Friday, March 23, 2012

Making Our Way in the World: Musings on Medieval and Modern Maps and GPS

As my dissertation deals in many ways with medieval travel and medieval maps, I've been thinking a lot about my own travels and use of maps. Perhaps some of these musings will make their way into the introduction of my dissertation eventually. For now, I will begin to sketch out some of my thoughts here. Please let me know what you think.


I've been on two different road trips across the United States. The first was when I moved from California to Rochester, and my old roommates travelled with me across the middle and north of the country. The second was when my mother moved to Rochester, and she and I drove her car down the west coast, across the south, and up the east coast. Both trips were beautiful and serious and silly, just as road trips should be. The topography and company was obviously different, but our mode of navigating was also quite different. My first trip was before I owned a GPS, and we made our way with an atlas, various state and regional maps, and (when Internet access allowed) google maps to help us out. My second trip was with a GPS in tow. We had a US atlas for good measure, but our days were spent following the green line across the screen of the GPS as we followed the highways through the windshield. Each trip was successful, both in the quality of the experience and in the fact that we arrived at our destination, but I can't help but think of the ways in which having a GPS on that second trip changed our relationship to the land around us. I have always felt that driving to a new home helps to make the move, and the distance, real. When my family moved from Alaska to California in my seventh year, we drove our truck from campground to campground, through the Yukon and down the 101. I had flown back and forth many times before that, but that drive lent a gravity to the move that those flights never did. But on that trip Mom and I let my father deal with navigation. He attempted to interest me in his various, haphazardly folded maps, but I was more interested in what was outside the windows than what was on those complicated pages. On my later grown-up trips, I had a more direct relationship with the planning and the map-looking. And thus I noticed the ways in which locating our own position in the country was different due to the different navigational methods.

With a map, one has a sense of the larger landscape. Even when a map contains a large dot and a "you are here," there's a greater framework for the individual location. That dot is in terms of the big picture. Context may vary according to the map in question, but context is nonetheless abundant. The surrounding area is available, as is an image of how different areas and landscapes and paths connect with each other. When I teach about medieval maps, I talk about how world maps relate to worldview. Maps depict the world metaphorically as much as literally, and medieval cartographers were no less making an accurate worldview as modern ones. In medieval maps, the worldview being so carefully depicted was different from ours, and the aims of the maps are therefore different, but the fact that they give a sense of worldview is the same. If anything, medieval maps are more clear about that fact than modern ones, with the modern notion of depicting the world as it "really is." What medieval world maps can teach us is how constructed maps really are, how much they can tell us not just about how to get from one place to another but also about the cultural mindsets that went into their creation. When my friends and I planned that first cross-country trip with maps and atlases, we gained some of that sense, whether consciously or not. We noticed the shapes of the states and therefore were confronted with the historical and geographical features that forged those boundaries between the individual puzzle pieces that make up this country. We saw how sometimes lakes or mountains manage to cross those borders as well as create them. We became aware of the things that are included in these maps, and the the things that aren't. At any given point in the trip, we could envision our relation to the rest of the trip as well as to all of the areas of the country outside of our path.

When I went on my second cross-country trip, we got some of this as well. I did examine an atlas from time to time, but for fun instead of for practical reasons, since we allowed the GPS to guide us completely. My father having recently passed away, and my mother's move occasioned in response to his death, the trip was cathartic for us. Since my dad loved maps so much, having some along felt right. But, without Dad in the car, the GPS navigated for us. It was a leisurely trip, and we made lots of stops to visit relatives and see sites of historical and/or geographical interest. And our GPS guided us faithfully every step of the way. I love that GPS, and it has never failed me. Mom and I even joked that it saved our good relationship, since getting lost can wreak havoc on family members in the close quarters of a compact vehicle. Yet I began to realize, as we followed its rather insistent directions without question, that watching the GPS screen was giving me a completely different view of the country than looking at a map would have done. A GPS only shows the direct area around the vehicle, and with only the most basic place names and other such features. A large enough river or lake might merit a blotch of blue on the screen, but most topographical features are excluded totally. The most notable feature of the GPS is the green line to indicate that you're going in the right direction (or the dreaded red line to warn you that you're going in the wrong one). In some ways, a map like this might make clear how far from the actual landscape maps actually are, its stylized representation of the country bearing so little resemblance to the view outside the car windows. But there's something else that distinguishes a GPS from other varieties of maps. A GPS gives a teleological view of geography. It's purpose is not to represent the country or region or state or town or neighborhood with any kind of totality but instead to get the driver from point A to point B. Larger context is shed and only the details that serve the purpose of the final destination are included. Anyone who has used a GPS has become painfully aware of this fact when attempting to make an unexpected detour. Dare to stop for a bathroom break or for lunch or to make a spontaneous visit to a roadside attraction, and the harsh tones of a phrase like "Turn back where possible" will repeat insistently until the passengers are forced to turn the sound off until back on the original path. As useful as the device is, it really is about the destination rather than the journey. The people of the Middle Ages had something for this purpose as well: the itinerary. Meant for pilgrims who needed to know how to get to a specific destination, itineraries were long, unfolding maps depicting the road and roadside details needed to find one's way from one place to another.

The aesthetic differences between the mappa mundi, or world map, and the itinerarium peregrinorum, or pilgrim's itinerary, are immediately apparent, as are the differences of purpose. While mappae mundi are aesthetic creations and visual encyclopedias that tell the viewer about his/her location in terms of a larger historical and spiritual narrative, itineraries give the traveler a means by which he/she can accomplish a journey. The former is of little practical use when trying to find one's way, though it may in fact have given people a sense of finding their way in a more cultural and spiritual sense. The second may give some practical guidance to the traveller (though, looking at itineraries, I am dubious of even how much they would have helped a medieval traveller). Finding one's way and locating one's self in the world are the province of each, but in a different way. Perhaps they give a different sense of narrative as well as geography. The way in which biblical and classical and contemporary history overlap on the world maps tells us something about the view of history such maps relate. They're densely textual, but the each piece of text only has meaning in terms of its spacial relationship to other bits of text or features of the map. The visual and the textual are inextricably bound. Itineraries are often colorful and beautiful, but they still give a sense of narrative as linear. They move the viewer from a beginning point at the bottom, before which there is nothing, to an endpoint at the top, after which there is nothing. A GPS is different, of course, in that the destination can be changed on a whim, and that the traveller can enter a new destination for each portion of the journey, but it still privileges destination. The device will do nothing until a destination is entered, and it only functions for any length of time when the car is on and it can be plugged in (helpfully reminding the user not to drive and work it at the same time). It is, in that way, for no other purpose than getting from place to place. Its ever changing screen allows for no contemplative functions, and that's OK. It serves its purpose well. Yet comparing different kinds of maps and navigational tools reminds me of the different ways in which we relate to our geographies, our histories, our lives. As I play with my apps from National Geographic World Atlas and Google Earth and watch as the screen zooms in from globe to individual location, I wonder about the multiplicity of ways in which we can view the world around us.

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