Digitally Enhancing the Map

Rachel Butcher and Tobias Hrynick

Matthew Paris’s Oxford map of Palestine is on a bifolium bound at the beginning of a manuscript of the Bible which belonged to St Albans, part of which is written in Matthew’s hand. The bifolium was not included in the book because of the map it contained, but because of the two incomplete pictures on the other side, featuring a Deposition scene on one and an image of the three Marys at the sepulcher on the other. The Oxford map lacks many of the formal qualities of Matthew Paris’ other maps. Bound in the manuscript, the map could not be viewed as a whole since it was drawn on the recto of the first leaf and the verso of the second.[1] The Deposition and sepulcher images, now considered important works of English art, were present when Matthew drew the map on the other side, though the dark, thick borders and large colored blocks from the drawings were not as visible through the parchment as they are today.[2] This increasingly visible bleed-through, along the usual fading and rubbing that befalls medieval books, has greatly decreased the legibility of the Oxford map. In its current state, the map is difficult to read but not illegible. Many of the sites on the map can and have been deciphered.

In Fall 2014, the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham University began work on the map, for a collaborative scholarly effort called the Oxford Outremer Map Project. At the heart of this project was a desire to make the Oxford map more accessible and legible to  the public at large. Although the map has been reproduced in a number of works (noted above), it remains seldom-used and difficult to read. Röhricht’s hand-drawn reproduction of the map is the most accessible of these versions, but there are numerous small errors in his transcription. Although digital reproductions of the Oxford map exist, little has been done with the photo-manipulative technologies now widely available to make the map more approachable.


Figure 2: “civ. Nazareth”. Detail of the map with background color removed using the Magic Wand Tool. Note the stray pixels surrounding the label and the missing pixels inside the dark brown letters, especially “z”, “a”, “e”, “t”, and “h”.  A light blue, textured parchment background has been added as a background fill to bring out the warm tones in the original.


Figure 3: “civ. Nazareth”. Detail of digitally enhanced Oxford Outremer Map using the Brush Tool.




One of the first steps in this project was to produce a digital version of the map that looked as though it had been drawn on a clean sheet of parchment. The process began when  with a high-resolution image of the map (7323x 5493 pixels, at 300 pixels/inch), from Oxford Corpus Christi College MS 2* in Adobe Photoshop CS6. In the initial attempts to modify the image, Design Lead Rachel Butcher used the Magic Wand Tool[3] to select similarly-toned pixels in the digital copy of the Oxford map. She then increased the Magic Wand’s Tolerance setting so that a wider range of colors could be selected at the same time. Using the tool, she was able to quickly delete large swathes of the bleed-through from the Deposition and Sepulcher images on the other side of the bifolium. For the most part, she was able to do this without touching the text and drawing that made up the content of the map. The dark brown and red tones of the ink Matthew Paris used to draw the map were dissimilar enough to the background colors of the parchment and ink from the other side that she was able to isolate them fairly quickly. This initial cursory editing produced an image of the Oxford map with markedly improved legibility; however, this version lacked visual sophistication due in part to the groups of stray background pixels missed by the Magic Wand Tool, as well as the numerous individual pixels which had been unintentionally removed from edges and center of the letters and drawings that make up the map itself (Figure 2).


It became clear that a more involved method of digital enhancement was required. In the second approach, Butcher decided to use digital painting techniques to trace Matthew Paris’ handwriting. To do this, she created a new layer in Photoshop which would sit above the layer containing an unedited photograph of the Oxford map. Using a pressure sensitive WACOM graphics tablet, she traced over the contours of each letter with the Brush Tool at high levels of zoom in order to achieve maximum fidelity to the features of Matthew Paris’ handwriting. This digital painting based process resulted in a much cleaner look than the first technique (Figure 3).

In areas of the map that were relatively unaffected by bleed-through, this was a slow-going, but fairly simple process; at other times, the bleed-through from the illustration on the other side had almost completely obscured the form of the letter. Butcher relied on paleographic norms and a knowledge of Paris’ handwriting to suggest a  likely letter form based on the existing ambiguous shape.

