The students in our Spring 2017 research seminar “Hacking the Middle Ages” (HIST 302) collaborated on recreating medieval Paris using digital mapping techniques and drawing on the Description de la ville de Paris (1434). Here they team up again to tell us what they learned about digital history, trial and error in the research process, and group work.
In “Hacking the Middle Ages,” we created a digital project about Guillebert de Metz’s Paris of the fifteenth century. This collaborative research project took place during the first half of the semester in History 302. Throughout this project, we practiced our research skills and learned how to use various technological components to display the information that we found. Our class used Omeka as our home base for the web page. We also learned how to use Neatline, which allowed us to incorporate various maps into our website. Since these tools were new to us, this project required a lot of trial and error.
For many of us, this was our first foray into the world of digital humanities as well as website building. It’s a whole different ballgame than paper writing, because websites are intended for use by a wide range of people. When it comes to research, it’s one thing to write a lengthy paper, but trying to condense large amounts of information into short, user-friendly and jargon-free paragraphs is deceptively difficult. It forced us to write in a different style because the information being presented had to be digestible for a much larger audience than we are used to when we are writing for a research paper.
Also, digitally mapping medieval Paris combined in-depth historical research with technology in a way that we had not seen before. Neatline allowed us to link the research that we had done in groups to a map of medieval Paris that we learned how to georectify using a map warping program. The class was divided up into a number of smaller working groups. Each group started with a portion of Guillebert’s writing, and our task was to figure out how to turn that part of the book into a map or some other visual.
So from there we had to research that part of the text in detail, so for instance one group researched all the churches and colleges in medieval Paris that he talked about. Being able to display actual items on the site—like photographs of surviving buildings from the Middle Ages or early modern maps of the city—helped for the material being researched to come alive in a way that simply cannot be replicated in a research paper.
During our research process, we experienced the intricacies and complications that can come with historical research on any subject. Navigating these obstacles allowed us to grow as historians and helped us to gain new knowledge and skill at navigating numerous databases and sites, including JSTOR, Worldcat, and Omeka, amongst many others. We gained communication and time management skills that we didn’t have before. Throughout the process of digitally mapping medieval Paris, the most important lesson we learned is to never underestimate the power of collaborating with others. We have learned that it is acceptable to ask questions and that sometimes it helps the entire group to understand the process of researching better. We learned to view information in a more critical manner, and examine sources with a skeptical eye, in order to ensure the sources are reliable.
The intention that our project will be able to inform anyone about medieval Paris is just one of the great things about the digital humanities; it makes what could be considered specialized information very accessible. It was interesting to be creating something that might hypothetically be viewed by somebody with relatively little expertise in the field, and was a definite change of pace. We are very proud of the end result. As we continue our journey as historians, the methods and strategies we have learned will be applicable to our education in history at Geneseo.