Mapping Arthurian Legends

On May 29, 2020 by Madeline Miller

Authors: Victoria Corwin and Madeline Miller

Arc Story Maps

Arc Story Maps is a platform that provides an option for presenting materials involving mapping. For our project, we wanted to test that platform to see how it would work as an alternative way to present materials. We immediately encountered a problem- the new version of story maps doesn’t allow for collaborative sharing. In order to collaboratively edit a story map, we both needed to be signed into the same account. Furthermore, we couldn’t edit at the same time without putting each other’s additions at risk. We pushed ahead in spite of that road block and were able to enjoy the positives of story maps. Getting started in the process is really intuitive, and they allow for easy integration of dynamic maps alongside text and photos.

In the interest of making sure this post would continue to be accessible after we left, we migrated our story map into wordpress. To see it in the story map format, follow the link below:

Introduction to the project

For this project, we wanted to see how mapping technologies might be paired with the Brut manuscript as a new way to remix the information. As part of the experiment, we worked with an ArcGIS StoryMap. StoryMap had it’s pros and cons. It was relatively intuitive to learn and a quick way to combine storytelling with interactive maps. That said, as a team of two people working on the same map, StoryMap was awful in terms of collaboration. Only one account could own and edit the map, and we had to be cautious to not edit at the same time. In spite of the pros, we’d advise against any collaborative work unless ArcGIS addresses those issues. With that said, let’s talk about some stories and mapping!

Finding the Stories

Image of a page of the Dartmouth Brut.

We wanted to follow an exciting story that had potential to unveil connections between the Brut, its mythology, and any extant archaeological sites in the area using ArcGIS. However, the Dartmouth Brut is pretty hard to read. After struggling a bit, we decided to use the digital copy of the edition from  the University of Toronto, with caution that some of the Dartmouth Brut’s narratives would be different. Like every manuscript tradition, the Brut has variant texts in basically all of its copies. This is due to changes introduced through hand copying–some purposeful, some accidental.

Image of a much more readable page from the Brut edition by Friedrich Brie.

Once we figured out how to read it, we started looking for potential stories. We considered a wide range of mytho-historical people and events to map out, including the mythical founding of New Troy by Brutus, the Saxon conquest, the Arthurian legends, William the Conqueror’s battles, the reigns of King Henry IV or V, and Queen Isabel’s campaign against King Edward II.

Eventually, we settled on some aspect of the Arthurian legends. The Brut has twenty chapters on Arthur, and a diverse landscape that could spread out to other parts of Europe if we had the interest in following up on the stories involved. For now, we aimed small, to test the capabilities of ArcGIS in storytelling and data management for this kind of project.

Collecting the Data

With our story settled, it was reading time! We combed through all twenty Arthurian chapters of the Brut, and picked out all place names, people names, and military events associated with Arthur. It was a ton of information, and we needed some way to cut it down into a manageable chunk of the story to experiment with. The idea of a conquest campaign came up as an interesting “journey” to attempt to follow, as the Brut frequently included descriptive information for military endeavors, and plenty of data to work with regarding Arthur.

King Arthur’s last campaign of battles against Sir Mordred provided everything we were looking for in a potential project: concrete medieval place names, potential archaeological intrigue, and an exciting short story to follow.

The catalog of battles documenting the end of Arthur’s life also had long lists of casualties with names of the most important fallen Knights of the Round Table, which we could potentially work into a death “heat map,” to visualize the deadliest of battles on the map.

Once we collected our data, we started looking for truth in the fiction. Cross-checking medieval place names with both historical maps and modern names proved difficult, but yielded interesting results, to say the least.

Mapping the Points

Choosing a platform

As we were most familiar with ArcGIS and had institutional access to ArcMaps, we decided to utilize that as the initial tool for testing the project. QGIS was the other platform we were interested in, which represents many of the same capabilities of ArcMaps but with the advantage of being open source.

