[Image: Fragment of the Gough Map]
[Image: Fragment of the Gough Map]

Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain

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About

The Linguistic Geographies project has helped to explain how maps were produced in the Middle Ages. Generally very little is known of the processes that were involved in medieval map-making. As visual objects such maps continue to fascinate and mystify modern audiences, as is the case with the ‘Gough Map of Great Britain’ – named after one of its former antiquarian owners, Richard Gough (1735-1809).

Gough map

The Gough Map © The Bodleian Library, MS. Gough Gen. Top. 16 (original 115 x 56 cm)

Despite its appearance in many television programmes, on book covers, in learned articles and so forth, the Gough Map’s origins have long remained uncertain, including who made it, how, where and why? To begin to address these questions the project used an innovative approach that explores the map’s ‘linguistic geographies’, that is the writing used on the map by the (unknown) scribes who created it. This technique involves specialist palaeographic and linguistic skills that are normally applied to text manuscripts, but somewhat experimentally the aim with this project was to use them on a map manuscript with the aim of not only finding more about the Gough Map’s making.

Now, with the project completed, it is possible to offer a re-interpretation of the Gough Map’s origins and provenance. Most important in this regard is our scrutiny of what appears to be the earliest writing on the map. Conventionally the map has been dated to around 1360, though lately one researcher has suggested instead that an early-fifteenth century date is more likely. The research carried out by the project has shown a more complicated picture, with some of the map’s writing dating to around the 1370s, placing it in the latter part of King Edward III’s reign. However, there is also evidence of later over-writing of some of the map’s place-names which demonstrates a continued interest in and use of the Gough Map into the later fifteenth century. Moreover, there is a distinct geographical bias towards England and Wales in the ‘freshening up’ of the map’s inscriptions, for Scotland’s place-names were left alone.

The Gough Map’s paleographical and linguistic evidence helps to reveal its significance as a visual depiction of an English island-realm, and its reflection of changing relations between England and Scotland a century on from when it appears first to have been composed. The key to such observations is the immensely rich analysis undertaken of the map’s writing, particularly the 600-plus place-names that cover the whole of Britain on the map. These place-names, and the evidence derived from them, can be explored further using the digital map available here with its browsing and searching functions. To make the Gough Map accessible digitally required technical research too, including the digitization of a scanned image of the Gough Map, as well as resource-development work to link together the digital map and the place-names database, and then from this produce the online resource.

The Linguistic Geographies project involved a group of researchers from across three UK HEIs, each bringing distinctive skills and expertise to bear. Each has an interest in maps and mapping, though from differing disciplinary perspectives, from geography, cartography and history. Our aim was to learn more about the Gough Map, specifically, but more generally to contribute to ongoing intellectual debates about how maps can be read and interpreted; about how maps are created and disseminated across time and space; and about technologies of collating and representing geographical information in visual, cartographic form. An audio interview with two of the project team members – Keith Lilley and Elizabeth Solopova – is available via the Beyond Text web-site, at  http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/video.php (also on YouTube).

The project’s focus on a map, as opposed to a conventional written text, thus opens up theoretical and conceptual issues about the relationships between ‘image’ and ‘text’ – for maps comprise both – and about maps as objects and artifacts with a complex and complicated ‘language’ of production and consumption. To explore these issues the project team organized an international colloquium on The Language of Maps, held over the weekend of June 23-25 2011 at the Bodleian Library Oxford. Further details and a short report on the colloquium are available here.

Overall, far from being geared solely to academic questions, the project team was keen to ensure that our research findings reach the widest possible audiences, not least because maps are enduringly popular objects and always capture the imagination; medieval maps especially. To this end one of the main project outcomes is this web-resource through which the Gough Map is made more widely accessible (it currently resides in the Bodleian Library). As well as the online map, this resource also contains short interpretative essays resulting from the project’s research, making available the data and findings of the research. We hope this will help others to develop other lines of enquiry on medieval maps and mapmaking, whether in academic or non-academic sectors, as well as provide greater levels of access to the Gough Map, enhancing its world-wide significance in the history of cartography.