Historical Research in the 21st Century

So let’s say you’ve become obsessed with GIS (geographical information systems). And let’s also posit that you’re at a teaching institution, where you rotate teaching your twelve different courses plus senior seminars (three to four sections per semester) over multiple years, which makes it difficult to remember the ins-and-out of all those historical narratives of European history from the 14th century (the Crusades, actually) up through Napoleon – let’s ignore the Western Civ since 1500 courses for now. And let’s further grant that you are particularly interested in early modern European military history, yet can only teach it every other year or so.

So what’s our hypothetical professor at a regional, undergraduate, public university to do? How can this professor possibly try to keep these various periods, places and topics straight, without burdening his (errr, I mean “one’s”) students with one damned fact after another? How to keep the view of the forest in mind, without getting lost among the tree trunks? More selfishly, how can one avoid spending way too much prep time rereading the same narrative accounts every few years?

Why, visualize, of course! I’ve posted various examples before (check out the graphics tag), but now that GIS makes large-scale mapping feasible (trust me, you don’t want to manually place every feature on a map in Adobe Illustrator), things are starting to fall in place. And, in the process, I – oops, I mean our hypothetical professor – ends up wondering what historical research should look like going forward, and what we should be teaching our students.

I’ll break my thoughts into two posts: first, the gritty details of mapping the Italian Wars in GIS (QGIS, to be precise); and then a second post on collecting the data for all this.

So let’s start with the eye-candy first – and focus our attention on a subject just covered in my European Warfare class: the Italian Wars of the early 16th century (aka Wars of Italy). I’ve already posted my souped-up timechart of the Italian Wars, but just to be redundant:

ItalianWars1494-1532PPT

Italian Wars timechart

That’s great and all, but it really requires you to already have the geography in your head. And, I suppose, even to know what all those little icons mean.

Maps, though, actually show the space, and by extension the spatial relationships. If you use PowerPoint or other slides in your classes, hopefully you’re not reduced to re-using a map you’d digitized in AutoCAD twenty years earlier, covering a few centuries in the future:

ItalySPM

Instead, you’ve undoubtedly found pre-made maps of the period/place online – either from textbooks, or from other historian’s works – Google Images is your friend. You could incorporate raster maps that you happen across:

Screenshot 2018-02-17 13.59.49

Maybe you found some decent maps with more political detail:

Screenshot 2018-02-17 13.59.58

Maybe you are lucky enough that part of your subject matter has been deemed important enough to merit its own custom map, like this digitized version of that old West Point historical atlas:

campaigns_charles_7

If you’re a bit more digitally-focused, you probably noticed a while back that Wikipedia editors have started posting vector-based maps, allowing you to open them in a program like Adobe Illustrator and then modify them yourself, choosing different fills and line styles, maybe even adding a few new features:

Italian Wars 1494 map

Now we’re getting somewhere!

But, ultimately, you realize that you really want to be your own boss. And you have far more questions than what your bare-bones map(s) can answer. Don’t get me wrong – you certainly appreciate those historical atlases that illustrate Renaissance Italy in its myriad economic, cultural and political aspects. And you also appreciate the potential of the vector-based (Adobe Illustrator) approach, which allows you to add symbols and styling of your own. You can even search for text labels. Yet they’re just not enough. Because you’re stuck with that map’s projection. Maybe you’re stuck with a map in a foreign language – ok for you, but maybe a bit confusing for your students. And what if you want to remove distracting features from a pre-existing map? What if you care about what happened after Charles VIII occupied Naples in early 1495? What if you want to significantly alter the drawn borders, or add new features? What if you want to add a LOT of new features? There are no geospatial coordinates in the vector maps that would allow you to accurately draw Charles VIII’s 1494-95 march down to Naples, except by scanning in another map with the route, twisting the image to match the vector map’s boundaries, and then eye-balling it. Or what if you want to locate where all of the sieges occurred, the dozens of sieges? You could, as some have done, add some basic features to Google Maps or Google Earth Pro, but you’re still stuck with the basemap provided, and, importantly, Google’s (or Microsoft’s, or whoever’s) willingness to continue their service in its current, open, form. The Graveyard of Digital History, so very young!, is already littered with great online tools that were born and then either died within a few short years, or slowly became obsolete and unusable as internet technology passed them by. Among those online tools that survive for more than a five years, they often do so by transforming into a proprietary, fee-based service, or get swallowed up by one of the big boys. And what if you want to conduct actual spatial analysis, looking for geospatial patterns among your data? Enter GIS.

