fol 86v Patterns and points

PLEASE NOTE:  The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016


[1800 words]

One of the most exciting aspects of this manuscript, for me – and the one which finally committed me to researching it – is that it includes what is evidently a systematic notation for both landforms and navigational marks, including the surface below the waters around a given shore. This is quite unexpected in a work of the fifteenth century, especially one that is still widely supposed of European origin. I mentioned earlier the distinction between single and double lines marked on the southern boundary of the minimap, near what I take to be Rosetta and the Bolbotine mouth of the Nile. (Of course, given that we have to guess the scale, it may be shown at some later time to represent e.g. Damietta and the Bolbotine lake, but the aim here is to provide the linguists and cryptographers with a reasonable framework for their own research).

The import of those different vertical lines across the barrier between the starry area and the snailshell etc, I believe likely to be their relevance for determining the times, or depths of water needed for entry and/or approach. These in turn relied on knowledge of the wind-rose and the height of the tide at a given season or time. The Mediterranean is not strongly tidal, compared with the oceans, but knowledge of  the relationship between season, winds and swell was essential in days of the windrose and the sounding line.  This continued to be so, long after addition of the magnetised needle to the compass-diagram.

In the nineteenth century, in America, Samuel Clemens was so familiar with the sound of boatmen taking their soundings in the Mississippi that he took his pen-name, ‘Mark Twain’ from them.   ‘Mark twain’ meant the second mark on the sounding line i.e. 2 fathoms’ depth. Perhaps the same is intended by the double lines here – I cannot say.

Here’s a map of this south-eastern part of the Mediterranean, showing the important elements for navigation:  seasonal winds being related to the swells.

The entry to any anchorage was of interest to passengers and traders, quite as much as to the men who manned the ships.

In the fifth century BC, Herodotus describes the entry to the Nile delta, and the way the alluvial soil below the surface pointed the way to it. He also describes the use of lead and line to sound the depths.

So too the person who composed the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea in about 70AD.  Though his interest was principally in the commercial goods obtained in centres from Egypt to India, he still comments on such things as sea bottoms and harbours. In some cases it is still a mercantile angle, as in when he says:

..  beyond [Adulis] there is another very deep bay, with a great mound of sand piled up at the right of the entrance; at the bottom of which the opsian stone is found, and this is the only place where it is produced.

but at other times simple terror seems to motivate him and sharpen his powers of observation:

This gulf is very narrow to Barygaza and very hard to navigate for those coming from the ocean; this is the case with both the right and left passages, but there is a better passage through the left. For on the right at the very mouth of the gulf there lies a shoal, along and narrow, and full of rocks, called Herone, facing the village of Cammoni; and opposite this on the left projects the promontory that lies before Astacampra, which is called Papica, and is a bad anchorage because of the strong current setting in around it and because the anchors are cut off, the bottom being rough and rocky.

One can certainly imagine, and contemporary accounts confirm, that the shipload of passengers might chorus instructions to the man at the helm when the ship seemed to be astray.

It would take a specialist in the subject though – in what one might term archaeo-hydrography –  to analyse the map properly, but I shall do what I can.

And even if the manuscript held nothing else of interest (as it surely does) this aspect of folio 86v alone makes it well worth the time spent on it.

The detail, precision and consistency of its notation-system is extraordinary for the time, as is its inclusion of a version of the Rose, the first windrose (‘compass rose’) on any western chart being attributed to Cresques’ worldmap in the ‘Atlas Catala’. It is dated to 1375 and our manuscript to c.1420 or so, evidently from earlier precedents.

To find here that there appears to have been by that time some formalised ‘key’ such as this to the shorelines, is ground-breaking information – assuming for the moment that the work was transcribed within Europe at that time.

As illustration: here is a section of the map, ending in its western quadrant.

(The rising ‘flower’ is, as we’ve seen, a version of the ‘rosa mundi’ and – as in the Atlas Catala – it is placed in the west, between the northern and southern limits. Moreover, where our map is (as it were) spiritually oriented to the north and the night sky, it is physically oriented to the south and the view of a person who travelled in daylight. )

Once more, I believe that the few man-made structures were not part of the original map: apart perhaps from the very large one occupying the western quadrant.

And because I came to conclude – from other details again – that the western quadrant represents Ceuta, you might like to compare this section of fol.86v and the western quadrant (‘rosette” so called) with this 19th-century Admiralty chart for the same area – sorry there is no earlier, and I can’t reproduce that one directly.

The link is not intended as proof for my identification as Ceuta, but simply to show why I think this folio so extraordinary.

If you get the urge to compare all the coastlines in this folio with the way they appear on admiralty charts, and perhaps develop a key to the system of patterns used for the coastlines in fol.86v, you shall earn the gratitude of  many interested in this subject, I should think. As a start, this wiki article links to free nautical charts and satellite imagery online. There’s also a good history available:

John Blake, The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts, Conway Maritime Press, 2009.

It would constitute a full thesis, I should think, to fit this folio into the history of nautical charts – where I believe it belongs – and I haven’t myself the necessary time to pursue the point as thoroughly as it deserves, and much as I should love to.

As to stylistics, I should add that the nearest I’ve found in this case.. for the vertical, cylindrical columns which are drawn in their ranks, or serried array, is this mosaic from Antioch, a Roman-era reconstruction of one which was probably of Hellenistic origin. In the mosaic, however, the columns are squared-off. The Romans had no objection to closed, angular forms.

When I tried to discover the first recorded example of a systematic geological and/or nautical system of symbols I found nothing in our formal histories to suggest that one existed before the nineteenth century, when an American geologist devised the sort of system you always see on geological maps and soil surveys, and in architectural plans today.

Ours appears to predate that system by at least four centuries.

There is one scholar whose long study has been ‘archaeo-geology’ and its mapping, especially in Egypt. I asked him about 18 months ago if he would care to consider ms Beinecke 408, but he too is unable to devote [ or donate] the necessary amount of time.

And so, a little unhappily, I must pass on the baton for the most intriguing aspect of fol.86v.

This is a version of the nineteenth-century notation system.

.. not like fol.86v in appearance, though a little in principle.

Yet, we are told that, on the one hand:

Nautical charts and textual descriptions known as sailing directions have been in use in one form or another since the sixth century BC. Nautical charts using stereographic and orthographic projections date back to the second century BC.

and on the other

Nautical charts (portolan charts) began to appear in Italy at the end of the 13th century.. but.. there are no reports of the use of a nautical chart on an English vessel until 1489.

Of course, most histories of Mediterranean cartography don’t refer to developments much beyond it, and so don’t refer to the Indian or Chinese who were making maps at the same time, nor that Europeans resident in and/or visiting those regions may have influenced western customs as early as the thirteenth century. Here again the Genoese turn up. They turn up everywhere, it seems, being invited to Baghdad, as I’ve mentioned for their maritime expertise. One Genoese orphan in India was befriended by a Franciscan ambassador to China too.

The oldest remaining Chinese map shows certain features in common with the charts of Piri Re’is.

Zhenghe’s maps (1371-1433) are said to have developed by contact with the growing western cartographic tradition, and were certainly the most influential of nautical charts in China after his voyages.

The ‘Zhenghe map’ is considered crucial in the history of Chinese cartography, for its inclusion of certain characteristics specifically aimed at aiding navigation at sea.

It is said that the western style had been introduced into  China by some ‘western Boanerges’ – although I confess I don’t understand the last reference, which suggests an Aramaic origin, the word meaning ‘sons of thunder’ in that language, and only recorded in use within the Christian testaments when Christ applies it – as an evidently well-known epithet – to two of his disciples, James and John.

Needham, however, mentions a work which is described in a Chinese catalogue as a ‘Astrological geography of the lunar mansions, a manual of the sea-peoples’ but more recent Chinese writings dismiss the term ‘sea-peoples’ as a blanket term for foreigners. I remain unconvinced.

Late in the tenth century AD, we are told, a single man (Lu Duosun) was ordered to travel the ‘world’ and update all maps of it. With the aid of Song Zhun, the massive work was completed in 1010 CE, with some 1566 chapters. Fortunately for Lu Duosun, the extent of the Chinese ‘world’ did not include the coasts of the western Mediterranean at that time.

As to the navigational traditions of other peoples, the major empires have always tended to ignore them, though in this case – especially before the closure of the old canals which linked the Mediterranean to the Indian ocean – this division is entirely artificial.

The first to know and chart the eastern seas, drawing them in words, and probably in imagery, were the people who lived there. People of greater India were resident, certainly, in Hellenistic Alexandria; we have references to a Dravidian map-making tradition, and in many ways the stylistics of fol.86v are found most closely matched, again, by textile-works of northern, and of southern India. The very word ‘mappa’ referred to hempen-cloth and books, just as our term ‘charta’ comes from an old Cretan word for a bull’s hide. Chinese maps were made on silk. So fol.86v may be a copy of an original on some other medium, including cloth.

Alas, little about this external tradition is available easily, or online. Some will be included in my posts, and there a publication on the subject of India’s tradition, if the topic intrigues you:

Sircar, D.C.C. (January 1990). Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Otherwise, I’m afraid I can only refer you to some of the sources I’ve read, including Imago Mundi, and the Mariner’s Mirror, and some journals accessible through JSTOR etc. But don’t under-estimate the better Wiki articles. Some offer a good bibliography from which to begin researching a topic in depth.

To indicate the rarity of any such symbols before c.1700, a good survey is offered by Catherine Delano Smith, ‘Cartographic Signs on European Maps and Their Explanation before 1700’, Imago Mundi , Vol. 37, (1985), pp. 9-29

I’ll come back and be a bit more specific about the patterns, at least, and as far as I’m able,  next time.


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