If there is someone who is not afraid to cross geographical and disciplinary borders, it’s Annemieke Romein, whose research on legislation texts in the seventeenth century has not only brought her from the Netherlands to Ghent, it also took her to Germany, Switzerland, and from the archives to the digital humanities. Annemieke completed her studies and PhD at Erasmus University Rotterdam and is currently a NWO Rubicon-fellow working at the UGhent Department of History. Additionally, she is Researcher-in-Residence at the National Library (KB) in The Hague working with digital humanities methods to improve the searchability of early modern legislation texts. Over a coffee in the Vooruit, we discussed how vital it is to conduct comparative research, and how energizing interdisciplinary work can be.
How did your interests in your research arise?
“In the last year of my BA, my professor asked me whether I already had a subject for my BA-thesis and told me about these legislation texts in the province of Gelderland whose existence was actually ‘ignored’ in German research. (This was before I knew about the Belgium Royal Committee for Ordinances and Legislation!) Most research focused on the legislation in German principalities, because legislation from the Netherlands, as a republic without an absolute sovereign, would supposedly not be interesting. It was assumed that Dutch legislation texts from that period did not exist. Still, my professor had found them in the archive, so he asked me to explain to him why these legislation texts, assembled in so-called ‘plakkaatboeken’ (books of ordinances), did exist here. Thus, I started looking at these texts from the idea that no matter what constitution a region had, and no matter who was in power, there must have been some central institution creating a legislation. It turned out that I was right and that there even were a lot of parallels to the legislation in the German principalities. I continued this research in my MA and, after a short side track into teaching, also in my PhD research.”
“I am mainly interested in questions of social safety, social order and crime in the legislation texts. It is extremely interesting to trace how certain legislation was copied by neighbouring territories, how certain problems ‘moved around’ and how legislation followed. For example, we can find legislation about beggars. These beggars were often forced to leave a certain territory, which led to them moving to another region, forcing this region, being faced with a new ‘beggar-problem’, to look at the laws in other regions that could solve this problem. In my current research, I do a comparative study of how such themes were handled in legislation texts in the province of Holland and the county of Flanders. So I now frequently cross the Scheldt to work in both the Netherlands and Flanders.”
Do you consider your research to be interdisciplinary?
“Studying legal texts offers an enormous amount of opportunities to work interdisciplinary because the law is something that touches on almost all aspects of society. We often see that researchers from various disciplines (cultural historians, economists, researchers of law, philosophers) only select the parts of the texts that are interesting to their specific research, but I would love to map the entire corpus. The excessive amount of text you have to analyse for such an undertaking forces you to find ways to manage this load of information. So already in for my BA-thesis I started to work with SPSS to create a dataset that enabled me to systematically engage with the texts, and to visualize the development of certain themes in graphs. This has eventually led me to get into the digital humanities. Working with those methods widens the possibilities you have to search within the legislation texts, so it enables you to make a lot more comparisons between texts, from for example different regions, and to see how these different regions wrote laws on the same themes. The digital humanities create more focussed starting points from which we can do research on historical texts.”
“At the KB I work together with a programmer who writes the code for the computer. Working with someone from such a different background makes you realise that you speak totally different languages, so a whole new world is opening up to me. What is great about the UGhent is that there are so many early modern scholars in all the different departments. This enables me to consult not only colleagues within the history department, but also in for example the faculty of law. Furthermore, I have just applied for a COST Action, funded by the EU, with a project that brings together 114 researchers from 37 different countries, all interested in early modern legislation texts. This would also enable us to show the contemporary relevance of such research as it will bring together knowledge from 500 years of legislation dealing with problems that we still face today, such as migration or economic instability. I find such work, and the exchanges that come with it, extremely energising, so I constantly try to find collaborations with colleagues across borders (national or language).”
Have you ever experienced a Eureka moment in your research?
“I recently came upon a law in the province of Gelderland that aimed to adapt the wagon wheels in Gelderland to the width of the roads in the provinces of Utrecht and Holland. This would enable wagons a much easier ride from Gelderland to these other parts of the Dutch Republic. This is something that we nowadays regulate on a European level. Seeing such thinking in legislation from 400 years ago coming back in the current day is very exciting. I would call it a near-Eureka moment.
Another example I recall occurred during my PhD. As I was working in the archives, I found out that there also were printed texts, and not only handwritten texts. This was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise that allowed me to work a great dal faster.”
“Something that I would love to achieve, is to visualise how legislation ‘moves’ between regions and territories. Not only within the Low Countries, between the provinces, but also between the many different territories that made up the whole of Europe in the seventeenth century. My hypothesis is that no matter how small or large these territories were, they could not all reinvent the wheel, so they will have had to look at how other territories solved similar problems. So I want to make visible how certain problems ‘travelled’ through Europe, and how the legislating institutions reacted to them. I imagine a kind of moving map that would show such developments through time. Maybe that way, I could contribute to the Eureka moments of other researchers.”
What is the most inspiring study you have recently read?
“A while ago, I was recommended to read The Republican Alternative: The Netherlands and Switzerland Compared (2008) by Maarten Prak, Thomas Maissen and André Holenstein. I found it a somewhat limited study because it studies The Netherlands and Switzerland only at a federal level. Nevertheless, it made me realise that we constantly talk and write about ‘the republic’ without having a clear definition of what we mean by this term. The most common way would be to define a republic as a country without a sovereign, but such a definition neglects the differences that existed between different republics. This was a real eye-opener for me so I started to do a little preliminary research in that direction, which has led me to a VENI-proposal that is currently under review. I think that we not only need to compare different republics (for example the Swiss canton-republic and the Dutch version of a republic), but also look at regional differences within a republic. How were different territories defined, who was in power and how was this power used. Those are essential questions that current research has not yet sufficiently answered. “
“This brings us back to the importance of comparative studies. Not only are they fun, they also enable you to discover standards, as well as exceptions and differences. If you only study the legislation in one region, you might get to know a lot about this one text, but you won’t be aware of things not being mentioned, or being mentioned exceptionally in this text. Comparative studies will sharpen your view and enable you to gain a ton of extra insights. This makes worthwhile the extra time you invest into getting familiar with an additional context. So, getting out of your comfort zone, searching for academic exchanges, and doing interdisciplinary and comparative research can be extremely refreshing and valuable.”
By Renée Vulto