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Early medieval notions of the Earth

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The purpose of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was to provide a comprehensive account of the knowledge of natural world theretofore accumulated in Greco-Roman world. Accordingly, his seminal work treats such issues as the nature of the world, its form, elements constituting thereof, the nature and motions of celestial bodies, as well as the earth’s geography, its population, etc.

With respect to the latter, Pliny appears to show great respect to the earth, comparing its importance to humans with that of the heavens for gods. For Pliny, the earth would be a perfect globe surrounded by the poles, approaching the form of absolute sphere. The earth would be inhabited in all its places, meaning that Pliny accepted the existence of antipodes.

Water played an especially important role in Plinian cosmography and geography. According to Natural History, it would perform the function of the most important subsistence source for the earth, permeating through everything. The globe of the earth would be surrounding by the seas, which would mostly divide the world into two parts: that of the East, connected with Indian Ocean, and that of the West, where the western Ocean would flow from the extremities of Scythia to Hades (modern Spain).

The early medieval geography both followed in Pliny’s steps and rejected some elements of this tradition. According to medieval geographers of the Latin world, the world was ultimately transient and sinful place. The physical description of the earth was disregarded in favor of allegorical and symbolic reading of the world and nature as the signs left by the God for humans to contemplate. Thus, “the earth is our book” expression should be understood precisely in this way.

The implications of such worldview were twofold. Firstly, the physical geography was neglected in favor of ‘spiritual’ one (i.e. interpreting the Bible in search for exact location of the Garden of Eden). Secondly, the description of geographic locations and their features was conducted from the point of view of religiously-minded observer, such as an itinerant monk, leading to openly didactic bias in geography.

The theoretical geography of the Latin West was in especially primitive condition, being reduced to commentaries on Biblical geography and the classical authorities such as Pliny the Elder. Moreover, the theoretical considerations by the medieval authors such as Isidore were based primarily on etymological considerations, claiming to derive the world’s attributes from their names.

Naturally, accuracy was usually discounted in favor of conformity to Biblical exegesis or etymological correlations. The empirical studies were widely considered inferior to the Bible-based scholarship.

Early medieval cartography

Several types of maps existed in early medieval period. Tripartite or T-O maps depicted the overall shape of the world (drawn as a circle, or disk) and its divisions into three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa). ‘Zonal maps” provided for the ‘five zones of the Earth’ already described by Pliny the Elder (two frigid, two temperate, and one equatorial) running across the circular image of the world. Quadripartite maps showed the alleged land of the Antipodes in addition to the known continents. Complex maps featured not only the shapes of continents and seas but also peculiarities of each respective land or territory, including mythological or Biblical characters and creatures believed to be connected with it. However, survival rate of the majority of these maps was low due to the high wear rate of their materials and their frequent exposure to dangers from wars or natural calamities.

The main purpose of the medieval maps lays not in providing accurate information of the world’s natural features but in presenting a connection between the spiritual and physical picture of the world. Each of the medieval world maps was centered upon Jerusalem (marked by the crucifix) and always featured the alleged location of the Earthly Paradise surrounded by the wall of fire.

While some maps indeed served as travel guides, the travel in question was mainly regarded as a spiritual, not mercantile or otherwise mundane, undertaking. The main purveyors of the complex medieval maps of which little remains were pilgrims or itinerant monks that went to sacred places, including Jerusalem itself. After the beginning of the Crusades, complex travel maps served as the means of conceptualizing the journey to the Holy Land.

Medieval maps had not only spatial but also temporal dimension. The Earthly Paradise and Jerusalem were considered both real geographic landmarks and the mystical sites that were invariably connected to the beginnings of human history. Thus, placing them on the map showed continuity between the events of Biblical sacral history and the time current for the cartographer.

Incidentally, the Biblical spiritual maps bear spectacular resemblance to the practices of spiritual mapping already used by pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe. The Norse sagas feature their own model of sacral geography where the outer lands are associated with Uthgard, the land of chthonic monsters, the south with Muspelheim, the realm of fire giants, etc.

For medieval Christians, the notion of itinerarium, a journey both spiritual and physical, exemplified the very idea of the soul’s path to God. Both hagiographic literature, with its frequent mentioning of the saints traveling to pagan lands to convert their inhabitants, and the more vernacular chivalric novel, with its commonly found plot of searches for the Holy Grail, testify to this idea’s embedding in the minds of medieval Christians.

As to the real-world journeys conducted by medieval Europeans, they encompassed the pilgrimages, with its spiritual orientation, military marches such as the Crusades, and trade expeditions. The legendary St. Brendan’s journey, Viking raids, and Iberian and Jewish travelers’ journeys may be associated with the respective categories of medieval traveling. However, these journeys were often fraught with difficulties and obstacles, which the Church and secular authorities tried to ameliorate.

In particular, Charlemagne established travel houses across his realm for itinerant monks, merchants and royal emissaries. The road network left by the Romans, together with their bridges and canals, may have facilitated some of the travelers, especially in southwest Europe. However, the lack of proper communications, presence of wild animals and outlaw brigands, the extreme political decentralization after the late 9th century, etc. brought about the general decrease in numbers of journeys and travelers in comparison with the times of Pliny.

