Critique of the Map of Early Modern London

Author: Xin Zhang

Partner: Zhan Wu

The Map of Early Modern London (MoEML) is a project aimed to give users a sense of the inhabited space of London, which gave rise to the theatrical setting of many plays. Based on the Agas map, a 6-foot-2-inch woodcut of London dating from the 1560s, the project maps the streets, sites, and significant boundaries of London from 1560 to 1640 and incorporates a detailed gazetteer , topical essays, and digital texts from that period. It now comprises four main parts which are a digital atlas of Agas map, an encyclopedia of early modern London people and places, a library of mayoral shows and other texts rich in London toponyms and a forthcoming modernized edition of John Stow’s A Survey of London. And the heart of the project is an XML placeography incorporating over 720 streets, churches, wards, neighborhoods, and sites of interest. Places are both geo-referenced and linked to the Agas Map in order to visualize the locations in texts of the period.

By mapping literary references, the MoEML project would provoke research questions about Shakespeare and London alike. “How typical is Shakespeare’s invocation of London? How do his characters move through the urban environment? What is the relationship between London and the Court in Shakespeare’s historical vision? How does his geographical vision compare to that of other playwrights, such as Thomas Heywood, and to that of historians like Holinshed and Stow?” These questions entail a reconstruction of the historical space. As the director of the project Jenstad says: “think about the influences on authors, I’m thinking about the streets they lived in, where they shopped, where they went for entertainment, the route they must have taken to walk down to the bookseller who published their book, the specific environment in which people bought the book.”


Figure. 1. Part of the Agas map marked with stars. The places marked with red stars are ones that have been edited as entries in the encyclopedia. The places marked with yellow stars are ones that are not written into the encyclopedia due to lack of knowledge.

The project invents a new way for us to study literature as it maps the places in literature and it is also a great tool to learn more about culture and history as literature is always based on some reality of that time. The researchers searched digitized texts from the 1560s for place names of early modern London and then matched those to the right places on the 1560s Agas woodcut map of London. In this way, they make use of the digitized texts with data mining programs.  And they also make links to relate every place name to the texts where they are mentioned. For some places they mark red stars, the links are  related to an entry of the encyclopedia for users to learn more about the history and culture about them. For some undetermined places, they will show the mark “?” to remind you that their identity may be disputed, and thus allow readers to be involved in the effort to identify them.  Although it is a remarkable project, I think fails to extract deeper layers of data.  It only marks the place names and links them to the related texts. However, it does not indicate all the toponyms in a specific text and their frequency.  For example, when I read Richard III, I cannot grasp the distribution and frequency of the theatrical loci in the play.  The project can use the current database to develop more  functions than are found in the  current version: it could show the places mentioned in a play  and mark them according to the ; frequency referenced; it could aggregate the distribution of toponymes in the entire corpus of an author;  it could show  the trend of changing frequency  of places being mentioned in the literature of that time to gather “narrative evidence” for the social development process. It could simply do much more.

This project makes progress by integrating cartography in the archaeology of literature. It is a useful tool for scholars to study the history and culture of early modern  London and it is an attractive feature for the students to develop interest in texts. Although such a digitized Google-style map enables readers to zoom in, search and read related texts, the map is not visually appealing with only black and white colors. With the help of modern graphic technology, the map could be made colorful and three-dimensional like the Google map. In that case, it will attract a wider audience and promote learning of English history and literature among the general public.

Being open-source, the website not only provides information for other researchers but also allows users to help optimize the website. And the interface has two different versions to cater to different  tastes of the users. The website seems difficult for new users as it has no manual to tell them how to make use of the website and it is not immediately clear how to use it. This is really a big mistake because such lack of accessibility turns potential users away. And it also lacks links  to other relevant projects, which hinders other researchers to make cross references.

This website satisfies various criteria of an academic website. The fact that undergraduate students contributed to the project underlies its educational value. In the history of MoEML, the researchers recorded their research process which allows replication and generalization of the research procedure. It is continuously kept up to date with the latest scholarship. All the credits and citations are clearly listed which shows a good academic integrity.

The Map of Early Modern London is a creative project which highlights the spatial dimension of literature and at the same time provides indexed reference to massive amount of texts. But it has much potential of improvement.


MoEML. Ed. Jenelle Jenstad. Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

Google Style Map:

Digital Humanities 2013. Proc. of DigitalHumanities2013. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <>.

HOWARD, JENNIFER. “The Chronicle Review.” Rev. of Literary Geospaces. Weblog post. The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <>.