Text as image, image as text: Charter integrity and topic modelling

Principal Investigator: Michael Gervers

Department: Historical & Cultural Studies

Grant Names: SSHRC ; Insight Grant ;

Award Years: 2018 to 2022


The world's oldest known legal documents, inscribed on clay tablets from Mesopotamia c. 3000 B.C., concern land sales, early counterparts of contemporary deeds or 'charters'. They provide a continuous documentation available to historians to study the evolution of social, economic and political changes.

In this study we will analyze a large corpus of Latin charters and their seals dating from the 10th--14th c. in England using recently established digital technologies to extract evidence of even small changes to the social fabric reflected in them.  We will address three primary research questions: 1) To what extent charter and seal iconography correspond, and how this can inform our understanding of changes in document production over time and space; 2) How does the language of charters change in response to large-scale historical events?; and 3) What traces did performative and oral legal traditions leave in the formulaic language of charter texts?

Our core methodology will be topic modelling, supported by digital imaging and handwritten text recognition software.  The study will contribute to the study of text as a reflection of social and institutional change.