Mapping the Medieval Perspective

Greetings, digital scholars,

I’m Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, and am delighted to introduce myself as a Digital Centers Intern for the Digital Social Sciences Center this year. I just arrived at Columbia from the University of Virginia, where I studied English Literature and Medieval Studies with a focus on Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic texts. I caught the GIS bug while working on a mapping project called Archipedia for the Society for Architectural Historian’s Buildings of America digitization project at the University of Virginia Electronic Imprint, ROTUNDA, where I used Google Maps to search and geotag everything from monuments to obscure country churches. Here at the DSSC I’m blending these two interests together as I pursue my Masters in English and Comparative Literature, and I’m excited to use the newest mapping technology to illuminate some of the oldest texts we have in our literary history.

One of the primary functions of a text is to describe, and thus create, space. By characterizing its geography, a work of literature implicates the reader in the very act of travel, making room for a new mental space that challenges the boundaries of the physical. To be a reader is to become a tourist of the texts that describe specific places, whether real or imagined, and mapping the text or its elements provides a way of embodying this narrative of spatial experience.

When the mental spaces of literary texts are embodied on a physical map, we benefit from the bird’s eye view. For instance, John Snow’s famous map of London during a cholera outbreak assisted in identifying the well that distributed contaminated water, based on the clusters of points that indicated cholera deaths. This strategy can also shed light on literary phenomenon that have previously been dismissed as too literal–or in some cases, impossibly imaginative.

The Icelandic Sagas are a treasure trove of geography, emphasizing landscape and the environment as they describe the adventures of the early Viking settlement in the ninth century, up to their contemporary thirteenth century date of composition. While traditional scholarship has rejected the idea that the sagas are necessarily more than works of fiction, contemporary studies of the sagas, particularly with technology, are gradually uncovering more of the physical landscape that created this body of literature. For instance, scientists have completed studies on pollen that confirm the environmental difficulties described in the sagas, and mathematicians recently computed that the social patterns represented in the Icelandic sagas are in fact remarkably similar quantitatively to genuine relationships.

For a series of texts that contain so many references to animals and monsters, it seems surprising that little has been done to see the extent to which animals embody realism in the text, and if the physical presence of monsters could possibly have any connection to Iceland’s contemporary physical, social, or political environment. As with Snow’s thesis, I believe that mapping the animals and monsters mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas could bring new perspective to the way we study not only these texts, but the creatures that exist within them.

This year at the DSSC, my goal is to create a GIS map that represents instances of animals and monsters in the Icelandic Sagas as comprehensively as possible. By situating these textual elements in space and time on a map, my hope is to contribute to the exciting field of digital medievalism with new insights into these incredible stories.

Now, the question is: how to make this map? Over the next few weeks, as I experiment with methodologies and software, I’ll share all the details in making this project come to life.

Stay tuned!


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