From the News column of the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

New Digital Resource Launched in Germany

Hans Medick, May 2009

This article is the full, unabridged version of the adapted summary published in the print version of the May 2009 Perspectives on History.

During the past decade there has been growing interest in history and cultural studies in research on autobiographical narratives known as “ego-documents.” A wider audience has also become increasingly aware of such personal accounts and writings such as chronicles, diaries, and letters. There are many reasons for this. One the one hand, these texts open up personal aspects of history, instead of dry political-institutional accounts conserved in official archives. Personal accounts make it clear how their authors regarded and portrayed their world and the significance of their own experiences of agency and suffering, in that they include themselves in their descriptions. On the other hand, these personal accounts are also always contemporary accounts. They have a special proximity to historical events and to contemporary happenings. They thereby provide insights into the variety and the differences of personal perceptions of these events and happenings.

It is with this in mind that the new digital text and research resource “Mitteldeutsche Selbstzeugnisse der Zeit des Dreißigjährigen Krieges” (“Personal Accounts of the Thirty Years War from Central Germany”) was conceived and is now made available on the internet at www.mdsz.thulb.uni-jena.de. It presents four previously unpublished texts. This resource is the result of lengthy cooperation between a historian (Hans Medick) and an information technology expert (Norbert Winnige), and was completed with the help of the historians Andreas Bähr, Holger Berg, Thomas Rokahr, and Bernd Warlich. All four original texts were written during or immediately after the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). They are all from the same region: the Thuringian parts of central Germany with its capital city of Erfurt. This region was long at the center of the violent actions of the Thirty Years War—less as a scene of battles than as an area for the transit, quartering, and deployment of troops. Published here for the first time, on thousands of pages, are: (1) the complete “Chronicon Thuringiae” of Volkmar Happe, an administrator and councilor of the duchy of Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, who kept a diary in which he painstakingly recorded acts of violence that he personally experienced, witnessed, or heard of; (2) the chronicle of Hans Krafft, a Protestant master dyer in Erfurt; (3) the “Diarium Actorum” of Caspar Heinrich Marx, a Catholic vicar capitular and professor of theology in Erfurt, who kept a kind of personal archive of the acts of violence that he and his fellow Catholics experienced at the hands of Protestants; and (4) the “Notes . . . of some events which happened from 1620 on” of Michael Heubel, a war commissar, tax collector, judge, and diplomat from the duchy of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt.

These ego-documents show how the conduct of the war and its many acts of violence in central Germany were perceived and presented very differently in personal and confessional terms. They thereby make it possible to acquaint oneself with the war through multiple perspectives—not from the often unitizing perspective of later historians, but rather from the various perspectives of those who felt its impact, who suffered, and who also acted. These texts show, in their choices of subject matter and their focus on everyday occurrences, the far-reaching historical meaning of the thirty-year-long “world war”—as it was perceived by its contemporaries—beyond the great political and confessional campaigns and decisions.

This research resource is important and interesting not only for the newly available texts, but above all for the manner in which these texts are presented. It is especially their form of publication which enables new opportunities for research. The four texts presented here are digitally published and edited. This means that a (linguistically lightly modernized) transcription of each text is presented along with an image of the original document. Moreover, an extraordinarily rich commentary is provided regarding contemporary terms and concepts, personalities, and places. This commentary is no longer given in the form of conventional footnotes, but rather in the form of hypertext references.

The size of the edited texts, the extent of the commentary, and extent of the linked information are unprecedented. Throughout 2,636 pages of text, 1,982 contemporary terms are explained. Moreover, 2,603 persons and 985 places are biographically and geographically referenced and identified, and 2,276 translations of Latin terms and 993 explanations of special events are included. With over 2,600 digital, mostly colored facsimiles, a conventionally printed volume would be virtually impossible for reasons of cost. Furthermore, such a publication would be particularly difficult to use and further develop. However, the digitally published texts and the hypertext references, in combination with several other research tools (such as the research functions for persons, concepts and places to be found in the appendix), open up numerous possibilities for further research. The texts presented here thus serve as a user-friendly digital laboratory for studying the history of the Thirty Years War. These four ego-documents will not only stimulate and facilitate future research on the history of the Thirty Years War, especially in central Germany, but will also pioneer a new method of developing and presenting texts and information.

The constant availability and cost-free use of this research resource has been made possible by an agreement with the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena and with other public institutions in central Germany, which are the owners of the original documents: in addition to the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek at Jena, these are the Universitäts- und Forschungsbibliothek Erfurt/Gotha, the Thüringer Staatsarchiv Rudolstadt, and the Landeshauptarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt, Abteilung Magdeburg. The Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek at Jena will ensure that the digital publications presented here will be continually accessible through its “University Multimedia Library of Jena” (UrMEL).

In this way, an exemplary resource in the digital presentation of historical texts has been created. It testifies to the growing significance of digital media and will hopefully serve as a reference for other projects of a similar nature. Such media are increasingly interesting not only for scholars in the fields of history and cultural studies, but also for a wider audience generally interested in history. In the discussions regarding the digital reproduction of source materials and the related information it too often goes unnoticed that it is not merely a question of the technical facilitation of access to and exchange of information that is at issue here. Much more significant are the new methods of research, of scholarly work, and of gaining knowledge, which are implied here. The considered use of digital media in history and cultural studies breaks the existing boundaries of research. The new organization and the availability of resources made possible by digital editions, such as those presented here, has wide ranging heuristic and epistemological implications. First, the reproduction of historical sources as digital images will make original documents always available from anywhere and at any place in the world. Second, their availability will allow users to continually verify and assess the editorial work and interpretation. In this way the flexible manageability of the research resource will help generate new analyses and interpretations. Digital editions thereby make very clear how fictional is the assumption of a finality of texts and interpretations, an assumption all too easily made with conventional printed editions. This does not in any way amount to a relativization of the validity of historical knowledge, but it rather points forward to new, verifiable, and scholarly ways of knowing.

The digital reproduction of original texts, as it is presented in this exemplary edition of four central German ego-documents from the Thirty Years War, therefore hopes to stimulate and challenge scholars to create further innovative forms of presentation, of research, and communication. It is the mission and goal of the project “Mitteldeutsche Selbstzeugnisse der Zeit des Dreißigjährigen Krieges” (“Personal Accounts of the Thirty Years War from Central Germany”) not only to present one of these new opportunities in concrete form, but also to stimulate their further use and development.

—Hans Medick, a noted historian of early modern Europe, is a founding coeditor of Historische Anthropologie. The article was translated from the German by Benjamin Marschke. Medick and Marschke are currently preparing a volume entitled “The Thirty Years War from Up Close. A brief History with Documents,” for the Bedford Series in History & Culture (produced by Bedford/St. Martins under the general editorship of Lynn Hunt, Natalie Zemon Davis, and others).