Author Archives: Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

Medieval Icelandic Place Name Map: GIS in Action

Greetings, digitalists,

In my last blog entry, titled “Space and Place in Literature: Reflections on Mapping the Medieval Icelandic Outlaw Sagas,” I shared my three main methodological takeaways: allow time to really determine the question(s) driving your research, look for methodological and software-based flexibility, and make sure you implement a system to manage your data for maximum replicability.

After following these three steps, I had a set of cleaned-up data on place names in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas ready for transformation and analysis. So, what did I create from this data, and how was I able to interpret my findings?


My first experiment consisted of mapping the points in a traditional sense: using an actual map compatible with Geographic Information Systems. With the richness of geography in the sagas, my mapping instinct is certainly not unique–there are many wonderful mapping projects on this body of literature already in existence. Work such as Emily Lethbridge’s Saga-Steads exploration and forthcoming digital mapping project, as well as the Human Ecodynamics Research Center’s examinations of mapping, material culture, and anthropological themes in the North Atlantic, have already proved their value in the study of the geographic and material world of the sagas. It is my hope that the data I have obtained in my studies will be of use to these excellent researchers and their projects, and also available for further exploration in ways that I have not yet imagined. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on when the data set of place names and their metadata is posted–they will be available for download and open source use (with citation).

To return to my own iteration of a saga mapping project: for my geocoding, I needed to develop a protocol to determine place name location with the greatest degree of accuracy possible (without physically checking each point in Iceland, although I hope to add fieldwork in future work on this project). After extracting a list of 427 discrete place names throughout the three sagas by transforming my XML markup into tabular data, I found each point by cross-referencing Google Earth, search engine queries, and the enormously helpful National Land Survey of Iceland’s place name tool, recommended by Hallgrímur J. Ámundason at the Onomastics Department at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland. I was able to geographically map 346 locations: an 81% rate of completion, which could certainly be improved upon with field work and further research. The high rate of completion in this project highlights the continuity between medieval Icelandic place names and their modern counterpoints—a feature of the Icelandic landscape and language that initially drew me towards geographic analysis of the sagas.

After mapping my points in the open-source software QGIS (where ‘Q’ stands for Quantitative), I then used the data from the project’s shapefile, alongside the rich metadata I had gathered, to create a web-based, interactive map with the JavaScript library Leaflet. The resulting map has numerous components—click on the title below to open the link.

click to navigate towards interactive map

screenshot of map; click on title “The Map” to navigate to interactive version.


The points are color-coded according to their mentions in sagas—or mentions across multiple sagas. Clicking on a point creates a pop-up that shows how many times the place name is mentioned total, with a break-down according to its presence in each saga.

On the whole, I felt that country mentions in the sagas functioned in a slightly different manner than other place names—invoking a farmstead, for instance, carries a different semantic weight than a country, particularly in the medieval period—and this perhaps deserves further specific study beyond my current research. Nevertheless, I have included a map of country names mentioned since they still invoke place, which is featured below the place name map. Clicking or hovering over a country will reveal its number of mentions and their corresponding sagas.

Iceland featured in Country Name Map (below Place Name Map); click on title ‘The Map’ above for link.

On the place name map, results may also be filtered according to feature category with the legend on the right-hand side of the browser. This data derives from moments in a saga when a place name also includes a feature category either within the name or syntactically close to the name—such as a glacier, fjord, or homestead. Features may be sorted according to their association with water, landforms, or human-created spaces, the latter of which I have named social features.


I found the range of place names that were mentioned particularly interesting; the map contains points as widespread as Constantinople (Grettir’s Saga) and the Nile River (The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm), as well as more traditionally North Atlantic and Scandinavian places such as Trondheim, the Scottish Firths, and Reykjavík. The spread of locations is impressive, and reveals the sagas’ investment in depicting the cultural awareness, rather than isolation, of the Icelandic people as well as its Viking heritage of travel and exploration.

