Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Girton College Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi Hereford GirtonGirton College, the Cambridge University college where I am lucky to work, owns a full-scale facsimile of the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi.  It was given by Girton alumna Dr Margaret Mountford (yes, the one from the apprentice) and hangs in a corridor near the college hall.

I've walked past it so many times that I thought I should sit down and take a closer look.  Here are a few things I found (presented in the form of some tweets I posted).

In a way it’s Even Better Than The Real Thing, as it was digitally enhanced to approximate the colours of the c.1300 original.

Mappa mundi morsIt was made from a whole calfskin, 5’2” (159cm) high, 4’4” (132cm) wide. At top sits Christ in judgement: saved on his right, doomed on left.

This is God’s world, & further reminder of our fate is MORS (death) spelled out in gold letters around the edge.  Here’s the M.

The M is in the northeast: you can see the O’s where “septemtriO” meets “Oriens”.  Underneath you can see Wlturnus, one of the 12 winds.

Mappa mundi Jerusalem crucifixion
The map is both deeply symbolic and the product of careful scholarship. At the centre is Jerusalem, with the crucified Christ above.


Mappa mundi Mediterranean
The north coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on the left: E is up) also traces the curve of Christ’s body, with the Cyclades islands marking his head.

Mappa mundi Noah's ark

Here Noah’s ark “came to rest in the mountains of Armenia”.









There’s plenty of geographical detail. Here it says the length of AFFRICA from Ethiopian Sea to Alexandria is 1725 miles.

Mappa mundi Africa longitude

But note he’s written “longitudo” twice; he realised his mistake, put dots under the second one & added “Lat” to correct it to latitude.



But one big mistake that wasn’t corrected is that Africa was accidentally labelled “EUROPA”, and vice versa!

Mappa mundi Africa EuropaMappa mundi Europe Affrica

Mappa Mundi Britain England Wales IrelandBritain & Ireland show huge local knowledge.  Lincoln is particularly detailed, not surprising since the map was probably designed there.


Mappa mundi Scotland
The river Tweed is shown separating England & Scotland, with Edinburgh castle on its Rock (& Roxburgh, Berwick & St Andrews)

Mappa mundi Snowdon Wales

Here is Snowdon, just across the sea from Dublin (civitas divelin).
Mappa mundi Armagh Kildare Ireland

Here are Armagh, city of St Patrick, & Kildare, city of St Brigid.  Across the sea there’s Shrewsbury, the Severn, Worcester & Hereford.


mappa mundi buglossa
 There’s less astronomy than I expected [EDIT: not that one would naturally expect astronomy on the largely symbolic mappae mundi, but this one is cosmologically compendious and its designer had clearly read his Martianus Capella and Pliny.  It is overall rather more scientifically informed than previous historians have given it credit for.].  Just two possible (unlikely) references to the zodiac: Taurus (“Buglossa”) and Scorpio:
mappa mundi scorpio

mappa mundi bear ursus norway griste
There’s a bear near Scandinavia (note also the Norwegian on skis, & the Griste people who make saddles from the skins of their enemies)

















At the bottom the map’s designer (?), Richard of Holdingham, is identified with biblical and classical allusions.

Mappa mundi Augustus Richard Holdingham
Above is a passage from Luke’s gospel: “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the world should be described”.

Augustus (with papal tiara) hands his instructions to 3 classical geographers.  In the middle is the S of MORS.








Mappa mundi ParisIt’s been suggested that the map was vandalised by someone who didn’t like Paris (note the I of “Affrica” at the top right).











Mappa mundi monoculi monopods
Let’s not forget the famous mythical people, like the Monoculi who shade themselves from the Indian sun with their one huge foot.

There’s so much rich & precise detail, drawing on at least a dozen sources.  Why not visit Hereford Cathedral (or study at Girton College) & see it for yourself?

Mappa mundi Babylon Babel

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Heat, Comets, and Collaboration

This post is cross-posted from the Ordered Universe project blog (with different pictures).

The 18th Ordered Universe symposium – and the fourth held under the sponsorship of the Arts and Humanities Research Council – took place in Oxford, at Pembroke College,  on 17-19 May. We were wonderfully hosted by the College, with lunches and dinners held in its magnificent Victorian Gothic hall; the symposium organisation was smoothly handled by Pembroke fellows Hannah Smithson and Clive Siviour, with indispensable help from DPhil students Joshua Harvey and Tim Farrant.

The symposium focused on an interdisciplinary reading of two treatises, De impressionibus elementorum (On the Impressions of the Elements) and De cometis (On Comets). These can be placed in the middle of Robert Grosseteste’s scientific development, showing traces of his early alchemical interests but also hints of his developing argumentative technique and increasing interest in the nature of light.

We worked quickly through De impressionibus elementorum on the first day (starting from an impressive draft translation made by Sigbjørn Sønnesyn). ‘On the impressions of the elements’ is perhaps a misleading title (and is only found in two of the seven manuscript copies), as the text really concerns what we might today call the states (or even cycle) of water. Grosseteste’s discussion of icy waters, and of fog, dew, rain and snow, centres on the kinds of heat that cause evaporation. So the group spent some time discussing the nature of bubbles, and how they might be ‘dense’ or ‘subtle’, as Grosseteste explains. We were also very interested in his arguments about the layers and overall height of (what we would now call) the atmosphere.

On the second and third days we discussed Grosseteste’s longer De cometis. In this treatise, Grosseteste spends some time establishing a range of incorrect opinions about comets and their tails – opinions, he says, held by people who have observed comets but not thought carefully about them. He explains how comets must be fire that has risen up from the earth and is influenced by a star or planet. They strike fear into the hearts of people whose fortunes will be affected by them! The variety of words Grosseteste uses for the tail of these hairy stars gave us much to discuss, between the relative merits of ‘tress’, ‘trail’, ‘braid’ and so on…

Aside from our collaborative translations, we heard presentations from Francesca Galli (Università della Svizzera Italiana), Brian Tanner and Cecilia Panti, who shared their research into these or related materials.

This was my first Ordered Universe symposium, and I loved every minute of it. Two rules were explained at the outset: (1) there are no stupid questions; and (2) participants were explicitly encouraged to make suggestions and take part in discussions away from their area of academic expertise. In practice, as we progressed steadily through the translation, a half-dozen of the twenty scholars round the table did most of the talking about the finer meanings of Latin vocabulary and how best to render words in English. But whenever we got stuck for a minute on what Grosseteste meant when he stated a fact about nature or gave an explanation of causes, that’s when the discussion really opened up. A scientist might draw an analogy with phenomena observed using modern methods, or give a vivid interpretation of Grosseteste’s meaning using a laser pointer and a glass of diluted milk (see photo). These excursus into subjects ranging from water’s unique freezing properties to gravitational lensing were entertaining and enlightening; I did wonder whether the scientists were getting as much benefit from their participation as they were contributing – but occasional bursts of enthusiastic speculation about wacky experiments that might be performed to test Grosseteste’s ideas suggested that they were getting morsels of inspiration for their work.

Reading such fascinating texts with a lovely group of sharp and generous scholars expert in a wide range of disciplines, was a tremendous privilege and a great learning experience. I’d like to thank all the established participants who welcomed me so kindly, and – in addition to those named above – especially Giles Gasper for chairing our discussions so patiently.

Not Grosseteste but Tove Jansson