Unicorns and narwhals

Egg beater shark

A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, Lisa Deam (Cascade Books)

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. The Cassini Projection (a part of which is used as the UN’s logo) is a challenging world map that has two centres, the poles, and distorts continents accordingly. It is not that a ‘normal’ world map doesn’t distort, it is just that the distortions happen in places where there is less population (the poles and the oceans). The Cassini Projection renders the poles far more accurately – think how pretty much useless the stretched coastline of Antarctica is on a traditional world map.

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, and 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, 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 galaxy.) 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 fantastical 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.


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