Hypertext history: Presenting documents on the Web


A new German website uses hypertext and Web technology to present an archive of first-hand accounts of the Thirty Years’ War in central Germany. If you’re interested in the future of digital archives, the site is worth a look, even if you don’t read German. It’s called MDSZ, short for Mitteldeutsche Selbstzeugnisse der Zeit des Dreißigjährigen Krieges.

One thing to notice is the behavior of the image on the front page, of an armored knight attacking fleeing peasants. If you mouse over the image, it is instantly magnified to show its detail in (presumably) actual size. Moving the mouse navigates intuitively to different parts of the picture (unlike some cumbersome image viewers on the Web, which move only in slightly overlapping blocks, or respond in unexpected ways to the mouse).

At MDSZ, mousing over an image (left) automatically zooms in on details (right). Moving the mouse glides smoothly around the enlarged image. (Example is reduced from actual size.)
At MDSZ, mousing over an image (left) automatically zooms in on details (right). Moving the mouse glides smoothly around the enlarged image. (Example is reduced from actual size.)

The archive contains four Selbstzeugnisse (“ego-documents”), first-hand accounts of violence and war-related events in Thuringia. None of these has been published before. The four manuscripts are (respectively) by Volkmar Happe, Michael Heubel, Hans Krafft, and Caspar Heinrich Marx, and all four are constantly available through links in the upper right-hand corner of every page.


The other links in the upper right are mostly to pages of German text, except Suche (“Search”), a full-text search of any or all of the documents. Searches can also be limited by chronological range, or by selecting from lists of preset delimiters (persons, places, terms, and Referenzen by an author to himself or to guests).


To see how the texts themselves are presented, select any of the four authors. In the additional menu in the upper right corner, select Transkription und Facsimile. A zoomable image of the manuscript page appears on the right. A slightly modernized transcription is on the left, with links that generate floating windows of explanatory text when clicked. I like this way of presenting manuscript pages, and the annotations are especially helpful when dealing with early modern German texts, which are written in versions of Kurrent script that can be difficult even for educated Germans to decipher.

Kurrent script: The example reads “Schriftbeispiel für die deutsche Kurrent”
Kurrent script: The example reads “Schriftbeispiel für die deutsche Kurrent”

It’s not hard to see why transcription is so helpful.

A more detailed description of the MDSZ is in the May issue of Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association newsletter; that’s where I learned about it. (Unfortunately the May issue is not yet online. I’ll add a link when it’s posted. Link.)

MDSZ is not, of course, the first digital archive. The Library of Congress has been presenting some of its holdings online for years (for example in the American Notes collection, which I’ve used frequently). Most such digital archives consist of old publications rather than manuscripts, however, and I have not seen any other site that provides annotated transcriptions such as MDSZ offers.

The earliest attempt (that I know of) at this kind of thing is this annotation of the formal XML recommendation, done in 1998 by Tim Bray, the lead author of the specification. The technology of HTML did not yet support floating windows, so Bray used a separate frame to display the annotations.* These annotations are classed into four types, a distinction I always found easy to forget, and that might as well have been omitted.

It’s true that most manuscripts will probably never appear online, and “bricks-and mortar” archives are anything but threatened with obsolescence. Still, I think historians have only begun to consider the potential of the Web and hypertext for doing history — not just as a new venue for old forms of publishing, but as a new medium that opens new possibilities. I think this archive is a step in the right direction. (My impression is that German archival sites seem to be ahead of English-language sites in many ways, but that may just reflect my limited experience.)

I’d like to get a discussion going about the MDSZ site’s usability (from those who visit), comparisons with other digital manuscript archives, etc.

* It was around this time that Jeffrey Zeldman wrote, “The first job of a Web designer is to protect the viewer from realizing how primitive the underlying technology really is.” Web browsers are much smarter and better behaved now, but there’s still a good deal of truth to that statement.

One thought on “Hypertext history: Presenting documents on the Web

  1. Awesome! I wish we’d have more of those. The Thirty Years War is yet another conflict where scholarship has never really addressed the underlying causes with much satisfaction.

    I remember taking a class on the English Civil War in grad school. It took almost half the semester to explain all of the factors, conflicts within conflicts, and phases. That it took a graduate level class to explain it properly really says something.

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