Robert Berkhofer

title.none: MacKay and Ditchburn, eds., Atlas of Medieval Europe (Berkhofer)

identifier.other: baj9928.9709.011 97.09.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Berkhofer, Troy State University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: MacKay, Angus and David Ditchburn, eds. Atlas of Medieval Europe. London: Routledge, 1997. Pp. ix, 271. $90.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-415-01923-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.09.11

MacKay, Angus and David Ditchburn, eds. Atlas of Medieval Europe. London: Routledge, 1997. Pp. ix, 271. $90.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-415-01923-0.

Reviewed by:

Robert Berkhofer
Troy State University

As the editors of the Atlas of Medieval Europe rightly point out, a good atlas for teaching the history of medieval Europe has been sadly lacking for some time. Their attempt to solve this problem is not only commendable, but also a largely successful enterprise. Better still, the atlas has been designed as a teaching aid with scholarly sophistication and an attention to detail that many such aids do not possess. All medievalists, not just historians, will find this atlas a helpful new resource.

The Atlas is not just a series of maps (140 black and white maps are included) but also a collection of short (1-2 page), descriptive essays by 35 different medievalists, predominantly historians from British universities. Many of these scholars are well known specialists in their field and have adapted conclusions from their research to the maps and text. The essays are concise and informative, mixing important factual information related to each map with an overview of the most important events or trends. Each map and essay is complemented in the back the book by a brief bibliography, concentrating on recent works in English of use to students. The volume also includes an extensive index.

The editors, who solicited and selected the various contributions, coordinated this group effort with care. An integrated, balanced work is the result. Their choices about time and space covered, subject matter, and level of detail have all been judicious. The chronological division in the atlas is threefold: the early (to ca .1100), central (1100-1300) and late (1300-1500) periods, which conforms to conventional historical notions and, most importantly, is not wedded to any particular textbook. Although far more evidence exists for the later period, the editors have resisted concentrating the maps and accompanying texts too far in this direction, devoting about 60 pages to the early period, and 85 pages to both the central and later middle ages. The editors have carefully balanced the traditional focus on western medieval Europe by including maps of regions once regarded as peripheral. Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Byzantium, and the Mediterranean, as well as the "frontiers" of the eventual national kingdoms of England, Spain, Germany and France are well covered by both maps and text. Perhaps the best aspect of the Atlas is its refusal to confine itself to political geography, so common in lesser historical geographies. Each period is subdivided under four topical headings: politics; religion; government, economy and society; and culture. This approach does not neglect traditional political history, but rather constitutes a well- rounded attempt at a geographical "histoire totale." Another evident area of concern for the editors was what level of detail to include in the maps and the text. Steering a course between the vague generalities of so many textbooks and the scholarly German atlases, which editor Angus MacKay recalls from his student days as "incredibly detailed and well nigh incomprehensible," (viii) was an important concern of the editors. The editors have found a satisfactory intermediate position and complex developments (e.g., the Crusades) are usually treated by a series of linked maps and essays. Most of the maps were informative, clear, and well explained by the text (or vice versa) and all of them have grid reference letters and numbers to make locating particular sites easier.

Given the obvious good intent and hard work that went into the Atlas, it is a shame to quibble about the content. Nevertheless, potential users should be aware of certain choices made by the editors and contributors that make the atlas stronger in some subjects and weaker in others. The section on politics is solid on fundamentals and often clearer than similar maps in other atlases. The single greatest improvement over previous atlases is the maps and text devoted to medieval religion. These maps include such necessities as the movements of missionaries, the spread of monastic reform and the growth of papal power, as well as subjects which have more recently been seen as important, such as the trade in relics, pilgrimage shrines, and heresies. Likewise, the attempt to treat government, economy and society as one unit produces some interesting results, but this section is more uneven than those on politics and religion. Traditional socio-economic subjects receive good and often excellent treatment in all three periods, including extensive maps of trade routes (the Vikings, European fairs, and the Alpine passes, et al.), the social and economic life of towns (including snapshots of various towns such as Dorestad, Rome, Lucca, and Novgorod), and the spread of the Black Death. However, government is very unevenly treated, often in largely economic terms. While maps of royal itineraries and provisioning provide solid examples, the structures of governance and administration are treated extensively only in the later medieval period. In addition, agriculture and the countryside are passed over, with the exception of maps about peasant revolts and about transhumance. The section on culture in each period is the least extensive and complete, though often the most fascinating. Several excellent maps and essays about the translation and transmission of texts, culminating in the discussion of printing are certainly valuable. Treatment of some specific cultural figures and their worlds or travels (Bede, Villard de Honnencourt, Margery Kempe) are balanced by more general maps treating the spread of the epic or troubadour literature. Art forms, universities, and travel literature also received a limited treatment. This atlas is by and for historians (even traditional historians), although the sections on society and culture would certainly allow for using the Atlas in the context of a medieval studies course. A course devoted solely to literature or art would probably find these cultural contributions too spotty, though undoubtedly useful for reference.

