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The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Nameby Toby Lester
IN THE EARLY 1200s the Benedictine monastery of Saint Albans hummed with activity. Situated just a day’s ride north of London, the monastery was one of the largest and most important in England, home to as many as two hundred monks. In the parlance of the times they were Latins: members of the greater community of Roman Catholics in Europe who submitted to the authority of the pope. But Saint Albans wasn’t just a religious retreat. It was a busy center of economic, political, and intellectual life, and even had served as the site of an early drafting of the Magna Carta in 1213. It also ran a popular guesthouse—the first stopping point on the Roman-built Great North Road out of London—and operated stables that could accommodate some three hundred horses at a time. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Saint Albans was feeding and lodging a steady stream of visitors on their way to and from London: Oxford professors, royal councilors, powerful bishops, papal emissaries and monks from elsewhere in Europe, a traveling delegation of Armenians, and even the king of England himself. It was a worldly place.
After a day of traveling, guests would unwind in the monastery’s dormitories and refectory. Inevitably the talk would turn to where they had come from, and to what news and information they had picked up along the way. Again and again the same subjects came up: the weather, local crimes and misdemeanors, politics, the antics of the royals, the utterances of the pope, and the ill-conceived and apparently interminable series of wars being waged in the Middle East—the Crusades. One monk in particular had a special interest in stories from beyond the monastery’s walls. A down-to-earth, willfully opinionated, and generally likable crank, he was Brother Matthew Paris: the greatest and most colorful of all medieval church chroniclers.
Born in about 1200, Matthew joined the Benedictine order at Saint Albans in 1217, became its official chronicler in 1237, and died in 1259. The work for which Matthew is most famous is the Chronica majora, or Great Chronicle, a vast history of the world that, in typical medieval fashion, extends from the time of the creation right up to Matthew’s own time. The first half or so of the Chronicle amounts to little more than Matthew’s copying and fiddling with the chronicle of his predecessor, but from 1235 forward the entries are his own—and in one commonly consulted English translation they fill three five-hundred-page volumes. Yet despite its size the Chronicle is a wonderfully good read.
Matthew wrote and wrote and wrote. Keeping him properly supplied with writing materials alone was a tall order. In the thirteenth century the production of a book—that is, a manuscript scratched out with goose quill and ink, on page after page of parchment—amounted to a significant investment of a monastery’s capital. A single book might well consume the skins from a whole flock of sheep. But Matthew’s output justified this investment; it brought Saint Albans great renown, even during Matthew’s own lifetime.
Matthew was more than just a writer. He was also a gifted artist who illustrated his work with everything from tiny doodlings to lavishly executed portraits. Biblical figures, ancient emperors, popes, European kings, saints, monks, martyrs, battles, shipwrecks, eclipses, exotic animals—they all come to life on Matthew’s pages, and not just as frivolous additions to his text. They were an integral part of his chronicle. “I desire and wish,” he wrote, “that what the ear hears the eyes may see.”
That brief reference to hearing, rather than reading, serves as a useful reminder: in thirteenth-century England reading was primarily an oral act, not a silent one. Monks in monastery libraries read aloud to themselves, and the din they created would have exasperated modern library patrons. Matthew read to himself, to his fellow monks, and to special guests visiting the monastery, and what he offered his readers and listeners was a captivating mix of words and pictures. “Turning the pages of Matthew’s Chronica majora,” one modern historian has written, “is like opening the door of a great abbey cupboard, from which spills forth a rich succession of disparate images and objects, each conjuring up its own compelling story from the past, so that each event again becomes visually ‘present.’ ”
The great abbey cupboard. That’s a critical image to keep in mind when trying to make sense of the jumble of disparate ideas and images that one encounters in the works of Matthew and other medieval writers—especially in their maps.
* * *
MATTHEW HAD a passion for maps. He drew them throughout his adult life, following a number of traditional models, and those that survive provide a remarkably useful survey of the different ways in which educated medieval Europeans imagined and depicted the world.
One of the main sources from which Matthew received his geographical ideas was the hugely popular and influential Etymologies, by Saint Isidore of Seville: a vast compendium of ancient and medieval learning, written in the seventh century a.d. Throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, Europeans considered Isidore one of their most trusted authorities. He began the geographical section of his Etymologies by situating his readers cosmically. “The earth,” he wrote, “is placed in the central region of the cosmos, standing fast in the center, equidistant from all other parts of the sky.” This age-old conception of the world—as a sphere that sat motionless at the center of the universe, with the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars all revolving around it—was one that medieval authors often diagrammed in their works, and Matthew was no exception (Figure 6).
Medieval Europeans, even the most learned of geographers among them, are to this day often described as having believed that the world was flat.
But this simply isn’t true. Thanks in large part to the labors of Arab astronomers and mathematicians, ancient Greek proofs of the earth as spherical had survived into the Middle Ages and were circulating in Europe—and at some point early in the thirteenth century an English scholar known as John of Holywood, or Sacrobosco, laid them out in an astronomical treatise appropriately titled The Sphere. For centuries afterward the work would be taught and studied in schools and universities around Europe. “If the earth were flat from east to west,” Sacrobosco wrote, “the stars would rise as soon for Westerners as for Orientals, which is false. Also, if the earth were flat from north to south, and vice versa, the stars that were always visible to anyone would continue to be so wherever he went, which is false. But it seems flat to human sight because it is so extensive.” Sailors certainly knew the world was round: a lookout at the top of a ship’s mast, Sacrobosco pointed out, always catches sight of land before a lookout standing at the foot of the mast—“and there is no other explanation of this thing,” Sacrobosco wrote, “than the bulge of the water.” Copies of The Sphere almost invariably included a small drawing illustrating this concept (Figure 7).
Another source that would have helped determine Matthew’s geographical outlook, and one that he had access to in the library at Saint Albans, was the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, by the fifth-century Roman writer Macrobius. The work—which for a full millennium after it was written would be used widely as a textbook in Europe—parsed The Dream of Scipio, a phantasmagoric musing on the world and its place in the cosmos, written some five centuries earlier by the Roman political philosopher Cicero. From a vantage point high up in the heavens, a character in Cicero’s work had described the earth just as Isidore would later do, fixed at the center of the universe, but had also drifted in for a closer look. “You will observe,” he declared, imagining the world as it would look from space,
Macrobius elaborated at considerable length on this division of the world in his Commentary, which contained a simple diagram. Today known as a zonal map, it showed the world as a circle, divided up into the five zones described by Cicero: two frigid zones, in the north and south; two temperate (or habitable) zones, closer to the center; and a torrid zone that wrapped around the earth’s equatorial regions. Zonal maps were drawn and studied often during the Middle Ages, and Matthew, of course, produced his own version (Figure 8).
As Matthew’s zonal map clearly shows, the northern temperate zone—which, following the practice of Arab geographers, Matthew placed at the bottom of his map—contains the whole of the world as the ancients had described it and as medieval Europeans still knew it. Isidore of Seville succinctly described its makeup in his Etymologies. “It is divided into three parts,” he wrote, “one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa.” To accompany this description, Isidore, or one of his early copyists, drew a rudimentary diagram, and for centuries after his death permutations of this diagram, known today as a T-O map, would adorn European encyclopedias, chronicles, religious texts, and travelogues (Figure 9). Matthew knew T-O maps well and drew a number of them in his work (Figure 10).
The standard T-O map places the world within a circular frame (hence the O). That frame represents the ocean as Cicero had described it: an all-encompassing body of water that washed every shore of the known world. Asia, the biggest continent, occupies the top half of the circle; Europe and Africa share the bottom. Dividing the three continents are two lines that meet at a right angle in the middle of the map (hence the T). These represent three bodies of water: the Mediterranean, separating Europe from Africa; the River Nile, believed to separate Africa from Asia; and the River Don, in Russia, separating Europe from Asia.
As a whole, the T-O scheme concisely and effectively represents the world as medieval Europeans knew it. But at a certain level the scheme is disconcerting to the modern eye, because it puts east at the top of the map. Today north would be the natural choice, but that’s an arbitrary convention, and in Matthew’s time it had yet to come into being. East, in fact, had primacy of place in medieval Europe—which is why so many modern European languages still use a form of the word orient to describe getting one’s bearings.
As the direction from which the sun rose, East represented the origin of things. (Oriens, the Latin root of orient, means “rising.”) The Old Testament is built on this foundation. God planted the Earthly Paradise and its four great rivers “eastward in Eden,” the Book of Genesis explains, and those waters nourished the world by flowing from East to West. “The glory of the God of Israel,” reads the Book of Ezekiel, “came from the way of the east.” The New Testament develops this theme: a star in the east announces the birth of Christ, who later dies on the Cross facing west. (Occidens, the Latin root of occident, means “falling” or “dying,” and can refer to the setting sun.) The symbolic meanings of east and west in early Christian theology were set out clearly by the fourth-century church father Lactantius. God, he wrote,
* * *
THE EARLIEST SURVIVING T-O maps, which appear in eighth-century copies of Isidore’s Etymologies, aren’t invested with any such Christian symbolism. They’re simple diagrams that seem based on a model that dates back at least to imperial Roman times (although no examples survive). They were a way of signifying the extent of not just the known world but also the world that the Romans aspired to rule: a world that the first Roman emperor, Augustus, described as “a global empire to which all peoples, monarchs, nations … consent.”
After Christianity became the official religion of Rome, in the fourth century, the idea of Christendom came into being: a global Christian empire with Rome as its capital. In the centuries that followed, Christian mapmakers in Europe invested their simple T-O maps with increasingly complex layers of symbolism. Europe’s Christian rulers, for example, began to be depicted sitting on thrones and holding T-O globes in their hands: an imperial pose that would fast become a Christian archetype, used for centuries to represent not only political rulers but also Christ himself. Matthew drew many different rulers, both ancient and modern, in this pose (Figure 11).
The very shape of the T-O map lent itself naturally to a specifically Christian kind of symbolism: the O called to mind a Biblical description of God sitting “enthroned above the circle of the earth,” and the T called to mind the tau, a mystical Greek letter that, according to Isidore, symbolized the cross. Inevitably, given these overtones, Christian mapmakers began to see the T in their T-O maps as representing not just the bodies of water that divided the three continents but also the cross that Christ had died on to bring them together (Plate 2). The symbolism was irresistible. What better way to convey the idea of the Trinity—a self-contained whole divided into three—than with a T-O map? “Most appropriate is this division of the earth into three parts,” wrote the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, whose work Matthew also had access to at Saint Albans. “For it has been endowed with faith in the Holy Trinity and instructed by the Gospels.”
The topography of the world also began to take on a distinctly Christian aspect on medieval world maps. “Paradise is a place lying in the eastern parts,” Isidore told his readers. By Matthew’s time most European geographical authorities gave the Earthly Paradise an actual location in the world; if it was earthly, after all, it had to be somewhere. Generally they placed it at the easternmost limits of the East, at the very edge of their maps, the part of the world where the sun rose and where time had begun. Jerusalem, for its part, gradually became not only the spiritual but geometrical center of the world, as dicated by the Bible. “This is Jerusalem,” God declares in the Book of Ezekiel, “which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.” The city even became identified with the Greek word omphalos, or “navel”—the geographical point on the earth where the gods made contact with the world to provide humankind with spiritual nourishment. This idea entered mainstream Christian thought in the fifth century, when an influential Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate described the center of the world, in the Book of Ezekiel, as the umbilicus terrae: the navel of the earth.
Medieval geographers also begin to fill out their T-O maps with topographical and historical information, and by Matthew’s time an elaborate and highly stylized kind of world map had come into being. These maps are often described collectively as mappaemundi (Latin for “maps of the world”)—and, needless to say, one survives in Matthew’s hand (Figure 12).
