Daniel K. Connolly

title.none: Birkholz, The King's Two Maps (Daniel K. Connolly)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.001 05.10.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel K. Connolly, Augustana College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Birkholz, Daniel. The King's Two Maps: Cartography and Culture in Thirteenth-Century England. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xxxiv, 254. $65.00 0415967910. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.01

Birkholz, Daniel. The King's Two Maps: Cartography and Culture in Thirteenth-Century England. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xxxiv, 254. $65.00 0415967910. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Daniel K. Connolly
Augustana College

The study of medieval maps has rightly engaged scholars from across a variety of disciplines--geographers, historians, art historians, literary scholars and more. Each brings to bear upon the materials his or her own questions and methods, conceived to plumb what are often unfamiliar waters (especially since medieval maps figure only marginally in any of these disciplines). The hope, of course, is to return with interpretations and conclusions that at once are grounded in a disciplinary rigor and at the same time open up fresh avenues of thinking for those from outside that particular discipline. That at least is the promise of a cross fertilization of materials and methods, and The King's Two Maps certainly delivers on the interpretive dimension of that promise, but it leaves, as well, a great deal to be desired in the limited extent to which it is able to advance real, concrete conclusions. At some level the following remarks are generated from within my own discipline's positivist and historicist boundaries (art history), but at another level, my remarks also hinge upon more general issues that are the concern of any scholarly endeavor: what do we consider to be of evidentiary value and how should we use it; what is the value of "speculation" and how does one use it to write history, and is that necessarily the goal of 'historicist' works; what, finally, is the value of a "plausible" interpretation versus a "probable" one, and how "convinced" need a critical reader be in order to consider such a work a success?

In three substantive chapters, the author lays out at once an ambitious and oddly unsurprising set of arguments that explores the role of thirteenth-century English monarchs (Henry III and Edward I) in the production of maps. Unsurprising is Birkholz's argument against the proposition that medieval maps functioned "uniformly as 'vehicles of religious instruction'" (xvii), that maps in royal settings would convey monarchial messages, and that maps depict territories that rulers might want to acquire. Ambitious is his program to use lost maps or invariably recalcitrant evidence to support his arguments that these maps are crucial gauges of the changing role of kingship in thirteenth-century England. Birkholz carefully chooses his wording in this highly speculative endeavor and at times, I was struck by the lack of evidence that would support his interpretations and somewhat underwhelmed by the conclusions he was able to draw. Birkholz is honest at the outset in stating that this is a speculative work--and indeed it is; the problem lies, however, in determining what value can come of that.

The King's Two Maps argues that, in the thirteenth century, just as there was a new and different conception of the king's corporate body (Kantorowitz's shift from sacralized to administrative), so was there a shift in the kinds of maps produced in England. These maps include both maps of the world ( mappaemundi) and maps of England, or what he terms regnal maps--both of which are presumably extensions of the monarch. In the former, Birkholz interprets a mappamundi in Henry III's painted chamber (now lost) as an example that expresses the sacralized form of the king's body, and does so by way of his own reconstruction, one that relies upon the Psalter Map. The Psalter Map shows the world framed by the body of Christ and so carries with it connotations of embodied-ness; it, in turn, has implications for the map in the chamber because of its "links" to Westminster (these links have to do with its style, not its patronage, but that is the least of the problems here). The main problem that undercuts (in my view, nearly entirely) his project is that he takes as a given that Henry III commissioned this large display map for his painted chamber in 1236. And from this, he argues a whole host of things--where in the chamber it was located, and thus, what the political implications of that placement, and therefore of that commission, were; what that map looked like, and how its iconography fit within other politically and ideologically charged images, and how this commission and its iconography was itself symptomatic of the changing nature of kingship in the thirteenth century, and how then this map incorporated, or indeed, embodied the early understanding of the king's sacralized body. These are ambitious goals, and laudable in their interpretive scope, but they are just as well deeply handicapped by the irreducible facts that this map is only presumed to have been commissioned by Henry III, that it no longer survives, and that we really don't know what it looked like. There survives, in fact, practically no evidence (and none pictorial) about this map (or any other "royal" map, for that matter). What we have is a scrap of text written on a very peculiarly shaped map of the world by Matthew Paris in which Matthew says that his own map is a copy of world maps at various abbeys and that "the King's world map, which is in his chamber at Westminster, is figured in the ordinal of Matthew Paris." [[1]] That ordinal also does not survive. It is somewhat suggestive of the tendentiousness of Birkholz's arguments that he never discusses this map of Matthew's, or why reference to the king's map would be on it--its design would clearly have undermined the reconstruction he proposes. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest, really, that this world map was commissioned by Henry III--the map may well have existed prior to Henry III's commissioning some of the painting in his royal chamber (Henry had incorporated other, pre-existent paintings as well). Nor does he discuss the traditional interest of Anglo-Norman kings with cartography, possibly because it would undermine his contention of the role of these world maps in the changing nature of thirteenth-century kingship. And despite all these problems, pitfalls, and paucities of evidence Birkholz proceeds ingeniously to knit together assertions about the lost world map of Henry III's. But assertions are not arguments, and it is not, I think, reliable, to take the supposition that Henry III commissioned this map, and further suppose its place in the painted chamber (behind the bed), and then use that commission, its placement, and "links" to the Psalter Map to reconstruct what the map looked like (formal, heraldic), finally to arrive at an assessment of the role of world maps (central) in Henry's program of state.