The text of the Atlas is superbly edited and clearly written and the maps are drawn with precision and flair. Even so, some aspects of the execution create unnecessary difficulties. Early in the atlas, the layout of maps and text is near ideal, with a map and its page of accompanying text on facing pages; however, this correspondence begins to slip towards the end of each section and becomes more difficult in the second and third parts of the book (see particularly, 94-109). Flipping back and forth between an essay and its map was occasionally a nuisance, but one clearly caused by an effort to include as much as possible. The cartographers have been ingenious in their use of different symbols and patterns to represent a wide range of information. Still, in isolated instances, the limitations of the black and white format cause a profusion of different symbols that are the unclear. For example, the map of the campaigns of the Hundred Years War uses 14 different types of dashed, dotted, or crossed line to mark the routes, which makes picking out individual campaigns fairly difficult. Because different scholars wrote the entries, there are some inconsistencies in the level of detail. Of course, some maps dealing with general trends or grand events are less specific; any practical teacher would want to prevent information overload. On the other hand, maps of very similar nature (for example, the political maps of each major kingdom in each period) ought to be more consistent. Why do some of these maps have battles marked with dates on the maps and others just with battle location (even though the dates are in the essay)? Why do some have mountains and others not? While this may seem like nitpicking, the larger problem of how much coverage each area receives is not. It is understandable, given the collective authors' background and their students' interest, that Scotland, Wales and Ireland receive detailed treatment. Indeed, the fine series of Scottish political maps (8 in all) have a scholarly level of detail far exceeding any of the other maps. Other regions are less generously treated: Spain receives just 3 political maps (one in each period) and France only 4 and they are intended to cover many more changes over time. As the essay devoted to explaining the politics of the "Angevins and Capetians in the Late Twelfth Century" admits, "the limitations of a single map of these changes are evident." (71-2).

Although it is intended as a teaching book, the high quality of the presentation and scholarship of the atlas demands a scholarly critique. As indicated above, the individual contributions are of high, often brilliant, quality. But the overall structure of the atlas deserves comment. The attempt to create an atlas that is broad in space, time and subject is certainly a worthy one. Certain omissions are troubling, however. If Annaliste scholarship is any guide, all medievalists must consider the importance of terrain on medieval society or at least on the agriculture that was its economic base. It is odd, therefore, that the atlas has only one map of "physical Europe." Although some individual contributors have marked mountains, river networks, or roads on their maps, these features are not the subject of any entries and are not consistently marked. While the economy of towns receives detailed treatment, the manor receives very little. Climate, forestation, and agricultural practices are neglected. Man-made changes to the terrain are also only briefly treated in passing: castles, mills, and even road networks are treated rarely. While not strictly speaking geographical, no floor plans of buildings are included even though the Romanesque and Gothic are treated as subjects. Finally, the dust jacket features a beautiful reproduction of a Psalter world map, but there is no comment on the medieval world-view or maps, despite entries devoted to the "world" of Bede and Margery Kempe. High-theory is not needed in such a work, but an explanation that modern maps do not reflect how medieval people understood their world is a valuable pedagogical point.

But such minor difficulties should not overshadow the achievement of the atlas. The editors must be applauded for their labors and their high standards. The atlas is not only usable for teaching but also useful and helpful. One should keep in mind that it was intended for British undergraduates in history and, as such, is probably too detailed for use in an introductory American survey course on Western Civilization. It would be appropriate for a Medieval History survey or a Medieval Studies course for majors with some background and would prove invaluable in advanced courses and as a reference tool for beginning graduate students or as a desk reference for a busy lecturer. The final cry should not be "try again" but "encore." Hopefully, the atlas will be around for a long time, preferably in a soft-cover version for teaching.