What’s the digital equivalent of a visit to a dusty but intriguing study with an assortment of old books, and, here and there, a remarkably complete collection on a single topic? This project comes very close. It has taken a selection of more than 115 primary texts in the public domain, in English or translated into English, and made them available to anyone with Internet access. The process is ongoing—some categories have only one or two readings available, while other areas, such as “Early Modern Europe,” are more complete. The creators of the site have focused so far on European history.
Hanover’s team has followed good procedure in assembling the site. Both the initial scanning and later editing are documented. The original printed sources—many of them collections of primary documents dating from the late 1800s—are always identified. The site itself is functional in black-and-white with no images. The goal here, an admirable one, is simply to make the readings available to a wide audience.
So what are the particular riches of the early modern collection to date? First, there is a solid collection of documents pertaining to Tudor and Stuart England, and particularly to issues of religion and the crown. While I have used most of these documents at one time or another in my teaching, it’s a great advantage to have all of them in one place and at my fingertips. The choices for France under Louis XIV are not as numerous, but they are excellent, and there’s a great selection of entries from Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.
High school students should respond particularly well to Voltaire’s wit, such as his essay on the English theater in which Shakespeare does not fare well. Those among your students who are fond of partying may be delighted, as well as appalled, by Mme de Sevigne’s description of Louis XIV’s visit to Chantilly in Accounts of Louis XIV. Selections on the German states seem to focus on Luther and religion, and Spain thus far has no documents at all. (What would historian Fernand Braudel, who characterized the 16th century as the age of the Spanish King Philip II, say?) There is a wide-ranging selection of sources on witches and witchcraft, which accords both with the traditional approach to European history and with current student tastes, but nothing on the Inquisition which tried witches in Catholic countries. The Italian Renaissance is represented by a good selection of writers.
The best of site award, though, goes to Lorenzo Valla’s work on the Donation of Constantine. The Hanover Project pairs Valla’s text, in side-by-side Latin and English, with a bilingual copy of the original “Donation,” taken from Gratian’s Decretum, and with a brief introduction to the topic. Since Valla’s essay is a model of critical reading, his work, together with the document that inspired it, may be a good way to introduce the process of critical reading to a high school history class. Students with some Latin will also enjoy the opportunity to try out their skills with an English safety net nearby.
There isn’t a perfect fit yet between the Project’s scaffolding, which includes Africa and Asia, and the predominantly European documents available currently. But the site is a model of good archival procedure on the Internet, and with time I am certain it will provide a generous collection of documents for all of world history. Valla and Voltaire—and many of the other European selections available at the site now—should delight and challenge students.