Transkribus and the Altona Case Team

In the Altona Case Team at PRIVACY, we are working with two versions of a late 18th century text by Johann Peter Willebrand. The text appears in French as Abrégé de la police, accompagné de réflexions sur l’accroissement des villes and in German as Innbegriff der Policey: nebst Betrachtungen über das Wachsthum der Städte.

Cover page of Abrégé de la police

To make our lives easier,  our team thought that it would be a good idea to run the PDFs through OCR, to have searchable and editable texts that we could work with. However, we got huge differences in accuracy with different OCR tools.

We started with the French version of the text, which we downloaded in PDF format from Google books. First, we tried Abbyy FineReader. This is a very good (proprietary) app to run OCR on scanned text written in modern languages , but when dealing with our early modern material, the results were far from acceptable. Next, we tried Transkribus. For 18th century print French, we could choose three different trained models that were publicly available. We tried all of them, with very different results.

Bellow you will see a screenshot with the four results we obtained with the different tools, displayed side by side.

Comparison of OCR tools: 1) Abbyy FineReader (modern French), 2) Transkribus model French_18thC_Print, 3) Transkribus model LaMOP-Livre_Rouge_1, 4) Transkribus model Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes M2
Comparison of OCR tools: 1) Abbyy FineReader (modern French), 2) Transkribus model French_18thC_Print, 3) Transkribus model LaMOP-Livre_Rouge_1, 4) Transkribus model Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes M2

Clearly the winner was the Transkribus model French_18thC_Print (developed at the KB National Library of the Netherlands).

Then came a surprise: as we fiddled with the Transkribus interface to learn more about this particular model, we discovered that it was one of the models developped by Annemieke Romein, with whom we had a couple of Transkribus workshops online. What a serendipitous discovery!

Now we are even more excited to bring Annemieke for an in-person training at UCPH, in a cooperation between our team at the Centre for Privacy Studies,  and Prof. Gunvor Simonsen, and her team of the ERC project  In the Same Sea: The Lesser Antilles as a Common World of Slavery and Freedom, at the Saxo Institute.

Here is the model’s description on Transkribus:

[Transkribus model French_18thC_Print] is based on printed texts in French (Romantype Font) that was used in Flanders (Low Countries), during the 18th century. The type of sources used for this model, are books of ordinances, which contained the norms (‘laws’) at the time.
This model has been the result of one of the KB National Library of the Netherlands Researcher-in-Residence position 2019. The project was called ‘Entangled Histories’. The books used for this specific model, have been provided by the Bodleian Library Oxford (RECUEIL DES ÉDITS, DÉCLARATIONS, LETTRES-PATENTES, &c. ENREGISTRÉS
AU PARLEMENT DE FLANDRES). For more information regarding the background of the model and how to cite it, please visit: www.https://lab.kb.nl/dataset/entangled-histories-ordinances-low-countries

We look forward to working with Annemieke. If you want to learn more about her work with Transkribus, check out her website caromein.nl or find her on Twitter @CARomein

Bad Air or Germ Invasion?

Good health is the most basic condition for a person to live a thriving life and—as we have been witnessing for the last few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic—countries desperately need their people to be healthy, too. Otherwise, society goes bonkers. Hence, the importance of public health measures to control and prevent the spread of disease.

Le bonheur, et souverain bien de la vie consiste plus en la bonne santé qu’en tous les biens du Monde, puis qu’elle l’entretien et prolonge, et que sans icelle elle est déplaisante. (Andre le Gros, 1625)

[Happiness, chief wellbeing of life, consists more in having good health than in having all goods of the world, since health maintains and prolongs life, and without health, life is unpleasant.]

Last week, Anni discussed public health measures imposed during times of pandemic, which—though necessary for the greater good—can have detrimental implications for people’s right to live free from interference from the state. She shrewdly compared a 1563 English Plague Order with current measures affecting us right now in 2020 because of COVID-19.

But in addition to imposing rules of quarantine, isolation, and other behaviors, early modern authorities, just like our authorities today, also tried to prevent the spread of disease via less draconian measures, especially by giving advice on how to contain the problem. I am curious to know how advice on prevention worked during the long winded Second Plague Pandemic compared to what we get today from our public health officials.

In a time before the germ theory of disease was accepted, some providers of health care believed that diseases could be passed on by bad, stinky air, which they called miasma. This idea, which already existed in Hippocrates’ time, was expanded and popularized by Galen, and it was also what many health practitioners believed in the early modern period. In the absence of a visible cause for the disease, the idea that miasma was what caused it made a lot of sense: proximity to those infected with the plague led healthy people to become sick, so the bad air in the vicinity of sick bodies was the primary suspect, especially given the stench that inevitably hang around places where the disease struck. Notice below in Nicolas Poissin’s painting The Plague of Ashdod how a character on the right side covers his nose.

