You could say that geography has been a hobby of mine for a very long time, at least since I first entered the National Geography Bee in 5th grade (made it to states, thank you very much). It’s not really been something I pursued actively, but I have to say it has a rather poor habit of butting itself into my life unannounced. As you may know if you read this blog or have had a five minute conversation with me ever, that little habit has become rather important. Mapping things is now my source for gainful employment through the DARMC project, but even before that delightful occurrence which allowed me to cease being a register monkey at the local grocerial establishment, maps had become very important to my research.
I learn best spacially and visually. As I read, I hand-write notes either in the book or in a notebook, and after a brief flirtation with computers do the same for class lecture notes, for a grand total of about five 110-page notebooks since I started my current system in December of 2011. On a side note, Bob Slate’s Stationery in Harvard Square is wicked awesome.
What this means is that from the beginning, I was confronted by information which I had to visualize to understand. One of the earliest examples of this comes from my study of the monastery of Holm Cultram in Carlisle which grew out of paleographic research into Houghton Library‘s MS Lat 27, a collection of vitae, that is, life stories intended to promote a saint, one of which was for Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1109). Holm Cultram is relatively well attested in several charter documents, but unfortunately its library, which contained over 200 books, has almost entirely ceased to exist, with only 13 (and no library register) identified, including Lat 27. Being thwarted in my attempt to generate an intellectual history, I turned to a social one, taking the charter data and creating a map:
Not knowing too much about maps or mapping, I simply used Google Earth and imported the data I had into Google maps, both giving me very simple renderings. As you can see here, for example, there’s no way to color code or tag what is what, making the map obscure at best. Still, even this primitive map was extremely helpful. The Solway River in the center right of the above picture is both the modern-day and approximate thirteenth century boundary line between England and Scotland. As you can see, the monastery possesses territory on both sides of this boundary, and it was the monastery’s Scottish connections despite being ostensibly under English rule that helped me to explain several peculiarities about Lat 27.
Shortly put and without too much paleography, the parchment on which Anselm’s vita (but not the other 4 in Lat 27) was written was of relatively poor quality and inexpertly prepared. It had, however, been extensively repaired with an amazing degree of skill in a highly unusual fashion before being written on, and the handwriting itself was that of a master scribe. From the description of its holdings in the cartularies, the monastery was obviously not poor. This disconnect, as far as I could puzzle out, was due to the need to write Anselm vita quickly. This seems odd; haste is not usually required when copying a vita. The subject is, after all, dead. The answer lay in the Scottish connection, with the Kings of Scotland attempting to favor the promotion of Anselm’s cult and the case for his sanctity, of which the promulgation of a candidate’s vita was a vital part, as a way of currying favor with the current Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett (d.1170), a man not known for his cordial relationship with Henry II of England (who had him murdered). Thus, the rough map made above pointed me in the direction of the solution: the political alliance between an apparently English monastery and the Scottish crown.
With this sort of experience in mind, I decided it was finally time to move up to the big boy toy of mapping software: ArcGIS. ArcGIS is what Brendan, DARMC’s resident code-monkey, uses to create all the DARMC visualizations and databases. It’s extremely powerful and customizeable and can be programmed using Python, a simple, flexible, and potent language.
- XKCD explains Python for the laymen among us.
So, I downloaded the desktop version of ArcGIS 10.2, installed it, got the 1.7GB tutorial pack, and tried to learn something.
Nope nope nope nope nope. Not a thing. I cannot fathom this program. It is not friendly. It is not intuitive. It could be amazing, it could be just what I am looking for, but I can’t tell. After several hours (more than I wanted to spend), I was still as blind and as ignorant as I started.
I ordered a textbook and a GIS for Dummies guide from Amazon. This isn’t over.