Monmouthpedia and the Fable of Borges’ Map.

The fable of Borges’ Map is probably familiar to a fair few people. It is the story of an empire where cartography becomes such an exact science that the map measures the country it portrays exactly in every detail.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. | Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had “the scale of a mile to the mile”. One of Carroll’s characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well”.

The ambition displayed in the tale was for the whole world to be rendered accurately in map form. One can understand the desire to present the world in as great a detail as possible: isn’t that what all academics do, in their own small ways? Create their own maps of the territories they occupy, seeking to enlighten, to explain? I first encountered the fable in Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra & Simulation, and was very struck by his idea that we have become so reliant upon our maps of the world that we have lost touch with the reality behind them. Whilst I believe that this deep-seated fear is one which has ramifications for the Digital Humanities, in particular I saw how Borges’ Map might be applied to the case of Wikipedia, and in particular its work with the town of Monmouth.

Monmouthpedia is touted as “the world’s first Wikipedia town”. The aim of the project is:

“…to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK, Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.”

Basically, a vast number of objects within the town have a QR code placed upon them (or a QRpedia code, as they are termed here – not your traditional black and white codes but plaques appended to properties), which lead you to a Wikipedia page containing information about the thing you’re looking at. As Monmouth is particularly rich in archaeology, there are now over a thousand QRpedia codes in Monmouth leading the visitor to Wikipedia. The walls of the museum are dissolved completely here – the learning experience can be found on every street corner, and every tree, and to a certain extent, it could be claimed that this learning experience is liberated from the bounds of cultural hegemony, being available to all and directing the user to a democratically edited website, where the knowledge is supplied by the user, for the user. (Of course, the user is not completely liberated: one has to be in possession of a smartphone, and the Wikipedia articles and artefacts endorsed with QRpedia codes have to be chosen by someone.) But I confess, I love the idea of Monmouthpedia, and intend to visit soon in order to experience it fully for myself. And QRpedia codes are popping up in cities all over the world – Johannesburg, Bremen, to name but two. We are slowly, and inexorably, mapping the world around us, “the scale of a mile to a mile”, providing us with all the information we might require about a specific object.

And yet.

The heritage sector are keen to use QR codes. They’re inexpensive to produce and the user can be directed to wherever the organisation using the code chooses to send them. But anecdotal evidence during my time on placement at the National Library of Wales suggested their use was limited, and they are increasingly being supplanted by augmented reality, image-recognition applications or near-field communication (NFC).

And what are the theoretical implications of mapping the world around us? Are we in danger of recreating Borges’ map digitally – creating a map which encompasses every surface, point for point? And if that is the aim, to map everything, are we in danger of losing ourselves within the QR code: where nothing outside of it is acknowledged as real?

Once again, I must say that the idea of removing learning from the cultural hegemony is a marvellous thing to me, and that is why I adore the idea of Mounmouthpedia. But in the back of my mind lingers Borges’ fable, the tale of the map which became the world.

Magic, Science & Religion in Medieval Manuscripts | Dr Eva de Visscher

On the second day of the Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture workshop held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru on the 27th June, came a session from Dr Eva de Visscher of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. She gave a talk entitled Magic, Science & Religion in Medieval Manuscripts. Although I rather unfortunately missed the first ten minutes of the talk due to the untimely arrival of an electrician at my flat (rather in the manner of the Person from Porlock), I nevertheless got to hear the bulk of Dr de Visscher’s presentation, though of course my writing here is but a brief synopsis of the fascinating talk she gave.

