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Teaching with maps

Today, for the first time, I taught graduate students.
And it went well.

The class was on medieval maps, a niche more usually filled by a class on astrolabes. (I was guest-teaching one class in a semester-long seminar on Ancient and Medieval Science.) Since astrolabes are maps, albeit with extra add-ons, I reworked the topic to focus on world view, on what was important to the map makers of both terrestrial and celestial maps in the period.

Playing around with medieval maps is fun. Many of them are really hard to decipher, which makes looking at them an educational group exercise. The world often doesn't look at all like the world, even if it's a layout closely related to the map before. Seeing the abstractness of a labelled T-O map with east at the top is all well-and-good, but it doesn't help a huge much when then confronted by the Hereford mappamundi. (mappamundi is Latin for "world map".)

I wasn't actually talking about Christian medieval world maps today, but Islamic ones. Still, the T-O style maps, with Jerusalem at the center of the world, make a good comparison with the Islamic world maps, which have Mecca at the center. When confronted with a seriously abstract world map, it sure is helpful to know what the center is meant to be. Pretty much all the maps we worked through today were in the Ptolemaic tradition. This means that
  • The data points all have latitude and longitude, whether or not the grid is marked.
  • The Nile probably has all its headwaters in the mountains
  • Southern Africa is entirely uninhabitable and connects with South-east Asia, quite possibly without a break in landmass.

Al-Idrisi's world map, made for Roger of Sicily over the course of 15 years, and based, in part on the Ptolemaic tradition, makes a fair amount of sense, especially if you don't go assuming that north is up and you keep in mind that it's Ptolemaic. (To see the map, go here and scroll down.)

The al-Balkhi school of mapmakers? Well... their goal wasn't to make earthlike maps so much as geometrically elegant maps of caravan routes. This results in maps with perfect circles representing towns and lakes, rivers represented by parallel lines, and everything looking very abstract. It does not lend itself sensibly to world maps. If you've already had a go deciphering the al-Idrisi map, then you can move on to working on figuring out the map below the cut. Really. Do the other as a warm up.

Anyways, the lecture went well, covered more than maps and schools of geographers, and the students had lots of good, thought-provoking questions.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2006 02:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, lovely! Are you teaching a semester-long class? I confess that, with the weekly trips to D.C. and the orals exam, I've missed a lot of details from friends' LJs this semester.

Also, looking at the maps makes me think about medieval illustrations with text in the round and at odd angles to the standard top-down Western reading method. Huh. I wish I had time to poke at that more, layout as a kind of visual territoriality that parallels the assertions of possession made in maps.
Apr. 25th, 2006 02:43 pm (UTC)
I keep editing this post to make it somewhat more self-explanatory and less of a post-teaching debriefing which makes little sense to anyone but me. Thank you for pointing out my lack of context as to why I was teaching in the first place!

I was teaching one class day, part of a one semester course on ancient and medieval science, technology, and medicine. I was replacing a lecturer on leave, but since I was asked to do this back in the fall, it meant I could choose then exactly how I wanted to tailor the lecture to my interests. A lecture on medieval Islamic astronomy normally fills this niche, but astronomy and world-mapping were usually done by the same people, since finding the precise location of cities is best done with respect to the stars, a sort of external grid, which works better for latitude than longitude. So it was easy to talk on cartography instead and still cover many of the same points.

I don't think I've posted that this was upcoming for a while - or if I did, only in passing.
Apr. 25th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
I'd forgotten all about these, but since I'm TAing Chinese history (subtitle: All Of It or Dynasty A Week), I got a chance to show the students some actual Zhuang He maps, just to show them why the so-called 1418 map is implausible at best. But it reminded me a little of that al-Balkhi school map, minus the geographic stylism (it being more a route map than a world map).
Apr. 25th, 2006 02:52 pm (UTC)
I don't know anything about the history of Chinese maps. I suspect the right volume of The History of Cartography will have it. (Or would you recommend another source?)
Apr. 25th, 2006 03:19 pm (UTC)
What does "T-O" mean? Google doesn't help because its idiot fuzzy search thinks I'm looking for "to." "Oh, she must have just slipped that hyphen in there BY MISTAKE."

I need to write a rant about Google's idiot fuzzy search one of these days.
Apr. 25th, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC)
I should have said! This is what comes of gushing too much about playthings rather than sitting down and explaining them properly.

T-O doesn't stand for anything. The map looks like it's the letter T placed inside the letter O. The one linked to there is an Isidore one, but later abstract T-O maps end up with a big fancy cross marking the spot of Jerusalem. The PIMS logo is a T-O map - appropriate, given the pun. (For other people reading this: Toronto, Ontario is referred to as T.O. PIMS is located there.)

I was going to link to the PIMS logo, but I can't find it on their site. It's the same image as the classic symbol of kingly power, a hand-sized globe divided by perpendicular lines into Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Apr. 25th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC)
"Google: Stripping the World of Punctuation"
Apr. 25th, 2006 03:46 pm (UTC)
maps are cool!
Apr. 25th, 2006 05:02 pm (UTC)
Hmm, the caravan route maps sound a bit like transit maps straight lines representing subway routes, circles representing stations, and distances not at all accurate. Abstract, but useful for a specific purpose. Interesting stuff...

Mark (allitera.tive.org)
Apr. 25th, 2006 06:56 pm (UTC)

I've been having problems with the critting group I belong to over my story, which is set in the very late 5th century; they all keep screaming for maps. I'm not going to give them modern style maps because they would have been totally outside the experience of the main characters (first person narrators). I did consider giving them the Peuttinger one, except that some of the really relevant bits are missing, so I settled for a rather nice one drawn in the 15th century but based on Ptolemy, wonky Scotland and all.

The big thing, of course, about all these map that you've shown us is: what question are they answering?
Apr. 27th, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC)
The early Ptolemaic maps (i.e. the 15th century ones) are a lovely balance between a different view of how the world is put together and more modern mapping sensibilities.

What question are each of them answering? Multiple and inconclusive, but I know pieces of it.

The al-Idrisi map was commisioned by a ruler, compiled from numerous peoples' expertise, and part of the trope of "mapping the world to show a given ruler rules all the interesting bits of it". Of course, it covers far more than what Roger of Sicily ruled, so obviously there were other questions involved too.

T-O maps are so Jerusalem and Holy Land oriented in so many ways that it's tempting to go straight for the easy, blunt answer: to show how the world is shaped by Christianity and vice versa.

It's a complicated question - one nice thing about the Ptolemaic maps is that they don't presume the world fits nicely into a perfect hemisphere. The world is messier than that. It keeps going.
Apr. 25th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
so glad it went well! x
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 27th, 2006 12:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Gough Map
No - I have the wrong books around right now for most Western European material. But how cool is it that there's an online interactive version of it? You probably knew that already, but it's nifty news to me. Given the interactive map is part of a project to research the nature and origins of the map, I'd suggest starting by emailing the project.
Apr. 28th, 2006 02:24 pm (UTC)
I think I would feel quite at home with the al-Balkhi mapmakers. (There's a joke that you know you're a physicist if you approximate a horse as a sphere to make the math easier, and it's quite true. The more physics you study, the more you appreciate elegant geometry. When I sat down to do my homework sometimes I would think, Oh god, please let it just be spheres.)

Do you know why medieval mapmakers favored putting the east at the top?
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )