14.10.26, Lilley, ed., Mapping Medieval Geographies

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James Muldoon

The Medieval Review 14.10.26

Lilley, Keith D.. Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300–1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 333. ISBN: 9781107036918 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
James Muldoon
The John Carter Brown Library

The fourteen authors represented here challenge "the oft-repeated orthodoxy that the Middle Ages represents a geographic and cartographic lacuna in a western history of intellectual and scientific endeavour" (5). That judgment assumes that serious geographical and cartographical knowledge has to be based on Ptolemy's work, which was not known in the West until the fifteenth century. As Keith D. Lilley observes in the introduction, "Ptolemy was neither 'lost' to the West in the Middle Ages nor was the Renaissance characterized by a switch from 'medieval' to 'modern' modes of cartographic and geographic representation": the story "is decidedly more complex" (5).

The theme of this volume is that to understand medieval geographical and cartographical knowledge we must ask what medieval geographers and mapmakers wished to achieve and how they went about doing it. These essays demonstrate that medieval geography was based on "new geographies, reflecting the norms and values" of those who gathered the information and how medieval maps "visualized the world" to serve "the particular purposes" of those who produced them (5).

The book is divided into two parts. The first seven articles deal with various approaches to geographical knowledge ranging from a discussion of chorography to the use of geographical information by a variety of medieval and early modern authors including Isidore of Seville, the monks of St. Gall, Roger Bacon, and Giovanni Battista Ramusio. The final six essays deal with "Geographical Traditions" and deal with such issues as the representation of France on maps, Islamic representations of Europe, and the place of mountains in Byzantine spirituality.

According to Jesse Simon in the first article, "Chorography Reconsidered: An Alternative approach to the Ptolemaic Definition," what differentiated medieval from modern geography was the way in which Ptolemy organized his material and expressed it by projecting "coordinates onto a surface." Medieval geographers instead used chorography, that is "an attempt to catalogue and represent the world based on perception and experience," usually involving written descriptions of places (25). According to Simon the only way to accept the notion that the Middle Ages formed "a period of intellectual stagnation" is to accept Ptolemy's judgment "that every approach to geography not rooted in mathematical observation must be inherently inferior" (23).

As for Ptolemy's presence in medieval geographical work, Andy Merrills demonstrates in "Geography and Memory in Isidore's Etymologies" that much of Ptolemy's information can be found in medieval geographies but was not used as Ptolemy would have used it. Isidore for example used that information to provide "a measured and systematic description of the constituent parts of the world" (49). His arrangement of the information was to provide a "mnemonic structure," because in Isidore's time a written text provided a "frame of reference for the memorization of information," a kind of index to information that the reader already possessed (60).

Natalia Lozovsky then turns to the monastery of St Gall because it was "a major centre of learning for more than one thousand years" and "the core of St Gall's medieval [library] collection...is still fortunately preserved," thus providing a large base for understanding "medieval attitudes to time and space" (65). There were numerous classical works and early medieval chronicles that "combined treatment of historical events with descriptions of lands and peoples," all of which demonstrate "how intensely history and geography were studied" (66-67). For Lozovsky, an interesting example of such interest was Notker's Deeds of Charlemagne in which the author "applied his knowledge of the classical geographical tradition in a historical context and organized his account according to geographical principles" (67). She argues that Notker's stories about Charlemagne gradually moved the story eastward, resulting in the "broadening [of] his geographical perspective ultimately to include the faraway lands and peoples" in Charles's empire (67).

In the next article Amanda Power takes the reader from the collective knowledge of a learned monastic community to the "cosmological imagination" of an individual, Roger Bacon. The theme of this article is that medieval geographers were not "essentially passive recipients of second-hand information" from antiquity and elsewhere," so that we should examine "how--and more importantly--why they used their sources as they did in the context of their own lives" (87). Bacon wrote about the entire world and the peoples who inhabited distant lands because of the Church's universal mission and the specific role of his own order, the Franciscans, within that mission. His knowledge was directly linked to the Church's responsibility for preaching to all mankind and required constant updating as new lands and peoples were encountered.

Marcia Kupfer's article takes us to see the Ebstorf map, one of the last surviving medieval mappae mundi. The original was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943 but was reconstructed on the basis of copies made since its rediscovery about 1830. Like all such maps, the key to understanding the Ebstorf map is to recognize that the important information it contained was not geographical but theological. In this case the map illustrated the notion of "the Church as a universal Christendom under papal rule," a theme she argues was derived from Boniface VIII's Unam sanctam (111).

