Mapping Libel Performance in Early Modern Devon: Results

The pilot resource mapping a sample of the performance-based libel cases from early-modern Devon is now complete. Its layers include the locations used for performance in all ten libel cases with attribute tables associated giving information about each case – these are plotted on a modern map of Devon showing geographical features such as county boundaries, elevation and rivers. The county road network contemporary to the libel cases is shown; a county map from 1765 forms another layer, and detailed individual maps (also taken from the 1765 county survey) for each case area also feature.

Whilst working on the project some elements of the process have proved simpler than first thought and some unforeseen challenges have arisen. One of the biggest challenges when trying to map material from the medieval to early modern period is, of course, that the landscape that early communities would have lived in has now changed beyond recognition in most places. Furthermore, maps and map-making were viewed in a completely different light during this period; the criteria of usefulness which underpinned map-drawing were very different from those of today. It can be difficult, then, to determine accurately features that would have been part of the landscape during the early-modern period. In the case of the road network system, we turned to the Records of Early English Drama (REED) organisation for help; their Patrons and Performances website maps performance venues across the country using evidence published in their records and already contains data on the early road network collected from numerous sources (Records of Early English Drama: Patrons and Performances Website They kindly agreed to share the early roads data with us, for which I am extremely grateful. This has allowed the resource to establish and demonstrate the relationship between performance-based libel and Devon’s travel network. As part of the rest of my thesis, this relationship will be explored further by comparing libels to other, more traditional kinds of drama to give more insight into the role of performance in its various literary and non-literary forms in the everyday lives of early-modern people.

The challenge of trying to reconstruct the early-modern landscape was also overcome through the use of one of the most detailed early maps of Devon which survives. The map was produced by the mathematician and cartographer Benjamin Donn in 1765 (Benjamin Donn, A Map of the County of Devon 1765, ed. by W. L. D. Ravenhill – London: Percy Lund, Humphries & Co. Ltd., 1965) and is said to be of a quality and accuracy far exceeding other examples of county surveys for this time period (Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Donn , Benjamin (1729–1798)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 Whilst this map was made over a century later than the occurrence of the libel cases, it can still give us some idea of the environments in which they were performed. In places, the 1765 map bears family names attached to significant houses which are the same as those that appear in the libel cases associated with those places and the map’s road network closely matches the earlier data which we have received from REED. These aspects show that Donn’s map can be used to suggest the early-modern landscape of Devon. For both its depiction of a near contemporary landscape to the libels and its relative accuracy, the 1765 map has been used to add vital detail to the resource.

As part of the project I have started to learn how to use the resource in ArcMap to produce images which demonstrate the spatial aspects of libel performance. Whilst writing up my analysis of the use of space in the performance of libels, which will form part of my PhD thesis, the resource has proved invaluable; I have found that whatever argument I am making, the mapping resource can be manipulated to produce an image which visually demonstrates each particular point. In many instances, the process of mapping a libel case has also revealed more ways in which the libellers were using space in their performances.

Work on this project, along with some initial analyses of the data, was presented as a paper at the Medieval English Theatre conference held at the University of Bangor at the end of March; the paper was well received and fitted in with the theme of the conference which was ‘Travel’. Since the conference, Medieval English Theatre has also requested a written version of the paper for consideration for its journal.

It remains to acknowledge with many thanks everyone involved in the project: Philip Riris for his work in producing the resource; the Records of Early English Drama for their generosity in sharing data with us; and Digital Humanities at the University of Southampton for the grant which made the project possible. Collaborative projects such as this show that by sharing expertise we can critically approach sources in new and productive ways; they also show how digital technology can be used throughout the humanities to display new thinking in more accessible mediums. Above all, they demonstrate that digital presentation is not simply a means of displaying material effectively, but can prompt new critical discoveries.