Getting Oriented

When new users open the maps from “Exploring Place in the French of Italy” (EPFOI), they often ask the same question: what do the dots represent? Most simply, the dots mark locations we have identified for places named in texts selected from a collection of French-language works written in Italy from the years 1250-1500, also known as the French of Italy corpus.

The maps that first appear on the screen feature separate points (the dots), with one point per place name. A place name, however, might also appear more than once, indicating the relative significance of that place in a particular text. The number of times a place name appears in a text is also known as the number of occurrences. To see how many times a place is mentioned within a text, users may toggle from the “simple map” view (one point per locale) to a “weighted” map view (found under the “Visible layers” option bar) which makes the points larger or smaller depending the number of occurrences. We have also customized the dots on both the simple and the weighted maps so that those with black borders indicate a high level of certainty concerning the placement of this point, and those with white borders signal a lower level of certainty concerning the location of the place mentioned in the text.[1]

Users also ask how we collected the information that now appears on the map. The answer stems from two different stages of the project: the data collection phase and the plotting, or “visualization,” phase. Data collection for this project involved four different steps: First, we looked through the printed index of the editions of each of the texts we used, to see which place names were mentioned and to find variations in the spelling of each place (spelling variations happen frequently in medieval texts). Second, we identified the location of each place and the corresponding latitudes and longitudes using two different websites, Geonames.org and Wikipedia’s Geohack. Third, we scanned the edition from which we got our place names and converted the printed version of the text from a pdf file to a plain text file, which allowed us to search through the text electronically. Finally, we uploaded our converted plain text file into AntConc, a program that searches through texts (also called text-mining) to determine the number of occurrences of each location.[2]

After the data collection phase, we created maps of that data, or visualizations, using the mapping platform CartoDB. These visualizations serve as the starting point for new considerations of how these places were understood in French-language writings from medieval Italy. Although the place-name index of a printed edition may invite readers to think about places as they read and programs like AntConc allow us to scan electronic versions of an edition for trends within a certain text or group of texts, map visualizations, like the ones presented here, allow us to see patterns geographically rather than textually. Even though the maps do not provide meaning for these patterns, a visualization prompts the user to consider why clusters or patterns appear in one place or another and what they might indicate for the text.

Users may also like to know more about the French of Italy and what qualifies as its corpus. In the mid-thirteenth century, authors from regions that traditionally used Italian dialects for their every-day communications began to compose texts in French, and French-language texts that were composed outside of the peninsula were also copied and circulated throughout Italy. Many different kinds of French-language texts were created and copied in Italy, from prose and verse romances to business contracts to merchant maps. The entire extant French of Italy corpus consists of roughly 200 works, from which we have selected a random sample of sixteen texts as a starting point.

The last and perhaps most important question concerning the EPFOI is the following: what can the dots do and why should I care? At the very least, the dots as they appear on the screen invite users into the conversation on literary geography. Literary geography engages users in questions about location, landscape, and other ideas of space in literature, and allows for more creative thinking of human geography (that is, human activity and its interactions with the physical environment) through literature.

EPFOI uses the dots to express literary geography in a way that allows users to interact with the data. These maps do not consider medieval spatial conception or explore medieval map-making, but rather provide a modern framework for understanding places in medieval literature. These places range in scale from landmarks to continents, vary in authenticity from the physically visible to the abstract, and span from ancient times to the author’s own time-period. As such, these visualizations simply ask open-ended questions about place in the French of Italy corpus, revealing patterns in place that beg to be manipulated by the user and considered with other literary data.

As with any scholarly endeavor, there are limitations to EPFOI. Names of places, for example, are often indistinguishable from names of people, making it difficult to identify whether the occurrence of a name is geographic or human. This confusion allows us to question the significance a geographic place might have when it also recalls a person or literary character. In a more technical example, the spelling variations that appear frequently in the French of Italy corpus make it difficult to regulate an electronic search, though this difficulty opens up a new ways of thinking about a text and how these differences in spelling might reflect the perception of place in literature. In short, one lesson of these limitations is to be cautious when interpreting a map visualization and consider some of the larger implications of place names. These place names should not be taken entirely out of context but instead as part of both a visual and textual pattern that contribute to their significance in the text and in the French of Italy as a whole. 

- Heather V. Hill


[1] For more information on uncertainty, see “Understanding Uncertainty Codes” on our Download Our Data page.

[2] For more information on the technical aspects of our project, please visit our Technical Essay.

Getting Oriented