Linking Seas and Lands in Medieval Geographic Thinking during the Crusades and the Discovery of the Atlantic World

Linking Seas and Lands in Medieval Geographic Thinking during the Crusades and the Discovery of the Atlantic World

By Christoph Mauntel

Entre mers—Outre-mer: Spaces, Modes and Agents of Indo-Mediterranean Connectivity, eds. Nikolas Jaspert, Sebastian Kolditz (Heidelberg University Publishing, 2018)

Abstract: In keeping with the two-fold approach of this volume, this paper presents a pair of case studies that elaborate on the interplay between land and sea in the Middle Ages. The first case study focuses on crusade treatises from the thirteenth century, which reveal that, due to its location between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea (or Indian Ocean), Egypt was seen as the economic backbone of the Mamluk Empire.

Thus, as suggested by the writings of William of Adam and Marino Sanudo, Egypt played a major role as a hub for trade with India. The second case study reflects on the notion that India was also reachable via the (Atlantic) Ocean (suggested, for example, by the thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon). Although this idea of the Ocean as a connective seaway was, at first, only pursued theoretically, it nevertheless reveals that land and sea were perceived as interrelated spheres of communication and travel in the period. In 1492, Christopher Columbus’s travels were seen to have made this theoretical connection a reality, as he initially believed that he had reached India via the Ocean.

Introduction: In recent years, seascapes and maritime trade routes have been the subject of extensive study. Numerous analyses have identified seas and rivers as vital (maybe even decisive) factors of economic exchange and communication. Whereas most of these studies self-consciously adopt a modern interpretative position in relation to the economic importance of seas and rivers for the period, the aim of this article is to demonstrate that medieval authors were already thinking about these aspects of geography. This begs the question: if medieval writers understood the interplay between land and sea similar to modern research, what role did the complementary character of land and sea routes actually play in medieval geographic thinking? Which seas were seen as connected, and which lands were perceived as being enclosed between seas?

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Top Image: Early 17th century map of the Atlantic Ocean by Pierre de Vaulx

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