Northern Ireland’s ‘Domesday Book’ deciphered

Fire-damaged survey ordered by Charles I yields its secrets at last

A fire-damaged document seen as “the Domesday Book for Northern Ireland” but inaccessible to scholars for more than two centuries has been digitally restored, transcribed and made available online.

In 1639, Charles I brought a case before the Star Chamber and successfully claimed estates in Northern Ireland belonging to the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. He then commissioned a survey intended to present in a single volume full details of all the contracts and rented lands in Londonderry and Coleraine.

The results were recorded in the Great Parchment Book of The Honourable The Irish Society, now held in the London Metropolitan Archives. Yet this invaluable source for understanding the early colonisation and administration of Ulster was badly damaged by a fire at the Guildhall in 1786 and has since been too fragile to consult, as well as very difficult to decipher.

The 165 handwritten folios have become a “poppadom text”, said Melissa Terras, director of the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities and reader in electronic communication, “and so wrinkled they can be stacked in a big pile. When you have a fire, you get damage at the edges, but the inside of the book cooks and deforms and shrinks.”

As part of this year’s celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the building of Londonderry’s city walls, it was decided to produce a digital version of the Great Parchment Book made as legible as today’s conservation techniques allow. The Honourable The Irish Society therefore joined forces with the London Metropolitan Archives, while the City of London’s historic livery companies, representing clothworkers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, ironmongers, mercers, merchant taylors and skinners, each chipped in with £1,000.

A brush was used to remove dirt from folds and creases in the vellum pages, which were lightly dampened, placed between Gore-Tex fabric and moistened blotting paper, and covered with polythene to keep the moisture in. This made the creases more malleable without further damaging the parchment or ink. Polyester wadding was placed below creased areas to push them out, with tension maintained by small magnets attached to a metal sheet under each page.

Once this work had been done, a team led by Tim Weyrich, associate director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and including Dr Terras as well as PhD candidate Kazim Pal, employed a technique known as photogrammetry, which involved taking up to 200 photographs of each page from slightly different angles. These were transformed into a three-dimensional model that can be digitally stretched to aid transcription. An expert palaeographer could then get to work, leading to the creation of an online text complete with glossary and fully searchable by places and personal and livery company names.

“Before we could read about 50 per cent of the text, but now we can read around 90 per cent,” said Dr Terras. Although they had used “a bespoke software application for this document”, she hoped the approach could also be used elsewhere, “given how common library fires were in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike many projects in the digital humanities, we were doing new computer science as well as humanities research.”

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