Can We Map Space & Place in Historical Narratives?

by Jesse W. Torgerson

Prefatory note: This is the prosaic introduction to what will be an ongoing series of posts tagged as “Narrative and Geography”

The late antique and medieval world read texts called histories as literature. As just one example: Isidore, the seventh-century Bishop of Seville (Spain), put historia (“history”) and annales (“annals”) just after myth and fable in his encyclopedic Etymologiae.

Current thinking about the type of text that we call “history” has been indelibly shaped by the work of Hayden White. White has spent decades pushing the field to consider that each and every history works in and with narrative.

A contemporary historian thinking about embedded narrative structures in historical writing is not exactly the same thing as Isidore thinking of history as belonging on the same bookshelves as “myths and fables.” But if we are interested in trying to equip ourselves to read medieval texts with a greater sensitivity to how they might have been read at the time they were written, there is a productive connection to be made here.

One of the ongoing projects here in the Traveler’s Lab is dedicated to making this very connection: Geography and Narrative in the Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes.

My team for this project currently includes Wesleyan University students Ethan Yaro (’17) and Andrew Ling (’18), and Marlboro College student Emma Holtsinger (’18). The idea behind our investigations is to figure out what it would mean for a historian to fully apply the reality that histories are narratives, and were read as literature to the texts (written in various historical genres such as annales or calendaria or chronica), that she or he studies.

Our question implies, of course, that historians aren’t doing so, or at least not very much or very systematically. Few studies (there are important exceptions, such as Gabrielle Spiegel’s work) have really pushed the idea as far as the premises seem to make necessary. Why?

I do not think historians’ supposed methodological conservatism is a sufficient explanation, and in any case getting worked up about the failings of one’s field usually does not tell us what to do otherwise. Instead, based on my own efforts, I can state that it is very, very hard to fully evoke the imaginative fictive world that a historical text works with, as an imaginative fictive world, when we also know that when our ninth-century chronicle writes “Constantinople” it does also mean a certain metropolis in which the author was physically sitting at that moment. That is, we can accept historical texts as literature, but in the end we also want to, indeed have to, account for their being set in and telling readers about “real” places like the kingdom of France, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad.

I am distinguishing here between “setting” or space on the one hand, and “geography” or place on the other. In doing so I am drawing upon a terminology familiar to narrative theory or narratology. We can find this distinction in the first line of Ruth Ronen’s classic 1986 article, “Space in Fiction”:

Space, the domain of settings and surroundings of events, characters and objects in literary narrative, along with other domains (story, character, time and ideology), constitutes a fictional universe.

If we are willing to be friends with Hayden White’s ideas, we must acknowledge and reconstruct this “fictional universe” of space for every historical text we use for historical study. If we also remain interested in the historian’s project of explaining past lived worlds (we do), we must also reconstruct the relevant “universe” of geographic places.

How can one do both? How, practically, would historians acknowledge the “fictional universe” in their texts – distinguishing space (narrative – “fictional”) from place (geography – “real”)? And, once we’ve done so, however, how do we confront the even more monumental task: to account for the way these two work together – as they would have and do – in the mind of any reader? How – practically – can historians read and interpret a narrative setting that is simultaneously “real” and “fictive”?

To work through such a problem, we are focusing on one specific work which, because of its textual unity, allows us to ground our answer: however wild the theories we end up producing may appear, we will at least be able to say that these work for one piece of literature in a “historical” genre, for this one chronography.

The text we are focusing all of our efforts on, is the ninth-century Byzantine Chronography (or Chronicle) attributed to two authors: George Synkellos and Theophanes the Confessor. This text is heavily geographic. In an exploratory attempt to determine the percentage of the text’s words that were explicitly devoted to “geography,” we came up with the shockingly high figure of 20% (a forthcoming post deals with exactly what we mean by this and how we arrived at this number).

The Chronography was not “only fiction.” It was the default historical reference point for at least a century after it was written. Later Byzantine authors attribute a great weight of authority to this text: by citing directly from it; by claiming that they sought to continue in the same method and style; and, by continuing historical narratives up to their own day from the year the Chronography had ended. In other words, this Chronography was understood to refer to a “real historical geography” – it told the ninth and tenth century Byzantine world about the past of the places around them. It has almost exclusively been understood in this way by contemporary, modern, historians as well: it tells us what happened at particular times in real geographic places.

On the other hand, this chronography – as narrative theory reminds us – must also be read as literature, if for no other reason than that it would have been. There have been almost no studies from this perspective.

Our all-encompassing approach to narrative and geography, then, must first seek to capture multiple approaches to (geographic) place and (narrative) space in the text, by two sets of readers (medieval, and modern).