Figure 4: Detail of the Oxford map showing different stages of editing.(a) original photograph of Oxford map; (b) original photograph of Oxford map as background layer with Butcher’s traced letters in a layer on top, set to Multiply; (c) Butcher’s traced letters by standing alone, with a light blue parchment texture in the background.




Matthew Paris may indeed have copied this map in great haste from a larger map, which may account for the[4] lack of a neat and even hand, often found in  his other maps and their detailed illustrations. Matthew Paris was not a professional scribe, and at several locations on the map his writing slips in a number of specific ways, as Vaughn has noted. [5]  Paris reduces the lobe strokes of some letters into diamond shaped blobs, especially b, p, and g. This also frequently occurs on the shoulder of r (Figure 5, Figure 6). Most characteristically, Paris fails to join strokes of letters that are usually joined, or caused strokes to overlap (Figure 7, Figure 8, ).[6] He also tends to bend straight lines forward in the center (Figure 10), a  feature that is idiosyncratic and not often found in other scribes of the period.[7]

Figure 5: Detail of Oxford Map with original parchment background and traced text in duplicate layers on top, first layer set to Linear Burn and second layer set to Multiply. Simplified lobe strokes indicated with blue arrows.



Figure 6: Detail of ibid.  Simplified shoulder strokes on r results in diamond shape, indicated here by blue arrows.



Figure 7: Detail of ibid. Rushed writing caused minims to run together in an imprecise way.



Figure 8: Detail of ibid. “Iter in ierusalem”. Note the gap between the u and the s; the way the s touches the a, and the lobe-stroke of the e connecting with the first minim of m. The third minim of m  fails to connect with the second. The should of the r is diamond-shaped.


Figure 9: Detail of Oxford map. (a) original photograph of Oxford map; (b) Butcher’s traced letters on a light blue parchment textured background. Shoulder of r is diamond-shaped. Capital M  drawn in two strokes that fail to connect. These features are indicated in (b) with blue arrows.





Figure 10: Detail of ibid. Ordinarily straight line of B is bent forward in the center. Lobe of a is highly simplified into a characteristic diamond-shaped blob. These features are indicated with blue arrows.


            The new, traced version of the map can be used to create a number of useful images, as seen in figures throughout the paper. If overlaid on a white background layer, the effect is that the Oxford map was drawn on a smooth, white piece of paper (Figure 11). This white background layer can also be replaced by a light-blue parchment texture designed (as in Figure 12), meant to give the map a more realistic look than the one achieved by the pure-white background; in addition, the blue hues of the texture brings out the warm tones of the dark brown and red colors used to simulate the inks used by Matthew Paris.

Instead of adding an artificial background, this version’s transcriptions can also be layered on top of the unedited photograph of the Oxford map in order to produce a version in which the letters and drawings are more prominent than they are in the original (Figure 13). Varying levels of clarity and emphasis can be achieved by gradually reducing the opacity of the background layer containing the photograph of the Oxford map, with the tracings layered on top (for an example set at 30 percent opacity, see Figure 14). Both of these layer settings create the impression that the content of the map is darker and more prominent than it looks in the original digital copy of the Oxford map.

Using digital techniques to preserve the original letter-forms and increase the legibility of the text is particularly useful for this manuscript. Since it is both a map and a work of Matthew Paris, it has strong visual as well as textual elements, and it is useful to maintain as much of the original image as possible. Furthermore, even apparently minor details of the manuscript have had a significant impact on the way we approach questions like the manner of composition, intent, and historical context of the text.

Matthew Paris’s abbreviations, for example, have played an important role in previous scholarship on the map. In various places, Matthew Paris employed abbreviations to indicate the type of geo-feature such as tra. for terra, or mon. for monasterium. In general, readers can deduce the meaning from context without much difficulty. A few abbreviations, however, pose problems. This is particularly the case with several that begin with the letter c. At various points on the map, Matthew Paris abbreviated place-types c., cas., cast., and castell. and he only occasionally wrote out a whole word like civitas, so that individual c abbreviations are left open to interpretation. Röhricht, for example, regarded the difference between cas, and cast as significant, and expanded cas, to casale, probably contributing to his belief that the map was Italian.[7] His contemporary, Konrad Miller, had already associated the map with Matthew Paris and apparently regarded the difference as a mere scribal idiosyncrasy, judging that both abbreviations indicated castrum.[8] Contextually, c. seems mostly to mean civitas, but it could easily stand for castrum, castellum or casale, in particular cases.

