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21.10.09 St. Popović et al (eds.), Power in Landscape

21.10.09 St. Popović et al (eds.), Power in Landscape

The broad set of methods and approaches generally categorized under the vague title of “Digital History” (henceforth “DH”) is at a crossroads. Finally moving beyond the irrational exuberance of its infancy, the field is now sufficiently mature for those who would associate themselves with it to explore not only its possibilities, but also the nuts and bolts of how it should work. In this regard, the editors of Power in Landscape have produced a volume which both lays out the historical aspects of their research and details the processes involved in creating a large-scale DH project. In short, the volume sets out a bold vision for what DH should look like as it abuts more traditional forms of academic publication.

Power in Landscape presents the research of those engaged in Digitizing Patterns of Power (DPP): Peripherical Mountains in the Medieval World, a long-term DH project which is part of a cluster of digital projects sponsored by the Institute of Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The volume is divided into three sections grouping the essays of contributors from both the historical and technical sides of the project. All of the papers are in English; this decision makes the contents of the volume much more accessible to Anglophone scholars and provides detailed bibliographic references to German-language historiography. The introduction by Mihailo St. Popović, the primary investigator of DPP, lays out the plan of both the book and of the project itself. DPP intends a “focus on the depiction and analysis of space and place in medieval written sources” (x) through the examination of the interactions between the human development of power and the natural environment in central and eastern Europe. The primary lens for this examination is what St. Popović and his team have chosen to call “Signs of Power,” or “places in which rulers or persons empowered by them, exercised and/or represented symbolic, but also concrete power” (xii). Further, St. Popović explains that Power in Landscape is designed as a guidebook and model for best practices in historical geography and the digital humanities, particularly through the recording and visualizing of the ambiguity inherent in qualitative historical sources via the spatial database software OpenAtlas, which was developed in tandem with DPP.

These goals are operationalized through several case studies presented in the first section of the volume. It begins with two prologues. One, by Johannes Koder, gives an overview of the human landscapes of Byzantium; the other, by Svetlana Kalezić-Radonjíć, examines the hagiography of Helen of Anjou. The former presents in an empirical fashion several case studies which will surely be of interest to specialists; the latter offers an intriguing discussion of the interrelationship of eastern and western Europe, one of the points of interest for the project cluster of which DPP is a part, via the relationship between a saint and her hagiographer.

Individual essays on six different case studies follow. The first, by Katharina Winckler, is a spatial reconstruction of the territorial patterns of episcopal power in early medieval Bavaria. From surviving medieval charter material, Winckler examines the locations of the sites that formed the core of a diocese as they relate to a bishop’s secular power and concludes that there are specific sites, identifiable through spatial analysis, where the enaction of episcopal ritual constructed “signs of power.” The second study, by Stefan Eichert, Jiří Macháček, and Nina Brundke, explores Moravia in the seventh through twelfth centuries as a frontier or border region through an analysis of archaeological data.

The third study, by St. Popović and Rainer Simon, differs from the first two as it primarily seeks to illustrate how DH tools can be applied to “source-based data” (65) (i.e. quantitative translations of edited and published charter material) for Byzantine Macedonia. This study presents several uniquely-digital analyses for its dataset, including the intriguing possibility of determining rough medieval village boundaries via least-cost path analysis. Most of the article, however, is based around project workflow. This sort of explication of process is excellent and should become a regular feature of DH projects for the field to have any sort of longevity. However, some epistemic discussion of the problems inherent in treating the information contained within charters as mere data, rather than a socially-invested narrative, would have also been helpful.

The fourth study is similar. An examination of the Herzheimer Chronicle by Veronika Polloczek and Bernhard Koschicek, it focuses on methodology as it translates the neo-Latin epitaphs of the Bavarian nobleman Hans III Herzheimer into a dataset intelligible to OpenAtlas. Here, too, a discussion of the broader epistemological framework through which such translations are effected would have been deeply interesting to readers.

Johannes Preiser-Kapeller’s article on geospatial patterns of power within early medieval Armenia, which constitutes the fifth study, provides a clear, concise summary of the project and its historiographic importance. Taking a geospatial and network analysis approach to a survey of monumental buildings in the region, Preiser-Kapeller is able to demonstrate conclusively that the kingdom of Armenia “relied on a polycentric spatial organization” (116), in contrast to neighboring polities based around the single centers of Constantinople or Baghdad. In so doing, he makes a cogent argument for the utility of digital tools to analyze patterns of power, as well as the relationship of such analysis to broader theoretical approaches to the idea of political landscapes.