La Peste d’Asdod by Nicolas Poussin (1630)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a treatise with the long name Régime de santé, souverain bien de l’homme en ceste vie, observant les préceptes de Hyppoc. et Gal., avec la manière de se préserver contre la peste, André Le Gros, a graduate from the school of medicine in Paris, talked about how to prevent the plague and how to treat it in people affected. On page 11, he suggests

éviter le mauvais air, et principalement celui qui est gâté et infecté de ceste maladie, et ou elle est, et a été ; se retirer des grandes assemblées et compagnies suspectes, se contenir chez soi si on n’est pressé d’affaires ; se tenir nettement, faire bon feu dans le logis, et aux rues aussi, qu’on doit bien nettoyer et en ôter les immondices, et y jeter souvent de l’eau fraiche et nette; parfumer les maisons et chambres avec bois, herbes et drogues de bonne senteur.

[avoid bad air, especially air that is spoiled and infected with this disease, and [places] where it is and has been; withdraw from large assemblies and suspicious companies; contain oneself at home if one is in no hurry due to business; keep oneself clean, make a good fire in the house and in the streets, too, which must be cleaned well and be rid of trash, and [where] fresh and clean water should be thrown often; perfume the houses and rooms with wood, herbs, and drugs that smell good.]

Today we know that stinky air, though unpleasant, is not the cause of the plague. Bacteria named Yersinia pestis cause the disease.  And the germ theory is now so well established that in popular parlance about our current evildoer—the coronavirus—we give priority to mentioning the microorganism. We are capable of imagining these tiny invaders entering our respiratory system to wreck havoc. Invisible little bodies populating the surface of our skin must be flushed with soap and water, or killed with alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

WHO advice for the public to prevent Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

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Update: A previous version of this post stated that the miasma theory came from Galen, but he in fact expanded upon earlier ideas, including those of Hippocrates. Thanks to Natacha for the correction.

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References

“Germ Theory of Disease.” In Wikipedia, March 20, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Germ_theory_of_disease&oldid=946550640

Jones, Colin. “Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France.” Representations 53 (1996)

Kannadan, Ajesh. “History of the Miasma Theory of Disease.” ESSAI 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2018). https://dc.cod.edu/essai/vol16/iss1/18

Le Gros, André. Régime de Santé, Souverain Bien de l’homme En Ceste Vie, Observant Les Préceptes de Hyppoc. et Gal., Avec La Manière de Se Préserver Contre La Peste . Ensemble La Protestation d’Hyppoc., Mise En Vers François Par Un Ancien Médecin de La Faculté de Paris. Dédié à MM. de Paris, Par Un Docteur de La Mesme Faculté, 1625. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5629510w

“Second Plague Pandemic.” In Wikipedia, March 22, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_plague_pandemic&oldid=946815591

Afro-Amsterdamers in the 17th Century

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661
Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 17th Century, there was a community of people of color living in Amsterdam. This community was linked to the maritime industry: black women established permanently in the city were married to black men who worked as sailors for the VOC and the WIC, the Dutch West and East India Companies. Mark Ponte, who has been studying this community’s traces in the collection of notary deeds at the Amsterdam City Archives, explains:

From the moment the Dutch became active in the Atlantic world, people of African descent came to Amsterdam. Their presence is evident from baptismal and marriage registers and from seventeenth-century notarial deeds. (via Twitter)

The painting above, made by Rembrandt in 1661, most likely depicts two men who belonged to this community of afro-descendents, which was located around Jodenbreestraat, known today as the Old Jewish Quarter. In his article about the topic, Ponte shows the location of this community on the map below, a an adaptation of “Amstelredamum emporium Hollandiae primarium totiusque Europae celeberrimum”, Balthasar Florisz Berckenrode, 1625 (source: Amsterdam City Archives Collection).

Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century: 1. Huiszittenhuis en turfpakhuizen 2. Leprozenhuis 3. Sint Antoniespoort 4. Pauwegang 5. Vlooienburg 6. Huis Moyses 7. Atelier Rembrandt 8. Ververstraat

It is super interesting for me to get concrete primary evidence of the close proximity of the Afro-Amsterdamer community to the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam, whose archival traces have been the target of my attention. According to Ponte’s article,  women of African descent very often were employed as servants at the houses of Jewish merchants.

This raised so many research questions in my head… Jewish servants working at Christian households and Christian servants working at Jewish households were often the target of unwanted sexual attention by their respective masters, which often resulted in unwanted pregnancies and serious problems for the woman involved. I know this from the work of Elisheba Carlebach (Hamburg and Altona) and Lotte van de Pol (Amsterdam). I wonder now what the archives can tell me about unwanted pregnancies among the community of people of color in Amsterdam. I guess this is a question for my next archival trip!