P.D.A. Harvey’s work on the Oxford Map suggests a wide variety of ways these abbreviations might be significant. Harvey argued that the map was made in increasing haste, [9] which makes sense in light of the higher concentration of full words rather than abbreviations in the upper left of the parchment. This line of thinking might be carried further: if in the lower regions of the map, unabbreviated place-type designations provide clues to the order of composition, it might be possible to perceive which places Matthew Paris used as benchmarks to organize other sites spatially; this would hint at how he envisioned the Holy Land generally. Our format of traced entries accompanied by annotations allows the position and degree of abbreviation to be perceived simultaneously.

A second conjecture of Harvey’s is equally dependent on an interpretation of Matthew Paris’s c-abbreviations, and equally significant to broader historical questions. Harvey argued that the ambiguity of the abbreviation system suggested indicated that the map was intended for Matthew Paris’s private use only.[10] In addition to its obvious relevance to the intent of the Oxford Outremer Map and medieval maps in general, this contention also makes the c-abbreviations relevant to the vexed question of manuscript’s date and its relationship to Matthew Paris’s three Acre Maps. If the map was intended as a private set of cartographic notes and the Oxford map was a sketched precursor to the more polished (though less geographically precise) Acre maps,[11] it would support the argument that the relative geographic accuracy of the Oxford map was not a highly valued feature, and was sacrificed for greater aesthetic appeal and textual space in later drafts.[12]

The minor details of place-name abbreviations pertain to a wide range of subjects, and demonstrate the need for the greatest possible clarity in their rendering. The digital overlay technique even allows us to include clarified versions of texts which have yet to be deciphered – something a more conventional transcription could render only as a question mark, we can provide as an image with accompanying commentary. We hope this will draw attention to unsolved questions – like the meaning of the entry on the far right, beginning “terebinte,” – and enable collaborative solutions.

In general, we have worked to make the map image as clear as possible, without sacrificing the small but important clues like ink-color, methods of abbreviation, and spatial positioning. Digital tools for photo-manipulation combined with site-label annotations allow our version to occupy a mid-way position between clarity and fidelity to the original impossible in earlier editions.

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Figure 11: Butcher’s tracings of the Oxford map placed on a white background.


Figure 12: Butcher’s tracings of the Oxford map, placed on a background of light blue parchment texture.


Figure 13: Butcher’s tracings placed on top of photograph of Oxford map. The photograph is at 100 percent opacity (normal). The tracings are on a layer set to Multiply.


Figure 14: Butcher’s tracings placed on top of photograph of Oxford map. The photograph is at 30 percent opacity. The tracings are on a layer set to Multiply.


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[1] P.D.A. Harvey, “The Oxford Map of Matthew Paris, Mid-13th Century,” in Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London: British Library, 2012), 61.

[2] Harvey, “Oxford Map,” 63-5.

[3] The Magic Wand Tool is a selection tool which allows users to automatically select groups of similarly toned pixels.

[4] Harvey, “Oxford Map,” 63-4.

[5] Richard Vaughan, “The Handwriting of Matthew Paris,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 1, no. 5 (1953): 387.

[6] Vaughan, “Handwriting,” 387.

[7] ibid.

[8] Röhricht, 180.

[9] Miller, 152-6.

[10] Harvey, “The Oxford Map of Matthew Paris,” 66-7.

[11] Ibid 68.

[12] For discussion on the relationship between the Palestine and Acre maps see: Evelyn Edson, “Matthew Paris’ ‘Other’ Map of Palestine,” The Map Collector 66 (1994): 18-22.

[13] Ibid, 22.

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