Following the T-O model, Matthew placed east at the top of his map. The west coast of continental Europe appears at the bottom left of the map, and above it, as one looks from west to east, are Germany (“Alemania”), the Alps, and then a thick, stubby Italy. To the east and south (up and to the right) of Italy are Cyprus and Sicily, in the Mediterranean. Across the Mediterranean to the south is Africa, and to the east is Asia—on the west coast of which, occupying a lonely perch at the edge of the unknown East, is Jerusalem. Occupying the whole top portion of the map is Asia, which Matthew considered enough of a blank to fill in with notes to himself.
In terms of geographical accuracy, Matthew’s map is a dud. It doesn’t get even the basic contours of Europe right; it places legendary, biblical, and modern places side by side; and it doesn’t try to come to terms with Africa and Asia. But geographical accuracy wasn’t Matthew’s goal in drawing this map, at least not as we now understand the term.
Remember that Matthew drew so that “what the ear hears the eyes may see.” His maps were no exception. Like many religious writers of his time, he fully recognized the power of the image as a complement to the Word. “Know,” John of Genoa wrote in a popular thirteenth-century religious dictionary known as the Catholicon, “that there were three reasons for the institution of images in churches. First, for the instruction of simple people, because they are instructed by them as if by books. Second, so that the mystery of the incarnation and the examples of the Saints may be the more active in our memory through being presented daily to our eyes. Third, to excite feelings of devotion, these being aroused more effectively by things seen than by things heard.”
This description suits the function of the mappaemundi well. They, too, were designed for spiritual instruction and contemplation. They were devotional objects, guides to the divine cosmic order of things. Their picture of the world served as a backdrop onto which the various historical, religious, and symbolic coordinates of human history could be plotted: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark on Mount Ararat, the Jews being dragged off to Babylon, Alexander the Great venturing into India, the Romans conquering Europe, Christ returning to Jerusalem, the Apostles spreading the Gospel to the most distant reaches of the earth, and much more. An “accurate” world map, in other words, had to orient its viewers not only in space but also in time.
Today the word mappamundi is used exclusively to refer to maps. But Matthew and his contemporaries used it more broadly. It could mean not only a visual depiction of the world but also a written description of it—a text very much like Matthew’s Chronicle, that is. It traced the march of human history—scripted in advance by God at the beginning of time—from its origins in the East to its present state in the West. A map was a visual history; a history was a textual map; and each, like that great abbey cupboard, was stuffed full of disparate signs and symbols that, contemplated together, allowed believers to imagine seeing their places in history and the world as God could see them.
* * *
ONE OF THE notes that Matthew wrote on Asia on his world map records that the map was actually just “a reduced copy” of a mappamundi that he had seen elsewhere. He didn’t say what map this was, but without a doubt it resembled some of the gorgeous thirteenth-century Christian mappaemundi that do survive. Among them is the so-called Psalter Map, drawn in England in 1265 (Plate 1).
The Psalter Map has it all. It merges the image of an imperial Christ with many of the typical elements of medieval cartography: Christ hovers above the Earth holding a T-O globe in his hand, and below him is the three-part world in full, itself laid out according to the T-O scheme. At the top of the map, at the eastern limits of Asia, is the Earthly Paradise, just below the rising sun, with the faces of Adam and Eve clearly visible inside its walls. Europe appears at the bottom-left of the map, at the world’s western edge—and at the center of everything is the holy city of Jerusalem, a bull’seye target for Christians to set their sights on. Another mappamundi of the period, known as the Lambeth Palace map, depicts that very same vision of the world but takes its symbolism one step further (Figure 13). Here Christ not only surveys and embraces the world but also literally embodies it. His head appears at the top of the map, at the beginning of the East, alongside the Earthly Paradise. His hands appear at the north and south, representing an embrace of the whole world from north to south. Almost at the center of the map, where Christ’s navel would be, is Jerusalem: the omphalos, the navel of the world. Finally, at the bottom of the map, in the west, are his feet, extending out into the ocean in the west and representing the end of both history and geography.