I will be interrogating this map for further patterns and data in the following months. However, the execution of this map, and all future interpretations of its data, rests upon a methodological question: what precisely is gained in mapping the place names of the outlaw-themed sagas—Grettir’s Saga, Gisli’s Saga, and the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm—geographically, and is this even a possible task? General objections to geographic representations of literature center on the idea of fiction as representative of purely imaginative, rather than physical space. However, questions of historicity versus literariness have transformed into a more productive conversation, one that that Margaret Clunies Ross details well:

“In recent scholarship on the Icelandic sagas, the emphasis has shifted from an older attitude that sought to classify sagas as either history or fiction, but not both, to an approach that allows the two creative impulses, historical and fictional, to coexist in any text in a variable relationship, both within a single text and between texts” (“Realism and the Fantastic in the Old Icelandic Sagas,” Scandinavian Studies 74:4, 2002).

As per Ross’ thesis, when we engage in the tangible possibilities of literary space we do not deny its imaginative components of literature, but rather acknowledge the interconnectedness of mental and physical experiences of place. However, if scholarship is to truly account for the dualities and interplay between geographic and imaginative space in literary works, how do we account for literary usage of place name beyond its potential for geographic data? How does place name function in a literary sense—that is, syntactically and semantically—and how does the answer to this question affect our understanding of space in literature?

I look forward to refining the aesthetic, interface, and even data of this map as I attend the City University of New York Graduate Center to begin work on my PhD. But to move right along: in my next post I will share my attempts to visualize the question of imaginative space using further place name data from the outlaw-themed sagas that I have collected.

In the meantime, please do enjoy the geographic component to this project—and feel free to share your comments via the blog or email at

Space and Place in Literature: Reflections on Mapping the Medieval Icelandic Outlaw Sagas

Hello, fellow digital humanists and scientists,

In my quest to learn more about digital methodologies and their application in humanities research, my project has been through numerous twists, turns, and rogue experiments during the past few months. I began my project with the intent to map the animals and monsters of the medieval Icelandic Sagas, but in the process of engaging closely with both texts and technology, I found that my research was raising different questions than I had anticipated. In order to share my methodological adventures and ultimate research findings, I will present two blog posts. The first of which (this one!) will explore the project’s methodology by addressing my three most important takeaways. The second post, highlighting my research findings and data processing, will be posted shortly.

First things first:


When I began to annotate the Icelandic Sagas and use Quantitative GIS software to map their citations of animals and monsters, I became increasingly interested in the place names that comprised my data. In the Sagas, place names reveal more than just geographic location; they act as indicators of personal affiliations with areas, proxies for legal gatherings, and possessive nouns to indicate property. Place names also appear in poetry and speeches, as well as the prose of the sagas, suggesting that an analysis of place names—perhaps more so than animals or monsters, I concluded for purposes of this project—would best reveal what is unique about geographic depiction in literature.

In my first blog post, “Mapping the Medieval Perspective,” I explained my project goals as I conceived of them in November, noting that “one of the primary functions of a text is to describe, and thus create, space…by characterizing its geography, a work of literature [makes] room for a new mental space that challenges the boundaries of the physical.” As I continued to read and map, I realized that the Sagas’ use of place names represented the very crux of what it means to mention place and space in literature: is it imaginative or geographic, conceptual or literal? What are the convergent and divergent characteristics of the aforementioned “mental space,” perhaps best explored through semantic and syntactic qualities of literature, and the “boundaries of the physical” that allow for the geographic mapping of place name in texts?

medieval map of Iceland, 1592. Courtesy of The National Land Survey of Iceland’s exhibition, Í rétta át

In order to manageably address this inquiry, I chose the three outlaw sagas within the corpus of the Icelandic Sagas—Grettir’s Saga, the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm, and Gisli’s Saga—for their demonstrated interest in geography as a function of outlawry. Narrowing my field of inquiry, as well as deciding that I wanted to specifically analyze the function of place name from a geographic and literary perspective, were invaluable initial steps that took months of experimentation to shape into a functioning research question: how do place names create literary and geographic meaning in the outlaw sagas?

