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07.04.16, Lavezzo, Angels on the Edge

07.04.16, Lavezzo, Angels on the Edge

Kathy Lavezzo begins this consideration of medieval English spatial thought with an examination of a world map drawn by Emery Walker and Walter Boutall that served as the frontispiece of the largely unremarkable Growth of the British Empire written by Philip and Cecil Kerr in 1911. Across the breadth of the map, she notes, the territories of the empire are marked out in red, visually underscoring the adage that the British were masters of an empire upon which the sun never set. At the centre of the world, thanks largely to the positional-enhancing geometry of the Mercator projection, stands Britain itself. To be sure, relative to the enormous empire, it is a small island. But as the Kerrs write, and Lavezzo stresses, it is the mother-land, and the countries of the empire its children.

To Lavezzo, part of the rhetorical force of this map comes from the central position occupied by Britain itself. To her, the centre of a map is a place charged with authority. As she writes, "the England [sic] of the Walker-Boutall map enjoys an intrinsic place at the heart of the world that makes the nation seem to be destined to become its imperial capital and motherland" (2). Certainly, the longitudinal centre of modern maps does seem to have rhetorical power, as the deliberately irreverent 1979 southern-oriented map constructed by Stuart McArthur in 1979 makes clear. Modestly entitled the "Universal Corrective Map of the World," McArthur endeavoured to exalt the place of Australia in the world by placing it in the upper central portion of the map. That said, as Lavezzo makes clear, Britain did not always occupy the privileged central position in the world bestowed upon it by Walker and Boutall. Indeed, both written and drawn classical and medieval texts conceived of Britain as occupying a site at the very fringes of the world. So, Kathy Lavezzo asks, how did the English [sic] respond in the Middle Ages to such a perceived marginal position on the outer fringes of the oikoumené? How did they deal with the fact that they inhabited a space as far away from the civilised centre as possible, a place associated with barbarism and a lack of power?

In short, Lavezzo concludes that far from resisting their apparently peripheral status, the English consciously embraced it. Despite the rhetoric associated with the world's extremities, the English seized upon their marginal position to craft a distinct national identity in opposition to Rome, the perceived world centre. But more than this, Lavezzo sees the development of this uniquely English frontier myth as inextricably linked to the development of an imperial dream. For her, the otherworldliness of the English makes them exceptional, and the conscious cultivation of this exceptionalism comes to suggest to them how they might usurp the centre and become "rightful masters of the earth itself" (21). Thus, for Lavezzo, the origins of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British imperialism can be traced backwards to the spatial rhetoric deployed by English thinkers as early as Aelfric of Eynsham at the start of the eleventh century.

Lavezzo structures her argument around close readings of five principal texts and a number of ancillary T-O-style mappae mundi that span the period between Aelfric and the Act in Restraint of Appeals. These texts are linked, she argues, by the fact that each was constructed at an important instant in English history, a period when, as she puts it, the very "idea of England was historically at risk" (20). In this respect, she sees the authors of these texts as consciously deploying geography and the rhetoric of space to produce an image of England as spatially distinct, and, by extension, exceptionally privileged. By highlighting England's glorious isolation in this way, she argues, these English authors and cartographers were able to assuage the tensions inherent in society and level the differences between the inhabitants of its various social strata. The result, she claims, is the production of an image of a single, homogeneous national entity. In this sense, the manufacturing of a geographical conception of England through the period Lavezzo studies fed directly into an incipient English nationalism, which, she concludes "demonstrates how even the earliest English cultural practices resist our easy categorization as 'medieval'" (144).

Too often, historians of geography have tended to focus on the visual representation of space, but as Lavezzo makes clear, its written depiction is equally important in informing and conditioning spatial understanding. But while this is a very enthusiastic book, its argument is tragically and irredeemably flawed. Building upon the work of a number of recent historians of geography, Lavezzo points out that the depiction of space is never a neutral activity; it is always a social construction and so invested with cultural significance. While this is undeniable, Lavezzo begins her analysis of these maps and texts with a series of questionable assertions: "'Sovereignty,' Henri Lefebvre tells us, 'implies space.' Power territorializes; it permeates, controls, and fashions space. Space, in turn, wields a kind of power, insofar as it visualizes authority, allowing us to behold a kingdom, a nation, or an empire" (1). Although these premises are useful to her analysis of the Walker-Boutall map, where rulership and space coincide, they are employed uncritically in her analysis of pre-modern texts that treat of Britain's place in the world; indeed, they are accorded almost axiomatic status. But it is not at all clear the extent to which such premises can be transplanted back to the Middle Ages. Far from territorialising, power in the Middle Ages tends to be conceived in terms of personal relationships, expressed through public ritual, and distributed heterogeneously across space, with various enclaves asserting their own particular customs and privileges. Indeed, judging from the depiction of kingdoms on various mappae mundi, it is wholly questionable the extent to which medieval readers imagined states as enclosed spaces at all. It is undeniable that the way space is construed and presented is a function of the cultural priorities of a civilisation, but to say that such productions are always and exclusively about the articulation of political power and the construction of national identity not only elides the rich variety of pre-modern spatial thought, but is to impose an exclusively post-Enlightenment reading on them, and, by extension, to court anachronism.

But more than this, Lavezzo seems to assume that geographic cognition and cartographic understanding are somehow innate. She notes, for instance, that "the occasional presence of detailed wall maps (such as the spectacular thirteenth-century example still hanging in Hereford Cathedral) made it possible for any English churchgoer to be conscious of her geographic isolation" (3-7). This is a problematic assumption for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the early modern English literature that explains to its readers how visualisations of space ought to be understood. More profoundly, the ability of a map to communicate is contingent upon the ability of its users to comprehend its underlying logic. Not only do users need to understand the beliefs and practices that are being depicted, but they also need to appreciate the nature of the frame onto which the data is projected. Only when the logic of the map is fully grasped by the map users will they be able to appreciate the relationship between the various points of data plotted, and, by extension, the final cause to which the whole document was constructed. In this sense, spatial understanding in general and cartographic cognition in particular must be treated as historically contingent and culturally invested. However, Lavezzo gives no consideration to the theological, natural philosophical or historical premises that condition the presentation of space in the large-scale T-O mappae mundi she examines. Moreover, she offers no explanation as to why her map users would choose to read these documents against their fundamental logic and towards different ends. In this respect, Lavezzo tends to impose a modern sense of the nature and purpose of a map onto the medieval frame, and she assumes that the medieval scholars of whom she treats would be inclined to do the same.

Ultimately, Lavezzo's wider argument rests upon the assumption that the visual centre of a map has more rhetorical power than its edges. It is certainly true that there is a superficial overlap between classical conceptions of the operation of nature far removed from the world centre and Lavezzo's sense of the relationship between centres and peripheries. But Lavezzo's is a sweeping assertion that needs qualification. Indeed, it is not even strictly speaking true of the Walker-Boutell map. Though these men certainly manipulated the graticule they used in order to highlight the position of Britain, the visual centre of the map actually lies in central Africa. In the context of medieval considerations of space, her argument is even more problematic. In the first place, as the glossa ordinaria made clear, the easternmost extreme of the oikoumené was the terrestrial location of the Garden of Eden, a place of enormous prestige and integral to the whole course of sacred history; indeed, it is the place that bestows meaning on every other place in the world. But second, the eastern periphery of a mappa mundi was actually its most desirable locale. It may be home to the monstrous races, but it is a region associated with enormous wealth, and its rulers with staggering power; it was no accident that Prester John came from the distant east. Moreover, this was borne out by natural philosophy: the regions of the east bring forth the sun every morning causing the air to be warmed quickly and to be made light and beneficent; the west, by contrast, does not receive the influence of the sun until the end of the day, and so the thick, heavy vapours generated in the night do not dissipate until late in the day. [1] This tradition is summed up by Isidore of Seville who notes that oriens is etymologically linked to orior, "to rise"; by contrast, occidens is derived from the verb occidere, "to kill". [2] Lavezzo is correct when she asserts that Britain is in a problematic position, but this is not because it stands in opposition to a world centre. It is in a poor position because it stands in opposition to the east.