Dr de Visscher signposted from the outset the inherent difficulties in the subject on hand, not least because certain types of what we would now call magic were during medieval times condoned on religious grounds: things such as exorcisms, for example. This raises the interesting matter of how we define magic – do we do so using our modern sensibilities, or medieval ones? Modes of thinking develop and perspectives shift, after all, and a variety of thoughts on the subject co-existed even in medieval times, with some authors condemning all or most types of what we would call magic, and some who would accept certain ones. de Visscher pointed out that the study of magic simply cannot be viewed outside of its relationship religion, especially artefacts such as magic books, which deal with power. One sees also an overlap between the scientific and the occult in areas such as astronomy, chemistry and alchemy: the best examples where these areas meet are within medieval medical texts, which include religious writing and charms, and astronomy. Huge importance was attached to the power of the stars, with astronomy being seen as one of the seven legitimate arts. Aristotle argued that changes on earth were caused by celestial bodies, which in turn descended from God and the angels. The power of the stars, therefore, could be found in everything. However, planetary influence on humans caused real unease in ecclesiastical circles – the get-out clause was applied in the notion that whilst the stars could be said to be responsible for human action, the soul was still the ultimate responsibility of God.

Medieval manuscripts covering such weighty matters were often used in a scholastic environment, and also read by priests. There was also a “clerical underworld”, those who had had some religious training, who would become interested in magic as a means of increasing their own personal knowledge and power and would increasingly dabble in the occult as a means of doing so.

Dr de Visscher mentioned several manuscripts as a means of emphasising her point, one of which was The Lots of the Apostles, a book on lot-casting. The casting of lots was used as a means of divination, a reading of fates. Three dice would be thrown, and then a question would be asked. Each combination of numbers on the dice would lead you to a certain answer. For example, if you achieved the sequence of numbers 5=5=4 on your dice, then you were to “Trust in God and you will conquer your enemies, and you will have your way”. [Folio 7v of the manuscript] The use of casting lots was condemned by Papal decree in the 12th century, as part of a wider shift in the perception of certain methods (such as trial by ordeal) and the question of how much humans should expect from God in terms of signs and answers.

Arabic knowledge began to enter the tradition, probably in part as a result of the Crusades. Dr de Visscher then discussed the Secretum Secretorum, or Secret of Secrets, which was attributed to Aristotle and supposedly a letter to Alexander the Great but which was, in essence, a pre-Machiavellian book of statecraft and included sections on physiognomy, astronomy, and ritual magic. Mostly medieval, it was written and revised in Arabic, and it was the Arabic version which was twice translated into Latin: the first only partially by John of Seville around 1120, and the second time in much fuller detail in Antioch by Phillip of Tripoli around 1230. It is the second translation that is in the manuscript at NLW, and I have included an image from one such manuscript, digitised on the Europeana website, the original of which was provided by the Bodleian Library.

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Secreta Secretorum, F.001r
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Secreta Secretorum, F.001r

The content of the manuscript is esoteric – it talks about the philosophers stone, about the best time to launch a battle, and about knowing who to trust amongst your advisors. Most trustworthy people are of medium stature, and blondes are generally untrustworthy, which may represents the Eastern influence of the original. The manuscript combines old practices with new, and very much represents the shift in thinking about magic and its definitions. The inscription inside, “that book remains with Johannes Alcester” could possibly be linked to Evesham in Worcester and the Benedictine abbey there; possibly the aforementioned Johannes took the manuscript with him after the dissolution of the monasteries. (As an interesting aside, it can be seen that magic and witchcraft became more associated with Catholicism after dissolution).

Dr de Visscher used a variety of manuscripts from the National Library’s archives to illustrate her talk: Peniarth 339, Peniarth 364, Peniarth 364 B(1) and B(2) and NLW 735c, a medieval manuscript on astronomy, the digitised version of which can be found on the Library’s website and images from which I include below, for illustration purposes:


NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.

There were other presentations that day: Dr Elisabeth Salter discussed Dealing with Miscellany: the Religious and the Secular, whilst Dr Eryn Mant White gave us a great insight into The Development of Print Culture in the Context of Wales (more on these later).

As a footnote to this post, I had a great deal of trouble finding some of the manuscripts used by Dr de Visscher in the Library’s online catalogue. This might very well be due to my poor searching capabilities, but it means I have not been able to fully illustrate some of the marvellous artefacts that we were privileged to have access to on that day. Dr de Visscher’s talk was really interesting and the topic as a whole fascinating: although the Library can sometimes seem daunting and some of the topics out of reach, but there really are wonderful treasures to be found there, and I can’t encourage you all enough to attend (if you haven’t already done so).