Batch uploading data to ArcMaps

Batch uploading to ArcMaps was the easiest part of the process. Each of our data sets already included latitude and longitude. From there all we had to do was a file upload that would automatically utilize the labeled Lat/Lon rows to process the data into a feature layer.

Each point would upload with all the categories included in the data set. There are some relabeling and updating aspects we’re still learning about, but getting the points on the map is really straightforward.

Visualizing overlapping points and journeys

Two aspects we’d like to figure out are how to represent overlapping points if two features have the same location, and the best way to represent a journey from one point to the next.

Georeferencing

Goal: find historical maps of England and georeference them

Setting out to find historical maps, we focused in on two promising maps- Matthew Paris’ map of England and the Gough map. We were particularly excited about the Gough map because of a 2011 mapping project that had done a lot of the work we were interested in. The project website included a georeferenced version of the map with added data including place names that could be searched by the historical name or the modern name. Furthermore, the materials were created utilizing ArcGIS, the same platform we were currently testing!

Unfortunately, the actual data couldn’t be downloaded for the purposes of remixing it with our own project. Some theories:

  • The authors didn’t think to publish their data
  • The authors did publish the data, but somewhere obscure
  • The authors didn’t want their data publicly accessible

Even if we couldn’t use their data, we thought we could still georeference the images by hand. The only trouble was that the images available at the library sites were less than ideal. After reaching out to the libraries that hold the maps, we learned that it would be around 30 euros per map to get access to downloads of higher quality images. [Comment from Michelle: I wish you’d asked me for the money!]

A sample image of Matthew Paris’ map of England

The higher resolution images were a dead end, but there was a layer of the Gough map available on ArcGIS online. Unfortunately, we couldn’t georeference an ArcGIS layer as if it were an image, and haven’t yet determined if georeferencing the layer somehow is possible.

The Gough map: quality okay, georeferencing probably not included

What we have so far…

The maps only function as “stories” in the ArcGIS StoryMap application.

Arthur versus Mordred Campaign

These points represent locations of interest in the final battles in Arthurian legend, including five points of Arthur’s journey and two points representing the journey of reinforcement troops. We’re working on ways to better represent journeys and distinguishing features from each other.

The “Death” Map

This map features locations of deaths that occurred.

David Rumsey Map Collection

In searching for a usable map, we stumbled upon a collection of maps that included it’s own georeferencing tool as well as a host of already georeferenced maps. This provided a quick and easy, if imperfect, overlay as well as access to crowd-sourced georeferenced maps.

History versus Legend

Goal: compare Arthurian fiction with historical fact

After we had visualized some data sets for our heroic journey to retake Camelot from the forces of evil, we were curious about archaeological implications of this data. We aimed to compare the Brut’s legendary place names and events with any kind of historical information, and use our maps to pinpoint any real sites that may have inspired these local legends.

Camelot

Though Camelot is not a part of our small journey specifically, some traditions place the legendary kingdom close by the campaign trail. It would make sense–Mordred and his army take Camelot as their first act of aggression, and retreat back to the kingdom for safety after being pursued by Arthur’s men.

…or Tintagel Castle?

Tintagel Castle’s entry gate.

Located in Cornwall, this castle is actually referenced in both the Brut and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae as where Arthur was magically conceived, and as a possible location of one of King Arthur’s major courts.

Archaeological excavations found remains of high-status buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries, around the time an “historical” Arthur would have lived.

…or Cadbury Castle?

The tor (or hill) that contains Cadbury Castle’s remains.

Also nearby in Cornwall, Cadbury Castle lives in local legend since the sixteenth century as the one true Camelot.

It yielded fantastically rich artifacts and remains from throughout the British Iron Age, around the fifth and sixth centuries as well. Archaeologists speculate it was a site of great influence during its lifetime.

The excavation’s media coverage sparked international excitement for its connection to the Arthurian legends, but the archaeologists involved are understandably skeptical.

