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Online database with two hundred local chronicle texts launched: A few years ago that wouldn’t have been possible'

Too expensive groceries, diseases suddenly breaking out: from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, hundreds of people documented the world around them in chronicles. A significant number of these texts have been digitised in recent years. Professor of Early Modern Dutch History and project leader Judith Pollmann provides more insights.

When you first come across a chronicle, you might not realise immediately how useful it it can be. ‘It's a bit of a peculiar genre,’ admits Pollmann. ‘Very enumerative. You find people jotting down what's happening in their surrounding area, but it's often not clear why they choose one piece of news over another. There’s also often no mention of personal life. It truly reflects what is happening locally and what interests the writer.’

No censorship

Chronicle writers operate in complete freedom. The handwritten documents are intended for small-scale reading or posthumous circulation, allowing the writers to work uncensored. ‘You can write something unpleasant about city officials, the king, or people of a different religion,’ says Pollmann. ‘Even when the political situation becomes highly tense, the authorities take no action against chroniclers.’

Abundance of data

The uncensored view of daily life, from price increases and livestock diseases to riots and executions, makes chronicles an intriguing source for historians. At the same time, the handwritten nature of the texts for a long time hindered a structured approach. ‘Previously, we had to read the chronicles one by one,’ Pollmann explains. ‘I‘ve occasionally used twelve that way for a book, but it just wasn’t feasible to handle many more.’

This changed a few years ago with new software. ‘If you provide the computer with photos of the manuscript and 15,000 transcribed words, it does the rest,’ says Pollmann. ‘Suddenly, it became possible for us to examine many more chronicles simultaneously, although it’s still a massive task to check all the transcriptions and supplement them with details like what 'the Sunday after Easter 1659' refers to. Fortunately, we were helped by volunteers via the Vele Handen (Many Hands) platform. Ultimately, thanks to their efforts, we managed to transcribe two hundred Dutch-language chronicles.’

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In the time of COVID-19, the research team created a short video about the chronicles project, with epidemics in the spotlight.

New findings

These transcriptions are now available in an online database. ‘The amount and searchability of information allowed us to pose new questions,’ says Pollmann. ‘We were already researching how ordinary people absorbed new knowledge. One of the project's PhD candidates, for instance, discovered that the chronicles became more alike as printed newspapers emerged. Chronicle writers drew inspiration from them. We couldn't have pinpointed that so precisely a few years ago. But there is such a lot that can be done with it – that's why it's crucial that everyone can now access it. So, there’s a future for old news.’

The database is freely accessible at kronieken.transkribus.eu, where both the transcriptions and photos can be viewed. It was created as part of the Chronicling Novelty project, a collaboration with the VU. The LUF and the Gratama Foundation have also contributed financially to the creation of the database.

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