The Global Middle Ages Project (G-MAP), Mappamundi, and the Scholarly Community for the Globalization of the Middle Ages (SCGMA)
The Global Middle Ages Project—G-MAP—is an ambitious effort by an international collaboration of scholars to see the world whole, c. 500 to 1500 CE, to deliver the stories of lives, objects, and actions in dynamic relationship and change across deep time.
G-MAP grew out of a teaching experiment devised by Geraldine Heng at the University of Texas in 2004, when 7 scholars of different specializations (including then-Dean of COLA Richard Lariviere) invited students to see what the planetary past looked like when teaching was not carved up into disciplines and departments, or bound by area studies and regional studies.
Our charge was to see the world whole in a large swathe of time—as a network of spaces braided into relationship by trade and travel, mobile stories, cosmopolitan religions, global cities, cultural borrowings, traveling technologies, international languages, and even pandemics, climate, and wars. We traveled in the seminar from Europe to Dar al-Islam, Sub-Saharan Africa to India, Eurasia, China, and the many Asias in a time span of about a millennium.
Our students, and others, told us over and over again that learning should be more often like this. The exhilaration of this learning experiment led to workshops and publications, lectures and conference panels focused on reconstructing the globalisms of a thousand years.
In 2007 Geraldine Heng at the University of Texas and Susan Noakes at the University of Minnesota founded G-MAP and MappaMundi (“world map”), a cybernetic initiative to aggregate the digital projects of the Global Middle Ages. The Scholarly Community for the Globalization of the Middle Ages—SCGMA (pronounced “sigma”)—is our name for the international community of professorial faculty, students, technologists, digital humanists, designers, and others whose ideas and energy power our projects.
Special issues of journals, courses, conference panels, workshops, and books on the Global Middle Ages have appeared, and continue to be planned. In 2008-9 SCGMA won a $250,000 NEH collaborative grant in collaboration with iCHASS (Illinois Computing for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science) for digital training at supercomputing centers for our members. In 2013 Fred Heath, then-Director of the UT Libraries and Geraldine Heng won a $154,800 Mellon / CLIR fellowship grant to host a postdoctoral fellow for two years to jumpstart the creation of MappaMundi, the portal to the digital projects of the Global Middle Ages.
The Global Middle Ages platform is available at globalmiddleages.org. MappaMundi—the digital portal that looks like a world map on the Global Middle Ages platform—currently features 6 digital projects in their first iteration: Virtual Plasencia, “Discoveries” of the Americas, the Peregrinations of Prester John, East Africa’s Early Global Connections, Cahokia (the North American Middle Ages), and Ottoman Medical Elite.
Virtual Plasencia features an interactive 3-D simulation of a city in Spain where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived cheek by jowl, and was built from scratch with a microgrant of $12,000 from the UT libraries. Virtual Plasencia is now moving into its second iteration, with the creation of avatars representing the 3 interfaith communities in Plasencia.
“Discoveries” of the Americas is building two 3-D simulations with the help of Vanderbilt and UT graduate students: one is of L’Anse aux Meadows, the excavation site in Newfoundland where Norse settlements were established in the 11th century pre-Columbus, and the other is of St Brendan’s islands, described in European medieval literary texts. After MappaMundi’s launch, we will add an interactive 3-D simulation of a house at Songo Mnara, on the Swahili coast, to the East Africa digital project. Undergraduate students of Jeffrey Fleisher, at Rice University, built the Songo Mnara house, which currently lives on a Rice library website (where few know it exists).
Timothy Pauketat at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, recently won a Templeton grant to create a 3-D model of architecture and urban space at Cahokia for his North American Middle Ages MappaMundi project. Lynn Ramey at Vanderbilt will soon collaborate with a Vanderbilt colleague to create a portal that will allow users to “walk” from one of our 3-D worlds to another. A user will literally be able to walk around our virtual globe!
Other MappaMundi digital projects being queued for development in the year ahead include Global Ivory, which will tell the story of ivory through the biographies of 12 ivory objects from around the world, and Mapping the Mongol World: Cities, a mapping project led by Christopher Atwood, a Mongol specialist at the University of Indiana, Bloomington.
The Global Middle Ages platform and MappaMundi took the Technology Integration Services team at UT libraries 9 months to build. After Heath and Heng were awarded the 2-year Mellon / CLIR grant, we recruited Ece Turnator, a new PhD graduate in Byzantine history as our postdoctoral fellow, following a selection and interview process conducted by colleagues from the UT Libraries and the UT English Department.