So here’s my first draft of a map visualizing the major military operations in the Italian peninsula during the Italian Wars. Or, more accurately, locating and classifying (some of) the major combat operations from 1494 to 1530:

Screenshot 2018-02-17 13.40.19

Pretty cool, if you ask me. And it’s just the beginning.

How did I do it? Well, the sausage-making process is a lot uglier than the final product. But we must have sausage. Henry V made the connection between war and sausage quite clear: “War without fire is like sausages without mustard.”

So to the technical details, for those who already understand the basics of GIS (QGIS in this case). If you don’t know anything about GIS, there are one or two websites on the subject.

  • I’m using Euratlas‘ 1500 boundaries shapefile, but I had to modify some of the owner attributes and alter the boundaries back to 1494, since things can change quickly, even in History. In 1500, the year Euratlas choose to trace the historical boundaries, France was technically ruling Milan and Naples. But, if you know your History, you know that this was a very recent change, and you also know that it didn’t last long, as Spain would come to dominate the peninsula sooner rather than later. So that requires some work fixing the boundaries to start at the beginning of the war in 1494. I should probably have shifted the borders from 1500 back to 1494 using a different technique (ideally in a SpatiaLite database where you could relate the sovereign_state table to the 2nd_level_divisions table), but I ended up doing it manually: merging some polygons, splitting other multi-polygons into single polygons, modifying existing polygons, and clipping yet other polygons. Unfortunately, these boundaries changed often enough that I foresee a lot of polygon modifications in my future…
  • Notice my rotation of the Italian boot to a reclining angle – gotta mess with people’s conventional expectations. (Still haven’t played around with Print Composer yet, which would allow me to add a compass rose.) More important than being a cool rebel who blows people’s cartographic preconceptions, I think this non-standard orientation offers a couple of advantages. First, it allows you to zoom in a bit more, to fit the length of the boot along the width rather than height of the page. More subtly, it also reminds the reader that the Po river drains ‘down’ through Venice into the Adriatic. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has to explicitly remind myself that all those northern European rivers aren’t really flowing uphill into the Baltic. (You’re on you own to remember that the Tiber flows down into the Tyrrhenian Sea.) George “Mr. Metaphor” Lakoff would be proud.
  • I converted all the layers to the Albers equal-area conic projection centered on Europe, for valid area calculations. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll zoom out, and add graticules and Tissot’s indicatrices, which illustrate the nature of the projection’s distortions of shape, area and distance as you move away from the European center (i.e. the main focus of the projection):
    Screenshot 2018-02-17 14.21.17
    And in case you wanted my opinion, projections are really annoying to work with. But there’s still room for improvement here: if I could get SpatiaLite to work in QGIS (damn shapefiles saved as SpatiaLite layers won’t retain the geometry), I would be able to re-project layers on the fly with a SQL statement, rather than saving them as separate shapefiles.
  • I’m still playing around with symbology, so I went with basic shape+color symbols to distinguish battles from sieges (rule-based styling). I did a little bit of customization with the labels – offsetting the labels and adding a shadow for greater contrast. Still plenty of room for improvement here, including figuring out how to make my timechart symbols (created in Illustrator) look good in QGIS.
    After discovering the battle site symbol in the tourist folder of custom markers, it could look like this, if you have it randomly-color the major states, and include the 100 French battles that David Potter mentions in his Renaissance France at War, Appendix 1, plus the major combats of the Italian Wars and Valois-Habsburg Wars listed in Wikipedia:
    Screenshot 2018-03-01 14.18.11.png
    Boy, there were a lot of battles in Milan and Venice, though I’d guess Potter’s appendix probably includes smaller combats involving hundreds of men. Haven’t had time to check.
  • I used Euratlas’ topography layers, 200m, 500m, 1000m, 2000m, and 3500m of elevation, rather than use Natural Earth’s 1:10m raster geotiff (an image file with georeferenced coordinates). I wasn’t able to properly merge them onto a single layer (so I could do a proper categorical color ramp), so I grouped the separate layers together. For the mountain elevations I used the colors in a five-step yellow-to-red color ramp suggested by ColorBrewer 2.0.
  • I saved the styles of some of the layers, e.g. the topo layer colors and combat symbols, as qml files, so I can easily apply them elsewhere if I have to make changes or start over.
  • You can also illustrate the alliances for each year, or when they change, whichever happens more frequently – assuming you have the time to plot all those crazy Italian machinations. If you make them semi-transparent and turn several years’ alliances on at the same time, their overlap with allow you to see which countries switched sides (I’m looking at you, Florence and Rome), vs. which were consistent:
    Screenshot 2018-03-01 14.27.00.png
  • Plotting the march routes is also a work in progress, starting by importing the camps as geocoded points, and then using the Points2One plugin to connect them up. With this version of Charles’ march down to Naples (did you catch that south-as-down metaphor?), I only had a few camps to mark, so the routes are direct lines, which means they might display as crossing water. More waypoints will fix that, though it’d be better if you could make the march routes follow roads, assuming they did. Which, needless to say, would require a road layer.
    Screenshot 2018-03-01 14.44.52.png
  • Not to mention applying spatial analysis to the results. And animation. And…

