Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages: Some Reflections about Anachronism
By Patrick Gautier Dalché
The Historical Review, Vol.12 (2015)
Abstract: How were maps conceived in the Middle Ages? Using the words “map”, “travel” and “exploration”, historians must be wary of anachronism. Medieval maps, like ours maps, are always materialized thought-objects and are thus interpretations of the world, inevitably variable and subject to criticism; in this respect, “modernity” has neither invented nor changed anything. The article addresses some anachronisms about the role of mappae mundi in mental journeys, their function in maritime travels and their role during the great “discoveries”; it claims that no other pre-modern civilization, except perhaps the Chinese, was ever so imbued with cartographic culture.
Introduction: In a scene from Richard Fleischer’s movie The Vikings (1958), an Englishman from Northumbria, who had escaped to Scandinavia, shows the local chiefs several maps of Britain to help them prepare their attack. Of course, this is heavily anachronistic. Norsemen never used maps or compasses. They went on expeditions relying on their exceptional ability to remember their practical knowledge of seafaring, based on dead reckoning, observation of the heavenly bodies and seabirds, whales and ice floes.
But what about us? Are we free of anachronism when we discuss maps and their purpose in the Middle Ages? The very words in the title of this article are themselves snares that can distort our understanding of the use and value of medieval maps. Thus, for many historians of cartography, it is obvious that the mappae mundi made in monasteries could not serve what we would call a “practical” purpose and were of no use for orientation in real space. And yet, is not our judgment determined by our own use of the road map, which is so highly symbolic? When we talk about “travel”, what do we mean by this? If we need a road map, for example, to go by car from Paris to Leeds, can we naively transpose into the Middle Ages an intellectual and social experience that is carried out with the technology of present-day communications?