Old Maps and New Maps

My post, copied from an thought-provoking HASTAC forum. Reading the entire forum is definitely worthwhile.


I’m intrigued by two of the points, which seem to intersect:

1) The question of trying to visualize two different views of the same space at the same time and the narrative equivalent of that, and

2) How should we use old and new maps? Should we try to see what the author may have seen? Is there a morality of mapping?

I agree with Cameron that there are different capacities for viewers. Brains are wired uniquely, and some people prefer street view (3D) and some prefer flat (2D), and some people seem to pass easily from one to the other. But the positioning is so very different– one with a bird’s eye (narrative equivalent of omniscient) and the other with a first person view. [I wonder what a game would be like with a 2nd person view? That would seem the closest to merging the two.] This would make a fantastic model for a text that switches between points of view. I can imagine playing through the text (I’m currently a little obsessed with gaming models for the humanities) with a change in point of view, as Annette suggests. What would that bring to the reader? Would the reader “see” or experience the text more as the author did? Which brings me to the second point.

What does it bring us to see things as they may have been seen 50 or 1000 years ago by an author? Like Rebecca, I work with medieval maps that don’t geo-reference precisely to modern maps. We tried an exercise to geo-rectify a medieval map, and while it was possible, the result was rather amusing; I’m not sure it was helpful to anyone, though it did show the impossibility of such a task. Here I quote from one of the students in the course, Katie Gandy:

While reading over the excerpts from [Martin] Foys’s book [Virtually Anglo-Saxon, Florida 2010], especially Ch 4, I kept thinking of our attempts to map the medieval map onto a modern map while using ArcGIS.

I know that we all spent much time connecting green x to blue x in order to align the edges of the maps (April takes the cake with her 100+ alignments).  Regardless of the time spent, though, we could never make the maps fit exactly — “To modern eyes, these medieval worlds never seem quite right” (Foys 111).

We were trying to use a modern political map and precise GPS points from google maps to locate positions on a medieval map… which was NOT the purpose of that map.  Foys writes, “As maps become more and more accurate in their schematized signification, then, they become further and further divorced from ‘real’ perception of the space they reproduce” (117); we should read medieval maps therefore NOT as “an accurate indicator of physical space” (120) but as “datascapes” (120).

In adapting the medieval map to modern standards, as we did in our use of ArcGIS, we really just emphasized the ‘accuracy’ flaws without profiting from the rich information that’s within.

Indeed, when one looks at a medieval map it looks a lot more like the sort of map Rebecca and Zoe imagine for religious travelers– Jerusalem at the center of the world, out of proportion objects and images of peoples who intrigued more than one medieval mapmaker. Here’s a close-up of Ireland, England, part of France on the Catalan Atlas of 1375:

Geo-political and religious references are marked on the map– flags and churches for Nantes and Paris, flags representing factions and alliances in Ireland and England, and then a fairly long section of text, upside-down on the left which reports travel writing accounts of what can be found in various areas of the map. This is pretty close to seeing from a bird’s eye (the map) and street (first-person text) in the same space, though your eyes must dart between the two because those really are two positions that cannot inhabit the exact same space at the same moment.

As for the morality of using modern maps for older texts, or even old maps to read old texts, I think it’s the combination of these points of view, as long as we acknowledge our own position and the impossibility of inhabiting anything other than our own time and place, that gives us the most possibility for insight. With every map being political and every mapmaker and author having to work with his or her own impressions and preconceptions, I don’t think we could ever see what any author or mapmaker really saw, but it adds something for us to know that Nantes was almost as important as Paris in this mapmaker’s eyes (why, we must ask?) and that Ireland and England are roughly the same size. But we know that is worthy of remarking because on a modern map, Paris is much more central (geographically) to France and Ireland is far smaller than the UK.