Saturday, January 2, 2010

Breaking the Master Narrative, Part 5

I’m a little ambivalent about the whole idea of the GPS unit. On one hand they’re extremely useful. I recently made a last-minute decision to drive down to Indianapolis on a Friday night. All I had to do to get to where I wanted to go was plug the address in to my Magellan and follow the green line straight to my destination. On the other hand they don’t exactly promote an understanding about the places we’re going or the places we’ve been. I recently made a last minute decision to drive down to Indianapolis, a city I haven’t been to in years. I plugged in the address and followed the green line straight to my destination. It was only after I got there that I realized that I knew exactly where I was and how to get home, but I had no idea where that place was in relation to the rest of the world. I couldn’t have even told you what part of Indianapolis I was in. It seems that every car I see these days has a GPS either in the dash or stuck to the window. We’re coming to rely on them in a way that worries me, since it means we’re losing the ability to navigate without assistance. Just follow the green line and turn where the unit says to turn. The world matters far less than the route. I remember learning how to plan out a trip from my dad. We’d decide to go somewhere and he’d pull out the road atlas or the six-county road book and plot all the necessary turns, figure out the miles, and then determine how long it would take to get there. I worked in a gas station for a while in high school and people would regularly stop in to ask for directions. It forced me to learn more about the streets of my town than I’d have ever felt necessary. It also forced me to learn how to place myself on a map and navigate to another part of that map. Now the GPS figures all of that out for us. It even tells us how long before we can answer that age old question: “Are we there yet?” The GPS is a sign that we might be progressing technologically, but in a way we’re actually regressing. In order to explain that it’s we need to go and meet a new character in our little adventure through the world of maps. One of the most prolific writers (that we know of) of the medieval period was a 13th Century British monk named Matthew Paris. He often illustrated his writings and seems to have been particularly fond of maps. And thanks to the British Library’s Online Gallery I can share many of those maps with you.[1] Paris is responsible for part of at least one mappa mundi. The mappae mundi[2] were the natural evolution of the T and O map. They were an attempt to fill in the parts of the world with useful information. Some were amazing works of art. As aids to understanding the appearance of the world, well, some were amazing works of art. (For the record, if I had a print of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi I would hang it on the wall with no qualms.) Take, for instance, the Hereford Mappa Mundi. It loses the distinct T form of the T and O, but the composition is still fairly obviously the same. The Mediterranean Sea divides the lower half of the map in to quadrants with Europe on the left and Africa on the right. The dark circle at the very center of the map represents Jerusalem while I’d hazard a guess that the circle at the very top is Eden. Scattered throughout are the locations of cities[3] and images of fantastical beasts and members of the monstrous races.[4] On the lower left of the map there’s even a depiction of the British Isles. They’ve been completely distorted to fit with the map, but they’re there. The interesting thing is that by the time of the Hereford Mappa Mundi it was known what the British Isles looked like. Take a look at the Tiberius Map. It’s an 11th Century Anglo-Saxon map that breaks the O part of the T and O scheme, but otherwise fits. It also shows the British Isles correctly, if a bit distorted and way too big. This also takes us back to Matthew Paris. He created an actual map of Great Britain that looks surprisingly accurate. The difference between Paris's map of Great Britain and the Hereford's goes back to the purpose that was originally given to the maps: to tell the story of god’s activities in the world.[5] And to understand that we must go to a completely different set of maps that can be found in the works of Matthew Paris. He wrote a series of itinerary maps. These were simple maps that consisted of cities and the roads between them, each representing a day’s journey. The purpose of the whole enterprise was to create an itinerary for a pilgrimage from London to Jerusalem. Given the limited goal of the maps they needed very little information, making these maps the GPS units of their day. Imagine the cast of characters from the Canterbury Tales following a similar itinerary map while telling their tales to each other to pass the time on an otherwise boring walk down a long and muddy road. Itinerary maps served a second function. They allowed the monks that created them, who were discouraged from traveling lest they be distracted by the temptations of the world, to follow along on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For the monks in the medieval world it truly was not the destination that mattered, but the journey. So try to put yourself in the mindset of the medieval world. Measurements are human based and not abstract concepts. Rather than miles or kilometers distances are measured according to how far a person can walk in a day and maps are created to show what cities they should find at the end of that day.