Charters are valuable resources for writing local histories of landscapes as well as fleshing out medieval lives. However, they are also rich sources for studying networks on a large scale.
Medieval charters registered a very diverse number of acts – property transfers, testaments and last wills, verdicts etc. They have naturally been preserved on a very large scale even if wanton destruction, war and mice have wrecked immense havoc trough the ages. However, much has also been preserved through the fashion of copying and transcribing charters into huge volumes, many of which have been copiously edited and even – from the late 20th century – translated.
Recently one of the qualities of these documents has begun to receive additional attention. The fact is that any legal charter or act carries with it a list of witnesses. By digitizing and publishing charters on the web, it has become possible to study the networks of people and institutions on quite another scale – both in terms of geographical, temporal and social dimensions.
One of the most prominent sites offering a large number of digitized collections of charters is the monasterium.net – also called “Mom”. Currently it holds more than 600.000 digitized charters and documents in its collection; all free to peruse by anyone wishing to study them from a number of perspectives. One example of such studies carried out is the analysis of the development of archival bureaucracy at Cluniac institutions and the development of Romanesque Art and Architecture.
Another recent uses of this massive collection of data is the development of new tools to study geographical and social networks and their shifts over time. Recently (August 2016) Daniel Jeller from Icarus has published an overview of the endeavour to “translate” the information in charters in monasterium.net into maps and fit them with a temporal dimension. The point is that by studying such maps it might be possible to see shifts in geographical orientations and networks of specific institutions.
This project should be seen in connection with the different projects currently being organised inside research projects like Networks of Knowledge and Networks and Neighbours. One outcome is a conference in 2017 – Social Networking in the early Middle Ages. The research presented at this conference aims to explore the existence, performance and sustainability of diverse scholarly, intellectual and material assemblages and topographies – networks – over a broad frame of reference. The temporal and geographical boundaries of the conference are, as of yet, flexible; they will be narrowed as the program selection and formation process progresses.
Another project has been organised by the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Science. This project has been funded to works more theoretically with the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Further information about this project may be had at “Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period” (MEDCON). Established in 2012, it recently organised a major conference in Vienna. One of the best presentation of what such network analysis can yield in a wider perspective is the article by Johannes Preiser-Kaplan (Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Science): Mapping Medieval Conflicts: Braveheart, Facebook and Karate
Urkunden als Netzwerk.
By Daniel Jeller
Daniel Jeller is responsible for the planning and management of digitisations projects at Icarus – International Centre for Archival Research