In early 2016, Assistant Professor of Letters Jesse Torgerson and Professor of History Gary Shaw, and Marlboro College Professor Adam Franklin-Lyons, created the Traveler’s Lab. Housed in the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) and designed as a collaborative effort between scholars from different disciplines, the lab was the first humanities and social sciences research lab to follow a research style that is typically found in the sciences.
The online and digital research hub created a space for scholars to collaboratively and independently research how information moves via letters, edicts, and more, before the invention of modern travel. Among other research techniques, researchers in the lab use quantitative data analysis methods and visualization tools to process large amounts of historical data. This data is often taken from archives that are not even digitized.
Scholars from other institutions have also contributed to the project. The project aims to study both primary historical sources and conduct more abstract research.
“Information in the pre-modern world traveled in letters, came from official messengers, and was cried out in cities by administrative edict,” the lab’s website reads. “We want to include both tangible records as well as the more invisible movements of information—the exchange of rumor between merchants and peasants at markets, or the private news brought by occasional travelers between towns.”
The lab also aims to answer complex historical questions about travel and information sharing in the pre-modern world.
“How do the characteristics of communication and travel compare from one context to another?” the site reads. “Are there identifiable trajectories of development that we might describe under the categories of information dissemination, travel networks, and the experience of mobility and time? What do travel and communication tell us about the relationship between medieval and early modern structures and attitudes?”
Torgerson spoke with The Argus about the Traveler’s Lab.
“The point [of The Traveler’s Lab] is to create a place or point of collaboration between professors, between scholars, and also between scholars and students, and also between professors and students sort of between institutions who want to pursue historical research,” Torgerson said.
Traveling and travelers started as a way to connect the scholarship of the lab’s founders, as all their research was in some way connected to these concepts.
“The Traveler’s Lab started with Gary Shaw and Adam Franklin-Lyons, [a professor] at Marlboro College in Vermont, talking about doing some kind of network with their research, and I got brought into the conversation by Gary Shaw,” Torgerson said. “The idea was that travelers, traveling, was something all of us could find an aspect of in our research, and so it sort of became travelers as the point of contact between our projects.”
Torgerson described Shaw’s, Lyon’s, and his own different research projects and how they connect to travelers and traveling.
“Adam works primarily now on famine and how food supply and price fluctuations change in terms of the need for grain in Spanish and Southern French cities in the late middle ages,” Torgerson said. “Professor Shaw works right now on movements of all kinds around late medieval England. I’m interested in the ninth-century ‘Chronicle,’ which is maybe the least obvious connection…. I’ve always been interested in the exchange of knowledge, primarily Greek to Latin in the early middle ages, but really sort of across the whole Mediterranean world.”
One of the aims of the Traveler’s Lab is to challenge assumptions traditionally made by medieval scholars.
“There’s an interest in sort of the way that studying movement in the field can cut through presumed paradigms, like, you know, medieval Europe as cut off from the Mediterranean world,” Torgerson said. “So studying movements, and travels…all of that for each of us individually allows us in our particular projects to open up this sort of wider medieval world, and then the three of our different regions show that. So England, Spain, and Byzantium, we’re interested in connecting [them].”
The project is open to students from all academic backgrounds. Students can work for academic credits, earning either a half credit or full credit based on the amount of research they decide to take on. There are also paid opportunities to work as research assistants each semester, or as teaching assistants for classes connected to Traveler’s Lab projects.
Torgerson said student participation in the Traveler’s Lab is of extreme importance to the project.
“The point of [student research] is for each of us to find, in those ways that we have projects that connect with each other to also find bits of those projects that can be accessible to students, the great majority of whom don’t have all the skills to do something with them, but as a group might,” Torgerson explained. “Almost all the students we have in the lab don’t know anything about Latin, or Greek, or other medieval vernaculars. A bunch of them are just interested in history projects. Some of them have more technical abilities, so they have some GIS abilities, might be computer science majors, [or] might be QAC.”
The purpose of gathering students from various academic backgrounds is not simply to give students a great educational opportunity, but also to create research methodologies not possible to produce with the help of historians alone.
“What we’re trying to do is get all of those jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together and ask questions in ways that we couldn’t before, incorporate students in ways that we couldn’t before, and allow that combination to take our research projects in places that we that we wouldn’t think to have taken them before, and frankly by ourselves we couldn’t take them…” Torgerson said. “So far, we’ve been able to take what students already have, combined with what they’re curious about, and find a fit [in the project]…. We’ve had students who have joined as straight up math students who wanted an outlet for some of their abilities.”
As an example of the research the lab does, Torgerson used an academic book he is currently writing on the “Chronography of George Synkellos” and the “Chronography of Theophanes.” Synkellos died before completing his work, which was later completed by Theophanes, and the two are translated into English and published as two separate books. Torgerson described his book and the chronographies.
“What I’m trying to argue with [my book] is the way that this chronicle took the…intellectual moment, at the end of the eighth century beginning of the ninth century, in Constantinople, and deployed sort of that intellectual climate into rewriting the whole history of the universe into a political moment,” Torgerson said. “It reconceptualizes what it means to write chronography, to write time in a historical way, and then deploys all of that in an argument about why the current reigning emperor is the anti-Christ and that everyone should revolt against him. It’s this…incredible combination of intellectual savvy…combined with a really exciting political moment…. George Syncellus was likely…a rebel against the emperor, who was persecuted, he was caught in rebellion and persecuted for that, and it’s likely maybe after that that he started writing this history.”
Torgerson went on to describe how his research fits into the larger mission of the Traveler’s Lab project.
“The connection [to the lab] is the geography. The insight that I had was that geography works in these books in a really unique way that scholars haven’t really talked about yet,” Torgerson claimed. “That’s what I began exploring on a whim with Traveler’s Lab, with [my] research assistant Ethan Yarro [’17], who graduated last year…. He and I, mostly him, developed a methodology to track how geography works and used that to map how the text works and how the narrative worked throughout the chronicle. That became a sort of natural connection to The Traveler’s Lab.”
The website recommends contacting members of the lab for any further information, or to express interest in working in the lab. A list of the faculty and students working in the lab is also available online.
Correction: a earlier version of this article stated that Jesse Torgerson and Gary Shaw are “university professors.” This article has been edited to reflect their professorial positions.
Henry Spiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JudgeyMcJudge1.