Friday, March 25, 2011

Great Mappaemundi

In a twelfth-century map contained with other miscellaneous material at the front of an English Computus manuscript, the marginalization of the British Isles reaches new heights. Here, Britannia actually lies within the double-lined border which marks the rim of the world. Hybernia and the semi-mythical island of Thule (variously identified as the Shetlands, Iceland or Norway) are drawn outside this rim, literally beyond the pale. They are the only regions to receive this treatment and in comparison with genuinely remote places like Africa and Asia, they seem—like the giants dwelling in the fens—to be forcefully excluded from the bounds of civilization. These notions are even reflected in a simple T-O list map in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript of Isidore’s De natura rerum, which for a time was “patriotically reattributed to Gildas.” Here, the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe are neatly delineated by the ruled lines of the ‘T.’ The continents are filled with lists of countries, and, in the context established above, it seems more than chance that Brittania and Hybernia are situated as the last two lands in Europe, with the exception of the seemingly misplaced ‘Australia,’ or ‘Southern Land.’ Even in this simple, textual format, the British Isles have been shunted to the end of the list and, by implication, to the ends of the earth. Evelyn Edson points out an “oddity” in this map; Europe and Africa have been reversed. This may bear significance, as the T-O format was often connected to the body of Christ. From at least the ninth century, onward, “the idea of the T as a crucifix superimposed on the spherical earth, symbolizing its salvation by Christ’s sacrifice,” was common.

This idea was dramatically represented on the two of the great mappaemundi, or world maps: Hereford and Ebstorf. Hereford is capped with and image of Christ in judgment.  He raises his hands to display the stigmata, the signs of the suffering he undertook to redeem mankind. Following the usual configuration, to Christ’s right we find the souls of the saved being led upward by an angel into the gates of Heaven while, to Christ’s left, we find the damned, ensnared in a ring of rope by a pair of devils who pull them downward toward the toothy mouth of Hell. In case we are unsure of the fate of these souls, angels hold out scrolls to clarify their respective destinations. On Christ’s right, “Rise—you will come to perpetual bliss,” and on his left, “Rise—you are going to the fire prepared in Hell.” Below these scenes, on Christ’s right we find Christian Europe and on his left, the monstrous races of Africa. On the Ebstorf map, Christ’s left hand, with which he damns the souls of the wicked at the Last Judgment, bursts out of the midst of southern Africa, teeming with monstrous, possibly soulless races of men.  The implications of salvation and damnation seem clear. On the right, where Christ’s blessing hand is located, we would expect to find Britain. However, on the Ebstorf map, the British Isles have been shifted west, thrust almost under Christ’s feet, far from the North Pole. Since the islands appear much farther north on most mappaemundi, it seems possible that the creator of the Ebstorf map has consciously driven Britain from the hand which brings salvation. What, then, has been implied in the text-filled Isidore map, in which Europe has been shifted to the traditional place of Africa? Has the English artist cast himself and his countrymen down Hell’s eager gullet?

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