Nicholas Popper

Nicholas Popper, College of William and Mary

Notes in Space: Geography and Note-taking in Early Modern Europe

Discussant, Renée Raphael, University of California, Irvine and I Tatti, Harvard University

For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars, the world was a problem of information management.   Reports from the New World and from distant African, Asian, and Arctic locales yielded illuminating glimpses of places with which they were hardly familiar, but rarely did such accounts offer simple resolutions to geographical questions.  Often, they were constructed as linear narratives inattentive to the mapping of space; other times, they depended on local interlocutors whose own descriptions were integrated into European geographical knowledge only with great difficulty.

Scholars seeking to absorb new reports into older frameworks sought to know the world through rabid and disciplined note-taking.  They directed travelers to use precise methods in converting experience into recorded observations, devised programs to extract textual snippets from such travel accounts or formal geographies, and carefully excerpted elements of maps.  They then synthesized the resulting evidence according to a variety of rationales.  Some prioritized visualization, struggling to consolidate their notes into maps.  Others narrated the experience of movement, describing the world in the form of a comprehensive travel account. Some created comprehensive dictionaries of geographical names; still others charted shifts in the nomenclature of specific places over time.

All of these constituted solutions to the problem of representing the inscriptions produced through their note-taking procedures in a combination of spatial and expository terms.   This paper explores the insights made available by thinking of geographical note-taking as translating and re-ordering information according to a range of spatial rationales, while arguing that the vibrancy of the field is best illuminated not by focusing on its increasing cartographical sophistication, but on the profusion of types of geographies enabled by note-taking.

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