Anna Paulina Orlowska: Time and Related Dimensions in Sources

MEDEA Spring Meeting, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.
Friday, April 8, 2016 [return to program overview]


Anna Paulina Orlowska
Institute of History, Polish Academy of Science

A common, almost ubiquitous challenge in the evaluation of large historical data sets (e. g. tax registers, founding of churches, or trade volumes) is combining the multitude of incomplete sources into a comprehensive picture. While a large number of sources from individual places have been transmitted through the ages, they tend to only contain information on their place and time of origin as they were usually written for the running business rather than for revealing ample historical circumstances. Thus, constructing a model from this fragmented information landscape requires comparing and combining data from sources through time and space. Using conventional methods employing human labour, this process takes a lot of time and effort and is, therefore, quite slow and expensive. By implementing these tasks in digital databases and transforming the information found in the sources into computable input, we can employ the multitude of methods in the field commonly referred to as “digital humanities”. This approach facilitates a drastically faster and more efficient handling of the gathered data.

At Historical Atlas Section of Polish Academy of Science we established a methodology of intertwining two different topologies in our analyses: the topology of the source (e g. structure and organization of the text) and the topology regarding the geographical and infrastructural space (e. g. location of towns and their connection by roads) in which the historical events occurred.

In order to implement this goal we used the GIS (geographical information system) for creating interactive maps. Every identifiable location mentioned in the investigated sources can be inserted into the database and supplemented with all available information on said location. This is done by extracting the raw data from the sources and filing it into a set of tables, the entries of which we subsequently link to the places on the map. Because we exclusively aim to integrate the location- and time-associated information, we omit the complete edition of the texts. Rather, we include scans of the sources in the data base and use the cross-link architecture to connect the items on the maps to entries in the tables as well as their corresponding notation in the scanned sources (for this purpose we employ Indxr). Thus, we can save the time necessary for a complete edition and still establish a thorough evaluation of integrated data. The easy accessibility of this digitised data would also enable our colleagues to carry out a full-text edition of any of the sources we used and intertwine it with our data base.

This general concept can be applied to any set of historical sources containing spatial and temporal information and has already been employed for a number of projects (e. g. the Register of Protestant communities in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th-18th centuries, or The Court Records of Wschowa, 1495-1526). In addition, I will apply this method on periodic fairs in Greater Poland in the foreseeable future.

In my talk I aim to elaborate on our methodology and its properties on the one hand and to demonstrate its implementation for Polish tax registers in the 16th century on the other hand. So far the Tax Registers from the Voivodeship of Kalisz and the Tax Registers from the Voivodeship of Poznań have been published. Further tax registers are currently a work in progress. The nature of these tax registers is highly specific to Poland, because the tax rates were set by the federal assembly of all nobles in the kingdom. Correspondingly, these records listed the number of oxgangs, mills etc. which a nobleman owned in a village or town and which obliged him to pay a pre-defined amount of taxes. Thus, integrating these records into a data base enables us to analyse the data set for temporal and lateral pattern (such as the number of mills in a region as a function of time). In this fashion digital humanities establish methods for obtaining new insights from old sources – by analysing them through time and space.


Image credit: Remixed from “Tardis,” by Edjoerv (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons) and “Posnania,” from Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Theatri praecipuarum totius mundi urbium liber sextus, c. 1617 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

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