In August, 2018, President Steven DiSalvo appointed Professor Sean Perrone of the History Department to serve as the first Robert E. Jean Professor of History and Government for two academic years. This endowed chair was made possible by a generous gift from the estate of Joseph Jean ‘53. The gift honors Joseph’s brother Robert. As part of the appointment, Prof. Perrone will work on a project titled: “Visualizing Historical Data: Opportunities for Students to Hone Historical and Computational Skills.” One Thing After Another sat down with Prof. Perrone to learn more.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the project?
A: My project involves mapping the payment of the ecclesiastical subsidy in sixteenth-century Castile, Spain. That might need a little explanation. Though the clergy were technically exempt from royal taxation, popes regularly granted monarchs a percentage of the ecclesiastical revenues in a given year. The kings then negotiated with their local clergy to determine the actual amount of the subsidy and the terms of payment. After an agreement was reached, clerical elites (e.g., cathedral canons in Castile) apportioned the subsidy among the kingdom’s clergy and arranged for the transfer of monies to royal coffers or directly to the king’s bankers. The local apportionment of the subsidy, however, burdened many clergy, and kings regularly provided discounts to over-assessed institutions, particularly monasteries.
Right now, I am working with students to finish preparing an Excel spread sheet on discounts to monasteries in the ecclesiastical subsidy. This data is culled from handwritten accounts located in the royal archive established by Charles V in 1540 in the castle of Simancas, Spain (see photo above). Over the past several years, I’ve been transposing the pertinent information from the accounts into Excel, and last year, computer science major Dan Kelly ’18 developed an easily searchable master Excel file on monastic discounts with assessment and discount data on individual monasteries as well as their latitude and longitude coordinates. Table 1, is a screenshot showing the assessment and discount data for some Franciscan monasteries. As can be seen in the table, the data is incomplete. We are missing the latitude/longitude coordinates for several monasteries, and the names of some monasteries are uncertain and their location (that is, city) unknown (see yellow highlight). In some cases, we’ve only been able to approximate the location of monasteries, using the coordinates for the city the monasteries were in or nearby (see purple highlight). With over one thousand monasteries receiving discounts between 1523 and 1558, there is a fair amount of material yet to process.
Table 1: Sample of Master Excel file on monastic discounts.
Once the material is processed, we can upload it into ArcGIS to do spatial analysis. For example, using the incomplete data that we have, two computer science students, Caroline Parsons ‘19 and Pauline Yates ‘19, were able to visualize the percent of taxes discounted for Franciscan friars and nuns between 1544-1546 (see maps 1 and 2).
Map 1: Discounts to Franciscan Monks
Map 2: Discounts to Franciscan Nuns
Q: Why does this project matter?
A: By turning handwritten data into Excel data, this project makes the data more accessible to researchers. Then, even with incomplete data, these initial maps provide the beginnings for spatial analysis. For example, by comparing these initial maps, we can see geographic clustering of female and male houses. There were more Franciscan friars in the northwestern corner of the kingdom (i.e., Galicia) than nuns. We can also see that the area with the highest percentage of tax relief for both male and female Franciscans was in Old Castile (north central portion of the kingdom). The maps also make clear that the female houses received more tax relief than the male houses. But these maps also show errors and gaps in the data. First the errors. On map 1, the circle in Valencia (to the right of the map), and on map 2, the circle in Palma (to the far right of the map), indicate that incorrect latitude/longitude coordinates have been entered into the Excel Spread Sheet, because Valencia and Palma in the Balearic Islands belonged to the crown of Aragon and not the crown of Castile. Second the gaps. The archdiocese of Toledo in the middle of the map is blank. Franciscan friars and nuns lived in the archdiocese, but accounts in the royal archive only indicate the amount that those houses were discounted in the payment period of 1544-1546 and not the amount that they were assessed. Thus, we can’t calculate how much relief these discounts provided houses there. Therefore, the blank space on the map. This underscores a challenge working with the documents – they are often incomplete. In any case, the beauty of ArcGIS is that once we correct the errors and fill in the holes in the datasets, it will be relatively easy to update the maps.
Q: What is the role of students in the project?
A: Student researchers are essential to advance this project. I simply cannot do all the transcriptions and data processing by myself, and much of the progress with mapping made to date has relied heavily on Saint Anselm students. To meet this year’s goal of completing the databases on the ecclesiastical contribution for ArcGIS, I have hired three students. Two history majors, Brodie Deshaies ’21 and Mitch McLaughlin ’19, are currently finding the coordinates of the various monasteries using printed sources and Google Earth. We are hoping to identify the locations of at least 2/3 of the monasteries, which can be challenging as many no longer exist. A Spanish major, Braina Ruiz ’21, is learning paleography to help with transcribing data from the handwritten records (see photo) into Excel. Later in the semester, I hope to recruit some students from Professor Carol Traynor’s CS 210 Introduction to Geographical Information Systems class to help with preparing more maps.
Q: What benefit do students get from this project?
A: Through this research, students will perform vital tasks to advance the project and gain experience doing digital humanities research. Digital humanities is a new field that recognizes sources, tools of study, and methods of distribution far beyond the page or book, integrating computing and digital technologies in the study and spread of humanistic knowledge. All student researchers will develop collaborative skills by working as part of a team, while also honing both historical and computational skills. The skills obtained will vary by student task, but include:
- becoming familiar with historical data from sixteenth-century Spain, understanding the basic types of primary sources for the project, and learning about transcription and crowd-sourcing
- organizing data using controlled-vocabulary schemes to develop a process of metadata selection to create databases
- mapping various data in GIS platform
- developing content to display as a website or an online article, designing appropriate interface to convey the knowledge easily to users/readers, and allowing users/readers to access the information for their own research
- using spatial and virtual presentations to interpret the past in conjunction with documents; students will begin to do original research and ideally see how their work contributes to knowledge and moves the historiography forward in an innovative way
Q: Sounds like you and the students are going to be quite busy!
A: The Jean Chair comes with course releases to permit an intense focus on the research and student engagement. The project is connected to the course I am currently teaching on Medieval Spain, and will also connect to a team-taught course on the Digital Humanities next year. Connecting teaching and research is one aspect of the Jean Chair. I’m very grateful to my colleagues and the College for giving me this opportunity. It is a real honor.