Project Reviews

Henry III Fine Rolls Project: A window into English history, 1216-1272
Created and maintained by King's College London's Department of History and Centre for Computing in the Humanities, in conjunction with The National Archives and Canterbury Christ Church University, with the financial help of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Henry III Fine Rolls Project is an archival effort begun in 2005, aiming to translate these thirteenth-century fine roll manuscripts into a digital, searchable format. Principally run by David Carpenter from the King's College History Department team, there are numerous other members from the three other project institutions—King's College Centre for Computing in the Humanities, The National Archives, and the Canterbury Christ Church University—that are involved. Their desire is to remove the previous obstacles for frequent and easy use of the manuscripts by "bringing the fine rolls from the darkness in which they were accessible only to a few scholars to the light in which they are intelligible and freely available to everyone." The documents' importance stems from Henry III's place as the son of King John, signer of the Magna Carta. Thus, these financial records provide evidence to track the changes between that fateful event and the beginnings of parliamentary power in 1264.

By translating the documents, collating them with others, and providing search indexes, the project fills the gap in published material as King John's fine rolls along with the chancery records up to 1272 are already in print editions. The primary sources are organized chronologically within a hyperlinked list, allowing for the easy location and searching of specific years. Once a fine roll is opened from the list, hyperlinks for Zoomify-enhanced facsimile manuscript images are located at the top, and duplicated throughout the transcribed text. This arrangement allows for easy user access to wide variety of formats for the material. The information is presented a minimalist format, with only a few footnotes interspersed to provide the reasoning behind an entry's specific date, correlation to another document, or editorial translation decision, as the original document was in Latin.

The project investigators clearly state their central research question as "the way the material on the fine rolls reveals the limits placed by Magna Carta on the operations of kingship and how this prepared the way for the parliamentary state." Additional information about genealogy, material culture, social concerns can also be gleaned from these sources, as some research on widows, marriage, the treatment of Jews, and inheritance disputes has been completed using the fine rolls.

It is in the indexing, however, that a structural weakness appears. Given the purpose to enhance and encourage research using Henry III's fine rolls, it is surprising that the efforts to create people, place, and subject indexes based upon these fine rolls is not dynamically linked within the website. Instead, the user has to make a note of whatever element they wish to know more about, and move to a separate index page to begin their search. Once a search has been performed, though, the results list is capable of linking back to every entry within the rolls where that search term is found. This conscious effort to enhance information gathering reinforces the emphasis upon research that the site has, since reading within the pages of translated information at this point does not allow for dynamic searching. Some helpful additions have occurred thanks to additional funding, because as of two months ago, the entire document set and facsimile images up to 1272 are now translated and uploaded to the website. Perhaps once the searchable indexing is complete for period from 1242-1272 as well, future funding will help provide for more digital research tools and structural aids. For now, all questions and concerns on how to use the site are addressed in the Style Book, complete with a subsection on how to cite the digital primary source material properly.

The website in general though provides a rather clear organization, with nine areas for perusal—Project Information, Fine Rolls, Style Book, Commentary, News, Help, Fine of the Month, Book Publication, and Blog. Upon selection, the first six of those nine areas expand to show subsections where more detailed explanation is provided. While largely an archival effort, the Commentary section moves the Fine Rolls project towards providing additional contextual information on Henry III and the fine rolls beyond that given in Project Information. Additionally, the fore fronting on the homepage of a Fine of the Month research article, in addition to the Blog, provides examples of research using the site's primary source. All of the research articles that have been featured since December 2005, along with a review of the website, are stored in a list on the Fine of the Month page.

Despite those informational additions, the site gears itself towards for "research, private study or education." Given the amount of space devoted to explaining these sources and the project and editorial nuances, the site's primary audience would be those students, enthusiasts, or academics needing the information for a project. Indeed, the most frequent citation of the site is for studies of English law or medieval sources as posted online by libraries, major institutions, and academics. The general public using search engine results would largely skip the site in favor of those with more narrative woven into the evidence.

Overall, the Henry III Fine Rolls Project provides an important service as a digital archive, enhancing research through various index search capabilities not available in the print medium. Admittedly, though, the project is closely tied to print publishing efforts of the rolls, since with each fully completed section of the digital project so far, a print version has become available through Boydell and Brewer. Future merging of the now segregated interpretive elements in Commentary and the Blog could push the archival project beyond a digital research aid and into a highly informative site about English law.

Andrea Nichols
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011