First, I will be working to plot the “historical” geography of the Chronography in two ways. These are (A) the contemporary, scientific geography of, and (B) the lived experience of, the ninth-century East Roman world.

For (A), we will draw upon the scientific, or learned, place-geography produced by the second-century Alexandrian, Ptolemy. This scientific geography was preserved and updated throughout the Byzantine period. In the fourteenth century, the scholar Maximus Planudes created a projection of Ptolemy’s geography which still survives in a manuscript now housed at the Vatican Library in Rome (Vaticanus Urbinas Graecus 82, s. xiii). Planudes was working at the Chora Monastery in Constantinople, a monatery whose historical importance and influence truly began with the intellectual and political circles that produced the very ninth-century Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes which we are studying. In other words, though the situation is not ideal (welcome to study of the middle ages), we can operate on the assumption that the apparently fairly consistent intellectual tradition in geography between Ptolemy and Planudes allows us to use the same projection for Synkellos and Theophanes’ Chronography.


{Image credit: Wikimedia Commons}

I will be plotting the geography of the Chronography on this map in order to represent how an educated ninth-century audience might have conceived of references to, for instance, Euboea, or Alexandria.

For (B), we will draw upon the lived or traveled place-geography of the early medieval world. Travel in our own world, today, is experienced in terms of airline routes, interstate highways, and railway lines. All of these serve to turn distance into time. In the world before these landscape-altering technologies, distance and time were far from co-relative and usually had very little to do with each other. Time for travel instead had to do with things like mountains, rivers, pathways, seas, and seasons. A team of researchers working under Walter Scheidel at Stanford University has sought to recapture the actual lived place-geography of the Ancient Mediterranean by encompassing everything we know about movements between places, and turning it into a web-based platform that functions something like a mapping app for ancient long-distance travel: Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.

In this projection (below) of average time of travel from the city of Rome, for instance, we see that Southern France and North Africa were able to be reached from Rome within a week, whereas the entire Eastern Coast of the Italian Peninsula was, in real terms, between eight and eleven days away. Similarly, it was possible to get from Rome to Constantinople in less than three weeks, but after three weeks of Northward travel one would barely have made it through the Alps.

From Rome - Orbis

{Image credit:}

We must consider this to be as much of a “real” geography as the intelletual-scientific geography of Ptolemy, and perhaps more so. We have not yet begun actually plotting Orbis’ distance-times against our data (as we are still collecting mentioned locations). When we do, this will give us a representation of how ninth-century readers may have imagined the relationship between different places in the Chronography based on their own experiences, and others’ tales, of travel.

The Second approach we are taking to place-geography seeks to represent what we now think of as the “real” or “actual” physical geography of the world captured by the text of the Chronography. This is, in other words, the standard practice of historians today. Historians cull lists of places mentioned in texts, and from these reproduce things like the helpful maps of “Places Mentioned in the Text” at the beginning of a translation or critical edition.

These illustrations, however, do not actually tell us how to read this text with medieval eyes, or a medieval mind. In fact, such projections simply reflect to us, in advance, how we will end up reading the setting of the text. These maps take places mentioned in the text and represent them in our version of geography: a satellite view of the earth. In our lab group, Andrew Ling is drawing on platforms and resources such as the Pelagios Commons and the Pleiades Gazetteer to produce a satellite-view map marking each of the places and geographic features mentioned in the Chronography. This approach does not help us to understand how the medieval reader approached the text, but rather confronts us with the way that we understand the text. The contrast between this second approach, and the two historical representations produced by the first approach (above) will, at the least, allow us to identify presumptions that we bring to the text that may inhibit our understanding of how the text works and was read in the middle ages.

Until we are able to set these different representions side-by-side we will not know what further insights are to be gained in the comparison and contrast, but certainly all three are a part of the interpretive work that must be done to capture the place-geography of the Chronography.

Finally, our Third approach addresses the space-narrative, “fictional universe” of the Chronography by performing both quantitative and qualitative analyses on the geographic network created by the plot of the text itself. What geographies are associated with different emperors? What places are consistently adjacent in the text? What places are associated with different positively or negatively-presented groups (i.e., “heretics”)? Ethan Yaro is leading this investigation and, with the collaboration of Emma Holtsinger, is using the qualitative textual analysis tool MaxQDA to answer these and other questions. The next blog posts will describe Ethan and Emma’s work, and will present some preliminary results.

In conclusion, it should be clear that we believe the problem of accounting for both place-geography and space-narrative in historical texts is one that must be worked out. Ways of reading are not self-evident, and so ours is an intentionally heuristic approach. Because of the multiplicty of the question, we believe that we must work through to multiple answers. Even with these answers in hand, we will not have anything like a single solution. One of our ongoing challenges will be to sustain this multiplicity, even as we push towards greater understanding and clarity.