Sources:

Carlebach, Elisheva. “Fallen Women and Fatherless Children: Jewish Domestic Servants in Eighteenth-Century Altona.” Jewish History 24, no. 3–4 (2010): 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10835-010-9114-y.

Pol, Lotte van de, and Erika Kuijpers. “Poor Women’s Migration to the City: The Attraction of Amsterdam Health Care and Social Assistance in Early Modern Times.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 1 (2005): 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144205279198.

Ponte, Mark. “‘Al de Swarten Die Hier Ter Stede Comen’ Een Afro-Atlantische Gemeenschap in Zeventiende-Eeuws Amsterdam.” TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 15, no. 4 (March 11, 2019): 33–62. https://doi.org/10.18352/tseg.995.

Emotions in Historical Documents

File:Étienne Jeaurat 001.jpg

La conduite des filles de joie à la Salpêtrière : le passage près de la porte Saint-Bernard
Étienne Jeaurat (1699 – 1789)

“Jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody, ever. Neither can I and neither can you. And that’s because emotions are not what we think they are.” This straightforward statement introduces the TED talk You Aren’t at the Mercy of your Emotions–Your Brain Creates Them, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist, psychologist, and professor at Northwestern University (and one of my nerdy heroes!)

I first got to know Barrett’s work back in 2017 when I read How Emotions Are Made (a book that covers the TED talk topics in more detail). I picked up her book after reading Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and A.D. (Bud) Craig’s How do You Feel?. Having been captivated for years by the study of emotions—as an actor, as a historian, and as a person who feels them—I had been in a personal and professional quest to understand the role of our neurobiology in our emotions.

Barrett is referring to the trial and conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. The final verdict gave Tsarnaev the death sentence rather than life in prison, in part because the jurors did not think that he felt remorse for killing and hurting so many people. The New York Times reports that “Only two jurors believed that Mr. Tsarnaev had expressed sorrow and remorse for his actions” while “Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and renowned death penalty opponent, [believed] that he was ‘genuinely sorry’ for what he had done.” Jurors interpreted Tsarnaev’s emotional expression in one way, a catholic nun interpreted it in a diametrically opposed way.

Who is right?

Well, according to Barrett, both and none. This is because emotions are not an independent reality that exists outside of the brain of the interpreter: an observer’s brain creates the emotion that the observer thinks comes from the person being observed. In this context, the jurors—weighted down by the responsibility of granting someone the right to live or die—brought their own emotional baggage into their interpretation of Tsarnaev’s emotions, and a majority of them interpreted him as being remorseless. Helen Prejean, a leading humanitarian who has been fighting for the abolition of the death penalty for years, also brought her own baggage into her interpretation, judging the accused as experiencing remorse. The bottom line: it is impossible to disentangle someone’s emotional expression from the observer’s  interpretation of that expression. Emotion is co-created by observer and observed. After learning about these insights by Barrett and her team, I started to think of historical documents in a different way…

Take the example of women accused of prostitution in old regime France. They were incarcerated at the Salpetrière in order to mend their morals and atone for their sins. In order to be deemed worthy of eventually being released, a woman had to show signs of true contrition during her long stay at the hospital. Her freedom depended on signs of sincere conversion, and her continued incarceration was justified by signs of pretense. But of course, it was not easy to distinguish sincere repentance from pretended repentance!

Consider the case of the sisters Jeanne and Madelaine Thibault, discussed by Philip F. Riley in A Lust for Virtue. They had been incarcerated at the Salpetrière in 1698 “for having committed the double sin of prostitution with priests and then the sin of sacrilege by receiving the sacraments to mask their evil commerce.” (p. 58) Madeleine was freed after 4 years, but her sister Jeanne had to stay for 10 years before she was released in 1708. Riley notes that Jeanne’s wardens were quite suspicious of her behavior, and in 1705, they attested that her good behavior was due to her having learned of her father’s death, and not due to true repentance for her sins. I am left to wonder how the wardens’ own ideas about each sister might have influenced their interpretation of sincerity or pretense.

Now we know from Barrett that it is hard—actually, impossible—to unambiguously detect remorse in someone’s face. In the case of remorse in historical documents, there is an added layer of camouflage: the words of the scribe. For a historian interested in people of lower social rankings, who very rarely left accounts written by themselves, this insight it an eye opener. Indirect sources on poor people’s lives are all that I have to work with, but I have to be extremely sensitive to what I infer based on these indirect, and often unsympathetic, written accounts.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy

 

Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)
Source: https://library.princeton.edu/versailles/item/905

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.


Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.