The Imagining History project

brut detail

Research Methods: On Mapping

Page Information

Author: Stephen Kelly
Revised: August 8th, 2005
Reviewed: John Thompson

Methodological Issues:
Avoiding the Editorial Imperative
'Mapping' the Middle English Prose Brut
On Mapping: Manuscript Geography and Textual Reception
Implications for Outputs: Mapping the Brut online

'Cultural mapping,' as we deploy the term, belongs to a model of culture which prioritizes traffic and transition over location.  An enabling and suggestive account of such a model is provided by American anthropologist James Clifford:

If we rethink culture… in terms of travel, then the organic, naturalizing bias of the term 'culture' – seen as a rooted body, that grows, lives, dies on so on – is questioned. Constructed and disputed historicities, sites of displacement, interference, and interaction, come more sharply into view.1

But how and where might such a view be 'located'? For Clifford,

Thinking historically is a process of locating oneself in space and time.  And a location… is an itinerary rather than a bounded site – a series of encounters and translations.2

'Cultural mapping' then, records the itineraries of the Brut, its encounters with scribes, readers, communities and networks, and the processes of 'translation' – linguistic, hermeneutical, political and cultural – to which it has been subject.  The implications for manuscript geography are wide-ranging, in that we have been able to produce multiple, and often contradictory, cultural trajectories for specific Brut manuscripts.  The means by which we have represented such contradictions has been enhanced by the potential of hypermedia, as will be discussed later.  Mapping the Brut electronically has protected us from the potential pitfalls of text-based projects such as the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, a massively ambitious attempt to locate extant Middle English manuscripts on dialectical bases.  And furthermore, the multiple trajectories of Brut manuscripts has allowed us to rethink reception, traditionally modelled as an ephemeral or irrecoverable act.  Reflecting the development of the Brut itself, we have been able to construct accretive histories of reading in the Brut tradition – and mapping will allow us to record both simultaneous and successive reading communities and networks.

Maps and mapping, of course, proliferate as metaphors in contemporary scholarship, but we remain conscious of the epistemological pitfalls of cartography.  The late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu warned about the pretensions of mapping in his Outline of a Theory of Practice:

It is significant that culture is sometimes described as a map; it is an analogy which occurs to the outsider who has to find his way around a foreign landscape and compensates for his lack of practical mastery, the prerogative of the native, by use of a model of all possible routes…3

'A model of all possible routes…'; Bourdieu's opposition – between the ethnographer's desire to map unfamiliar terrain and the ease with which the 'native' breaks new paths in a space mastered by practical knowledge – can stand as a metaphor for the situation of the contemporary cultural historian ('The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there').  We may not be able to inhabit the networks within which medieval texts such as the Brut were produced and read, but we might begin to map them, with full consciousness of the epistemological fragility and historiographical desire which attends any such enterprise.

Next: Implications for Outputs: Mapping the Brut Online