TAKEAWAY: When beginning a digital project, give yourself a grace period to experiment and explore the question you think you’d like to answer. Also use this time to familiarize yourself with any new software and technology you’ll be using before officially beginning your project and its documentation. Sometimes in this process of discovery, you will find that you are in fact asking a different question, which may require renegotiating your methodological approach.


When I first began the project, I realized that my initial task would require transforming qualitative material into quantitative data. How could I convert a hard-cover, printed copy of the Icelandic Sagas from Columbia’s Butler Library into digital data, which could then be read and processed by computer commands? After I had scanned my books at the Digital Humanities Center using ABBYY FineReader 10.1 to make the documents compatible for OCR (optical character recognition), I had performed the initial step of transforming text into data. However, in order to give this data a greater degree of granularity, I would have to annotate the text in a way that a computer could read.

I initially used the software NVivo, which allows users to annotate texts according to Nvivoself-designated nodes, or categories. However, I found that once I had annotated information in NVivo, it was difficult to export and process outside the software and I could not open my files in non-Columbia computers because the software is not open-source. Instead of pursuing NVivo, I researched alternative annotation options and decided to use XML to encode my sagas. This mark-up language, or eXtensible Mark-up Language, is both human and computer readable, and operates similarly to HTML; both languages require tags to categorize data, but unlike HTML’s rigid language, XML allows users to define and make their own tags that can be exported into tabular data.

To give a semblance of order to tagging protocol in XML documents, the Text Encoding Initiative, or TEI, has created a standard system of tags for encoding humanities documents and projects. Organizations from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Texts to Perseus Digital Library (both excellent resources!) have used TEI protocol to encode XML documents for scholarly work. Furthermore, since it requires no specialized software, and is also the standard for peer-review journals and publications, TEI protocol and XML were ideal for my encoding. In the Digital Humanities Center, I used oXygen XML editor to encode my document, but TEI documents can even be created in Notepad or a .txt file.

TAKEAWAY: Before committing to software for any step of your project, ask the following questions: Can I only use the software on a certain computer, and will that hinder my research? Can I export data that I create in this software into other programs? Will this software increase or decrease my ability to share my data with others or process data in a variety of ways? Does the software have adequate documentation so I can use it successfully?

MANAGE AND DOCUMENT YOUR DATA CAREFULLY—After encoding my TEI document, I exported it to an Excel document in tabular form. It did, however, require clean-up in order to make it readable, and the nature of metadata in my project required numerous .csv, .xls, and .xlsx documents with different information in order to join data for my maps and network visualization. Keeping track of these various documents became very important, especially as I created different versions of the data for various purposes, and small mistakes (such as mislabeling a shared ID number across spreadsheets) often had large consequences in data joins that needed correction. More conscientious tracking of my data across its different versions in spreadsheets would have significantly reduced this issue.

In order to clean up my data to prevent future errors in processing, I created a spreadsheet of every document that I had used in the project to record its file name, its file type, its folder location, a brief description of its contents, and whether it was used for reference or for data. I also created a sheet of information on every piece of hardware and software that I had used in the project, so that my project could be replicated by a third party should a peer review system wish to check my work.

TAKEAWAY: While I completed a file description spreadsheet and hardware/software documentation at the end of the project, it would have been wise to begin this process immediately. As a humanities scholar, I was not familiar with the practice of lab notebooks or documentation in forms other than the classic bibliography; however, it is important to document your research and manage your data carefully. Without a continuously-updated data management and documentation plan, research is difficult to replicate and therefore authenticate. Furthermore, without documentation it can become complicated to organize and keep track of various versions of data, thus increasing the likelihood of simple errors than can be increasingly difficult to find later.

So, once I had created and formatted all of my place name data from the Outlaw Sagas, how did I map, process, and analyze my information? My next post will show two maps that I have made–a GIS map using Leaflet, and a network visualization generated by Gephi–and explore how digital technologies allow for productive approaches to questions of geographic space in medieval literature.

-Mary Catherine Kinniburgh.

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!