Digital Methods in the Dark Ages? Mapping and Modeling Medieval History

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:50 AM
Mile High Ballroom 3A (Colorado Convention Center)
Austin Mason, Carleton College
The discipline of history seeks to study the human past, in all its variety. In practice, that has meant the study of written documents — any historian’s primary source of evidence — and traditional historical methods have long emphasized textual analysis and interpretation. The new methods of digital history like text-mining, topic modeling, corpus linguistics, and network analysis have opened up a world of possibilities for gaining new insights from our texts, but there is a real danger that these methods artificially perpetuate the biases of our sources towards the concerns of their authors: predominately the powerful and privileged literate elites of a given society. Movements like #transformDH have pushed for a more inclusive modern digital scholarship, and projects like Timothy Hitchcock’s London Lives have shown how big-data digital methods can be used to write the history of the marginal and excluded in early modern Europe if enough sources can be digitized and made searchable.
For medieval historians, the challenges of digital history are even greater, since there are simply far fewer texts to work with. Literacy rates and textual output in Europe plummeted during the so-called “dark ages,” and the few texts of the period that survive focus on the rich, powerful, ecclesiastical and mostly male world of their authors. This paper will explore how methods of writing alternate histories that grew out of the cultural turn of the 1970s can be combined with new techniques of mapping and 3D modeling borrowed from the fields of virtual archaeology and heritage management to practice an inclusive digital history in the Middle Ages.