Robert Hoyland

title.none: Edson and Savage-Smith, Medieval Views of the Cosmos (Robert Hoyland)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.016 05.10.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Hoyland, St. Andrews University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Edson, Evelyn, and Emilie Savage-Smith. Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2004. Pp. 122. $28.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-85124-184-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.16

Edson, Evelyn, and Emilie Savage-Smith. Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2004. Pp. 122. $28.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-85124-184-1.

Reviewed by:

Robert Hoyland
St. Andrews University

This beautifully illustrated little book is intended as an introduction to the subject of medieval mapping and cosmology in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. It begins with the Greco-Roman view of the world, particularly of a spherical earth at the centre of a universe surrounded by the heavens, and shows how, combined with tit-bits from the Bible, this view formed the basis of medieval European and Islamic cosmologies (chs. 1, 4-5). It continues with Islamic scientific discoveries (ch. 2) and how these stimulated learning in medieval Europe (ch. 3), especially via the translation of Greek authors from Arabic into Latin (crucially Aristotle, who had previously been little known in the West). Next, the authors move on to cartography proper (chs. 6-11), describing, explaining and contrasting the different styles of maps produced in these two cultures, both maps of the world and maps of specific regions. Many interesting things emerge from this, such as the presence of theological and historical themes in the work of medieval European map-makers in contrast with the absence of such elements in Islamic maps, and also the contribution of travelers to cartography in the late medieval period (ch. 12). Fifty-five of this book's one hundred and twenty-two pages are given over to illustrations, enabling the reader to appreciate fully the wealth of the subject matter and to follow easily what the authors are saying.

Since this is an introductory work, which covers a lot of ground in a short space, there is no argumentation as such with which I could take issue. And certainly, the book does its job of introducing this relatively neglected subject to a non-expert audience extremely well. All that I can do--perhaps rather unfairly, but it permits me to earn my copy of the book!--is to point out a couple of things that might usefully have been included. One of my own personal desiderata would have been a chapter devoted specifically to the recently discovered Arabic manuscript of the Book of Curiosities. It is described by the authors as a "spectacular addition to our knowledge of medieval Islamic cosmography, geography and map-making" (63), and for this reason, and because it is ultimately the impetus behind the writing of this book, it would have been nice to have heard more about it. However, we are grateful to the authors for what they have imparted to us of its contents, especially the very rich illustrations (figs. 21, 33a, 39-40, 44-49).

My second desideratum would have been greater recourse to Muslim geographers. Chapter 7 is entitled "Medieval Islamic Geography," but it only discusses cartography, overlapping substantially with chapter 9 on "Medieval Islamic Mapping of the World." This is to some degree surprising, since medieval Islam had a very rich tradition of geography and travel writing, and there is much in this literature that is germane to the subject of mapping. For example, Muqaddasi (d. ca. 990 AD) tells us of his cartographic sources:

"As for the map-outlines (ashkal) that we have drawn, we have made every effort to ensure they are accurate, having examined a number of sketch-maps (suwar). Of these I found one in the library of the ruler of Iran (al-mashriq), done on a sheet of paper in the form of a square, which I didn't utilize. Another, done on a piece of linen, was in the possession of Abu l-Qasim al-Anmati of Nishapur, also square, and (I have also seen) what Ibrahim al-Farisi (al-Istakhri) drew, which is closer to the facts and to be relied upon, even though he is confused and mistaken in a number of places (Ahsan al-taqasim, ed. M. de Goeje, Leiden 1906, 6)."

And Ibn Hawqal (fl. 943-88 AD) gives us some idea of how he composed his maps:

"I have noted briefly the numerical distances, provided an adequate description of settlements...I have given clearly the names of places in every province dealt with...indicated the dimensions of every canton together with its make-up...I have specified the district and the position of each city with respect to its nearest locality...Thus, whoever uses this map will have an exact idea of the positioning, layout and topography of each region... (Surat al-ard/Configuration de la terre, tr. G. Wiet, Paris 1964, 1.5)."

However, there is inevitably always more that one could put into such a work, and that this book's contents don't comprise all the items on my wish-list in no way detracts from its contribution to the field. Indeed, this book will be extremely useful to students of cartography and cosmology and to experts from a whole variety of related disciplines, and the authors are to be warmly thanked for this achievement.