Under the supervision of Heng and Heath, Turnator spent the first year of her fellowship telecommuting from Cambridge MA—taking digital courses, reading into global history and culture, and attending conferences to acquaint herself with applications and tools in digital humanities. Upon her arrival at UT in summer 2014, she served as an important bridge between the leaders of MappaMundi projects at various universities around the country, and the Libraries’ technology team who built the platform and portal in a condensed time frame of 9 months.
Among the UTL team, the contributions of Aaron Choate (the director of TIS) and Ethan Persoff (the UTL webmaster) were especially important, and the leadership of Lorraine Haricombe, the new director of UTL, was critical to the successful completion of the project.
The role of the UT Libraries in helping to build and sustain digital humanities projects like MappaMundi will become crucial in the 21st century. University libraries are no longer mere repositories of information, but are active stake-holders in collaborations with university faculty and students to drive the aggregation, curation, and dissemination of data, content, and knowledge. All around the United States, university libraries are breaking a path to the future in digital humanities. MappaMundi represents the UT Libraries’ first multidisciplinary digital humanities project and portal.
Curated web resources like MappaMundi will become increasingly important to teaching and research because of their range, diversity, and depth. For instance: at present, teachers of world history and culture must rely on textbooks (like Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, or Ways of the World) that are expensive, with new editions appearing every few years which teachers and students have to keep buying, and that are, in fact relatively superficial in what they offer. Online, unless you want to rely on the vagaries of Wikipedia, curated intellectual content currently exists within publishers’ paywalls, in closed silos (Oxford University Press is one example) where you have to buy articles, bibliographies, etc. And world history is now taught everywhere: in middle schools and high schools, and at colleges and universities, including UT.
In contrast to expensive textbooks and publishers’ paywalls, MappaMundi is a teaching resource that’s free, with pages of narratives, bibliographies, and syllabi, and the guidance of project leaders who are eminent scholars in their fields and emerging scholars renewing the professoriat. As MappaMundi matures, it will also become increasingly important to scholarly research. Even now, our MappaMundi Prester John project—centering on the figure of a famous priest-king whose legend drove exploration and conquest from the 12th to the 18th centuries—is a boon to research. Soon, a complete database on Prester John from the 12th to the 21st century will be added to the project.
MappaMundi’s efforts of aggregation also break down the isolation of specialty sites that already exist, like the Zamani Project (on premodern Africa) or the International Dun Huang project (on the famous Silk Road caves). Users only discover such projects if they already know what they are looking for. By contrast, MappaMundi will always feature a diversity of projects: a user who arrives looking for information on Plasencia in Spain will discover Cahokia in North America, and the Swahili coast in Africa. After our launch, we will add a page with abstracts and links to external projects like Zamani and Dun Huang, so that a user will find diverse worlds on MappaMundi—a portal that leads not only to our curated projects but also to many external projects, all in one place.
Unlike sites that are passive repositories of content, MappaMundi’s project leaders offer important points of view in curation. For instance: Chapurukha Kusimba of American University, who leads the East Africa project, wants the planet to know that Africa had rich, thriving relations with the rest of the world, and was fully integrated into global circuits and cultures for hundreds of years before colonization. Roger Martinez of the University of Colorado, who helms Virtual Plasencia, wants us to understand the nuances of conflict and cooperation when global peoples of 3 different faiths live and interact daily. Professors Kusimba and Martinez eloquently offer their views in video interviews that can be found on their MappaMundi project pages.
MappaMundi—our time machine to the deep past—is fully multidisciplinary, and serves academic communities in several disciplines, as well as the public. MappaMundi doesn’t focus only on a single subject, or a single discipline. Its project leaders specialize in history, literature, art, music, archeology, medicine, etc.—a multitude of disciplines. Even before launch, we have already had inquiries from a supercomputing center interested in analyzing our multidisciplinary data as MappaMundi matures.
Finally, MappaMundi has become a creative teaching tool for our project teams and project leaders themselves—faculty and students—who are actively and continually exploring the applications and resources available in the expanding universe of digital humanities today. Project leaders report that they have forged new digital skills, and won funding grants, in the process of creating their MappaMundi projects.
We look forward to a dynamic year ahead, as MappaMundi continues to grow, individual projects are built out and advanced, and new projects come online.