Most medieval travelers either used horses, oxen and similar pack animals, or had to go on foot. The goods were transported by sea or with the help of the same pack animals. The prevalence of forested and mountainous areas created certain difficulties for travelers, especially in German and East European lands, while the Central European steppes and Middle Eastern deserts made some lands nigh inaccessible to Europeans.

However, the rising Christian church contributed to significant improvement of the traveling conditions, both by providing for travel houses and other refuges and through upgrades of road systems near monasteries and places of worship. Naturally, traveling Christian clerics were greatly interested in amelioration of the conditions on the ground; in particular, they facilitated the development of better road network and the settlement of previously uninhabitable lands.

The voyage of St. Brendan, Boniface, Egeria, and other clerics

The legend of St. Brendan’s journey appropriates some of the elements of Pliny’s Natural History. For instance, references to the precious stones that comprise the wall of the Earthly Paradise in Navigatio Sancti Brendani and existence of the chimerical race of Dog-Men from the West Coast of Africa are all found in Pliny. Additional inspiration for the narrative of St. Brendan may be found in the Irish sagas of hero-wanderers coming to the Otherworld through the sea voyage, known as ‘the Irish wandering’.

St. Brendan’s journey was an inspiration behind the travels by other prominent Celtic Christian missionaries such as St. Columban. Those Irish monks traveled across Europe and spread their religious traditions there. As to the tale of St. Brendan’s wandering itself, it follows a classical pattern of the Christian hagiography, with the succession of spiritually inspired isles (Isle of the Ethiopian devil, the island of sheep, Paradise of Birds, Isle of Judas, etc.) conforming to certain spiritualistic ideas and/or parables popular among the Irish monks of the time. The death of Brendan on returning home is testimony to the sharp contrast between the natural and supernatural world found both in the Irish sagas and the Scripture.

On his voyage, St. Brendan and his companions encounter both mythological monsters (sea-creatures, griffins, talking birds) and hagiographic or Biblical personages (such as Paul the Hermit, monks of Ailbe, or Judas himself). The reassurances made by St. Brendan to his fellow monks that the Earthly Paradise was just at hand are indicative of the blurring of lines between sacral and natural geography, which is so typical of medieval Christianity.

On the contrary, the missionary travels of Boniface, the ‘apostle of Germany’, are firmly based in the natural world. In his letters to fellow clerics, Boniface frequently describes the vicissitudes of faith he or his disciples had to endure while traveling on their mission. Thus, Boniface’s letters present a picture of the immense difficulties travelers had to face when venturing even to such places as Italy or Gaul.

Nonetheless, the travels by Boniface are rather different from those of such famed itinerant preachers as Ulrich, St. Norbert of Xanten or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The latter acted in more ‘civilized’ environments of already Christianized Germany, while he had to play a role of a trailblazer. At the same time, those devout monks such as St. Norbert aspired to lead a vita apostolic, the way of life founded on those of the Apostles, viewing their incessant travels as a part thereof.

Medieval women, such as nuns, likewise participated in spiritual journeys of the period.  Boniface even complained about the excessive number of English nuns traveling to Rome. In particular, Egeria’s Journey that documents her travel to the Holy Land in the 4th century is replete with references to the Scriptures, as she tried to reach out to the monastic female community to which she belonged. Her letters are one of the examples of the ways by which the knowledge of the Holy Land was disseminated by spiritual travelers across Europe.

The Vikings

Despite popular misconceptions, the Vikings were not a uniform ethnic group, encompassing several tribal substrates of early medieval Scandinavia. Hailing from modern Norway, Denmark or Sweden, they were driven by pursuit of material gain and warrior glory to reach the last ends of the known world. Our knowledge of the Vikings is based on the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon accounts of their raids, as well as on the plethora of sagas that were preserved in medieval Iceland. Of the latter, the ‘sagas of Icelanders’ that chronicled achievements of the famous kin groups and the ‘kings’ sagas’ with their focus on specific individuals’ exploits are especially relevant for the history of the Vikings’ wanderings.

In particular, “Saga of Eric the Red” and “Saga of the Greenlanders”, which tell about Vikings’ attempts to settle in Greenland and North America, are specifically important. Their blending of Christian and pagan elements are evident in the imagery and poetic language used. The information by these sagas on the Vikings’ transatlantic journeys is corroborated by the evidence of archeology, which points at the brief existence of Viking settlements on the Isle of Newfoundland. These sites appear to have been later evacuated under the pressure from local Native American tribes. The presence of Vikings may be discerned from such cultural signifiers as the longship burials of their kings/leaders.

England and the Vikings

At the time of the Vikings’ arrival in the British Isles, these lands were mainly populated by the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people that migrated to Britain from the territory of modern Denmark in the 4th to 6th centuries CE. One of the main sources for their cultural history is Anglo-Saxon poetry, famous due to Beowulf, which presents a picture of warrior aristocracy-dominated society already permeated by early Christianity. In addition, the Anglo-Saxon history is known from the chronicles written in Old English, such as that of Bede the Venerable. The Vikings that briefly conquered parts of England in the 8th to 10th centuries came from the territories of Denmark as well. At the height of their dominance, the Danelaw lands of eastern and northern England were controlled by the Vikings, who made York (Jorvik) their capital. In addition, Vikings managed to control parts of Ireland and Scotland, including Dublin and the Orkney Isles.

