Digital Humanities
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“(How) Are Medieval Places Different From Ancient Ones: Thoughts on Digital Mapping the Middle Ages” – David Joseph Wrisley @ Columbia’s Butler Library

On the evening of April 22, I attended a lecture at Columbia University’s Butler Library entitled “(How) Are Medieval Places Different From Ancient Ones: Thoughts on Digital Mapping the Middle Ages.” The presenter was David Joseph Wrisley, Associate Professor of English at the American University of Beirut. He is currently on sabbatical from that institution and is a visiting scholar at Fordham University. The event was organized by Columbia’s Medieval Colloquium, and the majority of the attendees were from a Medieval Studies background. Wrisley’s current project focuses on extracting place names from Medieval written works and mapping them.

Dr. Wrisley began by asking how we think about the Middle Ages. His purpose of asking this was to point out how unclear information about the Medieval time period is compared to information from later eras. Mapping the Middle Ages is a challenge because little definite data about place names and locations exists, especially in the digital realm. As the majority of participants did not have a Digital Humanities background, he explained how digital maps are created, layering data that can be made up of points, lines, or polygons. In his eyes, the purpose of digital mapping is to connect place names with spatial data for improved structuring and visualization of the data. He also discussed some other digital mapping techniques, such as warping or deforming a map, either to fit into another map, or to express something. He provided examples, such as a Medieval map of the Iberian peninsula which he fit into a current map, to show where Medieval places would be today.

He continued, citing more reasons why Digital Humanities work is especially difficult when working with Medieval data. In order to do any type of text analysis or topic modeling, researchers need word lists or dictionaries of Medieval vocabulary. These are difficult to come by, especially in digital form. And which language is the best to use when researching that time period? Latin? The vernacular? He mentioned that vernacular languages are often bound by national histories and may not provide the broad scope necessary for studying the range of geographic places mentioned in Medieval texts. Mapping can be especially difficult because different cultures referred to the same geographic location by different names, or names evolved over time, and many different places could have been referred to by the same name.

Wrisley feels that a benefit of mapping digitally is that the image can (an as he believes, should) be constantly evolving and unfolding as new data is added and the database is built up. He described using a digital map as having a conversation, where the user gleans what he wants from the interaction, and can also contribute. He expressed his view that there are different ways of mapping and different perspectives from which to create a map. These statements are especially true when mapping the Middle Ages because new data will be continually added as it is being discovered and digitized, and viewpoints of information from that era vary widely.

He brought up the idea of a gazetteer, which many Medievalists were not familiar with, as a tool that offers cartographic information as well as additional facts. This is similar to the sort of tool he hopes to create by digitally mapping Medieval places. This type of map is discussed in more detail in “GIS for Language and Literary Study,” which details other maps that allow for manipulation by users depending on their needs. The author refers to them as “complex cultural matrices,” which provide the type of data a humanist would be interested in (Kretzschmar, 2014).

Wrisley’s lecture then moved on to citing examples of websites or tools that provide digital mapping capabilities. Some of these include Google Fusion Tables, which include demonstrative ways to depict data, like a color or heat map, and Pleiades (, which functions similarly to linked data, pulling in semantic and geographic data from the web. is another service he mentioned that pulls in data from the web, but he pointed out that by linking place names from the internet, one could end up with data on a completely irrelevant location because it shares its name or some metadata with the desired place. This portion of his lecture brought together all he had discussed previously and helped to portray, especially for the historians in the room, what digital mapping can do.

He closed his presentation by asking the attendees how they would map Medieval places, and what resources they would need to do so. A helpful tool that does not currently exist would be some sort of database or encyclopedia of Medieval places, from which to draw reliable name and location data. This will be difficult to create because right now that information is wrapped up micro-histories from small areas, which may use different names and locations, as he mentioned before. What parts of the world would this map display? He offered options of global, transnational, or Mediterranean, and said that each of these would require different sets of information. He also asked what elements of the cultural landscape should be included on such a map, and whether a map was the best way to depict Medieval place information, or if something looser like a network could work better.

During the question portion, the notion of cognitive or emotional mapping came up, as well as sentiment analysis, which Wrisley felt was a related Digital Humanities capability. I thought it was interesting that the conversation turned this way, because for me, it seemed like things had come full circle. The manner in which Wrisley presented digitally mapping Medieval places seemed to be based partially in subjective views of location data. The data available from that era cannot be entirely concrete due to the variations in names and locations. Thus, what is being mapped are individual perceptions of the way the world was arranged at the time. Wrisley had mentioned earlier that digital mapping is less about creating topographical representations of space, and more about topological representations, with the focus more on constantly evolving shapes between places.

Since David Wrisley is primarily a humanist, interested in studying Medieval literature to extract and map place names, and most of the audience members were Medievalists, his lecture focused quite a bit on the content of his digital mapping project. That being said, there was quite a bit to be gleaned from a Digital Humanities perspective. It is very interesting to see tools being put into practice to create digital representations of data. The discussion on content revolved around the fact that much of the discoverable data is subjective or from a certain perspective, and that makes the mapping aspect at once difficult but also unique and interesting. And from a Digital Humanities point of view, I can see why digital mapping is such an important tool in this case, since it allows for evolution and warping of shapes to match differences in data. I also very much enjoyed the idea of the mutable nature of this data and the fact that it is open to interpretation. As Franco Moretti explains in his book Graphs, Maps, Trees, an author or character’s perception of their surroundings affects where they place landmarks and towns (Moretti, 2007). Much like the creator or recorder of Medieval place names and locations, who based his or her interpretation on their knowledge of the world around them, we too can create and use maps however we choose, based on our needs or perspective.


Kretzschmar, W.A. (2014). GIS for language and literary study. Literary studies for the digital age. Retrieved from

Moretti, F. (2007). Graphs, Maps, Trees. New York: Verso.

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Janelle Varin

Janelle Varin

Janelle is a SILS student at Pratt Institute, and will be finished with her Master's in Library Science in December 2015. She is currently employed as a Senior Library Clerk in the Access & User Services department of The New School Libraries. She is the secretary-treasurer of the Greater New York Music Library Association chapter (GNYMLA), and is also a member of the Music Library Association (MLA) and International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML).