Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.07

Richard J. A. Talbert, Richard W. Unger (ed.), Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods. Technology and Change in History, v. 10.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xix, 299; [16] p. of plates.  ISBN 9789004166639.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen, University of Southern Denmark
Word count: 1890 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers in this book derive from a Medieval studies workshop held at the University of British Columbia in October 2005. Their origin is reflected both in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon background of the authors and the predominantly medieval nature of the topics, but there is much to interest the classicist as well. The disposition of the book is loosely chronological. The first three chapters -- the introduction by the editors, Richard Talbert on Greek and Roman mapping, and Patrick Dalché on the medieval reception of ancient cartography -- offer an introductory overview of the subject and its research history. This is followed by three studies of ancient or early Medieval maps (Jennifer Trimble on the Severan plan of Rome, Tom Elliott and Emily Albu on the Peutinger map), six on early and high Medieval cartography and perceptions of the world, and two final chapters (Raymond Clemens and Camille Serchuk) on maps in late Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

The book does not, and does not claim to, provide a comprehensive survey of ancient and medieval cartography; rather, it offers a series of case studies of specific questions, problems, or maps, united by the common theme and, in some cases, a common approach. Talbert and Dalché share a historiographical approach to their subject. According to Talbert (pp. 9-27), the publication of the first volume of the The History of Cartography in 1987 marked a watershed in the study of premodern cartography and a break with earlier historians of cartography who "limited themselves to elucidating the content of individual maps for fellow historians and collectors. Otherwise, they had no organizational principle, no philosophy, no impetus to range further" (p. 10-11). To underpin his uncharitable assessment, one might expect the author to point out the advances represented by the publication of theThe History of Cartography, but in fact the following pages are devoted to a severe critique of the chapters by O.A.W. Dilke in the first volume of The History of Cartography. Talbert's criticism of Dilke is up close and personal ("hasty", "credulous", "sense of frustration", "lack of hesitation", "minimum of discussion") and fails to take full account of Dilke's previous scholarly achievements.

The chapter by Dalché (pp. 29-66) is longer in extent and historiographical scope, starting with the work of Konrad Miller (1844-1933). As Dalché correctly points out, to understand the approach of Miller we must view his work against the background of nineteenth-century positivism, evolutionism and Quellenforschung; thus Dalché 's scathing methodological criticism is directed more at the intellectual environment of the fin de siècle than at Miller himself -- whom he suspects to have been motivated by a personal "besoin de prendre une revanche sur l'Université" (p. 39). Interestingly, this, the only non-English chapter in the volume, is also the only one where the contribution of Gerald R. Crone to the history of cartography is acknowledged. Crone's compact Maps and their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography (1953, not in the bibliography) certainly went a good deal further than "elucidating the content of individual maps".

Two papers are entirely devoted to the Tabula Peutingeriana, which also figured prominently in the contributions by Talbert and Dalché. It is generally acknowledged that the Tabula as we now have it (Codex Vindobonensis 324) is a medieval copy, possibly produced in the scriptorium of the abbey at Colmar around AD 1200, of an earlier prototype. But how much older was the prototype? Based on the place-name forms in the Tabula, the scholarly consensus favours a date for the compilation of the TP, in the fourth century AD. Emily Albu, however, argues for her hypothesis that the prototype was created as late as the early ninth century in the scriptorium of Reichenau abbey, and furthermore, that the surviving copy (= Codex Vindobonensis 324) was likewise produced in Reichenau on the Bodensee, not in Colmar on the Rhine. Albu's theory has been rejected by most scholars, in this volume, by Talbert (p. 21) and Dalché (pp. 47-49), whereas Elliott (p. 101) refuses to commit himself. It is difficult, indeed, to see how the monks of ninth-century Reichenau would have found the information required for a vast compilation such as the TP, or why they should take a detailed interest in the geography of, e.g., Cyprus or Egypt. Precisely the question of local interest is adduced by Albu in support of her theory: among the mountain ranges of the TP, only two--the Vosges and the Black Forest--are identified as silvae and embellished by vignettes of trees. Yet this argument cuts both ways. If it is accepted that the trees on the TP are a scribe's attempt to depict his immediate surroundings, then the special interest in the Vosges and the Black Forest points to Colmar on the Rhine, rather than Reichenau on the Bodensee, as the place of origin of the present Codex. With his characteristic attention to detail, however, Konrad Miller has pointed out (Itineraria Romana [1916], pp. xlvi-xlvii) that some of the trees in question resemble cypresses, palms or umbrella pines, none of which are found in the Rhineland. This observation -- which is not discussed by Albu -- suggests that the hilltop vegetation is merely a pictographic gloss for the word silva, added by a scribe who was not familiar with the trees and forests of the temperate zone, and was content to insert the kind of subtropical vegetation found in his Mediterranean homeland.

The Tabula Peutingeriana also forms the topic of Tom Elliott's contribution describing the ongoing project, at Chapel Hill, of digitizing the TP. Since this is a presentation of coming attractions rather than past results, it is too early for an assessment, but all students of ancient cartography will agree that "a replacement for" Miller's Itineraria Romana "is long overdue" though not necessarily that Miller's "predilection for roads and route networks has served to overshadow many of the map's other features" (p. 103).