The Psalter Map contains other features typical of the elaborate mappaemundi produced in Matthew’s time. At its southern edge, for example, at the limits of Africa, are the monstrous races. Part human and part beast, the monstrous races had been famously cataloged in the first century by the Roman authority Pliny the Elder, in a vast and comprehensive work called the Natural History. This catalog had been embellished and popularized some two centuries later by another Roman writer, Julius Solinus, in his Gallery of Wonderful Things. Both works circulated widely in the Middle Ages and greatly influenced the ways in which Europeans imagined the distant parts of the world and their inhabitants.
Medieval artists often drew the monstrous races, and their fanciful depictions are enthralling to contemplate (Figure 14). As described by Pliny, Solinus, and others, the monstrous races included the Amazons (warrior women who cut off their right breast in order better to pull back the arrows in their bows); the Anthropophagi (cannibals); the Astomi (mouthless beings who derived most of their sustenance from sniffing apples); the Blemmyae (beings with no head or neck, whose faces were in their chests), the Cyclopes (the one-eyed race made famous by Homer); the Cynocephali (dog-headed beings who communicated by barking); the Ethiopians (whose faces had been burned black by the heat of the sun); the Panoti (whose ears were so large their owners had to hold them in their hands, and could use them to fly); and the Sciopods (a one-legged race with feet large enough to be used as umbrellas).
Reading about the monstrous races, and seeing them in illustrations and on maps, medieval readers were able to enjoy a form of lowbrow entertainment not unlike the one provided by modern tabloid accounts of various human monstrosities. But for Christian thinkers they posed a serious theological concern. What was their nature? Should they be considered human? This wasn’t an idle question. If the monstrous were human, then they would have to be sought out and converted before the End of Days could come to pass. “This gospel of the kingdom,” the Gospel of Matthew proclaimed, “shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
The Psalter Map also contains another typical feature of late-medieval mappaemundi. At the northeast limits of Asia, behind a great wall, is the realm of Gog and Magog: a race of diabolical warriors, sometimes identified with one of the original tribes of the Jews. According to the Book of Revelation, the forces of Gog and Magog would at some point be united by the Antichrist and led on an apocalyptic rampage against the world’s Christians. Popular medieval legend had it that during his great eastern campaign Alexander the Great had encountered Gog and Magog and trapped them behind a distant mountain range, to the north of the Caspian Sea—a story recounted, for example, in the widely read medieval Romance of Alexander. But everybody knew that Alexander’s efforts had only forestalled the inevitable. Sooner or later, Gog and Magog, or the “enclosed Jews,” as they were sometimes known, would burst out of captivity and begin to wreak havoc on the world.
The idea of the Apocalypse haunted Matthew, who believed, as many of his contemporaries did, that the arrival of the Antichrist and the end of the world were imminent. The mappaemundi told him this was so, in words and in pictures. From its starting point in the East—at the top of the map and at the beginning of time—human history had marched steadily westward: through the barbaric wilds of Asia, through the ever more civilized regions of Greece and Rome, through the Holy Land, and finally into Europe. All signs now suggested to Matthew that this long march was approaching its end—as the twelfth-century chronicler Bishop Otto of Freising had declared not long before Matthew was born.
At Saint Albans, perched precariously at the very western edge of the world, in England, Matthew felt history and geography bearing down on him. The world would end in 1250, he decided, and he might well live to see the arrival of Gog and Magog.
* * *
AS IT WAS for most Latin Christians, Jerusalem was the focal point of Matthew’s geographical imagination. But during the years that Matthew was writing his Chronicle and making his maps, Jerusalem and most of the Holy Land were in Muslim hands, despite more than a century’s worth of Crusading efforts to win them back.