The final study, by Toni Filiposki and Boban Petrovski, examines the ethnonym ‘Vlach’ as it appears in written sources from medieval Macedonia. They conclude that the Vlachs have a constant presence in the region into the fourteenth century, though their analysis varies in its interpretation of the ethnonym between a simple occupational marker (130) and an ethnic identity (135).

The second section of Power in Landscape takes a hard turn into the technical and theoretical side of DH and is the volume’s strongest contribution to the field. The prologue to the section, by William Cartwright, provides an enormously helpful general introduction to geographic information systems (GIS) and their utility to the historical study of power. It is an essay that can and should be used as a teaching text. Similarly, Markus Breier offers an article dealing with uncertainty in historical data in a piece which can also be used as a textbook introduction to its subject.

Breier’s article also introduces the DPP group’s solution to spatial data uncertainty, OpenAtlas, which is an exceptional and much-needed tool for historical GIS. Karel Kriz and Alexander Pucher then discuss the application of OpenAtlas to DPP, with a specific focus on the design decisions that stand behind the user-facing presentation of DPP’s data. In the final article of the section, Alexander Watzinger gives an introduction to thinking through the construction of a DH tool, a discussion of immense value for those interested in starting such a process.

The third and final section of Power in Landscape showcases four external projects affiliated with DPP, with a prologue by Breier and David Schmid that, like the articles above, can be used as a textbook introduction to the post-2000 spatial turn. The projects themselves are highly varied. Žarko Vujošević introduces a database of medieval Serbian charters; Rainer Schreg examines the long-term process of village formation in central and western Europe as a means of approaching peasant agency and power; David Novák provides a “digital archaeological analysis” of “elite seats” (245) in Bohemia; and Vratislav Zervan looks at local elites in Polog.

Despite these differences in subject, each article in Power in Landscape approaches an important issue within its respective historiography through a DH lens focused on networks of space and place. Power in Landscape is thus an excellent and much-needed contribution to the practice of digital history. First and foremost, as a presentation of a project that does not shy away from intricate discussions of methodology and implementation, allowing the reader under the hood, as it were, of a large and collaborative DH endeavor, the collection provides a model that others in the field should seek to emulate. Second, the middle section of the volume provides a fantastic resource that summarizes the state of historical GIS and data analysis in DH, with essays that should be read by anyone pursuing research in the digital humanities. Third, the presentation and demonstration of the capabilities of OpenAtlas will introduce many to a tool of great utility and importance. Finally, some of the specific subprojects of DPP, particularly Preiser-Kapeller’s, are models for the possibilities and execution of digital approaches to history.

Power in Landscape would have been even more effective if more time had been spent explicating the links between many of the subprojects, the broader themes of DPP, and the historiographic interventions the volume is seeking to effect. In particular, a discussion of the utility to historical understanding of the designation “signs of power” (and how the authors understood the word “power” itself) would have been very helpful. Further, the abundant data visualizations in the volume are visually stunning but could often do more to aid the reader’s understanding (e.g. the network graph on 265). Finally, some of the individual papers would have benefitted from a broader discussion of their implications, mirroring the methodological bent of the middle section and showing more clearly what specific benefits DH and spatial analysis approaches have for the historiography of their questions; having more information is not always the same as having a better understanding.

Indeed, one of the most important questions that this innovative volume raises is the epistemological relationship between quantitative/DH approaches and social scientific historical study. The tacit assumption that quantitative approaches provide a more reliable means of accessing positivistic truth than qualitative studies--that the practice of history can approach objectivity if only such process can be sufficiently refined--is a comfort humanists and social scientists, digital or otherwise, need to avoid. In coming years, we must spend a great deal of thought and energy on the epistemological frameworks on which all quantitative studies must operate, in addition to expositions of their particular implementations, in order to avoid the pitfalls encountered by quantitative historians in the past. Should the individuals whose essays are collected here encourage future scholarship in that direction, their contribution will be all the greater.