Important as it is, the Tabula Peutingeriana is not our richest source for ancient cartography, neither in terms of extent nor the number of place-names. That distinction goes to the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, compiled at Alexandria in the later second century AD, but based on the work of first-century predecessors. With good reason or without it, Ptolemy has been reckoned the greatest cartographer of the classical world. Remarkably, none of the papers in this book dealing with Antiquity take his work into consideration, and Ptolemy makes his first appearance in the chapter by Rapoport and Savage-Smith (pp. 121-138) on the "Book of Curiosities", an Islamic world description of c. 1200 acquired by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as recently as 2002. Like the paper by Elliott, this presents work in progress, but even from the fairly brief description provided by the two authors, it seems clear that this text will add new perspectives to our understanding of the reception of Ptolemy in the Arab world and the development of the medieval world-view. It also provides tantalizing evidence for the possible use of mathematically plotted maps in this poorly documented period in the history of cartography. The two following papers by Kominko (139-153) and Kedar (pp. 155-168) likewise explore the interplay of classical, Islamic and Hebrew traditions in medieval cosmology and geography.

With the chapter on "Maps and panegyrics" by Natalia Lozovsky (pp. 169-188) we return, at least briefly, to the classical world and the panegyric of Eumenius, given at Autun in the 290s AD, and describing a map of the Empire located in that city. To name a thing is to own it, and to describe something is in a certain sense to appropriate it; thus from an early date, cartography was used to express imperial power, as in the wall map of the Empire set up by Agrippa in Rome (possibly the prototype for the Autun map) or the city map of Rome carved in marble during the first decade of the third century AD and discussed in the paper by Jennifer Trimble (pp. 67-97). Unfortunately, the Severan marble plan is only fragmentarily preserved, that of Agrippa and its Autun counterpart not preserved at all. The main interest of Lozovsky, however, is not in the physical map as such but in the symbolic and decorative use of cartography to illustrate imperial or kingly power--sometimes in a rather heavy-handed manner: Adela, countess of Blois (c. 1100 AD) allegedly had a map of the world on the floor of her bedroom (p. 182).

The following papers also discuss medieval representations of the world: Lucy Donkin (pp. 189-217) takes two northern Italian floor mosaics as her point of departure for an analysis of medieval maps of the extremes of the world, while Evelyn Edson (pp. 219-236) discusses different types of medieval world maps. Like Dalché, Edson is critical of positivistic attempts to classify early and high medieval maps in neat compartments, or to trace them back to one particular source, "Isidorian" or "Orosian". Fata habent sua mappae, and medieval mapmakers were perfectly able to combine more than one vision of the world into a new map. Fate, too, has taken a hand in misleading Brill's printers into transposing Edson's plates VIII and IX, but fortunately, the error is immediately evident from the Latin captions included on the two illustrations. The final papers by Raymond Clemens (pp. 237-256) and Camille Serchuk (257-276) deal with the use of maps in late medieval and renaissance Italy and France.

Like many conference volumes, this book is at once more and less than the sum of its parts. Devoting no space to pre-Classical cartography and few pages to the Greek tradition, it does not really provide the comprehensive overview of its subject that the main title implies. But taken together, the individual papers fulfill the promise of the sub-title: "Fresh perspectives, new methods". New ideas, new approaches, even new sources are put forward, and the ideas of previous generations rejected. The papers are generally well argued and copiously annotated. As a source of inspiration for new scholars in the field, this volume deserves to find a place in research libraries.

List of contents:

Introduction, by Richard Talbert and Richard W. Unger
Greek and Roman Mapping: Twenty-First Century Perspectives, by Richard Talbert
L'Heritage Antique de la Cartographie Médiévale: Les Problemes et les Acquis, by Patrick Gautier Dalché
Process and Transformation on the Severan Marble Plan of Rome, by Jennifer Trimble
Constructing a Digital Edition for the Peutinger Map, by Tom Elliott
Rethinking the Peutinger Map, by Emily Albu
The Book of Curiosities and a Unique Map of the World, by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith
New Perspectives on Paradise -- The Levels of Reality in Byzantine and Latin Medieval Maps, by Maja Kominko
Rashi's Map of the Land of Canaan, ca. 1100, and Its Cartographic Background, by Benjamin Z. Kedar
Maps and Panegyrics: Roman Geo-Ethnographical Rhetoric in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, by Natalia Lozovsky
"Usque ad Ultimum Terrae" : Mapping the Ends of the Earth in Two Medieval Floor Mosaics, by Lucy E.G. Donkin
Maps in Context: Isidore, Orosius and the Medieval Image of the World, by Evelyn Edson
Medieval Maps in a Renaissance Context: Gregory Dati and the Teaching of Geography in Fifteenth-Century Florence, by Raymond Clemens
Cartes et Chroniques: Mapping and History in Early Medieval France, by Camille Serchuk
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