Lawforms website launch

Dr Elizabeth Thelen

As the Lawforms project drew to a close in April, the project team launched the website Lawforms: Digitised Legal Documents from the Indo-Persian World. The site was designed to serve a wide range of teaching and research uses. While the edited and translated documents form the core of the site, there’s much more there – from maps and introductory essays to a glossary and the xml files for all the documents included on the site.

Homepage of the Lawforms website

There’s much to explore on the site. To give a sense of the contents in numerical terms:

  • 79 total documents, written between 1576 to 1897
  • Writing in 9 languages: Arabic, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, and Rajasthani. Because of the project’s research aims, the largest number of documents are primarily in Persian.
  • 84 places mentioned in the documents mapped, from streets to provinces, between Bengal and Zanzibar.
  • 269 people named in the documents, including artisans, cultivators, merchants, religious specialists, judges, officials, landlords, warriors, nobles, and rulers.
  • Examples of orders, private deeds, administrative papers, letters and judicial documents from 13 collections, featuring 22 common themes
  • And many resources to contextualize the documents and support further study including explanatory essays on document types, document features, social groups, and the history of the period; a timeline, maps and lesson plans; and a bibliography and extensive glossary.

The Lawforms website team held a launch party on 28 March to celebrate and publicize the creation of this resource. The first session, held online, was co-hosted by Prof. Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Elizabeth Thelen. They led a series of conversations with Digital Humanities experts and scholars of Persianate cultures, Indian Ocean worlds, Colonialism, and early modern British and European social history. These conversations explored the work that went into the website and what was learned from creating the website as well as highlighted the contributions of the site, its future uses, and the role of Digital Humanities in historical research and teaching.

Prof. Jane Whittle, Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Exeter, discussed the website in comparative perspective. As part of her research on gender and labour in early modern England, she has developed digital resources, including Court Depositions of Southwest England, 1500-1700. As Prof. Whittle pointed out, while both the Court Depositions and Lawforms website focus on legal records, these records are very different. The depositions consist of testimony and citations of laws whereas the documents on the Lawforms site are primarily orders and various types of contracts and deeds. Such contrasts can help us think about what constitutes a legal document in different places and periods of history. Furthermore, Prof. Whittle remarked on how legal documents can be used to teach diverse topics, including the nuts and bolts of political power and the working of business and fiscal processes, and to illustrate bits of everyday life. Lastly, she observed that the Lawforms documents are useful teaching materials whether or not the students in question can read the documents. Working with translated documents alongside images of the original text helps build awareness that history has to be worked out. This means not just having the language and/or paleographic skills to read the documents but also the institution and legal contexts that give the texts their meaning.

Lawforms site co-editor and postdoctoral research associate Dr Elizabeth Thelen shared what she had learned from her work on the website. She shared how her work on the site, such as developing schema, led to a deep familiarity with the forms of various types of legal documents, and productive discussions about what the different components of documents meant and how they functioned. These discussions were especially rich because the team members brought together different regional and linguistic expertise – and through this comparative lens, the regional variations of various forms became apparent, as well as the ways that various historical actors bent standard forms towards specific ends. She also discussed how envisioning Rajasthan – the region she has most closely researched – as part of the Persianate world enriches our understanding of that region’s early modern history.

Prof. Rachel Sturman, Associate Professor History and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, brought her perspective as a historian of law, family and property in modern South Asia to the Lawforms site. The documents on the Lawforms site are more fragmentary series than the later colonial records and so throw up particular challenges for interpretation. Asked to comment on the Lawforms team’s editorial decision to use ‘women’ as a theme tag, Prof. Sturman observed that sometimes such blunt labels – that in the case of the website bring together queens and poor housewives in the same category – are valuable in order to show these social differences. She also spoke to the usefulness of bringing together sources from India and the Indian Ocean world that help us see beyond borders of the nation state or imperial formations. Looking at the details of how people lived in and across these spaces also helps move us beyond our spatial preconceptions productively.

Dr. Elizabeth Williamson, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter, is the technical director of the Lawforms website. As such, she led the technical development of the site and trained the Lawforms team of researchers in the use of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standards and xml. Developing the site involved a number of challenges, including language. Dr. Williamson remarked on the technical challenges of developing a site that displays both left-to-right and right-to-left scripts. An added challenge here was that the website features many languages which she doesn’t know – but good communication with the research team meant that this was less of an obstacle than one might imagine. The use of TEI standards promoted structural analysis of the documents, that also helps make them legible across language. One of the major contributions of the project to the field of Digital Humanities is the encoding schema that she created for these types of documents and the creation of a corpus of encoded texts that can be used in further research.

Sample of encoded text


Prof. Fahad Bishara, a professor of Indian Ocean history at the University of Virginia, is a co-investigator on the Lawforms project and contributed several documents to the website. Having worked on several other digital humanities projects in the past, he reflected on the extensive work these projects require. While the rewards may not be immediately obvious, digital humanities projects can help bring greater attention to less familiar sources, such as family collections and the holdings of smaller collections, and encourage students and researchers to engage with them. Digital Humanities tools can also be helpful when working with scrappy yet dense sets of records, bringing patterns to light. Reflecting on the implications of the Lawforms site for the study of Islamic law, he pointed out that the site offers insights into how people constructed legal documents and applied and experienced law, in contrast with the dominant focus has been on legal manuals and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Prof. Prashant Keshavmurthy, Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at McGill University, brought perspectives from his research and teaching of South Asian Persian poetry and epistolography. He remarked on the extent and frankness with which the legal texts discuss money, a topic often treated with disdain in literary treatises. The legal documents also provide an alternate view on regions and transregional connections and the range and use of Persian. Prof. Keshavmurthy suggested that in literary studies one can push against centre-periphery models of the Persian cosmopolis by paying attention to how people ordered and understood their worlds; legal documents could be studied in a similar way.

 Afterward, a smaller group gathered in Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab for a presentation by Lizzy Williamson on the tools and technology underlying the site, followed by a reception.

Cite this blog post
Nandini Chatterjee (2022, June 30). Lawforms website launch. Lawforms. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

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