Orbis Dioecesium. Authority data on legal-historical changes of catholic dioceses (OrDi)

Research Project

In various types of historical sources - especially of ecclesiastical production - the names of dioceses have been used since antiquity to define and identify institutions, persons, places, documents, actions. In the archival field, moreover, diocesan names have often been used as a criterion for organizing documents and archival series. This particular system of organization and classification has profoundly influenced both the accessibility, transmission and processing of information and the production of knowledge. Today, the importance of the diocesan system often escapes us because the fact that an entity belongs to a diocese has little visible effect in the daily lives of most people, yet it has fundamental relevance for those who approach the study of the past of the Christian world and the cultures and societies that came into contact with it. In this context, the belonging of an entity - be it a person, an institution, a place or something else - to a particular diocese is relevant, among other things, on a juridical, spiritual, identitary, geographical, and economic level.

The name of a diocese defines, in fact, a complex and multifaceted object and encompasses all its components and facets. In fact, it does not only define the geographical location or territorial extension of a diocese, but also carries with it reference to the operation of a particular relationship with the Apostolic See, the existence of a specific hierarchy of powers and authorities, the presence of a particular community, the exercise of characteristic religious, ritual and spiritual practices, the extension and coexistence of different jurisdictions, and the presence of specific buildings, structures, and institutions. All these elements, moreover, change over time, making the history of each individual diocese liable to major legal changes: new dioceses may be erected; existing ones may be united, joined, or suppressed; they may be elevated to a new type or see their relationship with the Apostolic See altered; diocesan seats may be transferred elsewhere, and much more. To fully understand, therefore, the meaning of the name of a diocese, it is necessary to place it in a specific historical context. Only in this way will we be able to identify the diocese in its complexity and appreciate its multiple relationships with other entities.

As is well known, the literature on the history of dioceses is vast. The subject has generally been approached in response to specific institutional needs and with a focus on the chronotaxis of bishops. Many works present a local approach because they focus on a specific diocese or the dioceses of a specific geographical area. Others, on the other hand, propose a global approach, dealing for instance with all the dioceses of the Catholic Church or those of the Eastern Christian Churches. Information on dioceses and their bishops is, moreover, continuously updated and published by the institutions responsible for administration and governance. This valuable information, relating both to the history of the dioceses and to their actuality, has also been made accessible online by different actors, institutional and non-institutional, and with different purposes (scientific, dissemination, administrative).

The data on dioceses that can be found online, however, present several problems, both from a scientific and technical point of view. Firstly, as they have been collected with different methodologies and are not always scientifically valid, these data show very heterogeneous levels of accuracy and analyticity and are therefore difficult to compare. Secondly, they often fall short of an adequate set of authoritative scientific references (sources, specialist literature). Thirdly, they lack adequate forms of standardization, both as regards the naming of dioceses and the description of their various legal-historical changes. Finally, the legal-historical evolution of the dioceses is always described only in a discursive manner, thus limiting unambiguous identification - e.g. through IDs - to the entity 'diocese' alone, making the systematic identification and description of the various legal-historical changes and the resulting different historical phases of diocesan evolution impossible.

OrDi aims to offer a concrete response to these problems. In particular, the project is developing authority data that enable the identification not only of dioceses but also of all legal-historical changes experienced by each diocese from the date of its foundation until today. This approach is enabled by the research and analysis carried out in recent years by Benedetta Albani and Francesco Russo in the framework of the research groups Governance of the Universal Church after the Council of Trent and Normative Knowledge in the Praxis of the Congregation of the Council, which led to the definition of controlled vocabularies and a taxonomy on a legal-canonical basis of territorial ecclesiastical entities in a historical perspective and of legal-historical changes that may affect a diocese in the course of its existence. Afterwards, based on the above-mentioned controlled vocabularies and taxonomy, an ontology model for tracing legal-historical changes of dioceses has been designed by Yohan Park in the project Shaping the concept of ecclesiastical global governance: Ontological Modeling for the history of ecclesiastical administration. The ontology model and controlled vocabularies are used in the knowledge base as a basic data structure and transformed into linked data format for the operation of importing data. The database features data for the identification of entities as authority records. Thus, each resource from the data set has a unique identifier, that is made interoperable and fulfills the principles of Linked Open Data (LOD). To promote interoperability, our data will be linked to information available in well-established authority records such as Wikidata, GND, and Viaf. Moreover, in order to remedy the frequent lack of adequate legal-historical contextualization and to support cross-referencing source information from different provenances, our data will be also linked to information from relevant research projects, even if the information is not available there as authority records, and will be accompanied by an adequate critical apparatus. Finally, make all data easily findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR principles).

The initial dataset was elaborated within the research groups mentioned above and consists of approximately 900 Catholic dioceses of which all the legal-historical changes have been described according to the taxonomy developed by the project. This dataset will be enriched with a focus on completeness, sistematicity and authoritativeness of information.

We foresee two main uses for OrDi by the scientific community. Firstly, it can be consulted online by any researcher concerned with accessing reliable and systematically organized information on the historical evolution of each diocese of the Catholic Church from its origins to the present day. Secondly, it may be used as an authority record by other research projects interested in providing their data with a methodologically robust system for adequately modeling the nature and relationships of ecclesiastical entities such as dioceses by making the legal-historical changes that have taken place in the course of their historical evolution appreciable.

The OrDi project has initiated a collaboration with the Digital Atlas of Dioceses and Ecclesiastical Provinces in Late Medieval Europe (1200-1500) project directed by Rowan Dorin at Stanford University aimed at integrating the data of both projects and making them accessible through a single platform.

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