Inside his Helen C. White office, Martin Foys is careening through a thousand years of history on his desktop computer. As he pulls up the Cotton Map — created in the early 11th century and believed to be the earliest detailed English map of the world — he’s plunged into the medieval past.
Here, East, not North, is oriented on top. Words are handwritten in Latin. The landscape is embellished with mountains, jagged rivers and buildings signifying cities. And is that a lion roaming over eastern Asia?
A quick click on a city in southern Europe reveals scholarly transcriptions, translations and links, opening a virtual world of discovery about the place. Foys can also add his own notes and even zip over to other maps that feature this same point of interest. A network of knowledge grows with every keystroke, thanks to a digital environment known as DM, pioneered by Foys.
“Suddenly, with DM, you have this resource that connects them all together,” says Foys, whose expertise melds medieval literature and the digital humanities. “It’s an old-school scholarly enterprise but with radical technological advancements."
The Cotton Map is one of nine early medieval maps of the world from British libraries that Foys and his team are annotating in a project called Virtual Mappa, funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the British Library. When it is published online later this year, it will make scholarship on these cartographic works easily available to researchers and the general public. And Virtual Mappa will showcase the power and potential of the DM platform that Foys has spent years developing — and is now creating a home for here at UW-Madison.
The traditional model of humanities scholarship is the lone individual in a room cranking away. Digital humanities has allowed for ease of collaboration.
DM originally stood for Digital Mappaemundi, as mappaemundi are medieval European maps of the world. Foys launched it in the mid-2000s for the study, annotation and linking of medieval maps, which are rich with historical, religious and ethnographic information. Now renamed Digital Max, DM adds meaning and context to the data it connects.
But medieval maps aren’t the only materials that can utilize DM. It’s a potent resource for disciplines across the humanities.
“Simply put, DM is an online resource in which you can create a collection of digital images and texts and identify moments you want to annotate and link together,” he says. “You can create layers and layers of linked information.”
UW-Madison has been home to vibrant digital humanities collaborations since 2010, when former English professor Michael Witmore (now the head of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) first began using data mining and visualizations to explore new meaning in Shakespeare’s work, and convened a working group for “digital inquiry.” When Foys joined the UW-Madison English department in 2014, he found enthusiastic colleagues in Jonathan Senchyne, director of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, and Heather Wacha, who came to UW-Madison this fall as a post-doctoral fellow in data curation for medieval studies.
“It’s been one of my priorities to pursue projects that push us to think anew about print and digital texts, not as dueling competitors for our attention,” says Senchyne. “I knew that the CHPDC and DM could come together to pursue these questions by working on old texts in new environments together.”
While nothing can replace the thrill of holding a piece of parchment from the 11th century in one’s hands, working in DM allows a scholar to search for an item, find details, tag and access related documents, add notes and more.
“The scholarly aspect flows much more easily,” Wacha says.
It’s a revolutionary increase in pace, a far cry from when scholarship moved ahead slowly through citations and indexes in published articles and books. And the “open-source” model changes things, too.
“The traditional model of humanities scholarship is the lone individual in a room cranking away,” Foys says. “Digital humanities has allowed for ease of collaboration.”
But humanities scholars can take heart: DM doesn’t require them to do any coding. “We’re bringing the power of digital application and database management to a highly specialized but technically ‘everyday’ user,” Foys says. “What this resource does is it allows anybody — anybody — to use it.”
For Senchyne, the DM platform helps reveal what readers and creators of medieval media knew all along — that there was meaning in every symbol, image and word. A map was a historical document, a political statement and more, often with connections to other documents.
“What we find, looking at all these layers at once, is that the medieval page was always that layered — always churning under the surface of the page with more information and links out in all directions. A specialist’s trained eye could always see the layering. But bringing the text or map into the DM environment makes those layers more readily visible, more present, to students, readers and scholars today.”
For several months, Wacha, whose two-year post is supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Mellon Foundation, has been completing and editing the more than 2,000 annotations in Virtual Mappa. She marvels at how she can spend hours working on a detail, unraveling a transcription or digging for clues about a specific reference. The work is so engrossing, she doesn’t notice the passing of time.
“For me, medieval manuscripts offer an intimate connection to the people who lived then,” she says.
She has also begun work on a new project focusing on a series of 14th century English manor and court rolls. Held in UW Special Collections, they are records of estate transactions and summaries of court cases.
For me, medieval manuscripts offer an intimate connection to the people who lived then.
In digitizing the rolls so they’re available for uploading into DM, Wacha is digging into such details as how many crops a tenant was growing for the lord or lady of a manor, or why a person sued a neighbor back in the 1300s. “You get the sense of what’s happening in everyday life,” she says. “The whole world just comes alive.”
The rolls represent the first Wisconsin-based application of the platform, and Foys anticipates more as the university becomes a DM hub. Indeed, for Foys, the greatest excitement comes from thinking about uses he can’t yet predict.
“The goal is to produce an open-source resource that has life far beyond what I’m currently imaging it for,” he says. “The best pieces of software continue to flourish because people find other uses for it. My dream is that DM is simply the seed.”