Viewing posts by Rachel Stone
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.
Many charters include explicit information about agents (individuals, groups and institutions) that is of interest to record. For example, we may be told attributes of agents, such as their ethnic identity (Lombard), their legal status (unfree), their title (bishop of Bergamo) or even the fact that they are dead by the time a particular charter is written. We may also be told about the relationships between two agents: that Fulrad is abbot of Saint-Denis (monasteries and churches are regarded as agents) or that Pippin III is the father of Charlemagne.
The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe database project will be holding a launch party to mark the database being made publically available on this website. The party will be at 5 pm on Friday 12th December at King’s College London (History Department, 8th Floor Strand campus). All are warmly invited to attend: please let Alice Rio (firstname.lastname@example.org) know by Thursday 4th December if you will be coming.