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The University of Toronto DEEDS (Documents of Early England Data Set) Research Project was founded in 1975 by Michael Gervers, professor of History of the University of Toronto, to create a database of information culled from medieval property exchange documents which would be of interest to social and economic historians.

The DEEDS corpus, as of March 2016, consisted of 44,400 medieval charters. 41,000 of the charters are in Latin. The charters are from the British Isles, France and german-speaking Europe. Additional medieval charters are being added continuously. The DEEDS Project was established in 1975.

The objectives of the Project are:

  • To provide a sufficient corpus of medieval Latin charters to identify common chronological, geographical, social, diplomatic and economic trends over time, in particular in England from the ninth through thirteenth centuries;
  • To provide a mechanism for applying a statistically valid date to individual documents of uncertain chronological origin;
  • To provide a statistically generated means of identifying the geographical region, and possibly even the scriptorium from which a document came;
  • To identify individual scribes using linguistic and statistical techniques;
  • To establish a consistent mark-up system for distinguishing the diplomatic parts of a document and to identify relationships between people, landed property and things;
  • To provide an on-line concordance-type search mechanism for:
    • Identifying words and word-strings as they appear and disappear over time and
    • Providing editors with possible readings of missing or illegible text

A major objective of the DEEDS Project in recent years has been to develop an alternative to the common, but highly uncertain method of dating through the association of personal names in undated records with possible namesakes in dated or circa-dated sources. Problems arising from the misidentification of individuals are compounded in those records whose witness lists were omitted. Paleography (the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts) provides little if any assistance as the great majority of the sources from the period have survived only in later copies. For the same reason, sigillography (the study of seals attached to documents) is also insufficient. 

In search of a more accurate solution, DEEDS adopted a route suggested by the English medieval historian, Sir Frank Stenton, nearly a century ago. Faced with the reality that only five percent of the records he was editing bore dates, he determined that charter chronology was inextricably tied to the growth and development of the formulae which appeared in them.

The term “formula” is somewhat ambiguous as it suggests a set of words whose order and syntax do not change. Since nothing could be further from the truth in terms of the medieval legal phraseology of the 12th and 13th centuries, DEEDS uses the expression “word-pattern” or “shingle” rather than “formula” to designate any sequential group of two or more words. It was the two-word “shingle” that statisticians Gelila Tilahun and Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto found to be the most accurate indicator of temporal change in medieval records, a conclusion they worked into the algorithm which stands behind the DEEDS dating program. 

Digitization and Encoding

The current encoding schema for Medieval Latin charters was proposed and developed by Michael Margolin under the guidance of Professor Michael Gervers in the late 1990s. 

Along with the original text we also encode a charter with metadata originating from the following sources:

  • The charter itself
  • The printed edition of the cartulary
  • External sources