Sacred Spatter

Mapping Cults of Christ’s Holy Blood in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Map of Holy Blood Sites
Mapping Cults of Holy Blood

Sacred Spatter was a project completed during a seminar called “The Digital and the Humanities”, held at the University of Pittsburgh in Fall 2015 by Alison Langmead. 

Sacred Spatter: Mapping Cults of Christ’s Holy Blood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Third Iteration (Fall 2015)

At the time when this story begins the Bounders, as they were called, had been greatly increased. There were many reports of strange persons and creatures prowling around the borders, or over them. 

J.R.R. Tolkien 


This past semester, I have journeyed into the mysterious land of the digital.  The adventure began in 2013 when one relic of Christ’s Passion grabbed my attention, Holy Blood. It appeared in numerous forms and was the subject of debates that struck to the core of the Christian faith. From reading Caroline Walker Bynum and Mitchell Merback, I knew that there was no “reliable” survey of Holy Blood Churches.  I wanted to take on that project.

I had two goals in mind, to organize the information I was collecting and find a way to accurately place that information on the “planet” to see if relic types were common in one region over another. I was originally doing this with colored pins on a giant paper map. Before long, I began to draw important boarders its surface. Then I pinned historical maps on the board. I even connected some points with string if a well-traveled pilgrimage route ran between them. Below this giant map, I was making a timeline with notecards. This became cluttered very quickly, and was unavoidably imprecise.

At the same time, I began to compile information on sites that boasted a relic of Christ’s Blood, either miraculously appearing or historically collected at Calvary. For over a year, I gathered attention-grabbing information into an Excel spreadsheet. This flat-file database was organized and color-coded by region, but had a lot of missing information that translated into blank fields. 

Shadows of the Past*

This semester, I crafted my first question, which I hoped to address through the use of digital tools. That initial line of inquiry was, “What patterns are there in the locations of cults dedicated to the veneration of Christ’s Holy Blood from the twelfth to fifteenth century?” From the very beginning of this project, I was interested in using a map to visualize the corpus of such churches.  I was inspired by the Mapping Gothic France project by Stephen Murray at Columbia University. The use of maps, images, measurements, and text seemed to be the best way to archive and explore such a large group of architectural spaces. I had no idea how much effort was behind the front end that is viewable today. I needed to begin my project somewhere else. 

My spreadsheet was the logical starting point. The color-coding system was not as helpful as I had hoped, and I needed to address the growing number of columns and blank cells in this early version. That first flat-file database was created without forethought about what information should be collected or used. In some cases, I neglected to record my sources, a problem which continues to haunt me. 

My first project product this semester was a new and improved “Normalized Flat-File Database” with no blanks. To eliminate blank cells, “TBD” was inserted in fields that required further research, and “Unknown” was used if there was scholarship that identified missing information on that topic. Though I provided for such an occurrence, it has not applied to more than two sites.  Drop down value sets were created to prevent typos. This way, I could search or sort with relative confidence that I would gather what was needed. 

First iteration of normalized, flat-file database
First iteration of normalized, flat-file database

Even though I only used Excel for the first iteration, I had already learned a lot about creating a digital project. These fundamental lessons were a result of the decision making process. Choices made about columns and their contents required engagement with matters of terminology and categorization. For example, I had to decide what my value sets would be, and define terms such as “blood host” or “wonder host.” Something had to be done with the blanks, that way I would know if the information was deleted, it was not found, or if it did not apply. What “did not apply” had to be in one group, and so if my terms failed to capture what I needed to say, I had to reevaluate. 

The Two Iterations

After the first iteration, my question changed slightly to read, “What patterns of geographic concentration are there in the location of cults dedicated to the veneration of Christ’s Holy Blood from the twelfth to the fifteenth century?” The significant change was adding the term “geographic concentration.” Upon reflection, I believed that clusters of a “type” would be more likely and appropriate than the vague term “pattern.” I soon commenced with my second tool, Google Fusion Tables, to visualize these points and potential clusters. A butterfly tutorial indicated how to map points on the planet, and pull up information about the point. Since I wanted to be able to see the types of relics in different colors, I appreciated the variety of points available in this tool. 

I then began working with a small set, ten sites, from my spreadsheet. After figuring out how to get the tool to recognize my latitude and longitude, I explored the features. I knew this information better than the butterfly example, and I learned how to get the tool to “understand” each of my column headings. The cards feature did not seem to be something I needed, but it was an interesting way to view each site by itself. I tried to color code by relic type, but ran into trouble. I colored the sites by year at first, because Fusion Tables would only “bucket” by numbers. No obvious patterns were revealed from that endeavor.

