A Peripheral Matter? Oceans in the East in Late Medieval Thought, Report and Cartography
Bulletin of International Medieval Research, 16, 1-40 (2010)
It is something of a truism that the Ocean Sea (mare oceanum in medieval texts and cartography) marked out a real and conceptual periphery for medieval Western Europeans. Indeed, when I delivered a version of this paper at my home university, a questioner asked how it was possible that Christopher Columbus, towards the end of the fifteenth century, should suddenly decide to sail westwards from Spain, into the unknown; surely to do so was to break through a conceptual barrier?1 Scholarly perceptions of the ocean (and in particular the Atlantic) as a geographical and conceptual boundary in the Middle Ages are built on solid medieval foundations; voyage legends like the eighth- or ninth- century account of the Irish saint Brendan, reworked and translated repeatedly through to the fifteenth century and beyond, both reinforced and capitalised on this notion. In the Navigatio sancti Brandani, the ocean voyage is imagined as a liminal phenomenon, suspended between earthly life in the terrestrial world and paradise, envisaged as an oceanic island, beyond it.
Many famous medieval maps, such as the late thirteenth-century Hereford Map and its near-contemporary, the no longer extant Ebstorf world map, can be adduced to support the ocean‟s conceptually peripheral status in this period. Nevertheless, the genesis of the paper on which this article is based lay in a simple observation: that in a corpus of detailed world maps drawn in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – the same period in which the Voyage of St Brendan and texts like it were circulating across Europe – the notion of the ocean sea as a peripheral phenomenon is repeatedly and graphically counteracted.