Lavezzo does see the opposition of east and west as crucial in the construction of Gerald of Wales's presentation of Ireland, arguing that he creates a "binary of purity and danger on a global scale" that sets the idyllic Irish landscape against the noxious east. (59-60) But largely on the basis of the fact that Gerald had been involved in the preaching of the Third Crusade, she argues that when Gerald imagined the east, he associated the term with the Levant, causing him to enlist all "the orientalist discourse of crusading Christian culture" (60). In the context of her argument about centres and peripheries, this seems a strange position to maintain. It suggests not only that Gerald deliberately ignored the venerable tradition of the wonders of the east, but that he relocated his conception of east to coincide with that region that is generally plotted as central on T-O style mappae mundi.

If Lavezzo's assessment of peripheries is problematic, so too is her notion of the world centre, for she generally identifies this as Rome. Mappae mundi, she notes, can "offer the global perspective of a Rome-centered world" (111). This is a notion she develops in the context of her assessment of the tenth-century Cotton map, which she argues "situates Rome at the very center of the western world" (28), a sentiment that, two pages later, is transformed into the assertion that "the Cotton map attests to the centrality of Rome on earth" (30). However, what is clear even from the black-and-white reproduction of this map that accompanies the text is that the visual centre of this map is actually the eastern Mediterranean, a little south of Mount Olympus. Rome can only be construed as central to the lower (that is, western) portion of the map, but such an assessment must also include non-Christian Africa. Even in that case, however, it is not entirely clear what significance ought to be accorded to the placement of the city, for it stands more or less where one would expect to find it on a map constructed on the basis of relative location.

In general, these fundamental problems stem from the fact that Lavezzo makes almost no attempt to situate the medieval sources she examines in the context of the general intellectual trends of the period. There is, for instance, no consideration of medieval conceptions of the operation of nature as it is manifested across space. Indeed, there is no examination of the problem of what place and position mean in the medieval context, or of the wider question of the relationship of these accidents to the things to which they are proper. Compounding these difficulties, Lavezzo tends to treat most of the English scholars she examines as insulated from broader strains of continental thought.

Instead, Lavezzo builds her argument upon the work of a vast array of modern literary critics. The pages of her work bristle with quotation after quotation extracted from one modern author after another. At times, these come almost to choke her own authorial voice. Unfortunately, though, there is almost no critical engagement with this secondary material; instead, the authors she cites are treated almost as authorities, their arguments applied to her material regardless of the context in which they were originally conceived. Yet despite the enormous number of secondary sources from which she draws, Lavezzo occasionally makes some curious choices. John Friedman's 1981 Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, for instance, is preferred to Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park's 1998 Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. Similarly, for the history of Tudor England she elects for the works of Geoffrey Elton and J.J. Scarisbrick over those of more recent scholars.

At times, Lavezzo's terminology can be frustratingly imprecise. Leaving aside "medieval intellectuals" (21) and "cartographically minded medieval reader" (79), chief amongst these is an annoying confusion of "England" and "Britain." The "crimson splashes" on the Walker-Boutall map, for instance, signify "English holdings," despite the fact that she quotes the Kerrs who invite the map user to look at the red portions, for "that is the British Empire" (1). Though she points out that her concern is with the nation as an imagined community rather than as an historical reality (9), precisely to what territorial region do her medieval readers imagine this corresponds? Do they imagine a territorially contiguous state that precociously aspires to embrace the whole island? If so, what did they think of those relatively wealthy territories, especially those in France, that were attached to the crown but removed from the mainland? Unfortunately, Lavezzo is never clear.

While the text benefits from the reproduction of a number of the maps central to her analysis, four of which are rendered in colour, at times the copy editing leaves much to be desired. The spelling of "Muslim," for instance, alternates with "Moslem," at times even on the same page (cf. 37). Moreover, occasional contractions still remain.

As Lavezzo concludes, "space as a metaphor, to be sure, has long proved helpful in articulating historical relations" (144). This is certainly true, but in assessing past representations of space it is crucial to do so within the context of the culture that produced them, and to see them as species of the contemporary discourses in which they participated. To read, as Lavezzo does here, medieval texts about the world in the light of modern conceptions of the relationship between space and power is ahistorical and courts anachronism.


[1] See Avicenna, Liber Canonis Avicenne Revisus [et] ab Omni Errore Me[n]daq[ue] Purgatus Summaq[ue] cum Diligentia Impressus (1507), pp. 31v-32r.

[2] Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive Originum, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Oxford, 1911), XIII:1.4.