Talking data

by Kristof Smeyers



In a box, a folder; in the folder, an envelope; in the envelope, a blood-stained handkerchief that once—during the First World War—belonged to the stigmatised young woman Nellie Brown from Leeds. Now it sits in a small collection of Nellie’s paraphernalia within Herbert Thurston’s archive in the Archives of the Jesuits in London. How it ended up there is hard to determine. Thurston (1856-1939) was a renowned investigator of the supernatural and an authority on the physical phenomena of mysticism (see, for example, his The physical phenomena of mysticism). A cursory glance on the material in his archive shows dozens of letters he received from across Britain and beyond concerning supernatural and spiritual occurrences. The handkerchief, one of the few items in the Thurston collection not made of paper, may have reached him in a similar way.

When I saw the handkerchief, together with Nellie’s diaries and a few devotional prints stained with Nellie’s blood, the first realisation was not that I should have worn gloves. (I totally should have worn gloves.) It wasn’t even the thrill of having found a new, hitherto undocumented addition to our stigmatics’ database. The first question that arose was, How did this collection came to be? Or, How and why did all this stuff get here? Our research requires a flexibility to deal with a wide range of sources. Because of that flexibility, but also because of the archival varieties, it is necessary to stop every now and then to reflect on our methodology. How we get to the sources makes for one such reflection. In this post I want to make the exercise in the opposite direction: how these sources come to us, and how we present them.

Herbert Thurston was a ‘hunter’ of supernatural phenomena: he tracked down occurrences of, for example, stigmatisation, and listed and compared them in his notebooks. Other stigmatic-hunters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made similar valiant efforts. The members of our team build on that tradition. We hunt for traces, references to potential stigmatics, and records that point in a stigmatic’s direction. Some of these are tangential at best: our subjects are people often banished to the margins; their legacies distorted or altogether forgotten. This has profound consequences on the material we search for, particularly because our hunting grounds are predominantly archives defined— and constrained—by nineteenth-century positivism and historicism. Archival theory and professionalisation determined the ways in which records were organised, and made accessible for researchers—or kept out of reach. Collections are not ‘virgin archives’, regardless of how much historians like Leopold von Ranke wished they were.

That positivism determined how archival collections were managed. Many national archives, for example, became ‘precious treasures of the state’, or ‘ornaments of the fatherland’. They have often been subject to several, sometimes conflicting constituencies. For those of us hunting people in the margins, that makes things complicated. Their material and archival legacies can differ from what is found in these archives. Every archival source we find reflects that sensibility. What we find, and how we find it, is the result of a long chain of archival policy, (mis)fortunes and accidents. Inventories lack an item, a record gets separated, displaced—sometimes deliberately. Just as likely we do not find anything and we leave the archive with shattered hopes and an empty notebook. It is important to acknowledge that the archive, any archive, is the result of a process that involves individuals, specific choices, decisions made and not made, and other, more indeterminable variables and particularities that can result in a handkerchief being there in an envelope or not being in that envelope and, indeed, being nowhere at all.

But even when the wild goose-chase is a success and we do find the box, the folder, the envelope, Nellie Brown’s handkerchief; then what? How do we make sense of it?


Every stigmatic case is a microhistory. One of the cornerstones of our project is to ‘collect’ these microhistories—we are gatherers as much as we are hunters—across European countries (seven at the moment) and link them together, slowly, painstakingly, like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. Sometimes the links present themselves, as when one stigmatic mentions another to establish a sense of mystical kinship. But most of the time, the context is reconstructed one record at a time. In many ways, we are confronted with the same issues with which a nineteenth-century archivist struggled. How do you organise these records within the framework of your research? How do you create a meaningful context for the stuff you have found?

‘Record-linkage’, Brodie Waddell calls it in her excellent blogpost on microhistory. Through conscientious ‘linkage’ of primary sources, she says, ‘it may be possible to see how extra-local networks of trade, religion or politics could intersect in a single inauspicious site’. Every archival treasure is data. They can be captured, and linked, in a number of ways. We bring these data together in a dataset that contains both quantitative and qualitative information: biographical material, locations, dates, a typology of stigmata, and also the contemporary literature and sources associated with them. Incorporating these records into a database opens up research perspectives for its users. But note the conditional clauses in Brodie Waddell’s quote. Linking data and making qualitative information ‘quantifiable’ present risks.

