Digital church records offer window into past

The University of Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute (HRI) has completed a project with the University of York to digitise records of the Church Courts of York, giving historians new insight into a huge variety of topics spanning many centuries.

From arguments about church taxes on pigeon dung to families disputing wills and inheritance, the records paint a vivid picture of the social, economic, political, religious and emotional world of people from the 14th to 19th centuries.

Digitisation of the York Cause Papers, which record the proceedings of the ecclesiastical courts of York from 1300 to 1858, has been funded through a grant from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the UK's technology consortium for higher and further education. This development means the papers are set to become one of the most widely-used historical records in the UK.

Chris Webb, Keeper of Archives at the University of York's Borthwick Institute for Archives, said: "Until 1858 the church courts, under the authority of bishops, had jurisdiction over a wide variety of crimes which we would now consider secular and the business of the state.

"They oversaw cases concerning marriage and separation, and disputes over wills and inheritance. They also dealt with cases involving personal reputation and defamation, the maintenance of the church, the orthodoxy of its services, and the regulation of the moral and professional conduct of the clergy, schoolmasters, physicians and midwives.

"The Church of England was supported by a system of taxation known as tithes and the records also show exactly how this taxation was calculated and how people tried to evade it."

The HRI at the University of Sheffield provided crucial technical support in enabling this project to link the images of the York Cause Papers with the Borthwick's searchable database of the Cause Papers. The searchable database was created by the Borthwick and the HRI during a previous project, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

Michael Pidd, HRI Digital Manager, said: "Our ongoing collaboration with the University of York within the field of the digital humanities is a rewarding relationship which continues to deliver high value results. Although our role in the second phase of this project has been small, it is great to watch the original database maturing into a key historical resource."

Professor Mark Ormrod, from the University of York's Department of History, said: "The digitisation of the Cause Papers brings to completion a comprehensive project designed specifically to allow the widest possible public access to this vitally important historical resource.

"The resource is of tremendous importance to specialists in social, economic, religious and legal history and in the history of gender, sexuality, marriage and domesticity, as well as to a wide range of users with interests in family and local history. The York Cause Papers are now set to become one of the most widely used historical resources in the United Kingdom."

Alastair Dunning, Programme Manager at JISC, said: "Digitisation of this resource opens up the records to a far greater range of research and teaching uses. To date, use has been limited by the physical format and the conservation needs of the documents. These new digital images can be shuffled around, enlarged, re-ordered and compared in ways that are not possible with the physical items themselves."

Notes for Editors:
To find out more about the University of Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute visit: Humanities Research Institute

For a gallery of images of the York Cause Papers visit:
York Cause Papers

Please credit the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

JISC is the UK's technology consortium for higher and further education. Other digital content funded by JISC is available at JISC