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  • Dalur Júlíuson

Two Mirrors, Two Seas

These days, if I'm not in somewhere in the outer solar system, I'm in seventeenth-century Indonesia. Later this summer I'm giving a lecture at the Árna Stofnun's fabulous Summer School in Manuscript Studies, where I'll be talking about manuscript sea charts used as book bindings. I've written about these bindings before; they were pasted, map-side down, over boards, and used to make attractive, white vellum bindings for the manuscripts Árni Magnússon collected in Copenhagen. With age, these vellum bindings have grown brittle, and the rich inks the mapmakers used to draw their shores, compass roses, and rhumblines have bled through the vellum, to create mirror images of the maps drawn on the other side.



The Natuna Islands, northernmost of the Indonesian Riau Islands. This sea chart was once used to bind the oldest manuscript of the Norwegian Konungs Skuggsjá.

These mirror images are fascinating in themselves. In those cases where the sea chart binding hasn't been removed by conservators, like in the case, for example, of the sea chart that adorns the cover of the Codex Frisianus manuscript of Heimskringla (AM 45 fol.), they provide the only ghostly indications of what shorelines may be depicted beneath.


One of the bindings that has been removed by conservators, however, has given up its secrets. Formerly, this chart had been used to cover a medieval Norwegian manuscript of the Konungs skuggsjá (The King's Mirror) (Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 243 b α fol., c. 1265-85), a Norwegian didactic work written in around 1250 for the instruction of then prince Magnús Hákonarson. This work was written to instruct the prince in all those things needful for a king to know, including a good deal about ships and navigation, whales and other sea animals.


The matter of this chart, however, is a world away from the whales and wonders of the north recounted in the pages of the manuscript it once enclosed. This chart shows the coastlines of Sumatra, and would have been one of a complement of charts used for sailing the seas from Northern Europe around the Cape of Good Hope and into Indonesia in the East.


This one, moreover, is special among all the other charts I've looked at from the Icelandic and Danish collections in that it bears the name of its author, the privilege granted him by the States General, and the date. It reads:



A book-shaped bit of chart, the fore edges wrapped around the boards that made up the book's cover easily visible. This fragment preserves the mapmaker's privilege, granted him by the States General.


1669 By Joan Blaeu Met Octroy Van de Ho(og)Mo(ogende) H(eeren) Staten Gener(al) der vereenigde Nederlanden


[1669, by Joan Blaeu, by octroi of the the Magnificent Lords of the States General of the United Neederlands]


Only one other chart of this type and date is extant, so it's of inestimable value to the history of cartography, and to the history of European commercial activity in South East Asia. The fragment we have shows only a small part of the map that would have been, from the Strait of Singapore in the west to the Natuna Islands in the east. A common mapmaker's symbol, an anchor, appears to the north of the Natuna Islands. This indicated a place that was good to place an anchor: somewhere sheltered on all sides was preferable, and with a 'good holding', sand or mud to hold the anchor fast (rock or coral provide a much poorer holding).


This privilege tells us a lot about the map and its life, from the deck of a Dutch fluyt to an Icelander's library. Drawn up at Joan Blaeu's cartographical workshop in Amsterdam, the map likely assisted a crew in sailing the seas of the Dutch East Indies. Once it had become obsolete, it entered the waste paper and vellum market, finding its way to a Copenhagen bookmaker who used it to cover a medieval Norwegian manuscript that dealt excitingly with the marvelous seas around Iceland and Greenland. Quite the journey. I'm looking forward to sharing more at the summer school next month.




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