Mapping 17th century libel performance: a geodatabase of Early Modern Devon

This brief post aims to communicate and evaluate the outcomes of my participation on Clare Egan’s project within the sotonDH framework. I will characterize the spatial data produced as a result, as well as offer a reflective account of my experiences collaborating with another researcher in a different Humanities discipline. Clare has previously detailed the raison d’etre of the project and the intriguing glimpses into the lives of Devonians in the seventeenth century that it offers, so this aspect will not be revisited in this post. I close with some musings on the value of specific projects such as this and its relationship to the way we do research more broadly.

I was brought on to this mapping project to realize three principal objectives:

  • To create spatial datasets out of information Clare gathered from close readings of seventeenth-century documents
  • To digitize and georeference historical maps to supplement the libel event datasets in order to introduce a sense of place to the libel performances
  • To integrate the above in a geodatabase for curation and dissemination
  • To make acquire and process any other spatial data of relevance to the project

The main piece of software I used for the process was ArcMap 10.1 and its attendant functionality as an engine for the management, analysis and visualization of spatial data.

The sequences of events and participants in them in a given libel case were presented to me by Clare as lists of locations, most often place names, but occasionally could be as specific as streets and named buildings. Although they are principally conceptualized in records as a time series of actions undertaken by various individuals, they clearly possess an inherent spatial quality that matters to their perception.

For the purposes of the project I chose to represent them as point patterns, with attached tabular data indicating pertinent information such as the directionality of people moving from point to point as the case developed (Figure 1). In one case that took place in the town of Tiverton, there is no additional information about where events happened. While this makes for a very small shapefile in a geodatabase, the lack of detail in what turned out to be a relatively low-status case tells its own tale when compared to sweeping high-status cases that spanned several counties.

Figure 1: A selection of cases located in southeast Devon, represented as point pattern events over Donn’s map of the county. A high status case is shown in red, while a lower status one is displayed in pink.

Second, the physical maps were culled from maps of Devon produced in 1765 by Benjamin Donn. These documents are clearly significantly later in date than the period of time in which the libels took place. On the other hand, no acceptable (for present purposes meaning both accurate and readily available) substitute exists, as the seventeenth century represents the very beginning of scientific cartography in Europe. As such, Donn’s maps were scanned at 600 dots per inch and georeferenced with the locations of medieval churches recorded by him throughout the towns and countryside of Devon. At a smaller scale, a street plan of Exeter was required for one of the larger cases. Fortunately, Donn also surveyed Exeter, and his plan was given the same treatment by cross-referencing multiple landmarks within the modern city with their locations on his map (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Detail of northwestern Exeter as recorded by Benjamin Donn, represented in ArcMap with a point of libel data.

By and large, his records of the county are accurate enough, when taking into account typical topographical changes associated with the passage of time – changing coastlines, shifting rivers and so forth. One interesting curiosity that stands out is his outline of Dartmoor, which does not seem to follow one singular feature or contour (Figure 3). This emphasizes the importance of taking a critical stance towards the sources we make use of in this type of research.

Figure 3: Donn’s representation of Dartmoor, with 250 m contour highlighted. The moor outline does not follow this or any other single contour consistently. Elevation data from SRTM (CGIAR-CSI 2013).

Clare and I have produced a gazetteer of libel performance, and complemented it with historical data that relates each of the ten cases to their broader geographical settings. We were also kindly provided historical route data by the Records of Early English Drama (REED). Brought together in a geodatabase, they provide an integrated resource for the colocation and overlay of the various datasets.

My time spent on this project marked the first time I participated in primary research that aimed to combine historical data with geographical information. Being an archaeologist, specifically a prehistorian, I am relatively inexperienced with the use of historical and documentary sources to inform interpretations of life in the past. My methodological area of interests, however, lie firmly within approaches that seek to understand the spatiality of human culture – at the most basic level seeking answers to where things are and finding meaning in their locations. This outlook emphasizes the production of place, the agency of people acting within a defined field of action, and introduces space itself as an integral component or actor in human society. With respect to the performance of libel in early modern England, both Clare and I share this interest and invariably, rigorous spatial research necessitates digital research methods and technical know-how.

Digital research can be seen as both a process and as an end unto itself. In archaeological and anthropological research it is an oft-repeated line that geographical information systems serve primarily to produce “pretty pictures”, this exact phrase having even been worked into some noteworthy tomes on the subject (Maschner et al. 1996). This underplays the value of (digital) data as an end-product. Whether the truism is valid or not, empirical data lies behind the output of a given project, largely independent of its potential visual appeal. Constructing a database from information that would traditionally be acquired from close readings of texts can be seen as an improvement over the qualitative handling of the same information by an individual researcher. This includes its relative ease of dissemination as a geographical resource, meaning both the aforementioned affordances of GIS as an image production engine and the ease of transferral of the geodatabase itself as a shareable, modifiable and extendable entity.

Finally, as a process, it should be relatively uncontroversial to suggest that finding common ground and overcoming differences in academic vocabularies or outlook are two of the most formidable challenges to interdisciplinary research. From my own point of view, one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire endeavour was developing and maintaining a rapport over Clare’s vision for the project. Limitations have to be communicated, but overall the outstanding lesson is that opportunities abound in the cross-pollination of disciplines. I hope to have helped achieve an ever so small step towards a ‘spatial turn’ in the study of early modern English literature.