By Claire Dejaeger and Martin van Boom
Context of our visit to Northern Ireland
The EU Commission promotes lifelong learning and has therefore set up Grundtvig, a program to encourage adult education and mobility amongst 50+ people in the EU member states.
Marika Ceunen, as Director of the City Archives in Leuven, launched Itinera Nova, a project aiming at the disclosure of archival written documents.
At a conference in Lyon Inge Moris, the Itinera Nova project leader started a partnership and a volunteer exchange program with William Devlin from Northern Ireland representing FULS and Armagh Archives under the EU Commission Grundtvig fund!
5 volunteers from Northern Ireland came to visit the Leuven City Archives in April 2012 for three weeks and were introduced into the Itinera Nova project.
The Leuven return visit took place in September 2012.
The exchange is called the ALL, Armagh Leuven Links, and has set the following goals:
- strengthen the historical and cultural bonds between the O Fiaich Library and Archive in Armagh, the City of Leuven Archives and the Irish College in Leuven
- strengthen the links between The Federation for Ulster Local Studies and the City of Leuven Archives
- engender a greater awareness of the Cultural links between Ireland and Belgium
- highlight the importance of voluntary action in the fields of cultural and historical heritage
The City Archives of Leuven
The City Archives are the memory of the city of Leuven.
They preserve the archives of the city administration,
starting with charters of the 12th century up to the youngest document being digitally transferred. Besides these rich historical sources several remarkable collections give a unique view on the past: local newspapers, pictures, postcards, posters, maps and plans. All this valuable material makes 15 km of archives.
Reaching out to the public
Besides preservation the archives aim at disclosing the sources for private or professional historical research. Cultural events for a larger audience like exhibitions, lectures and publications on the history of Leuven based on the archival sources are organized on a regular basis.
This is where Itinera Nova comes in, with the digital disclosure of handwritten archival sources and their availability online, scientific and private researchers will have easy access to the manuscripts.
The Registers of the Court of Aldermen in Leuven (1362-1795) are the test case for this prestigious project. As this is a huge undertaking senior volunteers play a substantial role.
Court of Aldermen
In medieval times the Court of Aldermen consisted of 7 patricians, but with the emergence of a wealthy class of craftsmen united into guilds, the noblemen had to share power and eventually the court consisted of 4 noblemen and 3 representatives of the guilds.
The Court was competent for contentious jurisdiction (civil and criminal lawsuits) but mostly for voluntary jurisdiction (now comparable to the notary office). The Court ruled in cases of Leuven civilians, acted as a Court of Appeal for people that didn't accept the verdict of their local court - their competence stretched over the whole area of Brabant - and gave advice on legal matters to minor courts.
Most of the cases were about voluntary jurisdiction such as ratification of legal acts, authorizations, registration of sales of real estate, leases, loans, wills, emancipation declarations, inventories, registration of agreements.
They reveal a lot of details of daily life of the average Leuven inhabitant in medieval times.
The three chambers
All these decisions were written down by clerks in a chamber - initially there was only one chamber - but as the prestige of the Leuven Court was high more and more cases were ruled in Leuven and two more chambers were added.
In the Leuven City Hall you can still see the doors leading into these three chambers.
Inside of a chamber
There are three writing desks for the three clerks per chamber. On the walls you can see the shelves where the acts were preserved.
A Register is a compilation of quires bound in parchment. The rag paper that was used is very strong so that the manuscripts are still in excellent condition after all these centuries. When all these registers eventually will be available online the public won't need to use the physical register any longer, which will further ensure their conservation.
Our volunteers are privileged to be allowed to work with these registers, reading the acts is like taking place in a time capsule that brings you back to the old streets of Leuven inside the first ring wall. The acts are in Latin and medieval Dutch.
The Registers of the Court of Aldermen are the test case for the Itinera Nova project.
There are 1128 registers dating from 1362-1795, some 900.000 pages. This is a huge undertaking and the question is how to digitise most efficiently? This rouses questions as to how to use the available funds, where to find the expertise, which equipment to choose and how to fit in volunteer workers?
We are now in the first phase, which comprises all registers up to 1460. In the second phase we will deal with the registers of the years 1550 until 1590 and in the third phase with the registers of the years 1710 until1795.
In order to make them available online, several steps need to be taken:
The documents need to be scanned, then transcribed, proof-corrected, published online and stored on a server.
The Archives have chosen to work with a company-subsidised scanner for manuscripts - a machine able to handle precious documents - instead of sourcing the work out to a private company.
The scanner make JPEG pictures and they are published online. Volunteers do the scanning.
Volunteers transcribe the acts from a handwritten format into a print format, and produce a 100% copy of the original act. As reading medieval manuscripts is not easy Inge Moris, the Itinera Nova project leader, organizes a palaeography course on a regular basis. Transcription difficulties include the individual handwriting of copiers, the different writing of the letters of the alphabet, the numerous abbreviations, the use of old words. Online dictionaries for medieval Dutch are available online.
When the transcription is ready, Inge and her team correct them and they publish them online. The University of Cologne stores them on their server and is responsible for the maintenance of the website.
Independent from Itinera Nova the University of Groningen has started developing an image-recognition tool MONK, called after the medieval clerk-monks who with patience and assiduity copied the manuscripts. They are training a web tool that can recognise words in a picture. It'll take a long time before such an image-recognition tool will be efficient.
Once published online, researchers can consult the transcribed acts and launch the search engine of a word processor to search documents - a family name - a street name - a historical event - folklore - the use of household item - job description.
The transcribed acts are a wealthy source of information on medieval life, they provide additional knowledge or even correct the current thinking about or medieval life and institutions, at times there are piquant juicy details about medieval life, such as the role of the public bath houses, neighbour disputes etc.
The University of Cologne developed a transcription tool, a big improvement for transcribers, as they can now work in an online environment with the help of a transcription syntax tool (whereas previously one had to switch between a Word document and the online scan, lots of hither and thither that now belong to the past. Another advantage is that our corrector team can correct online and publish the act in just one mouse-click. On the PPT-presentation demo of the Itinera Nova' s website was shown.
The cooperation between volunteers and the City Archives of Leuven is beneficial to both:
The City Archives
open their resources to the public/students/specialists, private researchers
find a meaningful occupation, can work from home, are part of an online community (NING) of transcribers and scanners, and a community of friends sharing the same passion, regularly meeting each other at Meet-IN-s, making contributions to the Newsletter, and developing an interest in the history of their city, etc
We may become a global community of volunteers. As you don't need to be physically present at the Archives to transcribe, one can envisage and dream of subscribers from the Netherlands, or why not from South Africa - Afrikaans being a language that has developed from 17th century Dutch, and why not from Northern Ireland. A palaeography course will soon be available online.
Click HERE for the Presentation