Reviewed by Nick Mattiske
Maps are beautiful things: idealistic landscapes, abstracted. They are naturally skewed in focus, discerning in content, simplified. They organise a messy topography into categories. They also add things for ease of navigation (in the real world there are no contour lines on the ground). They are distorted deliberately in ways that emphasise the importance of features while lessening or eliminating others. And they orient our view in particular ways. American world maps tend to put the Americas in the middle, while European maps, Europe. An ‘upside-down’ world map makes the reader judge familiar relationships between landmasses differently.
So maps don’t just show the world as it is. The globe cannot be unrolled easily. Medieval maps may seem strange to us – oddly distorted, primitive even, with additions that seem creative but weird: monsters, imagined races, the depictions of historical and pseudo-historical events. But this is largely because we are not in medieval peoples’ mindset. Lisa Deam is a scholar of medieval maps and she helps us get into this headspace via her observations of maps including the thirteenth century Hereford Map, the largest existing medieval map.
As far as orientation goes, this map is centred on Jerusalem, not because that is where the viewers or makers resided (England) but because it is a map to aid spiritual direction. For medieval Christians Jerusalem was the centre of the world because of the events that had taken place there. The prominent size of the city also indicates its importance, just as the colouring or type of line of a road in a modern map might indicate its importance as a major arterial road. In this sense, the map is a guide to correct orientation of the soul. It orients the viewer to Jesus Christ rather than other things that people then and now build their lives around. In this book, Deam offers more than a tour of the map’s details; she suggests that the map can help modern viewers to contemplate and slow down, partly because the details of the map require time to take in, savour, understand.
At the edges of the map are speculations, in the form of illustrations of fantastical creatures, and it is only natural that the makers pondered what might lie beyond the known world. Like us, they extrapolated from what they knew, even if the extrapolations to us look wildly inventive. (Despite our society’s scientific knowledge we still ponder what might lie at the edges of our observation of the heavens.) Even if we now know that what the map-makers envisaged is not actually out there, there is still sound reasoning behind the illustrations. Races have varying skin colours, why shouldn’t some races have a different number of limbs? The monsters illustrated on the maps may seem imaginary to us, but why is a unicorn any more improbable than a narwhal?
Beyond this, the medieval world was what philosopher Charles Taylor famously refers to as an ‘enchanted’ world, where the physical and spiritual was not so conceptually separated as they are today. The map-makers are often portraying on their maps the spiritually symbolic, in contrast to the symbols on today’s maps that we barely notice as symbols. So although medieval maps may seem to be from a different world, Christians, who are attuned to symbolism, can relate to the way they make sense of the world, and as Deam suggests, we can respond to them devotionally, using them to help us head in the right spiritual direction.
Nick Mattiske works in the book trade and is the author of Notes on Books and Music (Morning Star Publishing).