© Van Dale Studiewoordenboek Nederlands (Utrecht/Antwerpen, 2006), p. 314.
Witnesses is a VUB and FWO co-financed digitalization project that strives to gather, digitize and transcribe witness depositions and suspect interrogations preserved at criminal courts in 18th and 19th century Belgium. It is a collaboration between four research groups at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (History, Linguistics, Sociology and Criminology), together with the State Archives and Histories (Platform of Cultural Heritage Organizations in Flanders and Brussels). Witnesses is embedded in the recent fields of citizen science and Digital Humanities, with the intention to improve and support digitalization within the Humanities. The interdisciplinary research group DIGI (Brussels Platform for Digital Humanities) provides the necessary network and framing at the VUB to realize that goal.
WHY CRIMINAL SOURCES?
Witness depositions and interrogations of suspects offer particularly rich insight into quotidian historical practices. Not only past crime, but also the everyday life, social networks and the speech (even if directly) of ordinary witnesses and suspects can be documented with these testimonies. Moreover, these judicial sources avail the perfectly opportunity to conduct 'history from below'. Ordinary people left fewer traces to posterity than elites or institutions, because archival records often reflect the views of wealthy, educated, powerful men. On the contrary, these criminal sources give a voice to the 18th and 19th century commoners, both male and female. They therefore are of tremendous interest not only to historians, but also for linguists, legal historians, sociologists, and other social scholars.
THE JUDICIAL MAZE
The potential of these (early) modern legal sources remains heavily underutilized due to two major obstacles. First, witness depositions and suspect interrogations can be found in the archives of the hundreds of criminal courts (urban, lordly, state and canonical) that were scattered throughout the Southern Low Countries, later Belgium. Consequently, the corpus of these sources is physically fragmented, and therefore impossible to use for most researchers. Secondly, these testimonies are difficult to consult. The absence of an index makes it impossible to know how many testimonies there were, who was involved and why there was a conflict without first having to go through the whole archive in question. Moreover, knowledge about the legal structure and the procedures of the different courts is needed to understand the variety of legal sources.
DIVERS RESEARCH POSSIBILITIES
Witnesses wants to develop the means to overcome these problems by providing a single, digitized, searchable and annotated database of 18th and 19th centuries court testimonies preserved at the city and state archives in Belgium. This will provide new and unseen opportunities for the research groups involved. Four research themes or modules are already being proposed:
The historical-geospatial analysis prepares the data infrastructure for research into the uses of urban space during the transition period 1700-1900. This involves adding geographical coordinates to place-related references, exploring the ways in which digital pattern recognition can facilitate identifying spatial references, and the opportunities for combining qualitative, text-based sources with GIS analysis.
The historical socliologuistics module prepares the data for research into the evolution and structure of Dutch and French in the Southern Low Countries, and nowadays Belgium, with particular emphases on the tension between developing writing traditions on the one hand, and elements from the spoken vernacular on the other hand. Also dialects can be researched.
The topic modelling and correspondence analysis will prepare the data infrastructure to the study of social identity, relations, and representation during the 18th and 19th centuries. The court depositions offer rich qualitative data on issues related to social inequality and identity.
The analysis of experiences of crime and criminalisation investigates the ways in which the data can be further optimized for discourse analysis and life-course analysis in historical criminology, i.e. for examining narratives and experiences of crime and criminalization in a period of changing justice-society relations.
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