Keynote lecture: Old Maps, New Beginnings
I'm delighted to have been invited to deliver a keynote address at the Háskóli Íslands Student Conference on the Medieval North, an annual interdisciplinary forum for postgraduate students of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavia, now in its eleventh year.
The conference theme is 'new beginnings', and I want for my lecture to think a little about the ways in which old maps archive, or can become emblematic of, our beginnings. I've written before about how medieval maps grant visual expression to humanity's history, as well as geography, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in the British Library's Harley MS 2332 (f. 20v), a small illustrated almanac produced in 1411-12.
This fascinating diagram comprises a ruled arrangement of twelve squares, each containing a picture and a number that relate to important biblical and historical events. One image (second row down, right of centre) is a Nativity scene, the accompanying number handily telling us that it has been 1412 years since the birth of Christ (the Hindu-Arabic numerals we use today look a little different in the Middle Ages; the upright looped character is a 4). Top and centre is Adam, holding a spade, with the number 932 (signifying his age at death), and to his right Eve, holding a distaff, a tool used in spinning, with the number 705 (her age at death). A hellmouth (second row down, left of centre), with the number 4,604, signifies the number of years Adam was in hell before Christ redeemed humanity on the cross, while a ship, with the number 4,308, shows the number of years that have passed since the Biblical Flood. Among the more recent events, illustrated towards the bottom of the page, is the coming of the Black Death, represented by a shroud, 63 years ago (in around 1349); and the accession of Henry IV, represented by a king wielding a sword, 13 years ago (in 1399). (Try to guess what the other events are! Solutions can be found here).
But how did the artist depict the beginning? For that, he draws a map.
But how did the artist depict the beginning? For that, he draws a map. The first image shows a simple T-O map, a simple and iconic medieval means of visualisiing the world. The T-O form comprises the 'O' of the known world, surrounded by ocean, divided into the three known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - by a watery 'T' made up of the world's most vital waters - the Rivers Nile, and Don, and the Mediterranean Sea. In the beginning, which, according to this table was 6,804 years ago, God created the heaven and the earth. This placed Creation at around 5392 BCE.
Medieval maps functioned not only as propositions about world geography, but were also fundamentally interested in world history. The worlds they depicted were never synchronous, tied to one moment in historical time. The famous Hereford mappa mundi depicts the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea, the ruined walls of Troy, the Golden Fleece, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; the world not only as it is, but as it has been and will be.
The world maps that come down to us from medieval Iceland are also, as I've shown in my book, historical propositions, granting visual expression to the Icelanders' ideas about ancestry and social origins. A map, as our table shows, can be a symbol of beginnings. I'm looking forward to thinking more about these beginnings ahead of April.