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Popethink – Jo Pugh

Last month, I was the guest of Yahoo at their Openhack event in Bucharest.

A lot of very clever developers produced an extraordinary range of hacks over the 24 hour event – you can read about some of them here.

I’m not any sort of hacker, I was there to talk about history. But it seemed churlish not to at least attempt to play around with some National Archives data and so I put together a simple (and very rough) visualisation using IBM’s Many Eyes platform, which I called Popethink.

Popethink takes all of the catalogue data from SC 7, our collection of Papal Bulls.  This is nothing to do with livestock: a bull is a piece of official correspondence from the papacy which takes its name from the metal seal (a ‘bulla’) attached to the bottom. We hold over 1,200 of these letters from Pope Innocent II in the 1130s up to Henry VIII’s break with Rome 400 years later. They have been helpfully catalogued into various types, some of them fairly obvious like orders, requests and exhortations and some a bit more arcane, like indults which allow certain named individuals to break specific items of church law. Each entry in the catalogue begins with one of these ‘key’ words.

Many Eyes can show these items as a word tree, showing all the entries branching off from successive words in the catalogue entry and this can show us very quickly who are the subjects of the Pope’s correspondence and in what context. Who is at the front of his mind when he writes to Britain?

The Pope’s exhortations, for instance, are sometimes ‘to all the faithful of Christ’, But far more often they are directed to the King of England. The Pope is often preoccupied by encouraging the king to ‘incline his mind to peace’, often with France but in one case with ‘him who rules the Kingdom of Scotland’. A phrase which manages to imply the Pope has momentarily forgotten who exactly that is.

Another exhortation urges Prince Edward to ‘use every effort’ to free his father from captivity. This relates to Henry III’s capture by the dastardly ‘democrat’ Simon de Montfort. By the time of the date on the document, Edward had already defeated de Montfort at Evesham so we can see that while the Pope displays a reasonable knowledge of events in England, he’s a little behind the times. Other bulls show the Pope acting in this conflict to excommunicate followers of De Montfort and then sending encouraging notes if they switch sides – he does this with Gilbert de Clair, the Earl of Gloucester. This is just one of many examples of the Pope’s support for the established order. Innocent III gives King John’s rebellious barons just eight days to come to the King’s aid or be excommunicated.

Typing in ‘excommunicate’ shows us those in Britain who enter this most serious of the Pope’s bad books. Poor Robert the Bruce appears to have been excommunicated three times but the Knights Templar also get a number of mentions in this context. Anyone foolish enough to ‘lay violent hands’ on a Templar is to be excommunicated and anyone who seizes their goods or even insults them is placed under ‘anathema’: the anathema is the Pope’s power to send people directly to hell when they die.

The grouping provided by ManyEyes can open up all sorts of avenues for exploring these documents: Why does the Priory of the Holy Trinity in London need so much protection? Can kings really not choose a confessor without the Pope’s permission?

I’ve spent ages playing around with the results. Why don’t you see what you can find?

About the blogger

Joseph Pugh is a member of the Education and Outreach team at The National Archives. He has worked for a number of museums and galleries including the National Portrait Gallery and the Petrie Collection and for BBC History. His research interests include comics in the 1950s, how to win a duel and fainting in the 19th century.

Comments (2)

  • Andrew-Bede Allsop

    This is very good indeed and I can see how useful it would be for all kinds of data held by the National Archives. Are you considering making use of this for other data?

  • Lemmingseo2

    Thx for the information

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