Today there is no time to do more than point you at a cool thing I found out about, as tomorrow I am teaching all day then going to Gatwick to get on an early-morning flight to China. Please forgive a post with very minimal research behind it, therefore, but I hope you’ll agree it is cool. I know about it only by the thinnest of margins anyway; I stubbed this post in May 2016 after having done some minimal web-searching after processing notes that I still had waiting for filing from a paper of Ildar Garipzanov’s in 2010, which I even blogged about here.1 Apparently, when I was recalling that paper fresh, I did not remember that I had that day learned about the existence of the Albi mappa mundi, but I had, and my notes reminded me, so now so can you.
It turns out that it’s been long enough that not only has the site I originally meant to link you to disappeared, but in the interim the manuscript’s owners have apparently had an exhibition about it, which is already over, but from which I can also give you a somewhat over-dramatised video. They apparently wouldn’t show the actual manuscript, because of fears of light damage, and given how dulled it seems to be that’s probably fair enough, but still doesn’t justify the whole ‘secrets of Tutankhamun’ vibe they’re trying to give their archive here. But hey; I’m sure I’d do the same in their position, and it looks informative.
For those of you who don’t have that kind of French or prefer not to watch videos or both, though, let me briefly talk you round this thing. It is an apparently-eighth-century map of the world, which exists in the back of a miscellany of geographic, historical and theological texts, almost all excerpts from larger works, a few pages each literally removed from various different original manuscripts in a riot of Visigothic and late Merovingian hands; there was knowledge collection going on somewhere, but someone collected this from several different collection efforts. This I know because the whole manuscript is digitised, with a really good viewer, so you can have a proper search, although there’s almost no metadata so you have to be willing to figure out the contents from first sight. I don’t know enough about these scripts, but if we assume that the people who catalogued this knew them better than I do, the codex was being assembled at least no earlier than the late eighth century, and as far as I can see this map doesn’t belong to any of its texts but was drawn on the back of a spare leaf and then bound in between a bit of a pentitential and a geographically-organised list of river names, none of which, I might add, are in the volume’s early modern contents list. So I think there is a lot more work to do on how this manuscript got together.
Despite that, here is a map of the world, and that world is mainly the Mediterranean. You’re looking from west to east in the book’s orientation, with Straits of Gibraltar nearest you, Gaul on the left and something that ought to be Britain but whose label I can’t read left of that. Beyond Britain is ‘Gotia‘, which I suppose is Germany and Scandinavia, while on the inner coast we pass round to Italy and then Thrace. Beyond Thrace and Gothia it’s just barbari, then Armenia, for some reason written upside down vis-à-vis everything else, and finally at the outside edge, India. Around from there we have the Euphrates and the Tigris, the land of the Medes (which is not Persia, because that’s still coming), Babylonia, Persia, and then closer into the known, Antioch and Judæa with Arabia lying outside them, the Ganges for some reason running from the Red Sea into Ethiopia, and meanwhile on through Egypt and back up the southern Mediterranenan to Mauretania and the Straits.
What catches my imagination about this is firstly what’s missing—the political units, mainly, so much that we have no Romania for the Byzantine Empire or any mention of the Islamic world as an entity. There is presumably some older model behind this, but I haven’t had time to go find out what.2 Then, secondly, it’s where it gives up: not only is there nothing beyond India, which if it’s real at all is just about Afghanistan and Bactria, or beyond Babylonia, or indeed Ethiopia, but there’s no sense that those places all border on the same sea, so are somehow linked. These were the edges of the artist’s knowledge, and that was so thorough a stop that he or she could just draw them in as coastlines, rather than places with their own geography.3
There are probably a dozen more things to say about this image, which maybe someone who knows it will be able to contribute in comments, but this is all I have time for today. It’s about as early a picture of the world that shows any sense of geographical, rather than religious, layout as I know about, and it’s from my meridional patch, so I feel as if I should have known anyway, but now I do, a bit, and so therefore can you. Enjoy!
1. Ildar Garipzanov, “Graphicacy and Authority in Early Medieval Europe: graphic signs of power and faith”, paper presented at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 6th October 2010.
2. My local expert has recommended me to the work of Maja Kominko, and specifically her “The Map of Cosmas, the Albi Map, and the Tradition of Ancient Geography” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 20 (London 2005), pp. 163-185 at pp. 170-174, though she seems not to have been using the actual manuscript, but in any case she doesn’t address any of my questions here. A seminar was held on the map in 2016, whose comptes rendus are online here, and although only one or two people there seem to have been looking at the whole manuscript one of them, Marc Smith, does conclude that the hand here is probably also behind quite a lot of the rest of the manuscript, so it was presumably all done together. He also doesn’t dispute the date, though he emphasises how hard it is to date such scripts. Still…
3. Obviously influential on me here is Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography“, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking Medieval Maps’, 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015, which I blogged about here, but those of you not present there will soon be able to consult eadem, “Seen from across the sea: India in the Byzantine worldview” in Leslie Brubaker, Darley and Daniel Reynolds (edd.), Global Byzantium: Proceedings of the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies (London forthcoming), which apparently presents some of the same ideas.