A loss of Aura? The effect of digitisation on the relevance of charter’s physical existence

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Jeller Daniel (ICARUS – International Centre for Archival Research),
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”(1) The German philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin considered the physical existence of an original work of art as essential for its cultural significance. He called this immaterial, intrinsic part of an objects existence its Aura(2) and concluded that the mechanical reproduction of any work of art decreases this Aura, because, in addition to a range of other reasons, it robs it of its bodily contact with its observer.
Even though Benjamin, in his essay from 1936(3), is focused on works of art, and the cultural changes started by the advent of the digital computer could not have been anticipated back then, the connections to the present are immediately visible. Occurrences like the fact that traditional bookshops are facing serious difficulties to compete against their online competitor Amazon or the controversy on documents already in the Public Domain, yet still residing behind a paywall at JSTOR(4) make us feel the “tremendous shattering of tradition”(5) that Walter Benjamin observed in the wake of the sound film and private photography.
My paper looks again (after Benjamin) at the physical presence of medieval charters and its effect on percipients. From the time of their actual use as legal documents that had to be physically preserved and exhibited to have any value, their storage in archives firmly anchored at certain locations for very long periods of time, to the various transactions, robberies and other acquisitions and returns of whole fonds by states, for instance after the First World War, charters, and their use for scientifically or other purposes, were always firmly tied, or some could say restricted, to the place where they were physically stored. Although this changed to some degree after the emergence of the big charter editions in the 19th century, only the inventions of the Digital Age seem to untie the charters from their bodies to a degree not easily imaginable just a few years ago. Even though the actual digital objects are of course of a very dissimilar nature, the fact that, for instance, the Monasterium-Project makes over 250.000 digitised charters publicly available, not only for scientists, but for everybody that is interested in them, together with Web 2.0 technologies to actually work with the charters, make it seem like these developments are going to have a big impact on the way we as a society perceive this important part of our cultural heritage.
To make these changes visible at a detailed level my paper looks at the material body of charters and the changes this facet of their existence is currently undergoing. These evolutions range from the widely discussed fact that the existence of online databases of charters eases the work with them to a large degree, the effects on their public Aura (after Benjamin), to the assumption that the increasing practical disentanglement from their actual bodies together with the existence of a wide range of metadata creates virtual objects that will have different characteristics than their corporal ancestors.

Footnotes:
1 Walter BENJAMIN, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In: Illuminations. Essays and Reflections. New York 2007. 217-251, here 220.
2 Benjamin, 222
3 Walter BENJAMIN, L’oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproduction mécanisée. In: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 5 (1936) 40-66.
4 Greg MAXWELL, Papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, fro, In: The Pirate Bay (20.07.2011), online at (16.02.2012).
5 Benjamin, 221

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