For one, quantifying qualitative data risks reducing the value of records. It can also enthuse researchers to conflate data and draw correlations all too eagerly. Connecting the amount of hagiographies written about a specific stigmatic to the number of times her stigmata are mentioned in the newspapers in one particular country, for example, will tell us preciously little. At the same time, there is little point in presenting many of these data on their own; they gain significance and relevance when connected to other data. We might eventually be able to connect the dots between stigmata and other supernatural phenomena, for example. As such, bringing these data together evokes new research questions, for example: ‘Which stigmatics became internationally known phenomena and why?’; ‘How many of them were pulled into courtrooms, and for which reasons?’; or, existentially, ‘For how many of them were the stigmata actually a dominant trait that defined their life?’ From there, it even becomes possible to think of linking our data to other datasets on mystics and religious figures that may be out there. (If your ears prick up now, do get in touch.)

So we need to ask ourselves: How do we ‘handle’ these records, and how do we present our data, knowing full well that we—the stigmatic-gatherer-hunters, the creators of the database—will not be the ones challenging the database in the most radical ways, nor will we ask it the most illuminative questions? (That will be up to you, our end-users.) How we categorise and make accessible the sources we have gathered will affect future scholarship much the same way archival structures and limitations have steered research questions. Just like an encounter with the archives redefines and refocuses the preconceptions of our research, so too does an encounter with a database. And just like archives, digital corpora of knowledge like our stigmatics database serve not as unchanging, completed end products but as dynamic tools offering new research possibilities and perspectives.

Ad fontes

So, the dataset is a facilitator that, when we approach it critically and carefully, can help us discern meaningful patterns and detect connections, interactions and divisions between stigmatics, their communities, and their sources. New research questions arise for which the answers are seemingly encapsulated within the data. That is pretty great, right?

With new questions arise new risks and frustrations, however. While Nellie Brown’s handkerchief becoming part of our database means it is made accessible for researchers all over the world—in conjunction with other, similar objects belonging to other stigmatics, even!—it also risks losing its essence as an object. In our field of research especially, the sensory and material aspects of our sources are vital to understanding the significance of the stigmata and their bearers on their communities. How do we maintain that sense of physicality and proximity in a digital environment?

And what if our desire to discern and extract patterns from our dataset results in post factum historical rationalisations that contextualise any and every observation and seem to somehow confirm what we already suspected, for example about influential stigmatics emerging during periods and in regions plagued with upheaval? It is not a bad idea to be aware of the danger of confabulating such explanations with the notion that we already knew the results of our quantitative analysis, thereby dismissing such analysis out of hand.

These are not critiques of our methodology or achievements, nor of other scholarly databases. They serve more as a warning to us, the creators, and you, the users. We are taught never to take an archival source at face value. Nellie Brown’s handkerchief and diaries are subjected to historical method. We are increasingly aware not to approach archives themselves at face value. Herbert Thurston’s records, for example, are preserved the way they are because of the archival policies of the past century. If we as scholars take a critical stance toward our sources and toward archives, we must also do so toward the databases we are building. They, too, have a social history. A database is an important phase of scholarship, but it should not be the last one. Ideally, it enthuses its users to return ‘ad fontes’: with new perspectives and research questions, back into the archive, back to the primary sources, back to Nellie’s handkerchief.

One thought on “Talking data

  1. I like your thoughtful consideration of the decisions that have gone into creating archives, and of the decisions that will govern creating future archives and databases. Being aware of these assumptions is valuable in recognizing how they foster certain conclusions and make others less apparent or even impossible. In my own research, access to computerized searches of historical newspapers led me to very different conclusions than were previously reached by others–particularly when the search site enabled searching newspaper advertisements, which is in itself an archival decision.


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