In his second chapter, Birkholz turns to regnal maps--Matthew Paris's maps of England and the later Gough map of England (also subject of the third chapter). He wants to discuss the Gough "Road Map" of Britain as the preeminent exemplar of the new administrative, bureaucratic conception of the king's body and does so by dating lost prototypes (yet again) to nearly a century before the surviving artifact (c. 1280 vs. 1360), placing it within the reign of Edward I. Those possible prototypes that might have served as precedents would normally include Matthew Paris's maps of England, and here is a problem, for they seem, on the face of things, to be fairly similar in conception to the Gough. Nonetheless, he sees Gough as the result of a cartographic revolution, after which maps of England much more prominently display a territorial ideology (linked with administrative kingship). Previously, then, maps were based more on travel and itineraries, and so lacked the claim to a territorial ideology. Matthew Paris's maps indeed are based upon an itinerary that runs the length of England, and yet Matthew also included many other towns in filling out the entire outline of the island. This, however, in Birkholz's view, is a failed compromise because the itinerary remains central to its conception. It therefore is not a regnal map with the same ambition to identify its design with the new corporate quality of the king's administrative body. But Birkholz's does not peruse Matthew's texts or engage in a reading that would let his eye wander across these maps' strikingly topographic features. Instead, Birkholz makes much of Matthew's far more laconic sketch of the ancient Roman roads, which Matthew calls the Scema Britannie. This traces out the four roads that unite England, now under the aegis of a law-imposing administration. By quoting Belinus's program of "road- and realm-building," Birkholz asserts that the Scema, "thus serves, implicitly, to link regnal territoriality to the chronicle tradition's twin key issues of invasion and conquest" (78). Birkholz sees this map, which he dates after the other four maps of England, as a harbinger of the Gough--but not too close a harbinger, for now the work of Matthew is disassociated with Westminster (as opposed to the first chapter in which his maps are closely linked with a Westminster center).

Birkholz is at his best in this chapter's discussion of the Gough and of the political and cultural contexts for understanding the emergent bureaucratic state that took on the metaphor of the king's body. The Gough map is described as an "official map of England," likely the product of royal patronage in Westminster and carries with it then, the monarchical ideology of late thirteenth-century England (that is, the lost prototype[s], although he does not distinguish this clearly enough and simply talks about the Gough map as if it were a direct copy of this earlier map). Accepting that the Gough map likely had multiple uses, he diligently pursues the history of roads, their legal status, their character, as well as links to military purposes and Roman history. The conquest of Wales and Scotland helped to establish an "imperial and fiscal conception of English kingship," one product of which was the Gough map.

The third and final chapter continues the discussion of the Gough map with the aim to understand it as metaphor for this new English imperial state, and for the roles that some of its features and iconography played in further linking King, map and island. The Gough map becomes, in the end "an argument for Edward I's claim to overlordship of Scotland and for England's ancient rights to a monarchy of the whole island" (141). The "Little Domesday" survey conducted by Edward I gives Birkholz the opportunity to speculate on why the Gough map was made and who made it. That it has no roads through Scotland and only two in Wales is explained by the fact that the survey was not even attempted in Wales and may have been relatively sparse in Scotland. Or rather, it is the coincidence of this paucity in both documents that gives Birkholz the excuse to link the two. But this kind of thinking is problematic and is symptomatic of this study as a whole. Birkholz here has lost sight of the fact that it is the supposed and now lost prototype that dates to 1280, and not the Gough map. Unless we are willing to accept that the surviving Gough map is a slavish copy of these earlier products, it might be better to seek more contemporary explanations for its designs. Would this lacuna in official knowledge of the kingdom be allowed to continue for some eighty years, especially if mapping the realm were as critical as Birkholz purports? But it is not just roads that mark a kingdom, all sorts of topographic features (rivers, forests, salt pits, legendary leaders and sea battles) are explored for their cultural context to explain why they show up on the Gough map--again, however, that context is not contemporary with the map itself. The chapter ends, finally, with what can only be described as a peculiar foray into iconographic analysis. Three fish are said to be fighting each other (two against one; although they just look to be swimming past each other) and are interpreted as symbols of Scotland fighting to throw off the English tyranny, their contours and outlines mimicking those of the Scottish March and Scottish Highlands. A wrecked ship between Norway and Orkney is ultimately identified as that of the Maid of Norway's and her rumored death at sea, a disaster in 1290 for "Scotland's fragile and wayward ship of state." Birkholz then examines evidence from later in the fourteenth century (poems, coins) in which ships figure as national symbols (i.e. the ship of state). (And here, by the way, we seem now to be investigating the map for its actual date of 1360, and not its presumed prototypes). A shadowy, ghostlike figure (as an unpainted silhouette) seems to accompany or precede this shipwreck and is interpreted as having "appropriately been removed or left incomplete. For what it seems posed to mark is the English monarchy's timely rescue, in the figure of a bending King Edward, of the drifting bier of Scotland's royal house, its maiden cargo set until so recently to have been gathered in and hauled up (via dynastic marriage) onto the secure deck of England's ship of state, sure of mast, strong of sail, and steered by an old crusader 'feared throughout Christendom'" (147).

In the end, Birkholz tends to write in generalities that, while possible (sometimes plausible), are not convincingly argued: mappamundi had apparent policy implications and played key roles in the period's negotiation of the nature of English kingship, but those implications are never specified and those roles are left to the reader to figure out. Birkholz relies too heavily on Powick for the history of thirteenth-century England, uses his materials as if they enacted Kantorowitz's classic work, without exploring more recent scholarship, and accepts uncritically stylistic genealogies, reifying a Westminster center of art production as if the Henry III were personally involved in those many and varied artworks. As well, Birkholz seems to prefer to deal with a lost prototype in favor of the surviving material, and thus gives himself free reign to some ambitious interpretations. The value of a work like this is that it gives us much to think about: provocative interpretations, ambitious uses of evidences, and ingenious arguments in which maps are made to matter for the English monarchy; but in the end, I do not think it is reliable.


[[1]]. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Ms. 26 p. 285