In the winter term 2020/2021, Jaap Geraerts and I worked with students in the Mainz MA programme “Digitale Methoden in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften” (“Digital Methods in the Humanities and Cultural Studies”) to create a digital edition of early modern birth and apprenticeship letters. The edition includes records in French and Latin as well as German and highlights people’s cross-border mobility in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The idea to use birth and apprenticeship records from Mainz for teaching in the “digital editing” module evolved when IEG Mainz and its partner institutions received funding for the DigiKAR geohumanities project in autumn 2020. As the DigiKAR project aims to experimentally model and visualise spatial data found in various manuscript and printed sources from the Holy Roman Empire, the Mainz birth and apprenticeship letters seemed a feasible case study to tackle with students.
Affiliated with the DigiKAR project, the Mainz city archives kindly supplied us with digital copies of birth and apprenticeship letters as well as a database export of metadata. While we could only cover six exemplary letters in detail, all available metadata were used for further contexualisation and integrated into an interactive map showing people’s places of origin.
Place names throughout the edition are linked to World Historical Gazetteer or Wikidata to provide additional information on the historic towns and regions mentioned. In this way, we could address the complex spatial interrelations of the early modern period. In the case of Jeanne le Pourceau, one letter certifying her legitimate birth came from a local official in the Duchy of Limburg, another one was written by a priest in the neighbouring Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Today, all towns and villages to which Jeanne’s family was connected are part of Belgium. The entries in World Historical Gazetteer and Wikidata help us acknowledge these changing territorial affiliations in our edition.
In fact, disambiguations of places and people play an important part in the XML schema which we collaboratively and iteratively created with the students. The documentation of our decisions regarding textual and visual elements in our schema is available in our GitHub repository.
Apart from women who came to Mainz to marry, birth letters were also written for traveling craftspeople and merchants. The apprenticeship letters cover different professions from gardeners to stonemasons. One particularly interesting apprenticeship letter details the journeyman travels of 19-year-old Carl Anton Mayer from Mainz via Strasbourg and Switzerland to Lindau. A French regional history website provided the key to understanding Mayer’s professional network, and we could also rely on archives across Germany, Switzerland and Italy for help. In some cases, however, names of places and people were difficult to decypher – so we welcome feedback and corrections.
For the students working on the edition, the experience of contributing to a real research project whose outcomes none of us could fully anticipate was very valuable:
“Being so closely involved in the process of creating a digital edition was a very enriching experience. I was able to both deepen my knowledge regarding the use of concrete techniques such as the X-technologies and gain a reflexive approach to the creation and meaning of digital editions. Thanks to the engagement and constant collaboration with other students and the lecturers, I experienced the seminar as very productive and cooperative.”
~ Linnaea Söhn, MA student at JGU Mainz ~
In the winter term of 2021/2022, Maximilian Michel, who also participated in the initial seminar, will dedicate more time to the cleaning and linking of spatial data from the Mainz birth and apprenticeship letters as part of his DH internship. One goal of his internship will be to further disambiguate the issuers of the letters. MA student Nele Zunker will also support us as an intern and structure the spatial information contained in the Topographia Archiepiscopatuum Moguntinensis, Treuirensis et Coloniensis.
Connecting the places where birth letters were issued and information from the Topographia with the spatial and biographic data collected in other areas of the DigiKAR project will ultimately give us deeper insight into administrative ties and legal structures in Electoral Mainz. Fragmented spatial information collected as part of a teaching project can thus be useful for the overall analysis of (trans-)territorial conditions in the Holy Roman Empire, stressing the importance of research collaborations beyond the inner circle of experts.
For updates on the DigiKAR project, please follow us on Twitter, consult the DigiKAR GitHub repository, and watch out for our soon-to-be-released website.