Trial Run with Limited Sites
Trial Run with Limited Sites

Once I felt comfortable with a few of the features, I went “all in” and uploaded the entire spreadsheet of sites. One of the points displayed in Africa, which happened because a tens value went missing. I probably deleted it accidentally. It was exciting to see those red dots pop up! When I tried to separate them by relic type, I ran into the same problem as the trial run. Google only allowed me to separate out groups by numbers. I really wanted to sort by my drop down value sets, of which I was quite proud. Alas, it was not meant to be. I had to find a way to work around the numbers requirement, and get the tool to show what I wanted. I was not interested in sorting by date, but I tried color-coding by year with this full set since it was not difficult. Once again, when I did sort by date, I was not struck by what I saw. 

Left: All of the sites without color-coded points. Top Right: The spreadsheet uploaded online. Bottom Right: The cards that display each site individually.
Left: All of the sites without color-coded points. Top Right: The spreadsheet uploaded online. Bottom Right: The cards that display each site individually.

The Passing of the Point Problem

It took me a short while to figure out a solution to my point problem. I assigned numbers to the relic types. There are eleven types in my dropdown value set, but two of them can be colored the same (TBD and Unknown). Therefore, I needed just ten colors or different icons to display on the map. My values were separated conveniently from my original sketch of the value set, with communion wafers on one end, and all remaining blood relics on the other end. I counted by tens, incase I needed to place a new relic type in between two existing labels. I wrote all of the types and numbers down on a post-it. 

Google Fusion Table Views

The balloon icons are all from the lower (other blood relic) types, and the points are from the upper (host) types. To the left is a screenshot of them together, and on the right the two types shown separately.

When I saw this map, the huge cluster of color thrilled me.

However, I quickly realized that many of these points have uncertain relic types. That meant that the color was telling me that I am missing a lot of information. Then I noticed the gap, which has a many possible reasons for existing. It looks like there are groups in the north and the south, but few in the middle. It may be that I just have only encountered texts that name sites in these regions, it might be a result of an area of destruction from the Reformation, or any number of wars fought in Europe over the last six hundred years.  It might be that the north and south were just more able to support the construction of a church of this type during these centuries. These are some of the possibilities I hope to explore in the future.  

I found that this tool, Google Fusion Tables, did not make it easy to track my column on violence in relation to the miracle origin legend. I also wanted to overlay political borders, which is possible with this tool through the use of polygons. Rather than work with rigid shapes like this, illustrating these boarders will likely be one of my next steps in another tool as this project continues. 

The Work of the Computer

As the post-it example illustrated, sometimes I forget that I can get the computer to do things for me. Here are two instances where I got the computer to convert something, before checking its work. I originally collected latitude and longitude in human readable format with the cardinal direction attached. I needed it to be in decimal form, so that a mapping tool like Google Fusion Tables would recognize and use it.  Rather than copying and pasting from an online converter, which converts each point individually, I used Excel. I parsed out the pieces of information I needed from the format I had, and I put it into an excel formula that converts the degrees, minutes, and seconds to decimal form. Then I checked it with the online converter.

Latitude and Longitude Conversion with Excel Formulas

Excel Formulas 

Parsing Information 
=LEFT(F2,FIND(“ “,F2)-1) 

Converting DMS
(Degrees, Minutes, Seconds)
to Decimal Form
= B2+ C2/60+ D2/3600

I also had the computer assign numbers to my relic types based on what I decided from the pink post-it. I like knowing the numbers, because I can sort by everything above fifty, which I know will be bleeding icons or historical blood, and everything less than fifty will be miraculous hosts. So, I wrote a nested conditional statement that fills out the relic type number based on the word form. I was very pleased with the length of this after I had composed it. Here you can see where I neglected to include a space by “Miracle Host,” so my error message “AHH” came up. Even the error message was satisfying. 

Nested conditional statements to convert relic types from words to numbers
Nested conditional statements to convert relic types from words to numbers

The Tools and the Capta

Some might not consider the tools and capta I used to be “DH™”, but both pushed my understanding and skills. I primarily used a flat-file database for most of the work. I also mapped using Google Fusion Tables and performed “traditional” art history, such as researching and reading. Many of the indispensable texts are in German, and require a reading skill I hope to improve this summer. 

The Future of the Project

This project must extend past the confines of this course. I plan on growing it as I continue researching churches built for Holy Blood. As I imagine this, I worry about how to organize current information, and that which I will be collecting. Excel can address that concern, at least partially. I have now started to make a tab for each site, which can hold references for each piece of information I have, as well as more expanded notes. You can see here that my rows are the same as my columns from the big spreadsheet. I want to link each tab to the big sheet, so that I can navigate between the two without looking for the tab below.

Excel Sheet with new format

The tabs shown at the bottom of this sheet are the beginning of my new format. I will create a notes column and a sources column for each sheet. I have backed this up on Dropbox, because it holds all of my research information and sources.

