Sunday, February 3, 2008

Chasing a Tangent: the Matthew Paris Itinerary

Yesterday I hoped to finish my entry on the Field Museum exhibit, but I ended up spending most of the day obsessing over the second of forty-eight items about which I wanted to write! This Google Map is the result of my running obsessively along that tangent.

I wonder if Matthew Paris's Itinerary from London to Apulia is more, or less, fascinating to me than it would have been to one of his thirteenth-century contemporaries. Paris lived in an age when cartographic sensibilities were more or less one-dimensional, so his schematic map would not have seemed at all crude; I suspect that anyone who saw it would have experienced unalloyed awe at this elegant map of a great journey both physical and spiritual. I, on the other hand, experienced a frisson of amusement at its quaint simplicity when I first saw it, and it's this very ironic detachment that ultimately makes the map all the more compelling: the more I look at it, the more I experience a very un-ironic appreciation of Paris's skill. That process of breaking down detachment and connecting with the creator, or at least the creator's intent, is what art is all about for me. I think Professor William Kloss says it very well when he speaks of the image of Mont Saint-Michel from the Bayeux Tapestry during his lectures on European art.

...but this is narrative art of the highest order: proof, if proof was needed, that seemingly naive art is often the subtlest as well as the clearest; the most moving as well as the most delightful; and most importantly the most memorable art.

Initially I got drawn into this map by the structure halfway down the left side of the second page. You can see it on the extreme right of this image. "What the heck are those waves," I asked myself, "and why is there a structure sitting on them?" The more I looked at it the more I suspected that those waves were actually a mountain. In order to know for sure, I had to find out the location of that stop on the route. I never would have been able to do this without Grace, who knows French very well. She helped me interpret the labels that looked to me like... well, not like Greek, but almost as incomprehensible. I also found this Pilgrim Wiki page on Matthew Paris, which turned out to be absolutely indispensable. Using Google Maps in Terrain mode, and with more help from Grace, I nosed around the Alps and eventually found Mont Cenis; sure enough, those waves aren't waves. They're a mountain in the Alps.

As I was making my Google map I had to back up from several cartographical cul-de-sacs; there are a lot of places in France with the same name, especially places named after saints! Eventually, though, I found the proper site that extended my route in a sensible and logical direction - in all cases but one. Fleury is a bit of a riddle. I checked and cross-checked, finding the Wikipedia article which states that Fleury Abbey "was one of the richest and most celebrated Benedictine monasteries of Western Europe". "OK," sez I. "I get that you'd want to include that on your itinerary. But why on earth wouldn't you detour south as soon as you left Paris, then return to your trail before you got so far south? The ground is flatter, and the path much shorter, between Paris and Fleury than between Chanceaux and Fleury." Well, apparently historians have spent some time discussing this very riddle. The following comes from this article from "The Art Bulletin"; thanks to Grace for finding it.

As soon as the itinerary moves south of the city of Paris, and so beyond the personal travel experience of Matthew Paris, inaccuracies creep in. [48] Historians of cartography have understandably valued the accuracy of any map's contents, and those who have commented on Matthew Paris's maps have cited the pages that follow, those beyond the city of Paris, as examples of the failure of mapmaking in the Middle Ages. Yet if we examine such artwork not for its accuracy of depiction but for the manner of that depiction--how effective it is in shaping the places of the Latin West as phenomenal experiences--then this insistence on geographic precision evaporates. [49] Rather than being a reliable guide to France, Italy, and the Holy Land, the map was far more important to the St. Albans monk for what it presented to him as he imagined movements through the famous towns and Benedictine abbeys of the Latin West on his mental journey toward the Heavenly Jerusalem. In other words, there is no "out of the way" when you imagine a journey. Thus, it made sense to have Fleury (flurie), site of Saint Benedict's bones (Fig. 2), come between Chanceaux (Charceus) and Beaune on the way to Lyons, even though it is actually located directly south of Paris. [50] This map, like other medieval images, asks to be viewed as a mediator of experience. It was designed for a Benedictine audience by a fellow monk who, as far as we know, went abroad only once. The map and its active viewing were a site of exchange not of limited geographic knowledge but of monastic desire to reach for the Heavenly Jerusalem.

I'm not sure that I buy Connolly's conclusion. It would make sense if the other fifty-three sites in the itinerary weren't laid out in a perfectly sensible order. Occam's Razor tells me that this was a mistake of some sort. Then again, there is the nagging issue of the slanted lines on the map. Look at the bottom right, where the route goes from Chanceaux to Fleury to Beune. See the way the "Jurnee" lines slant to the right on the way to Fleury, and then slant to the left on the way to Beune? That's the only place in the map where the lines don't go straight up, with the exception of the alternate routes. It sure seems to indicate a detour to the west, so in this case, Occam's Razor tells me that Connolly is correct! Regardless of that, though, I'm happy to have a nice new map of my very own.

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