Medieval maps can reveal tremendous details of the map-maker’s cognitive landscape. For modern man it may seem somewhat alienating that geography is the least important aspect on medieval maps, on which biblical and mythical narratives are embedded into an ahistorical world order. As fanciful as many depictions and the abstracted land mass may appear at first, some very tangible information can be deduced by pursuing an interdisciplinary ethnographic, archaeological and historical approach, demonstrating that not every fanciful adornment is in fact a chimaera of a bored silver-haired monk. Take the Ebstorf Map for instance: It is one of the most renowned medieval mappae mundi and was made in the Ebstorf monastery in the early 13th century. This map – as most medieval maps – is based on the O-T scheme, the orbis terrarum as first described by Isidor of Sevilla in the 9th century, according to which the world is subdivided into three parts: Asia, Europe and Africa, always showing the east on top. Inaccuracies in particular indicate the interference of geographic information and of existing social networks, as shall be demonstrated by the following example.
Excerpt 1 shows Livonia and the Dvina (or Daugava) River, at which banks three cities are depicted: Riga (A), Smolensk (B) and Polotsk (C). While Riga and Polotsk are indeed located at this river, Smolensk is in verity further east and not at the Dvina River but at the Dnjpr River. This inaccuracy may be owed to the fact that treaties were concluded in Smolensk in 1229 and 1250, which opened up German-Russian trade on the Dvina River between Riga and Polotsk. Thus, the mediating role of Smolensk was translated literally into a geographical dependence. But not all details are wrong. At the source of the Dvina River in Russia, a stag (D) and an aurochs (E) are depicted. Recent research by Stanford osteologist Krish Seetah has confirmed the former presence of an aurochs population in this region, which is now extinct. So it can be asserted that some factual information reached the monks in Ebstorf by travellers, merchants and crusaders and were – however distorted – included into this patchwork of a pictorial narrative, mingled with mythical and ahistorical illustrations.
Even myths may contain a grain of truth. Take the amazons in excerpt 2 in the northeast for instance: Can this depiction be attributed to Adam of Bremen’s reference to Finland as a terram feminarum – the land of the women? As learned man undoubtedly acquainted with classical literature, Adam may have implied himself that these were indeed the same amazons, as mentioned in the Alexander Romance. But the question remains why specifically Finland was named thus by Adam of Bremen? A possible explanation is to be found in toponyms and ethnographic evidence. Particularly in the nothern fringes of the Baltic Sea several places along the shore received female names, which were commonly understood as taboo by superstitious seafarers). The “land of the women” could have also originated quite literally, as Finland and other northern regions were predominantly inhabited by hunter-gather populations: When the men were on the hunt, bypassing sailors would have only encountered a population of women. The travel reports of Christian seafarers mentioning a “land of the women” may have been associated by clergymen with amazons. The fact that these mythological “monstrous races” were depicted on a monastic mappa mundi may also reflect the ethnocentric conflict, in which the otherness of pagan populations are emphasized in order to legitimize their conversion and colonization. More thoughts on the interpretation of the cognitive landscape of mariners and map-making monks have been recently published in Zwick 2012 and will be discussed in more detail in my dissertation.
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