question for the more experienced users: what do you like from particular charter database sites? What should the Charlemagne project be stealing from other projects?