Early modern decision-making and political dialogue
After the Middle Ages the Northern Netherlands went through a distinct development. Initially they seemed to develop in the direction of a unitary State under a monarch, the standard model for European State formation. However, in the late sixteenth century, during their revolt against Philip II, the Northern provinces decided to continue as a Republic, while maintaining provincial sovereignty. Representation and decision-making at the ‘national ‘ level brought the necessary political and institutional innovations. As a state composed of old and new elements the Dutch Republic occupied an exceptional place during the early modern era. From the late sixteenth until the end of the eighteenth century, the States General (a predecessor of the present bicameral States General) acted as the central ruling assembly in a federal republic. The High and Mighty Gentlemen not only pursued ‘ high politics ‘. On the Binnenhof in The Hague the representatives of seven sovereign provinces argued and decided almost every day (including weekends!) over a wide range of issues, from pensions for war widows and New Year gifts for couriers to the founding of trade companies and the policy concerning war and peace. Decision-making was a continuous process and expressed itself in an endless series of resolutions, carefully recorded by the Registrar and his clerks. Those decisions not only mirror the invention and development of the Republic as a new state, they also show the daily political business of the States General as the then representatives and rulers. The States General also functioned as a platform for political dialogue, because many decisions demanded (inter)provincial lobbying beforehand.
The resolutions and historical research
The resolutions of the States-General (1576-1796) are a backbone source for research into the history of Netherlands. For the seventeenth century, the period in which the Republic was a great power, they are even of world historical importance. The decisions are an essential part of the huge archive of the States General that is kept in the National Archives in The Hague, counting 17,550 inventory numbers. In this mass of paper the resolution series serve as a key to numerous important and intriguing documents. Many domestic and foreign historians have used the archive and the resolutions of the States-General, in as far as they were accessible, in their studies of the rise, flourishing and decline of the small maritime Republic amid (much) larger dynastic states.
Up to now the resolutions are primarily used for limited research into decision-making on specific topics, people and places. For the period 1576-1630, researchers can use online available editions, all varying in design and format. This inhibits research into long term developments like the changes in the treatment of petitions or in the interaction with other states. That applies equally to research into the dividing line between formal and informal politics, the development of political ceremony or politics behind the scenes. In historiography the image of a core group of no more than 15 to 30 representatives who actually controlled the Republic in the seventeenth century and its political direction, prevails. A review of this version of the facts by performing serial research into the attendance of meetings and committees is now inoperable. A more detailed analysis of the administrative culture, for example by tracing the emergence of republican ritual and ceremonial, or by tracking the action of committees and officeholders over a long period of time, may likewise not be carried out efficiently. Only when all the resolutions from the period 1576-1796 can be accessed these and countless other questions relating to early modern institutional innovation, political reconstruction, ‘ regime change ‘, networking, politics, language and representation can be answered.
Toward a digital edition
Because of their key function, the Huygens Institute and its predecessors started unlocking the content of the complex resolutions for more than a century ago. Between 1902 and 2007 several editions were published, first in a series of selected, partly transcribed and summarized resolutions (1576-1609), next in publications of all resolutions précised in modern Dutch (1610-1630). For the period 1576-1625 this was done in print, for the years 1626-1630 a digital born format was chosen. In-depth substantive editing by specialized researchers was until recently the only, but very labor-intensive and costly way to unlock the complex language and content of the resolutions. Now there are alternative ways to create access to the decisions for researchers and other users. HTR (HandwrittenText Recognition), OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and other ICT-based techniques and tools can be used to realize a complete digital edition of the resolutions. In 2014 Huygens ING and the National Archives agreed to back this enterprise. Digital images of the originals (in manuscript and printed) for the entire period 1576-1796 will (semi)automatically be unlocked. In 2015-2016 Huygens ING ICT and Digital Data Management departments have conducted pilot investigations into the usability of HTR, OCR and automatic text structuring and enrichment. The results of these pilots have been incorporated into a project plan that can be carried out as soon as external funding is acquired. Thus a digital corpus of unprecedented magnitude that is usable for all types of research will become available and in that way contribute to making visible the roots of parliamentary, representative democracy in Europe and the Atlantic world.
Prof. Dr. Ida Nijenhuis