Cleaning up chorography

I’ve been at the Spatial Humanities conference, hosted by the Lancaster Digital Humanities Centre these last two days. It’s been a terrific trip, like the best conferences, introducing me to new ideas and occasioning reflection on, and reappraisal of, old ones. I gave my paper, (slightly grandiosely), entitled The Eye of History: Chorographic Prologues and the Origins of the Spatial Humanities on day 1. In this, I attempted to set out some research I’ve been doing over the summer into how we might approach the writings of antiquarians such as John Leland, William Camden, Peter Heylyn, and William Stukeley as expressions of place. The eye of history bit of the title comes from the translated preface to Abraham Ortelisus’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and – I argue – represents a key moment in the historiographical development of the spatial humanities, in that it recognizes that in order to understand the ancient world and its events, it is necessary to first have an appreciation of its geography. So rather than understanding the Roman world by reading the accounts of Livy or Tacitus, say, or the Greek world by reading the works of Thucydides or Herodotus, we need to understand the settings and the landscapes in which the events they describe occurred. Ortelius was seeking to help the educated classes of the sixteenth century do this by producing the Theatrum. My argument – and this is all in the The Book, out next year – is that the observational narratives of Leland et all plug in to this way of thinking, and apply it to understanding of the contemporary (English) landscape. The observational narratives oftentimes bore the titles of “chorographies” – first-hand accounts of that landscape preserved in memory and written record; and communicated through the then-new media of movable type. Sure, they had their own motivations, and their own agendas – Anglo-Catholic spirituality in the case of Heylyn, muscular pan-English nationalism in the case of Camden, a desire to resurrect the glories of the Arthurian past in the case of Leland – but this, I think, represented a new genre of spatial description, framed and enabled by the printed medium.

This blog post seeks to offer a brief elaboration of this argument, largely as a result of a question asked afterwards by Karl Grossner of the World Historical Gazetteer (which Karl also presented at the conference). Karl, nailing (in my view) the overlap between the thought processes of geography and gazetteer technology, pointed out that the types of spatial communication I presented were all descriptive. They thus negate the kind of critical and exploratory deployments of GIS which are necessary for any success in its use for exploring any humanities research question, a fact highlighted by numerous other speakers (especially Paty Muretta-Flores in her excellent opening keynote). Expanding on this point, Karl tweeted:

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I couldn’t agree more – and it highlights that the material I was presenting are primary historical spatial artefacts (and yes they are descriptions of place, driven by some of the motivations described above), not analytical vehicles or interpretations. The challenge henceforth is to identify the critical frameworks needed to understand and interpret those spatial artefacts – frameworks which will be mixed-method, involving both GIS and more discursive, qualitative means of reading. Thanks Recogito, I was able to give a high-level hint at what this might look like, by overlaying places referred to in Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum with Ellis’s 1777 Compleat Chorography (kindly snapped by Valeria Vitale):

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So I would agree that while chorography might indeed be a dirty word, we can, perhaps, clean it up a bit.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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