But the way in which they mislead is extraordinarily revealing, according to Illinois Wesleyan University Emeritus Professor Dan Terkla.
Terkla has co-edited a new book about a longtime love of his: medieval maps of the world. It's called “A Critical Companion To English Mappae Mundi Of The Twelfth And Thirteenth Centuries.” His co-editor is Nick Millea, the maps librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
“There’s no such thing as an accurate map and every map is biased. If you understand the ways in which these maps were biased, then you get a better sense of how modern mapping is biased, even digital mapping,” said Terkla.
The book focuses on English world maps and how they were used by religious and powerful figures of the age. Terkla said those were the centuries the maps reached their peak in design, manufacturing, and presentation and the amount of information they present, represents how people of that age saw the world.
“They tell us quite a bit about the relationships between books and maps and the theology of the time because they were almost all made by clerics, monks, or secular clerics,” Terkla said.
“They tell us about the Roman heritage that lies behind these Christian world maps,” said Terkla. Even though the Romans had left England centuries before, “there are vestiges of Roman maps and Romans. Julius Caesar appears on one of the monumental world maps, the only one left that’s in Hereford Cathedral.” “And so, there are references like that and references to Roman cartography,” said Terkla.
“These maps really won’t get you anywhere on the earth, but they all point the way to heaven,” said Terkla.
“If you know where heaven is, you know where the Garden of Eden is, you know where the city of Jerusalem is. It’s often at the center of these maps, literally the center of the universe.
Terkla said they were guides for Christians to get an understanding of the world and its history and the unimportance of that history. And when you understood that unimportance, the maps would point the way to heaven.
Terkla said some of the biases in the clerical maps include marginalizing Jews and the so-called “monstrous peoples” by pushing them into Africa.
He said people like King Henry III of England and other noble figures used the maps to signal their own power and authority as they hung on audience and council chamber walls.
Apart from the geographical and political contexts, Terkla said early world maps are astonishing works of art. They were astonishingly expensive to create in materials and thousands of hours in labor.
“They were made by people who made books,” Terkla said. "They’re made of the same materials, they’re all painted on vellum, or some kind of parchment or animal skin. The lettering is intricate, and the handwriting is astounding. They used lapis lazuli to create the blue for water and gold leaf,” said Terkla.
The scholars who contributed to the book also lay out how libraries in England fed the complementary relationship of books and mappae mundi.
They become more elaborate from the 11th to the 13th century “in part because the libraries and monasteries and abbeys weren’t very well developed in 1066. So as the libraries accumulated more books and visual images of things, maps became more encyclopedic,” said Terkla.
After the age of exploration began in the 14th century, Terkla said, maps changed. Terkla said Portolan charts began to be developed in the 13th century. Essentially sailing directions, they were outlines of coasts as navigation aids.
“The portolan maps change everything, because accuracy became important, or something like accuracy,” he said.
Eventually came latitude and longitudinal lines and the blank spots of the interiors of land masses filled in.
Terkla hopes that map lovers can appreciate the historical content revealed in maps.
“We hope that the book is structured in such a way that it will pull people in that are both marginally interested in medieval art, medieval geography, medieval history and people in the field,” he said.
Modern technology continues to add to scholar’s understanding of these artifacts.
Terkla said a group of people involved in “The Lazarus Project” uses digital technology and multispectral imaging to resurrect artifacts.
“They can scan what seem to be erased or permanently damaged areas on maps and separate the layers of erasure, over-painting and over-writing and see things which haven’t been seen for hundreds of years,” said Terkla.
He said the whole bottom quarter of what’s called the “Vercelli Map” looked like a muddy blank.
“With multispectral imaging all the places, place names, inscriptions on the map come to the fore and are now legible," said Terkla. “It’s way cool."
“A Critical Companion To English Mappae Mundi Of The Twelfth And Thirteenth Centuries” is just out from Boydell Press.
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