Janelle Jenstad’s Map of Early Modern London, or Shakespeare’s Serial

Not much can get me out of my dissertation-writing groove. Maybe it’s the progress, or maybe it’s just the opportunity to sit out Kingston’s awful winter from my armchair: pajamas, hot chocolate, and cat snuggles unlimited. But when Janelle Jenstad came to my university, her alma mater, to give a talk on the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML) project, I was there with bells on. MoEML is the supremely accomplished Jenstad’s brainchild and, spoiler alert: it’s a wunderkind.

Professor Jenstad, showing a student her project

Professor Jenstad, showing a student her project

Do you remember the opening credits of Shakespeare in Love, when Henslowe is rushing through the streets of London to confront Will Shakespeare about his writer’s block? MoEML visualizes that. Well, to be precise, it visualizes a map drawn around 1561, about 30 years before Shakespeare was writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. So, why is the map so exciting? Because it allows us to investigate the theatrical culture, as well as daily life, of early modern London. It shows us where we can find Ben Jonson’s inspiration for his comedy, Bartholomew Fair, and where on a map we can situate Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. In terms of daily life, we can discover where the conduits ran, for people to gather fresh water. What do water cans on the map tell us? They don’t tell, they show. They show us about where people would have exchanged important information with friends in their direct proximity, without the long-distance reach of cell phones and social media.

best-buy-payphone-hed-2014Listening to Janelle’s talk, I began to think about NPR’s smash-hit podcast, Serial. So much of host Sarah Koenig’s reasonable doubt was based on the placement of a Best Buy. To be precise, she wanted to know whether there was a payphone at a certain Best Buy at the time of this one crime, as a suspected accomplice said that he had used it to call the other suspect. Jenstad’s “Agas Map” bears witness to London as it was in 1560, and it lies waiting to be used by people with mysteries to solve. What people are looking for is yet to be known, which is why the site is always looking for feedback. This team of scholars keeps reworking the entire website to adapt with the scholarly needs of the times, using the latest technology in the Digital Humanities. They perform the painstaking coding of layers upon layers of data to keep this 400 year old map so digitally current it’s on its way to being integrated with the coordinates on Google Maps. For the MoEML team, the job is never done.

Using the Map of Early Modern London is fun for curious history fanatics, London tourists figuring out which theatres once stood in terms of today’s ultra-hip Shoreditch, and for teachers on a never-ending search for the best visual aids to bring history to life. Choosing your own search terms, building type, or route through London, the website visualizes the material, but also allows you to bookmark and save these images for personal and pedagogical use. For fun, I searched for the Globe Theatre on the map, and sure enough, there is a highlighted space for where Shakespeare’s best-known playhouse would be erected in 1599. Take a look:

The Agas MapThat yellow square is where the original Globe Theatre would stand forty years after the map was drawn. What strikes me from this picture is just how close the Globe was built to the bear- and bull-baiting gardens outside of the city walls. I had always heard that bear-baiting pits were close to Shakespeare’s theatres, but I didn’t realize that they were this close! This discovery brings new meaning to Sir Toby’s ominous plans to “gull” or humiliate the surly Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew Aguecheek: “To anger him we’ll have the bear again; and we will fool him black and black.” Their idea of fooling is exceptionally violent. Sir Toby’s revenge on Malvolio will emulate the early modern practice of whipping a blinded bear, a form of entertainment that Malvolio himself had encouraged Olivia to outlaw from her estate. This practice is almost as gruesome as the most commonly-known mode of bear-baiting, setting dogs loose on a bear chained to a stake. In this case, though, they blind Malvolio by “hav[ing] him in a dark room and bound,” imprisoned and tormented almost to the point of believing that darkness is light and light is dark. Almost. This is a humiliating experience for Malvolio, who, unlike the unfortunate bears, lives to have the last word. Addressing the revelers as if they are the dogs who seized on him, Malvolio proclaims: “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you!”

Unlike the revelers of Twelfth Night, the MoEML team doesn’t look to discern between insiders and outsiders. In an act of generosity not always seen in the academy, this site is entirely open access. That means that even though scholars run it and universities fund a bunch of it, the team are determined to make it accessible for anyone with the internet, including you! Check it out!Bear+Baiting-1

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2 Comments

Filed under Digital Humanities

2 responses to “Janelle Jenstad’s Map of Early Modern London, or Shakespeare’s Serial

  1. Great post, Erin–thanks for spreading the word.

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