The last two articles in the first half of the book deal with the transmission of geographical information in the sixteenth century. Meg Roland discusses why English humanists and printers did not produce any editions of Ptolemy's work in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What caused "this long cartographic quiet in England" (129)? She argues that English geographers operated within "a narrative-based geography" that presented such information in "print romances, geographic narratives and astrological texts" rather than a "map-based" form (151). Much the same could be said of the volumes of Giovanni Battista Ramusio's Navigazioni e viaggi, as Margaret Small points out. She argues that "a narrative, textual tradition of geography continued from the medieval period" served Ramusio's purposes better than Ptolemaic maps because "visual maps were unsuited to presenting the changing world" (152-153).

The main point of the first half of this book is that the presentation of geographical information in the medieval and early modern era took two forms, narrative and cartographical, chorography and Ptolemaic maps. Modern scholars have tended to treat these geographical traditions in isolation, rejecting the older tradition as inferior to the Ptolemaic tradition. In fact, the two modes of presentation are complementary, providing two related kinds of information for the traveler.

Where the first half of the book deals with the representation of real places, the second half deals with "Geographical Imaginations," that is, the use of cartographic and chorographic traditions to illustrate political and cultural themes. Camille Serchuk examines how during the Hundred Years War the French used maps "to show the French united to resist the threat of English rule." Such maps "celebrated a unified France in which the divisions of Gaul/France, be they geographical or political, past or present, were blurred or excised"(176). This was a forerunner of the role of geography in the educational programs of many modern societies as they were becoming sovereign nations, a tool for creating national identity.

Daniel Birkholtz approaches the study of maps and geography from the perspective of three men who responded to a single map of Europe found with a copy of Gerald of Wales's Topography of Ireland and his Conquest of Ireland at Hereford Cathedral. The three men are Gerald himself (c.1143-1221), Roger Breynton (c.1290-1351), and Walter Mybbes or Mibbe (fifteenth century). Birkholtz demonstrates how each individual observer saw and used the map, a reminder that while it is obviously important to know how and why a map was made, it is also important to know how it was received and used.

The theme of Kathy Lavezzo's article is that from the careful reading of medieval literature we can learn a great deal about the imagined geography of real spaces such as the city of Norwich, the site of the twelfth-century tale of the Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich. The story is about the alleged murder of a twelve-year-old Christian boy by certain Jews of Norwich. Lavezzo argues that, perhaps unintentionally, the text tells "us much about the imagined geography of locations such as the medieval city." These in turn demonstrate that the "imagined geography" of the city reflects a series of problems within the city in addition to with the murder and with the place of Jews there (251).

Geographical imagination is not restricted to real places such as Hereford or Norwich. It also an important element of Christian spirituality as The City of God, the Divine Comedy and Pilgrim's Progress demonstrate. Here Veronica della Dora discusses the geography of a sixth-century Byzantine spiritual text, the Topographia Christiana. The author, a monk, wished to provide a Christian spiritual geography based on biblical materials to replace the usual maps derived from pagan sources. The key geographical elements in his map are the Garden of Eden and a "mountain stretching to the vault of heaven," meaning that the goal of the Christian life "should not be a peripheral and perhaps bygone (or unreachable) terrestrial Eden, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven..."(274).

The last article in this volume, the book's final frontier, takes the reader to the outer edge of the Latin Christendom, Patrick's Purgatory, a famous pilgrimage site on the western coast of Ireland. Sara V. Torres analyzes the book of a late-fourteenth-century "Aragonese courtier and diplomat" recording his pilgrimage experience (300). She demonstrates the existence of two frontiers here: one was the Irish-English frontier that resulted from the limited success of the English efforts to occupy Ireland, a frontier between civilization and barbarism. The second was the pilgrimage site itself, a cave linking "the earthly world fixed in historical time and the otherworldly space of Purgatory" (301).

There is one more article to be discussed separately because of its unique format. Karen C. Pinto discusses Islamic maps of the western Mediterranean, the Maghrib. What makes these maps unique is that at first glance they seem to be "nothing more than a quaint abstraction of circles, triangles and oblong shapes ornately adorned with vivid pigments"(201). Such maps resemble oriental rugs with their elegant displays of geometrical and other abstract figures. According to Pinto the reason for creating maps of this sort was not to provide "a mimetically accurate map for the navigator" but "to create an easily memorized picture of key geographical spaces" (204). Without a large, full color copy of such a map, however, it is difficult if not impossible to understand and appreciate the geographical tradition that produced such maps.

This volume demonstrates clearly that geographical knowledge includes more than maps projected according Ptolemaic theory and that medieval geographers working in the tradition of chorography produced work of significance. To limit geography to the Ptolemaic tradition is to miss out on a great deal of geographical knowledge. One might say that while a Ptolemaic map will get a traveler from point A to point B, once there the traveler will require a chorographical description of what to see and what to visit.

The book has one glaring problem: the lack of suitable maps. The book's format is small and many of the illustrations are so dark as to be almost unreadable. The consequence is that the points made by the authors referring to the maps are not always clear.

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James Muldoon

The John Carter Brown Library