…or Caerleon?

The Roman amphitheater at Caerleon.

A little further away from Cornwall lies Caerleon, where Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory purport Arthur to be crowned King of England. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King while staying here, inspired by the landscape.

Caerleon is home to a Roman amphitheater that was still visible during the medieval period. Some speculate it may have inspired the myth of the Round Table.

The Battle of Camlann

Arthur and Mordred’s final battle leading to both of their deaths took place somewhere in Cornwall, according to the Brut tradition. However, our Brut gives no other identifying information about the battlefield itself.

William Hatherell’s nineteenth century depiction of the Battle Between King Arthur and Sir Mordred.

Layamon’s Brut (the oldest English version of the tradition) names Camelford specifically as the battlefield, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae points to the area near the River Camel. Both sites are very close to each other, and are very near to the possible locational inspiration for the fabled “Camelot” and the mystical “Isle of Avalon,” where Arthur traditionally either goes to die, or to be healed, depending on what one believes.

The Isle of Avalon

This is where our “journey” comes to an end. In the Battle of Camlann, King Arthur slays Sir Mordred, but succumbs to mortal wounds himself as well.

The many traditions, including the Brut itself, are confused as to whether or not Arthur falls at the battlefield, or at Avalon–or at all.

Our Brut text says Arthur may have died in the battle, and his body sent to Avalon as a funeral. Or, he could have gone to Avalon of his own accord, to heal his wounds. There, he either died, or lives in secret, waiting to return to become the “Once and Future King” of England.

…or Mount Etna?

Lots of people both ancient and modern have speculated the Isle of Avalon can be found somewhere in the Mediterranean world. A popular guess is Mount Etna, located on the island of Sicily, Italy.

This volcano is one of the most active in the world, and erupted quite a few times during the Middle Ages–and most recently in 2019.

…or Lady’s Island?

Located in Ireland, Lady’s island is now connected to the mainland by a manmade road, and is a pilgrimage spot for those looking to worship the Virgin Mary.

The lake surrounding the island is known locally as the lake that Excalibur, Arthur’s legendary sword, was thrown into following his death.

…or Glastonbury Tor?

The remains of St. Michael’s tower on Glastonbury Tor.

This hill in Cornwall, once called “the Isle of Avalon,” is the traditional guess for Avalon. It was once surrounded by wetlands, cutting it off from the rest of the mainland as an island.

The site has evidence of occupancy dating back to the Neolithic era, through the Roman age, until the last destruction of the site in the sixteenth century.

It has always been a place of mystery to those who live nearby, and is connected to other mythological places and events as well, including the Celtic underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd’s fairy court, and the final resting place of the Holy Grail.

Next Steps

What else is possible?

Our map visualizations concluded our project with Dartmouth’s Brut manuscript. But, this project shows just how much material is out there. In the future, other projects could explore more visualization tools or datasets, different “journeys” through the Brut narrative, or more medieval maps.

  • Compare Other Platforms: One possibility for the future of this project is to test out other platforms besides ArcGIS and compare utility for digital humanities projects. QGIS is an open source platform for mapping. Digital Mappa is another open source platform specifically designed for the digital humanities.
  • Different datasets: Other scholars could sample different sections of the Brut for a new narrative to follow, similar to how our battle campaign is structured. Or, future projects could change datasets entirely, and choose to focus on different things than battle campaigns and casualties.
  • Adding more historical map layers: Whether future projects use the Gough map or not, searching for other medieval maps could also be an interesting continuation of this project.
  • Teaching through Maps: Testing out maps as a way to teach the Brut (and other historical manuscripts) could improve teaching techniques for these objects. Mapping provides a visual adventure and different way to learn about and understand a resource.
  • Crowdsourcing: The visual nature of maps make it easier to spot errors and provide feedback than a spreadsheet, and there are applications such as Survey 123 for allowing others to send in map data via survey that can be reviewed by project leaders.

 

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