Journeying Abraham Cresques’ mappa mundi: the medieval map at its best (and highest detail)

While preparing a seminar on late-medieval West-East cultural exchange, I came across the Catalan mappa mundi, this astonishing cartographic achievement of the 14th century attributed to Abraham Cresques, a Jewish cartographer from Palma de Majorca. Below are some extracts from this incredibly high detail composition – extracts which are relevant to me, first of all, places I’ve lived, studied, and worked in. Many of them are self-explanatory, others might require some labor legendi. 

I start with my birthplace, the captivating country of Romania, whose political existence in the 14th century was not very sophisticated. Not much is known about the Vallachian, Transylvanian, Scythian (Dobrudja) and the Moldavian topography in this period, so this map, at least for me, is extremely riveting.

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 6.41.53

Northern Greece and Macedonia, left of the Black See, limited to the north by Danube Delta, the Adratic See to the left – This excerpt is showing the modern orientation (North up), but the writing betrays the original orientation (South up)

A close-up of the area of present-day Romania, south up. Black see is to the left.

A close-up of the area of present-day Romania, south up. Black see is to the left.

What do we make of this? Honestly, I can’t identify almost any Vallachian, Transylvanian or Moldavian cities (please drop note in comment if you do). I would draw attention to the unnamed settlement east of Clca(?). What could that be? The only place I can pinpoint is Constanza (third name from the bottom in the compact seaboard list, south of the Danube Delta). The Danube is not shown with its twists and turns but as a straight line.) Too bad that the gilding from the small coastal heraldic flag has come off, it would have been interesting to learn who was thought to rule there. Particularly striking is the blank area around what today would be greater Moldavia. Three parallel lines depict possible Danube tributaries although this is curious enough, for the chief tributaries of lower Danube (the Olt, Arges and Ialomita rivers) all flow southward, and these alleged tributary rivers are shown to flow northward into the Danube. Budapest is also recognisable as Buda as well as the Hungarian coat of arms. Not much interest is given to the area east of the Hungarian empire, it seems…

Next up, we have Poland and the city of Cracow, again, with inverted orientation.

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 7.04.37Travelling south-west, we reach the Duchy of Luxembourg, which I can’t really see. Nor can I identify the then city-republic of Metz, my heart’s delight. I can see Cologne (Koln) on the Rhine but not the neighbouring cities.

Note the depiction of the Alps.

Note the depiction of the Alps. Britain is to the right, orientation is still inversed.

Disappointingly, we cross the channel and reach London with the morning tide. Now that I see the complete lack of interest in the topography of Wales, I lay down my arms in the treatment of Moldavia.

An impressively accurate British coastline

An impressively accurate British coastline

I hope this gives an idea of just how breathtaking Abraham Cresques’ effort was and how much was covered at such an earlier date. Of course, I’ve only shown what was of interest to me, not the far East that too, was mapped in remarkable detail. Things were set in motion that could not be stopped. It was because of maps such as these and people such as Abraham that the later generation of explorers and dreamers lay siege to the limits of human knowledge.

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