A "Deeply Annotated" Bibliography of Local Social Histories of Early Modern Europe

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. John Christopher Theibault

    Richard Stockton College

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Beginning in the 1950s, social historical investigations of single villages, towns, cities, and regions of early modern Europe emerged as a significant genre of historical writing. Authors such as Pierre Goubert and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie demonstrated that the archival information density for early modern European towns and villages was just right for undertaking a kind of “total history” of the locality. These studies made claims to address important historical issues beyond the locality under investigation (often having to do with the transition to modernity) that were impossible to cover at the level of the nation or Europe as a whole. Though often identified by fairly generic labels such as “social histories” or “micro-histories,” they distinguished themselves from traditional local histories by explicitly promoting their exemplary character. Sources were generally more abundant than in medieval Europe, as parish registers, tax lists, and court protocols became more abundant; but the information was also pre-statistical, unprocessed by its creators. The timing for working with denser local sources was apt because new computer technology in the 1960s allowed historians to build databases that eased analysis of the pre-statistical material. Historians began to use specialized techniques from the social sciences such as Gini-coefficients of inequality and family reconstitution to work with the historical data in order to work with the data from this pre-statistical age. As a result, early modern European history emerged as one of the historiographically richest historical fields by the 1970s. By the 2000s, however, the initial promise of “total history” from quantitative social science history was in retreat. Some of that retreat may be attributed to conceptual overreach in the first wave of local studies. Some works seemed to make excessively sweeping claims on the basis of limited cases. But perhaps equally consequential is that the sheer numbers of local studies made it hard to gain an overview of what had and had not been investigated for different parts of Europe.
Current Implementation:

The Early Modern European Social History Geospatial Bibliography Project (EMESHGB) is designed to help transcend these limitations and potentially spur new research in local histories by demonstrating the achievements of earlier research and identifying new paths to explore. It operates on several levels. At its simplest, it is a database of monographs about the localities of early modern Europe written since the 1950s. That database is enhanced by being accessible immediately through a map-based interface with a temporal slider. It is the first systematic effort to show the relationships between works concerning different parts of Europe, so that one can quickly establish what regions have been studied in depth and which are relatively under-researched. But the database will contain additional layers of information that can also be accessed geo-spatially and temporally from the interface. It is these additional layers that I call “deep annotation.” The deep annotation in the database is a more complex process. Some of it can be carried out without access to the books, directly from MARC records, but other parts of it require access to the works themselves. So far, the development of the ontology of the database and the required vocabulary for search is being done as an iterative process by looking at the individual works. In this early phase, it is limited to monographs written in English about all parts of Europe, along with a small subset of monographs written in French about France and in German about Germany, with the intention of expanding the geographical and linguistic scope once the robustness of the database ontology is clear.
The purpose of the deep annotations will be to group information contained in each work in ways that will facilitate comparisons. The database will contain a full bibliographic citation. It will also extract information easily from that bibliographic citation that users would especially wish to search by: 1) date of publication, 2) range of historical dates covered in the book, 3) name of the locality covered, current country of locality, 4) type of locality covered (e.g. village, town, seigneurie, neighborhood of a city, historic province). From that information, the user could locate, for example, all village studies that cover the years from 1550-1600. The value-added annotations in the database will make even more complex comparisons possible. The key ones will be 1) principal sources used for analysis (e.g. local court protocols, parish registers, cadastral records, tax lists, personal correspondence), 2) social groups analyzed (e.g. peasants, nobles, artisans, burghers, women, children, outcasts), 3) social history concepts invoked (e.g. historical demography, proto-industrialization, inheritance practices, rebellion and resistance), and 4) social science methods employed (e.g. family reconstitution, transition matrices, Gini coefficients of inequality, total factor productivity). These categories are populated not by locating every possible mention of a technique or source, but by identifying those that figure most prominently in the overall arguments of each work.
There is yet another way in which the geo-spatial and temporal information in the database will allow for a more complex visualization of historiography. Some of the works cited in each individual work will be other works in the database. There will, of course, also be many works cited that are not in the database. The ability to visualize citation networks will help establish which works have been most influential within and across national research traditions.
The linkage of a database with a geo-spatial/temporal interface is no longer that rare in digital humanities. There is also a precedent for the database in question being on its most basic level a bibliography. For example, the Perseus Project located classical works on a spatio-temporal interface. Nevertheless, the EMESHGB is innovative in allowing users to isolate thematic elements in the bibliography for comparison on the map interface. It will prove an important new tool for the next generation of research into Europe’s transformation to modernity. Researchers interested in undertaking their own local studies and wishing to maximize their impact will be able to quickly assess what kinds of questions have been addressed using what kinds of materials for what parts of Europe. They can examine under-researched regions, identify key questions that might usefully be applied to a different geo-spatial region, and determine how their study might be innovative within the genre. Researchers interested in the comparative development of Europe will be able to quickly identify comparable studies for cross-cultural comparisons.
Future Directions:

The first phase of building out the database of the bibliography relies on the subject matter expertise of a single scholar. The initial set of monographs is large enough to provide a useful test of the concept of the database and interface with a complete collection of information, without being so large that it cannot be processed. One reason for beginning the project “by hand” is because it is useful to check the structure of the database against its output with works that are familiar. Also, the fact that the works included in the database are almost all still under copyright has limited the opportunities for larger scale corpus analysis. However, there are opportunities for automating the assignment of information to the different fields in the database by means of topic modeling, the results of which can then be compared with those produced by the scholar. At the same time, we will be establishing a process to transition the project from a “one-off” single development team product to a permanently extensible project. That process will almost certainly involve some kind of tool for allowing people to contribute to the database directly. The project can be extended in several segments after the initial concept has been demonstrated. With each extension, the original database will gain additional utility. After completing the English-language monographs, the most obvious extension is to cover the foreign-language monographs from the same time period. After completing that phase, which would have to be done in some collaborative format with scholars in Europe, we can consider extending the project on one of several dimensions – chronologically (e.g. adding works addressing the medieval period), geographically (e.g. adding works on Latin America and North America in the early modern era), or genre of historical writing (e.g. adding journal articles).

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (needs to replace plaintext)

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20161227182033/https://dh2014.org/program/

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO