Medieval Geography Video

I teach a class called History and Nature of Geography in the spring and the topic for this coming Tuesday is medieval geography. Since covid I’ve run this as a “flipped” class with the material delivered by video and class time given to discussion. Some of you may be interested in the video because it tries to explain how geographic understanding was affected by certain doctrines in the Christian worldview. I particularly look at the way the doctrine of the Fall made medieval geographers philological and “bookish,” and how the doctrine of Sin made them see the world as a book written in esoteric symbols. The video begins with a discussion of the way the modern doctrine of progress distorts our understanding of history with “presentism.” I sketch the geography of the medieval world island, suggest why medieval geography was dramatic and fabulous rather than dry and statistical, and explain the the medieval mappa mundi as an esoteric symbol.

12 thoughts on “Medieval Geography Video

  1. Sounds wonderful. I hope someone understands it, or at least gets vaguely that there is some other way of understanding the world.

  2. Thank you for posting your video, which I enjoyed enormously. It gave me much food for thought.

    Here are some, rather disjointed, impressions.

    Its title, “The Mediæval Intermission,” I find very apt. Not only in Geography, but in what Victorians called the “History of Ideas,” the Middle Ages (the period between the Sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 and the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453) appears as an interlude, with the Ancient World and the Modern World linking up seamlessly.

    I mean that a coherent history of Western Mathematics could skip from Diophantus to Tartaglia; a history of Western Philosopher could jump from Plotinus to Descartes, without any sense of something significant being omitted. In my own field of jurisprudence, there is nothing of note between the Classical era of Roman Law, from Ulpian, Paulus and Papinian in the 2nd century to Tribonian in the 6th and Voet and Grotius in the 16th.

    The same is obviously true of architecture, painting, sculpture, drama and poetry.

    I remember as a schoolboy visiting Palladio’s Rotunda with my parents

    and thinking that no one in Europe had built a house like that in a 1,200 years, not since Hadrian’s villa.

    For us, the charm of the Middle Ages is the charm of the exotic; like our admiration for a Japanese painting or a Chinese pagoda. It forms no part of our living tradition; a fact underlined by the Gothic Revival, both in architecture and in literature (Scott, Tennyson) and its abject failure to capture anything of the spirit of their originals. Happy the English Romanesque or Gothic parish church that escaped the attention of Pugin or Giles Gilbert-Scott.

    I liked your treatment of dogma, too, and your analogy of the telescope. It brought to mind Wittgenstein:

    “Think of chemical investigations. Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise another time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture – not of course one that he invented: he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and, as such, also goes unmentioned.” (On Certainty – Emphasis added)

    What you designate as “dogmas” Wittgenstein typically refers to as (usually unspoken) “framework-propositions.”

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. We moderns are puzzled by the strangeness of the Middle Ages, which I take to mean we are puzzled by the strangeness of ourselves. The early moderns just wrote the whole thing off as the “dark ages,” a vast an inexplicable catastrophe. The more recent fashion has been to treat the Middle Ages as some kind of dawn of modernity, to discover all sorts of Francis Bacons and Thomas Edisons lurking in its cloisters and beneath its castellations. I think the early moderns were closer to the truth, although grossly prejudiced in their own favor.

      • I think the early moderns were closer to the truth, although grossly prejudiced in their own favor.
        So do I. However, the cry of the Renaissance was “Back to the Ancients” ; that of the Enlightenment, as people regained their self-confidence, was “Forward from the Ancients,” but building on their foundations.
        There is very little in the modern world that can truly be said to be a legacy from the Middle Ages.

    • Thanks. This video is part of a class I teach on the history and nature of geography. The students watch two videos each week. The one after this is on the great age of exploration.

  3. Thank you for posting your course video.

    How do your students react to the different voices? I admit that the voice transition made me grin (it’s just like elementary school!), but it is a good idea. It breaks up the monologue, and it catches one’s attention. Americans today should participate in more joint, shared readings . . . story time shouldn’t end in childhood. I know families who still have periodic joint scripture readings, with various frequencies. More epistles, less boob tube — that seems like a sensible, practical way to keep your children from becoming jesters in Satan’s court.

    Very neat information about India . . . but what about the Far East? The Silk Road was in operation, right? Did people know about China (or its neighbors) at the end of the earth?

    Concerning Africa, I assume that there was some trade along the Atlantic coast even before the age of exploration . . . and that there would have been some memory of Ethiopia (proper) in the West. I’m curious about how medieval Western Europeans thought about the heathen coastal Africans compared to the Christian Africans in the east. And I wonder the same with Asia. Did the medieval Westerners know about the Nestorian Christians or the Christian Indians?

    Your opening point about progress was great — wise and to the point. How do the students take it? Are they so po-mo now that they readily accept it? It’s a shame that it takes an erosion of the commitment to truth to break down enlightenment hybris. Men have no balance.

    Finally, I appreciated your explanation of the medieval understanding of the world as a sign as regards the cruciform continental map. I never would have thought of that.

    • Thanks for watching the video and for the encouraging comments. I wish I was able to mimic more accents. I change voice in the videos to differentiate quotes from my narrative, but I still wish had a more varied pallet. I read aloud to my children most evenings for twenty years, all told. My youngest is now seventeen, but we stopped meeting each evening for “stories” only last fall, when her wretched homework swallowed up each evening. Cathay became at least semi-real for European geographers when Marco Polo’s travels were published. I’ve edited an except of the semi-fictional “Travels of Sir John Mandeville” for my students to read, and one or two may have actually done so. That book was clearly in the back of C.S. Lewis’ mind when he wrote Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Medieval geographers had an idea that something lay south of the Great Desert, but they were sorely handicapped by their lack of Greek. It occupied a zone I call the terra media, between the known lands close to home and an outer ring of terra incognita. The lost kingdom of Prester John was part of many medieval geographies, normally located in central Asia, but sometimes in Abyssinia. When Vasco da Gama reached east Africa and heard of the Nestorian Christians, he thought they must be the kingdom of Prester John. Many students think this is a colossal waste of time but more than a few draw hope from the idea that there is something outside the iron cage of enlightenment rationalism.

      • Play reading was a popular Victorian family pastime. Publishers catalogues show that paperback scripts were often sold in packs of six.

        Jane Austen’s family were fond of play reading, Sheridan being a great favourite. Her novels all have a dramatic structure, with a heavy reliance on dialogue, to draw character, while her descriptions tend to be sketchy. That is why they have been such a gift to film-makers.

    • The Silk Road was in operation, right? Did people know about China (or its neighbors) at the end of the earth?

      The Antonine Plagues (smallpox, measles and whooping-cough) coincided with the Han Plagues in China, thought to have been transmitted from pack-animals to humans. Transmission along the Silk Road seems the likely route.

    • Trade routes extended from at least central Asia to Rome, as far back as the time of Caesar, as I recall in studies of Han dynasty era histories and digs in what was then called Chinese Turkestan (which I read decades ago). On the other hand, the 19th century studies of biblical place names, such as French studies of those beginning Sin- to demonstrate the link by scholars without any real classical Chinese ability or even Chinese language materials one can now easily discount.


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