[6] And everything was designed to focus the minds and hearts of the people on that all-consuming world navel: Jerusalem. What changed? How did we go from the mappae mundi to the modern world atlas? For that we need to understand three P’s: Ptolemy, portolan maps, and Petrarch. But that’s a story for another day. ------------------------ [1]Think about that for just a moment. Somewhere around 750 years ago a monk attempted to depict the world while having almost no understanding of how it actually looked. He recorded his writings on parchment with ink and any copies had to be painstakingly reproduced by hand. Those writings or their copies then managed to survive for centuries before someone at the British Library took an electronic image of them, placed them on the web, and now here we are. I’m sitting in a city that was founded nearly six hundred years after Matthew Paris lived on a continent that he didn’t know existed. Yet I was able to enter his name in to a search box and find that his works are preserved on a website I didn’t know existed until an hour or so ago. And I can now share it was anyone who happens to wander by, whether they’re in Chicago, California, or Calcutta. How amazing is that? [2]”Mappa” being “map” in Latin, with the plural being “mappae.” “Mundi,” meanwhile, means “world.” Therefore, a single map of the world is a mappa mundi while a whole collection of maps of the world are mappae mundi. [3]There’s a distinct lack of attempt to separate the real from the mythical or the past from the present in the Hereford Map. While I can’t say with 100% certainty since I can barely read Latin in even the best of times (although my only real Latin skill involves being able to decipher some proper nouns if I understand the context. Therefore, reading place names on maps is something I can do) and all the images I’ve found of the map aren’t exactly legible, there’s a large structure directly between Eden and Jerusalem on two rivers that I’m reasonably certain is the Tower of Babel, therefore representing Babylon. While you could argue (successfully, might I add) that the Tower of Babel story was considered accurate by medieval monks, it was certainly possible to know that the Tower didn’t exist in the 13th Century C.E. You can even figure that out from the Bible itself. [4]And it turns out the Wikipedia is extremely helpful here. The Locations section of the Hereford page has a helpful list of interesting locations on the map. They include Noah’s Ark, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the Pillars of Herakles, King Minos' Labyrinth, and the Golden Fleece. [5]One of the interesting things that becomes fairly obvious if you look at more than one of the mappae mundi is that there are definite conventions. Compare the Ebstorf Map to the Hereford Map. The Tower of Babel appears between Jerusalem and Eden and Noah’s Ark is off to the Tower’s left, just like in the Hereford Map. There is one noticeable difference, however. Eden has been moved off to the side in the Ebstorf Map and the circle is instead occupied by the head of Christ. Who, it would appear, is whacked out on something. But this highlights another detail that appears in many of the maps of the era. Jesus is depicted as encompassing the map. His head is placed at the top, his hands off to the side, and his feet at the bottom. Jerusalem is then placed at the center and implied to be Jesus’s navel, making it the World Navel. (This, oddly enough, connects back to a post I wrote two years ago during The Mythology Project, which is kind of why I like doing this whole blogging thing. It allows me to go back and try to figure out how what I’m writing about now comes from what I’ve written about in the past.) Also, there's a pretty cool explanation of the Ebstorf Map here. [6]This insight goes back a year and a half or so to when I read Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things, a fascinating accounting of the expedition to determine the length of the meter and create the metric system. The Measure of All Things, meanwhile, is the book that started my fascination with reading the histories of single, otherwise esoteric ideas. So not only is it partially responsible for my decision to read The Fourth Part of the World, it’s also integral to my ability to understand it. Cool, huh?

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