The Viking movements in the British Isles were accompanied with incessant raiding and warfare, as the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tribes and states tried to stop them. Nonetheless, the Vikings had an enduring influence on the Anglo-Saxon and Irish cultures, especially in such fields as warfare and ship building. The Viking motives for travel were mainly military and mercantile. Moreover, they did not contemplate religious-driven journeys, unlike the Christianized Europeans. Their movements and settlements were conditioned by the sea line, with all their major towns and hamlets situated near the coast.

Irish Sea raiders and traders

While the Viking raids on Ireland were invariably destructive, a certain degree of interaction between the Scandinavian pirates and local Irish sea traders existed. Sometimes it was spilling into bloody confrontation, but sometimes it was peaceful. It was especially evident in the Faroe Islands and the Hebrides, which became the permanent bases for Viking fleets in the region. In addition, some constant ‘civilian’ settlements were established there, some of which existed for centuries.

Jewish travelers

The information on Jewish travelers of Middle Ages is usually taken from their own travelogues or similar narrations. The medieval Jewish traders were mostly merchants, while devout Jews often visited the Holy Land of their forefathers. Unlike Vikings, the medieval Jews did not engage in war expeditions, due to the absence of the state of their own. However, some Jewish traders did participate in slave trade in Central Asia and Middle East.

A particular mystery of the Jewish history of this period is the journey of Eldad the Danite, who visited Baghdad and Cairo around 880 CE.  Eldad claimed that he had come from East Africa, where, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were allegedly living in peace and prosperity. He described a legendary river Sambatyon. Eldad practiced non-Talmudic rituals that caused an outrage among some members of Cairo’s Jewish community, who sent the case to the Gaon Zemach, religious judges in Baghdad. This issue was important for them, as it seemed to question the basics of Talmudic Judaism.

The 13th century Cairo Geniza, which features a letter from one Jewish merchant trading between Malabar (India) and Egypt, testifies to the spread of Jewish trade in this period. The West European Jews were similarly keen on traveling. A delegation of the French Jews headed by the famed Rabbi Samuel ben Samson visited Jerusalem in 1210.

Benjamin of Tudela’s Spain

From the 11th to 12th century Spain was a battleground between the Arab and Berber Muslims and the Christian kingdoms of the north. Three main groups resided in Spain at that time: the Christian Spaniards (descendants of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans), the Muslim Arabs of Andalusia, and the scattered Jewish population found in each main city. The Christians routinely exhibited hostility toward Jews and Muslims, which was often reciprocated by these groups. At the same time, Islam and Judaism, with their common belief in one God, made Jews and Muslims feel closer to each other, which was further enhanced by the Muslim rulers’ tolerance to all ‘people of the Book’, Jews including.

The travel routes in Spain were conditioned by the religion, with Camino de Santiago serving as the major road for Christian pilgrims to reach Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Apostle James were allegedly found. The Jewish travelers of Spain were primarily motivated by search for more trade opportunities or by the desire to visit the Land of Israel.

The Jews of Spain are generally known as the Sephardim, and their legacy of persecution by the Christian rulers influenced their choice of travel for North Africa or Middle East. Despite these reprisals, the Sephardim culture was preserved by its bearers’ migration to other lands and through the development of the rich Sephardic-language literature. It is through these sources that we know of the Sephardic Jewish history.

Benjamin of Tudela

Benjamin of Tudela presented an account of his journeys in the genre of travelogue. In the course of 15 years, he visited the major countries of then-known world, traveling by sea and by land. On leaving Tudela, Benjamin had to venture to Saragossa and then to the other cities of Aragon, before leaving Spain. His following travels took him from South France to Jerusalem, from Baghdad to Persia. Moreover, he even speaks of China and lands adjacent to it. The narrative presented by Benjamin is directly connected with the well-being of the Jewish communities of the lands he visited, as he always mentions its state in the remarks on various cities and provinces. Unlike Vikings, Benjamin of Tudela was a peaceful traveler, more concerned with understanding the world than conquering it. In his itinerary, he describes the culture of different cities and peoples he came across, their religious customs, international relations, etc. Benjamin’s account of his travel may be used to substantiate the claims made by Bowman with respect to the Byzantine Jewry as to the latter’s demographic presence in the region at that time.

Post Benjamin of Tudela

The late medieval period in Europe saw the growth in educational journeys described by Ohler, which consisted in young nobles venturing into neighboring countries together with their tutors to supplement their education. The general growth in trade facilitated by the use of rivers, and the new technologies of transportation greatly increased the overall traffic in goods between various cities and lands. Finally, the Church took greater measures to safeguard travelers from predations on the part of unscrupulous local nobles and invested greatly in the development of road infrastructure. Therefore, this led to increase in safety of the travelers when compared with the Viking period or the hardships early medieval Jewish travelers often had to endure.

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