Wednesday, 10 September 2014

SLAVERY 11 - the archives

The archives in Dubrovnik are housed in the Sponza Palace.  Most the building seems to have been completed by 1312. The ground floor was used as a customs-house, the first floor was for social occasions, and the second floor was the mint and dates from 1520 according to an inscription.  The famous Renaissance arcade in front was probably also added in 1520, whereas the elaborate windows of the first floor date from the fifteenth century and are recognisably Venetian in style. Caravans to the Balkan interior gathered in front of the building.  The elegant architecture bears visual witness to the interconnectedness of Dubrovnik with much wider trade networks across the Adriatic.

Inside the archives...

The archival collection itself began to be systematically put together from a very early date.  From the thirteenth century, notarial practices became so sophisticated that it was possible to file the documents very carefully.  The keeping of the archives was re-codified as a state activity in the 18th century, at which point they reclassified the collection into 14 series.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of the material was taken away to Vienna, returning to Dubrovnik in 1920 where it was re-inventoried and in 1952 relocated to the Sponza palace.  The importance of these archives for a sense of political identity was key.

This tells us something beyond how to access the documents we want: it testifies to the symbolic importance of such archives, and the ways in which documents can are not only shaped by the history of a place, but become part of the history of a place.The parchment (or paper) doesn't just communicate what happened - in many ways, it is what happened.

In the documents that I've looked at there is a real sense that these matter as documents, not simply for what they tell us.  The contract of a sale of a slave doesn't just communicate the sale - it stands as a symbol for perpetuity of that person's status.  Even so, there was anxiety that documents might be challenged, and for that reason, particularly after manumissions of slaves, we find a clause stating that any subsequent document which might be produced cannot invalidate the one in hand.  Documents were referred back to in order to respond to challenges and prove ownership, they were registered in different places (loose contracts were officially registered in the notarial register - eg. a sale of 1339 as a loose leaf, then copied carefully into the Debita Notariae 2 fol. 270r), they were lost and then found.

So in the archives,we find not only the record of history, but we are handling history - touching the material things which embodied relationships of such importance.

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