The case papers for the church courts held at York are an essential source for anyone interested in the social, economic, physical, emotional and legal environment of England’s past. From the 14th century until the mid-19th, these paper and parchment records detail thousands of cases which came before the courts dealing with a variety of offences: adultery, slander, heresy, non-payment of tithes and drunkenness amongst many others.

Between 1 March -31 July 2011 this project, funded by the JISC eContent programme 2011,  will image over 13,000 of these court cases, known as cause papers, from the period 1500-1800, and attach image files to the existing on-line catalogue available at  http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/causepapers/. After the formal part of the project is over the methodologies developed during project will enable us to continue adding additional images to the catalogue, from before 1500 and after 1800.

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The Jurisdiction of the Church Courts

The Church Courts had jurisdiction over many areas of personal life that today we would consider the business of the state – or no body’s business at all. So for instance, matters of sexual morality, including cases relating to marriage, adultery and fornication, were frequently before the courts. The courts also dealt with cases concerning personal reputation – defamation and slander, and with the estates of deceased people – making sure that the executors and administrators of estates carried out their roles properly.

The established Church was supported by a system of taxation based on agricultural and manufacturing yields. Unsurprisingly, there were many disputes between parishioners, their clergy and other people with a right to tithes, about what exactly was owed, who should get it and how it should be paid. Disagreements that could not be solved locally would find their way into the courts and so we have cases about all manner of things: turnips, salt, damsons, bees, liquorice, gorse, onions and peacocks being just a few.

Another significant area of jurisdiction was over the personal and professional conduct not just of the clergy, but also of schoolmasters, physicians and midwives – all of these occupations were kept a special eye on by the Church. So here we will find cases of clergy who fail to turn up to services, schoolmasters appear drunk in public, and midwives whose professional reputation is called into doubt.

In all of this its important to bear in mind that the established Church, first part of the international Church regulated from Rome, and then later as the Anglican Church, under the authority of the Crown, underwent huge changes in its theology, its liturgy, in how clergy dressed, in how services were run and in how churches were arranged and decorated. The many people who found that they had not kept up with the changes, either accidentally or deliberately, are another group of people we can see explaining themselves in the courts.

For more information about the courts see our Cause Paper web pages.

Project Methodology

For the five months March – July 2011 a team of digitisers will be making over 200,000 images of the court records. We are using three digitisation stations:

1) An SMA 21 scanner, a full colour, A2, overhead scanner, which can work at speeds in excess of 4 scans per minute. This scanner is being used to deal with the 18th century records which are largely very flat, robust and do not have seals.

2) Two identical copy-stand stations using copystands and cameras. These are being used for the 16th and 17th century material which is more likely to need weighting down, is of more variable format, and which may have seals. The copy-stand/camera set ups are slightly slower that then scanner, which is increased by the fact that the images need cropping whereas those from the scanner do not. However, they have been chosen because they allow the imaging of material which is not suitable for the scanner which does (slightly and gently) press on the documents.

Images from the scanner are being made and stored as TIFFS. Images from the cameras are being made as RAW and then converted to TIFF using Adobe Lightroom.

Each team is making a spreadsheet log of their work in which they match image file references to document references. These spreadsheet records will form the basis of the automated process to create digital objects to represent each cause paper. These digital objects, each with a unique uri will be stored in the university’s digital library. It is these images that the catalogue will link to.


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