‘Fromm thennes faste he gan avyse/This litel spot of erthe’: GIS and the General Prologue
CANADA CHAUCER SEMINAR: The Fifth Annual Meeting University of Toronto
John Geck (PIMS)
This paper examined the fascinating breakthrough of digital mapping for use in educating instructors and students on Chaucer’s world. Readers in the modern period have the advantage of looking at places through digital mapping. GIS stands for: Geographic Information Systems. This is Geck’s spare time project of applying GIS to the study of The Canterbury Tales. Geck showed a map of the Europe of Chaucer’s pilgrims and explained how to use this interactive map as a modern teaching resource for students and instructors.
The underlying question of course is: Why map the General Prologue? Chaucer’s use of geographical markers and mentions might carry implications for characters in The Canterbury Tales. Through the comments made in the General Prologue, can we conceive of what Chaucer and his contemporaries thought of geography and their world? Modern cartography looks different from the cartography of the Middle Ages but the underlying purpose is the same. Geck identified various map classes; i.e., maps that are functional, or symbolic, like the Genoan Portolan Charts used for sailors, ca. 1300-1500, now located in the Library of Congress. Geck also touched on the symbolic use for the The Gough Map of Britain (c.1360) which was not used for travel but more as a demonstration of the early conception of a nation.
GIC is a spacial database using standard modern map projections. The most time consuming aspect of this project is identifying places and figuring out where they are on modern maps. The mapping the most work intensive part of it but once it is in place, different data sets can be moved and layered as it is a customisable data set.
How does GIS work? In GIS we must consider the limitations of mapping the medieval onto the modern. There are three ways to map: points, lines and shapes. Points are used to mark cities and villages, shapes are used for kingdoms, countries and larger land masses. Geck has yet to employ lines into the mapping of the General Prologue. It’s a large amount of work but the end result is worth the investment because of the relatively easy way the data can be later manipulated.
For example, Chaucer’s description of the Knight provides fourteen geographical loactions. The first step is to identify the place name and then locate it in the modern world. Places like “Christendom” are abstract and conceptual, thus eliminated first. What’s left is the plotting of city names, then going to Wikipedia and Google Maps to see where the modern version is located. Then, getting the coordinates (Latitude and longitude) and after putting this information in, you upload the datasets, add polygons and shapes, for large locations – like Turkye, Rus, Pruce,’The Knight’s Grete See’, lines and points. The creation process was similar for all the pilgrims of the Prologue. This mapping system neatly encapsulates the extent of the pilgrim’s travel. Geck showed that once you have the pilgrims overlaid on the map, you can then make interesting connections, like the similarities between characters of the same class. You can even add the images over top of other maps like the Portolan Map. The GIS is an excellent way to introduce students to Chaucer’s world.