Toponym-based graph of overlap between 10 medieval maps.

Cartography and Code: Incorporating Automation in the Comparison of Medieval Toponyms Across Maps


Over the last three decades, scholars of medieval cartography have sought to reclaim the reputation of medieval mapmakers. Both the maps and their makers have often been dismissed for their perceived lack of geographical knowledge and accuracy. In order to explore medieval conceptions of space, place, and time, recent scholarship, however, has shifted attention away from lacunae and towards a better understanding of the calculated rationales and purposeful intentions that guided medieval mapmaker’s cartographic representations. Medieval mapmakers used a combination of classical and medieval source material to populate their maps; this can sometimes obscure the innovative interventions they brouth to their work, making it difficult to organize mappae mundi (world-maps) into groups or families.

While researchers have typically conducted comparisons of toponyms between medieval maps by hand, usually on a case-by-case basis, the goal of this digital humanities project was to create a tool to facilitate this type of comparison. Veccompare (“vector compare”) is an open-source package for the scripting language R that automates the running of set operations; we have applied it to a current dataset of over 1800 normalized toponyms across 10 medieval maps. It is our hope that information gleaned with this semi-automated approach will shed new light on the relationships between these 10 and other surviving mappae mundi.

Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building, Pickford Theater, Room LM 302, 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540

With Heather Wacha, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Medieval Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison. This talk will be livestreamed.