What do black people who appear in Elizabethan archives have in common with early medieval charters which mention saltpans and the interrogation of a medieval transvestite prostitute? My answer would be that they’re all rare phenomena that historians might be interested in. This post considers (at a fairly abstract level) how historians can find such rare events in documentary records and the role of digital humanities in assisting this. It’s worth starting by estimating just how rare such records are. A little while ago I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who talked a lot about the concept of black swan events: ones that cannot be expected because they come so far outside one’s previous experience. (The name comes from the assumptions of Westerners before Australia was discovered: if all anyone has ever seen for centuries are white swans, how can you imagine that a species of black swan exists until you actually see it?)
Even though the Charlemagne project has officially finished, former members of the team are still using the database for thei own research. In early July, I was at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, speaking in a session I'd organised on "Fathers and Families in Early Medieval Charters", along with Hannah Probert and Ross Balzaretti. My paper was entitled "Fathers and sons in a charter database: statistics and stories", drawing on data from the Making of Charlemagne's Europe database to see what we can learn about fathers' and sons' roles in charters and about emotional relationships. The paper featured hundreds of dead fathers and sons and a lot of ill-feeling between live fathers and sons: the text and slides are available and all comments and parallels are gratefully received.
In February, I gave a presentation to the Medieval Studies in the Digital Age seminar at the University of Leeds on the Making of Charlemagne's Europe project. The presentation, entitled 'Bits of charters: putting Carolingian charters into a database', focused on our creation of data structures for the database, especially for place names and on the use of faceted browsing. The text and Powerpoint slides for this presentatuion are now available.
The Charlemagne's Europe database browsing filters (facets) mostly contain English terms, but some of these lists have been left in Latin, while others contain a mixture of English and Latin terminology. The lack of consistency here is generally due to the fact that Latin translation can often be a hazardous affair. Debates rage among medieval historians about the meanings of different words. Language is not static, and meaning changes over time and space. A classic example is the word servus, which in the Roman world meant 'slave', but by the later Middle Ages referred to a 'serf'. Historians thus argue about when (and/or where) 'slavery' ends and 'serfdom' begins.
I’ve just finished inputting the last Freising (FRE) charter from the episcopate of Arbeo (764/5–783). The database now contains about 80 charters from Arbeo’s tenure (a few more exist for the period 764–768, i.e. before Charlemagne became king). The database will ultimately contain about 320 charters from Freising; production ramps up quite a bit under Arbeo’s successor Atto (783–811), doubtless due to the fact that Charlemagne deposed the duke of Bavaria in 788 and formally incorporated the region into the Frankish kingdom. As in other instances of Carolingian conquest (cf. Lombardy), the imposition of new Frankish authorities caused considerable turmoil, as can be seen in a proliferation of dispute charters and confirmations of earlier rights. Warren Brown investigated precisely these processes in eighth- and ninth-century Bavaria, and his study remains an essential guide to Freising’s rich charter evidence .