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The Latest on Digital Humanities: An interview with Colin Rose and Nicholas Terpstra

What is digital mapping? How has this field grown recently? Colin Rose and Nicholas Terpstra, co-authors of Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence, explain how GIS tools are reshaping our perspective of early modern cities. 

1. How do you define digital mapping and how can it be used as a teaching/resource tool?

Digital mapping – whether defined as Geographic Information Systems or as one of a large set of additional tools – is a means to integrate various types of spatial data into a manageable frame of analysis, grounded first and foremost in geographic space as the organizing principle. What this means for early modern historians is a reconsideration of the roles of space, and its representation, in historical documents. Spatial thinking can help researchers to ground their subjects in the physical and social spaces whence they came, and promotes an understanding of history that considers built and natural environments as significant actors in historical phenomena. As a teaching tool, digital mapping allows instructors and students to recognize the many similarities and differences between early modern and modern cities and communities. A GIS tool like DECIMA allows students to develop an understanding of the ways in which communities were organized and managed, and of the ways in which early moderns used their homes, streets and squares, by bringing them into close contact with both historical documents and data and visual representations of the early modern world.

2. What do you hope readers will take away from your recent book, Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence?

I hope that readers will leave Mapping Space, Sense and Movement with the inclination and courage to employ Historical GIS and other digital methodologies in their early modern historical research. By no means does the book paint an entirely rosy picture of the process; it is explicit about the dangers and pitfalls encountered along the way to DECIMA! But we argue that these limitations should not discourage researchers from expanding their skill-sets and considering new ways of doing research. I also hope that readers will take away an understanding of the extreme importance of collaborative research in the Digital Humanities.

3. How have you seen this field evolve over the last couple of years?

Over the past couple of years HGIS has made significant headway in History departments, with more HGIS projects collecting a variety of data and maps under various rubrics. As historians become more and more aware of the importance of Digital Humanities, HGIS offers an in-road to digital research in a manner familiar to history scholars: we already like maps, and we use them frequently. We’re also recognizing the importance of Big Data, and rare now is the dissertation whose sources are not organized in some form of relational database. The application of Big Data technologies to questions of social history should challenge our understanding of early modern society by providing the granular detail of analysis permitted by large-scale, computer-assisted analysis of data. Of course, as we note in Mapping Space, Sense and Movement, the nature of early modern data often complicates that task, since it is often incomplete or opaque.

4. What are some current trends in historical digital mapping?

Current trends in Historical Mapping are to find ways to map what at first may seem unmappable – smells, sounds, emotions – and to make clear the connections between the early modern experience of life in the city and the spatial and sensory profiles of that city. A particularly vivid example is the Hidden Florence app described in Mapping Space, Sense and Movement. Geo-location in the app allows users to transport themselves into the streets as they were walked and experienced by ordinary Florentines in the 15th century. Users are thus introduced to the power of neighbourhood and local ties in early modern Florence and can understand how such a small city, physically, could contain so much variety of experience and people. Hidden Florence shows us the neighbourhood rivalries and hierarchies that underlay the spatial organization of the city. In addition to mapping senses and emotions, HGIS projects like Mapping the Republic of Letters are refining their datasets and beginning to run dedicated research projects through the GIS systems. We’re on the edge of a large breakthrough in the results produced by HGIS analysis as projects wrap up their data collection and organization phase. HGIS projects often take years before a map is made, and many will soon be at the stage where analysis can occur and results begin to show. For instance, see the work done at the University of Victoria on The Map of Early Modern London, where scholars are now producing dedicated GIS analyses of, for instance, Sewage and Waste Management in the early modern city.


Nicholas Terpstra is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. His recent publications include Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy (2013) and Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative Interpretation of the Reformation (2015).

Colin Rose is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. He has published on petitioning the court in early modern Parma and on vendetta and judicial practice in Bologna.