More to come, including the exciting, wild world of data collection.

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3 responses to “Historical Research in the 21st Century”

  1. Shawn says :

    I’m especially interested in the illustration of allegiances. I would imagine similar tools are useful for today as well.

    I used GIS to map ancient Sumeria along the Fertile Crescent. Turns out the landmass itself was different 4000 years ago. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were pushing sediment into the Persian Gulf ultimately creating new lands that exist today (*cough cough* Kuwait) that weren’t there in 2000BCE.

    Do you think you’ll run into this issue in the last 500 years?

    I personally cannot wait to see what you do with the Crusades!

    • jostwald says :

      Hey Shawn,
      Re: alliances. The Correlates of War project has a dataset with all the major alliances from 1816 to the late 20C – no GIS included, though. Hopefully I’ll be able to create a similar diplomatic dataset for the early modern period, with a little help from skulkers. It would be interesting to extend the CoW data three hundred years earlier, to the extent that it can be done.

      Re: Changing topography. You may already know of the various online projects that map the ancient Middle East. Just one place is http://www.awmc.unc.edu/wordpress/map-files/.
      As for the late medieval/early modern period, the Euratlas maps claim to account for changing coastlines. I think the main areas of concern for me would be at a larger scale (i.e. operational or theater level of war), e.g. the Maas/Scheldt/Rhine delta/estuary, and the various polders that the Dutch reclaimed over the centuries. Then you have river dredging and widening, redirecting rivers, canalization, and the acceleration of environmental changes from industrialization onward. Fortunately there are some contemporary sources that describe which rivers were navigable c. 1700, and there are kinda-accurate maps from the 1680s onward that can be georeferenced. I believe some Dutch scholars are working on a GIS dataset c.1600, so hopefully they’ll share their data at some point.

  2. jostwald says :

    Just realized why I was having problems with projections: I was confused not about projections conceptually, but about how GIS deals with them. I was assuming that when QGIS would reproject a layer (using Save As… and choosing the projection), QGIS would convert the original layer’s coordinates into the new projection (or WGS84). I was thinking you entered the desired projection when saving it as a new layer, in order to make all the layers in the map the same. But instead you need to choose the layer’s ORIGINAL projection (not the target projection), and the on-the-fly projecting will take care of the rest, after you’ve told it what projection the original coordinates are in.
    So, if you combine different layers in the same map and one group is really small and another is much larger (you can tell this by zooming full extent), it’s probably because they are in different projections with vastly different coordinate values – and saving to a new layer keeps the coordinate values the same from original to new copy. I incorrectly assumed that OTF would account for that in a different way, or that there was metadata that stored that original projection info automatically (e.g. in the .prj file).
    For example, say, the coordinates of a feature for one layer are 4.47, 50.505 in degrees of latitude and longitude (aka unprojected WGS84). That features in another layer with a different projection will have very different coordinates, for example, Belgian Lambert 72, which has the equivalent coordinates of 157361.845373, 132751.380618. If you don’t tell QGIS that the initial projection of the Lambert layer is Lambert (EPS 31300) and instead tell it WGS84, it will think that the unit of the latitude coordinate 157,361 is in DEGREES, instead of it being 157,361 METERS. I’d read that warning online before, but I didn’t realize that OTF completely automates that process, rather than you choose the target projection when saving the layer. Duh.
    The http://spatialreference.org/ref/ and https://epsg.io websites give equivalencies and transformations, if you need more info.

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