The First Crusade had been a success. Launched in 1095, it was the Latin West’s response to a call for help sent by the Christians of the Byzantine Empire, who found themselves under threat from the Muslim armies of the Seljuk Turks. Earlier in the century the Turks had conquered Armenia and much of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, and now seemed poised to move on Constantinople, Byzantium’s capital. For a time the First Crusade—which culminated in the capture of Jerusalem, in 1099—helped stem the tide, and the mood among the Latins was triumphant. They established a series of outposts across the Holy Land and named this new Crusader state Outremer (a French name meaning “beyond the [Mediterranean] sea”). Christians had long been making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, but now soldiers and pilgrims and travelers began to flock there in unprecedented numbers. The twelfth-century British chronicler William of Malmesbury memorably captured the scene. “The Welshman left his hunting,” he wrote, “the Scot his fellowship with lice, the Dane his drinking party, and Norwegian his warship. Lands were deserted of their husbandsmen, houses of their inhabitants, even whole cities migrated.”
These were heady times. But the Crusader presence in the Holy Land provoked Muslims throughout the Middle East to set aside many of their regional differences and fight back. Gradually, as the twelfth century progressed, Muslim armies won back many of the Holy Land’s strategically important cities, and in 1187 the armies of Egypt, led by Saladin, retook Jerusalem.
For the Latins, it was a humiliating defeat. In the centuries that followed, dreaming of once again taking possession of Jerusalem, they would send Crusade after Crusade to the Holy Land. But they would never regain control of the city.
Recognizing that Christian pilgrims were Jerusalem’s greatest source of income, Saladin and many of his successors allowed them to visit the city freely. As a result, by Matthew’s time several standard pilgrimage routes from Europe to Jerusalem had come into being, and mapmakers had begun to include them on their maps, singling out important stopping points along the way. Matthew himself drew a set of such maps and included them in his Chronicle (Figure 15). They’re a valuable record of how medieval pilgrims made their way from Europe to the Holy Land, but they’re also frustrating documents, because of how much they leave out. Matthew drew his maps as a series of destination cities for pilgrims, often separated by the French word journÉe—meaning “day,” as in a day’s travel, a usage that gave rise to the English word journey—but they reveal virtually nothing about what sort of places travelers would encounter in between those cities. They make no effort to depict Europe as a whole in a realistic way.
Why not? Because, once again, Matthew didn’t have geographical accuracy in mind. He drew his itinerary maps primarily as contemplative guides for his fellow monks—ranks of the faithful often barred by their orders from making actual voyages to the Holy Land. “Going to Jerusalem,” one monastic authority declared in the twelfth century, “is indicated for laymen but interdicted for monks.”
This seems an odd proscription. Monks were devoted Christians, so why prevent them from making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem? There was no shortage of reasons. A monastery itself was considered a religious endpoint—a garden of spiritual delights, lovingly tended by those who had renounced the physical world. “This is an image of Paradise,” one monk wrote in the twelfth century about the nature and function of a monastery: “it makes one think already of heaven.” Setting off on a long and arduous journey in search of what one already had at home just didn’t make sense.
Another problem was travel, which posed significant practical dangers. The world outside the cloister was a hazardous and ugly place. “Lord,” one monk from Canterbury wrote in 1188 after making a passage across the Alps to Rome, “restore me to my brethren, that I may tell them that they come not to this place of torment.” Worse yet, traveling the route to Jerusalem would force monks to run through an extended gauntlet of earthly vices—drink, desire, doubt—that could tempt them away from their chosen path. They’d already left all of that behind on their way to the monastery, so why suffer through it again? Even Jerusalem itself was best avoided. It was a city, Saint Anselm wrote, “not of peace but of tribulation.”
Matthew drew his itinerary maps for mental travelers, not actual ones. They provided monks with a stop-by-stop guide for a meditative voyage—from an earthly reality in Europe to a spiritual summit in Jerusalem. “Who will give us wings like the dove,” an anonymous Benedictine monk wrote in the twelfth century, “and we shall fly across all the kingdoms of the world, and we shall penetrate the depths of the eastern sky? Who will then conduct us to the city of the great King?”
Matthew’s maps represented an effort to answer this call. They portrayed the world as God had created it, as God alone could see it when he surveyed it from above or held it in his hand. Human history had made the long march from East to West, and, God willing, a Crusade would once again win back Jerusalem. The course of events, as Matthew had laid it out on his maps and in his Chronicle, seemed clear.
Then came the Mongols.
© 2009 Toby Lester
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