Scott D. Westrem,
English and Comparative Literature
The City University of New York-The Graduate School and Lehman College

"Africa Unbounded on an Unstudied European Mappamundi (c. 1450) and in Related Cartography"

In 1960, the James Ford Bell Library, a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the University of Minnesota, acquired a mappamun4 that dates from the mid-fifteenth- century, and although the past four decades have seen great progress in the study of medieval cartography, this remarkable text remains almost entirely unknown. Some interested scholars may have been dissuaded from studying the map because the few existing references to it all describe it as a "fragment."1 The designation is both correct and slightly misleading, since this surviving portion of what was once certainly a map of the world is hardly miniature (measuring 240/260 x 370 mm), and it shows the whole of the continent of Africa (as we would demarcate it today), as well as a sliver of the Arabian peninsula and a good deal of Europe, including the Mediterranean and western Black sea coasts and territory as far north as central Germany and England, Thus nearly half of the original survives- With the Bell Collection's permission, I have made in any photographs of the Map, and I have transcribed (also translated, with commentary) all of its approximately 150 legends, some of which are merely place-names ("Alexandria," "Basic"), while others describe matters of Classical and medieval lore (the site where Hercules established pillars at the world's western extreme, a race of goax-headed humans). One principal aim of my talk at the University of Alberta would be to introduce the modern public for the first time in any detail to this significant configuration of a European image of the world, as it might be expressed around 1450, sharing my information about its contents.

My presentation will come with a number of caveats, however, which call into question our ability to speak easily about an "image of the world," First, the Bell Map is oriented to the south: its "Africa" was at the upper-right on the original. Its orientation and verbal content identify it as belonging to the fifteenth-century Vienna- Klosterneuburg map corpus, which was greatly influenced by both Arabic cartography and by the new Ptolemaic concepts reaching central Europe in the early 1400s from a besieged Byzantium. Other surviving exemplars belonging to this "corpus "-including the contemporaneous Borgia, Walsperger, and Zeitz maps-suggest what a completed work in this tradition looked like, while they differ enough from the Bell Map to prove that it was neither copied from, nor the source for, any of them. Second, content of the Bell Map deserves notice. Names of regions and peoples are given in red, with cities and historical/ethnographical information appearing in black; territories are not demarcated in any linear way. No continental name appears at all, and medieval geographical treatises, which include Egypt almost always-and Ethiopia on occasion-in discussions of Asia indicate that describing space on the Bell Map runs the risk of confusing boundaries with those of the later-medieval Europe, which are themselves amorphous.2 Historically prominent cities are depicted universally in the world of the Bell Map as castle-like structures whose towers are sometimes topped by distinguishing characteristics: the Muslim crescent in the South (Cairo, Tripoli) or the Christian cross in the north (Rome, Paris), these signs suggesting a bipartite religious division of the world rather than a tripartite continental one. But this divide is itself ambiguous, since from the sultan's capital in Egypt extends the Map's only non-coastal "line": an attempt to render the route taken by the Children of Israel in the book of Exodus. And what we today call Africa is a territory of both great cities (including long-vanished Carthage and Utica) and peculiar creatures: women whose heads sprout snakes, a race of beatific people, a society that crowns a king annually and beheads him one year later, and dog-headed giants. These humans (or humanoids) do not inhabit a gallery of separately framed "cells" at the map's edge-as they do on the earlier, thirteenth-century Ebstorf, London Psalter, and Hereford mappemundi--but roam a kind of open space in living color above or beside terse text panels.

The Bell Map, in other words, inherits its scheme from non-Western models; derives its content from the Bible, Classical literature, and probably mariners' gossip; and lets color and symbol do most of the work of establishing spatial units. Its shows an Africa-and, indeed, a Europe and a hint of Asia-unbounded by what is often assumed to be medieval insularity or modern "insight."

Slides: At least ten of the Bell Map and related mappaemundi
Handout: A color Xerox of the Bell Map and a set of its legends, in Latin with English translation and brief commentary (this latter work has been completed).

1The Map's purchase and existence was announced by the Bell Collection's first curator, James Parker, in "A Fragment of a Fifteenth-Century Planisphere in the James Ford Bell Collection," Imago Mundi 19 (1965):106-07. It has received two brief mentions: by Marcel Destombes in Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500 (Amsterdam: Israel, 1964), 52,11; and by David Woodwar4, 'Medieval Mappaemundi," in The History of Carregraphy Vol. 1, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago., U of Chicago P, 1987), pp, 316, 358 (also listed fin Appendix 18.2, p. 366).

2 My discussion of medieval and modern methodologies of dividing up the world is based on my own reading of geographical works, but I am indebted the important refining fire offered very recently by Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen in The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997), although their work focuses on less temporally remote cartographical representations of underlying prejudices.