This short essay offers an overview of some of the key research questions, methodologies and theoretical conversations involved in this project, with particular attention to the digital resources and knowledge transfer activity.


The Mapping Medieval Chester project (2008-9) has been directed throughout by our three key research questions, which have enabled us to explore issues of place and identity in the medieval city:

  • How do different kinds of literary and geographical 'mappings' of medieval Chester (cartographic, textual) relate to each other?

  • How was Chester's urban landscape interpreted by those writing of the city and its environs during the Middle Ages?

  • How was the place of Chester as a multicultural city on the border of England and Wales manifested in the formation of local identities through perceptions of its landscape, environment, and history?

The choice of Chester as the focus for these questions is motivated by the particularly rich resources it offers for the investigation of medieval practices of space and the role of the material fabric of the city in the production of urban identity. Many early (though no medieval) maps of the city survive, along with much detailed archaeological evidence. In addition to the sources for the material fabric of the city, the medieval literature includes a rich and diverse range of textual ‘mappings’ of the city produced by authors from different backgrounds and perspectives. These different texts (in Latin, Middle English and Welsh) offer disparate ‘symbolic organisations’ of the medieval city, presenting different interpretations of the urban space and its uses. 1 Chester’s borderland location, together with the diversity of the available sources, has enabled us to investigate issues of liminality, hybridity and multi-lingualism which are crucial aspects of the formation of local identities in the city in the later medieval period.

Along with an academic colloquium, a volume of collected research papers and a knowledge transfer event with the general public in Chester, this project has centred on the production of a set of digital resources published online at the website From the start, a key aim of the project has been to develop and use technology in innovative ways. It is still relatively unusual in medieval studies to make use of digital media in the processes of interpretation and understanding – rather than simply of reproducing – the visual and textual cultures of the Middle Ages. The project has sought to develop new methodologies and transferable frameworks, especially in the context of inter-linking GIS digital mapping and XML textual editing. But these processes have also opened up interpretative and theoretical questions about inter-disciplinarity and the reconciliation of medieval and modern representational practices and spatial imaginaries.

A central aim of the Mapping Medieval Chester project has been to engage with multiple audiences – both groups within academia (from undergraduate students to advanced scholars) as well as the wider public in Chester and beyond. The project website has communicated with these different target users via the Blog, and our partnership with the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, has enabled the development of a major knowledge transfer event, the ‘Mapping Medieval Chester Festival’. The production and visualisation of the digital resources, in particular, has been designed to enable different audiences to encounter and use the materials in varying ways.


Individual elements of the project have presented their own specific challenges and difficulties. In the course of the GIS mapping work, the paucity of map / archaeological data available for certain areas of the medieval city raised questions of how to deal with and represent these terrae incognita in the digital atlas. 2 For the texts, whilst the XML mark-up enabled a rich and multi-layered inclusion of meta-data and searchable content, it also provoked difficult decisions: for example, where a place reference may have been ambiguous or ambivalent (for example, some references to the ‘cross’ in the Welsh poems), creating a reciprocal link from text to map necessitated a final, unequivocal editorial decision. The Lucian text presented particular challenges and creative opportunities: the team worked to develop an online lay-out which would represent the complex mise-en-page of the original with its substantial marginal glosses, in some ways replicating the experience of reading the medieval manuscript itself.

The most fundamental challenge in terms of our collaborative working has been the inter-linking of the digital map and the edited medieval texts. The symbolic mappings presented by the texts are sometimes resistant to direct, literal expression, and the straightforward connection of the edited medieval literature with the GIS digital atlas risked the elision of differences between medieval and modern spatial imaginaries and representational or interpretative systems. The creation of direct hyperlinks for resource users to follow involved its own potential problems: despite their effectiveness, hyperlinks inherently lack expressiveness, the ability for the connection itself to be qualified or annotated. The complexity of the relationship between our source texts and maps makes the direct expression of connections a potentially reductive exercise. Throughout, we endeavoured to create a resource which is sensitive to this risk, to the extent that rather than a literal-minded ‘spelling out’ of correlative concepts in text and map, our aim has been to propagate and catalyse the activity, in the mind of the reader or user, of drawing out the rich connections between the two.

We hope that our approach to connecting GIS and text materials, as well as our confrontation of the theoretical challenges involved, will initiate further conversation about inter-disciplinary methods and approaches and the questions raised by bringing together medieval and digital conceptual and representational systems. 3


The digital resources produced by the project have expanded significantly from our original plans, including greater amounts of edited text and additional features such as the newly drawn ‘static’ maps, based upon the findings of the digital mapping and available for download and scholarly use. Our project work has also generated some unexpected outcomes which we had not necessarily envisaged (or had perhaps not anticipated as so prominent) in our original outline.

Firstly, the impact of the digital technology and methods on our critical thinking and on the ways in which we have approached our research questions has been significant. For those of us new to TEI XML, it has been illuminating to reflect upon the ways in which these mark-up tools inform critical and editorial practice and shape the ultimate reception of a text. The issues surrounding the inter-connection of the visual and textual mappings have formed a particular basis for ongoing reflection, evaluation and theoretical discussion.

In addition, the wider knowledge transfer aspect of the project has grown significantly, impacting on the development of the digital resource itself and our future plans for the project. The planned public workshop has developed into the ‘Mapping Medieval Chester Festival’, organised in partnership with the Grosvenor Museum – a full day of concurrent events related to the project across the city, including living history activities, workshops, tours and presentations all linked to the themes of the ‘Mapping Medieval Chester’ research. The unexpected level of public interest within Chester (and beyond) has also led to the creation of additional resources attached to the digital atlas of the medieval city. An interactive, developmental layer will provide an opportunity for the public to upload their own photographs of medieval sites in modern-day Chester, making a genuine contribution to the project resources whilst also engaging with the our research in active and accessible ways.


The one-year Mapping Medieval Chester (September 2008 – August 2009) was always intended to be the basis for future extension, and the digital resources produced by the project were designed from the start as a developmental, buildable resource. The project team, sometimes in discussion with other interested groups, has identified several possibilities for taking the current research forward. There is the potential to extend our work on medieval Chester, making further use of the rich sources and materials available, through additional edited text, further mapping layers, or 3D visualisations of the medieval city. The methodologies and critical frameworks developed by the project also form a template which could be transferred and adapted to facilitate interdisciplinary research on other locations and historical moments. Our partnership with the Grosvenor Museum over this year has formed a highly successful and productive pilot for potential future knowledge transfer activity, involving communities in Chester and the north-west of England and contributing to the local culture and economy. We hope to take forward the Mapping Medieval Chester project in some of these directions after our initial achievements this year.

Most of all, we look forward to conversations with users of the digital resources produced by the project, and hope to receive feedback and suggestions from our different audiences. The project Blog will continue to provide a forum for discussion of the project materials, and we hope that all our different users will feel welcome to engage with and contribute to the research questions and sources we have presented.


The phrase ‘symbolic organisations’ is borrowed from Paul Strohm, who emphasises that ‘the peculiarity of medieval space involves the extent to which it is already symbolically organised by the meaning-making activities of the many generations that have traversed it’. See Strohm, 2000, 3. Other recent work on the medieval city and its textuality which has influenced this project includes Wallace, 2004, Hanawalt and Reyerson, 1994, and Butterfield, 2006, as well as broader theoretical underpinnings such as Lefebvre, 1991 and de Certeau, 2002. Back to context...
For a discussion of the principles of GIS and medieval studies, see Lilley, 2007, 27-42. Back to context...
For a more detailed discussion of the research questions and challenges relating to the production of the digital resources, see Vetch et al , forthcoming. Back to context...