Research Project To Map Early Modern Travel


Imagine traveling without a GPS or the Google Maps app. A new digital project will provide a window into the ways that people traveled the world in early modern times.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rachel Midura, assistant professor of digital history  at Virginia Tech, is researching the ways and challenges of travelers before the year 1700. By dissecting at least 86 travel itineraries or small books, Midura and a group of researchers will trace everything from the natural disasters that people encountered to the trade routes that they took across oceans and land, mostly throughout Europe. 

All of their findings will go into a new digital database called EmDigIt that they hope will eventually serve as a resource for historical travel research. 

“Prior work has often relied on journals or letters of predominantly male and elite travelers, but published guides were used by a cross section of early modern society,” Midura said. “By translating the books into a digital environment and resource, we can recreate a wider world of early modern travel and even glimpse the origins of modern tourism.”

The travel books are printed in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish.

The project

Midura’s work is the result of a $75,000 Digital Humanities Advancement grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. For the project, she, along with an advisory board, chose 15 ​​researchers of a variety of affiliations, career stages, and from around the world to join three virtual workshops this year. Through the workshops, participants will work together on research using EmDigIt, which Midura created when she was a digital humanities research fellow at the Stanford Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. 

The workshops will help to develop the database  so that it becomes a tool for authors, game designers, and researchers who focus on travel and exchange. Their research will culminate in a conference in Washington, D.C., in August.

Why the research is important

The work provides a historical resource for scholars and for the public.

“These books give us detailed answers while also letting us measure how options changed over time,” Midura said. “That gives us new understanding not only about the experiences of individual historical actors, or how their goods and information traveled, but also how globalization was already bringing us closer to today’s densely interconnected world. I am excited by how the combination of rich historical sources and digital interpretation can immerse us in a centuries-old experience.”

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