The Oxford map of Palestine in the work of Matthew Paris
By Evelyn Edson
Paper given at the Oxford Outremer Map Colloquium, on April 9, 2016
Introduction: Matthew Paris, or Matthew the Parisian, born about 1200, served as the chronicler of St. Albans Abbey from 1237 until his death in 1259. Unlike some other monastic chronicles, Matthew’s work is anything but dull. He was long-winded, opinionated, cranky, and interested in everything. He moves from politics at court, to the abuses of ecclesiastical power, to foreign relations, to peculiar meteorological and astronomical occurrences, to uncanny incidents.
A staunch Benedictine, he had a low opinion of other monastic orders, especially those of more recent foundation, and he was quick to condemn what he felt to be unwarranted impositions on his beloved abbey. While we know little about the details of his personal life, we know a great deal about what he thought. Toward the end of his life, feeling perhaps that he had been a little too outspoken, he attempted to censor some of his strongest statements.
He had a strong visual sense, and ornamented his text with lively drawings of Crusaders in battle, horrific martyrdoms, and perilous sea voyages. He also made copies of notable works of art, and, most important for us, he made a series of maps unprecedented in their variety and quality. Some are diagrams, such as the wind diagrams, one showing the classical twelve winds with their ancient names along with the names used by contemporary seamen.
Another diagram of the Heptarchy, the division of kingdoms in ancient Britain, is an abstract floral design, while a drawing of the four Roman roads is equally divorced from geography. He also made a sketch of a world map, which he says is a copy of one at Waltham Abbey, and notes that he also copied the king’s map at Westminster, but the latter does not survive.