I plan on continuing my mapping endeavor through Google Earth. I want to use custom color points, rather than balloons, which block large portions of the map. I will overlay political boundaries from the medieval period, and see if these correlate to the clusters of relic types. Since there is a precedent for cults allying themselves with other well-known sites, and curating their local legends to fit into a “type,” exploring this possibility over the entire corpus of Holy Blood churches may be productive. 

Google Earth
Google Earth offered features that addressed both my border and point point preferences.

Many Meetings*

I have received helpful feedback from people in and outside of this course. The first overarching theme of feedback has been on vocabulary and terminology. Early on, with Ben and others in this class, labeling values became the topic of conversation.  I had to reflect on what I meant by “shrine” or “church” and limit my value sets by relic “types.” Even after the presentation on this project, I was prompted by Rae to delve further into vocabulary, and define what terms such as “violence” mean.  I also was encouraged by Aisling to document my definitions for consistency, especially if this becomes a more collaborative venture. This topic of terminology seems to be a fruitful and important issue to consider early on in my graduate career. 

Medieval dates also had to be confronted, as they are are less than exact. Learning how others, such as my advisor Shirin, manage this ambiguity has helped me decide how I would like the computer to handle it.  These old problems of dating and vocabulary were highlighted through my partnership with the computer. Lastly, through feedback from Clarisse and others, it became apparent that a relational database would likely benefit my captaset, in the future. Lily, Rae, and Chelsea have been unflagging sounding boards for the challenges and ideas that have emerged from this early stage of my project. I anticipate that they will remain a vital part of informal peer review in the years to come. 

Over Hill and Under Hill*

This process has been full of ups and downs. The first daunting task was tackling my old spreadsheet. It was a mess, and I did not know where to begin. After receiving sage advice, I was overwhelmed with joy when I beheld my clean capta. I was equally elated the first time I saw my little red dots on a map! Months of toil for those tiny red dots to move from giant paper map to a more accurate, digital map. I was frustrated with not being able to use the words from the value sets to color code my points. However, I was pleased when I thought of a remedy, and it worked. 

My biggest frustrations are not about the computer, but about my personal failings and usual medievalist vexations. For example, “before 1510” means the first record of this church is from 1510, but it was said to have a long history. I am unsure of how I would search for this church. How “long” before 1510 should the range go? Similarly, the term “TBD” fills up quite a few of my cells. Since history is not an exact science, I sometimes have to change a date to “TBD,” because I find conflicting information with about the same likelihood of accuracy. I will continue to battle these issues, and make decisions one site at a time.

Estimating latitude and longitude can be maddening, because some records mention there was once a church in a small township that was near another town. Since the community no longer exists, I worry that my points will be too inaccurate to base any conclusions on. However, this has applied to only a few of the locations thus far, and most of the construction that has been destroyed was in a town that is still on the map, thereby giving me some peace of mind in mapping its approximate location. Finally, the most frustrating moments of this project are when I realize I have lost a resource and I do not know where I found the information. I was not diligently collecting my sources and information when I first made my spreadsheet, and now I am paying the price for it. I had no idea what it could become when I first began, but now I hope I am a bit wiser for this experience.  

The Return of the Planning

Looking forward, I imagine all of the things this project can grow to be. The next immediate step will be to focus on growing the captaset through my Excel sheet. Once I have addressed at least the two prominent German texts on these sites, I will return to mapping. After the sites and political borders have been visualized using Google Maps, I will enter the next phase of my project. 

A relational database would solve some of the problems I have with too many entities on one spreadsheet, and it would allow me to comprehend relic types in a different way. My brainstorming page shows how I have thought of creating this future iteration, and it is apparent that tour stops have effected how I might want to conceptualize each church.

I must keep reading to refine my spreadsheet, and fill in some of those more irksome cells. I will keep trudging through these German texts, as I add more locations to my database. While researching, I aim to do a better job of organizing the information I gather. The tools I have to do this are the new location tabs in Excel, searchable notes in Evernote, and links to my notes and PDFs from my mega bibliography in Endnote. 

Brainstorming Sheet
Brainstorming Notes


This class has been a journey, and it feels like the first stop on a larger adventure. I had always felt that computers were something I could never understand.  I do not mean to get “ahead of myself” and imagine that I am suddenly an expert in digital tools. I expected this course to be my most trying and difficult of the semester. It has been the opposite. Yes, I spent hours doing things that I felt I had little to show for, and I have only used a couple of tools that are familiar to many people. However, I have been inspired, and am happy with the progress made this semester. I will continue working on my project for the foreseeable future. Excel, Evernote, and Endnote

The Road goes ever on and on 
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet, 
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then? I cannot say.