Help VUB uncover witness statements of the past

Summary

Vrije Universiteit Brussel is looking for volunteers to type out thousands of interrogations of suspects and witnesses of centuries past

Order in the court!

Should you be a fan of historical courtroom dramas, then have we got good news for you. Brussels university VUB is looking for volunteers to help type and digitalise 10,000 interrogations of suspects and witnesses during trials in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The goal of the Witnesses project is to track trends and changes in societal attitudes, which can be seen both in the questions posed by lawyers as well as the answers received. Researchers hope to learn about the responses of both authorities and citizens to industrialisation, political movements, rising inequality and social revolutions.

“Did the industrial revolution improve prosperity?” ask the researchers in a statement. “Was it a sudden revolution, or did it have much deeper roots in the past? How did the emergence of new political borders – like in Belgium – influence the way in which people viewed the notion of homeland and solidarity?”

‘A wealth of information’

The records come from archives across the region, all on paper. Digitising and annotating the information will facilitate research in various disciplines, including history, sociology, criminology and linguistics. This kind of source material could be invaluable, but is never used because it’s impossible to pore over so much paper material in archives.

“Little is known about the way in which the everyday lives of ordinary people contributed to major transformations, and how they affected them,” say the researchers. “There are few sources of information about that. All kinds of people acted as witnesses in court: young and old, rich and poor. Witness hearings contain a wealth of information that would otherwise remain hidden. Witnesses and suspects not only describe the crime, but also the way of life in those days. What kinds of goods were valued? Who met who at the inn? How did they talk? We want to study this and much more.”

The archives have been scanned, and VUB is now seeking volunteers to transcribe them into the database. Anyone interested can email getuigenissen@vub.be.