Wednesday, February 27, 2008

So... Why Maps?

You wouldn't think that eighth century Byzantine economics could inspire a guy. The thing about the Muse, though, is that she has no regard for what you or I think. That's exactly as it should be; I believe in waiting humbly for the Muse, and being nothing but grateful if she deigns to swing by. And I believe that the most profound expression of my gratitude is to grab her mane and ride her for all she's worth. I don't ask questions about her destination, and she doesn't ask questions about my mixed metaphors.

A few weeks ago during a morning commute I was listening to Professor Kenneth W. Harl lecture about the ways in which Constantine V stimulated the Byzantine economy. Constantine forcibly imported artisans from around the empire to engage in large building projects in Constantinople. This greatly stimulated the economy by increasing taxes and the exchange of coined money. Constantinople was also the home of state monopolies such as the silk trade. Ho hum. Then Professor Harl got to a good bit about how, back in the days of Justinian, some Nestorian monks had smuggled silk worms out of India in their bamboo rods, and from those stolen worms arose the silk industry that spanned southern Greece, the area now known as the Peloponnese. In Constantine's time, though, it was known as Moria.

Wait. Pause. Rewind. What? Moria?? As in the Mines of Moria from The Lord of the Rings? Well, OK, Wikipedia says it's actually Morea, with an E. Still, it made me wonder about the possible associations as I digested Professor Harl's news that Morea means "mulberry", the tree on which the silkworm does its thing. Constantinople sold silk to Western Europe at a huge profit, so it stands to reason that this region, from which so much Byzantine wealth arose, was named after the plant that made it all possible. The Wikipedia article, though, indicates that the origin of the name is not quite as cut and dried as all that:
There is some uncertainty over the origin of the name "Morea", which is first recorded in the 10th century in Byzantine chronicles. As with many other things in the Balkans, part of the uncertainty stems from the political implications behind each suggested origin of the name.

Popular belief in Greece today is that the name originates from the word moria, meaning mulberry, a common plant in the region. In Greece it is also believed that it is of Frankish origin.

In 1830, the Austrian historian Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer (1790–1861) published the first of his volumes Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters ("History of the Morea Peninsula during the Middle Ages"). Based on his analysis of the spread of Slavic place names in mainland Greece, Fallmerayer proposed that the 19th century Greeks had almost no linear cultural connection to the ancients but a large one to the Slavic tribes who had invaded during the 6th and 7th centuries. To support his thesis, Fallmerayer proposed that the word comes from the Slavic word more, meaning sea. Fallmerayer did not find any conclusive evidence as there was no evidence other than several scattered village names to suggest this. The spelling of the name with the omega "Ω" however indicates that the word is likely of Greek origin with the omega being a prolonged "o" sound.
Now that's interesting, and a much more likely origin of the purportedly magnificent abode of Tolkien's Dwarfs; after all, I can certainly see Gimli as a Slavic warrior.

I ruminated on the Tolkien connection as I walked to work. As I went into the bathroom - and isn't it weird how often inspiration hits in the bathroom? - a thought struck me, apropos of nothing but the fact that I happened to be thinking of maps and Tolkien: He put maps in his books, but no other illustrations! That means something! Maps are so important that Tolkien chose them above all other images to include in his printed work.

Turns out I was totally full of crap. It just so happens that I've only read the relatively cheap editions of his books that have no illustrations except maps. There are other editions with Tolkien's drawings of characters and landscapes. In order to acquaint myself with what Tolkien actually drew, as opposed to what I had fancied he drew, I got three books out of my library : The Annotated Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator; and Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien. They show that Tolkien was quite engaged in drawing his characters and their villages and houses, not to mention many colorful patterns that are reminiscent of Medieval manuscript illuminations. So I was wrong. But then again, perhaps I wasn't entirely wrong. Because even though Tolkien did draw things aside from maps, his drawings of maps seem different than the rest. Unlike the ethereal feeling I get from the other material, the maps seem very solid and real. And then there's the simple fact that there are editions with only maps. Someone thought that it was important to leave the maps in even when all else was stripped out.

But that's not the story.

The story is that I wanted to believe that Tolkien thought maps were special. The only basis I had for this assertion was the single edition I'd read, yet I got excited enough about this "discovery" to become rather crestfallen when I found out otherwise. Once I recognized this desire, it became clear that I think maps are magical, and that I was searching for a way to articulate and justify the fascination that had taken hold of me so abruptly and so thoroughly. The more I thought of it, the more sense it made, because maps are magical. Maps do something that the human brain - especially my brain - can't do, or at least can't do well. Maps show complex spatial relationships, and we're so used to them that we forget how difficult such relationships are to visualize without them. Look at Matthew Paris's map of the pilgrimage route from London to Apulia. Essentially a one-dimensional construct, the map shows simply that the path from this abbey leads to that abbey, and that path from that abbey leads to this mountain, and so on. There are virtually no two-dimensional relationships. This map reveals that visualizing two-dimensional - let alone three-dimensional! - relationships is something that the human brain just doesn't do out of the box. It has to be trained to do it! Maps represent not only a way to help with that training, but a shortcut around it!

Military historians talk a lot about castles and fortresses as examples of force multipliers. The notion is fairly straightforward: there are ways of multiplying the effective force of a few people so that they seem like a lot of people. This usually involves paying a premium to gravity so that you can reap huge dividends later. You get together a bunch of people who, over a long period of time, lift stones from low places and build a particular kind of very high place out of them. Once they're done assembling that high place, they bring themselves, and lots of food and weapons, into it. Now, anyone who wants to get to the people, or the food, or the high place itself, have to fight their way to it from the bottom of the enormous potential well created by all that work. And the people up there who did the work? They have the option to release most of that energy they stored up over the months and years, very quickly: all they have to do is drop things. I said the notion is straightforward. The sheer (ha ha) effectiveness of the force multiplier, though, beggars the imagination if you're hearing the actual numbers for the first time. I know I was absolutely stunned last year when I read the bit in Niccolo Capponi's Victory of the West about the Siege of Malta in 1565. The Ottomans landed on Malta in May with about thiry five thousand men and nearly sixty guns, some of them huge masonry destroyers. Thirty five thousand men! That's more than the Armada carried twenty-three years later! What was even more surprising to me, though, was that Malta - with less than six hundred members of the Knights Hospitaller, four hundred Spanish troops, around four or five thousand Maltese, and fifty artillery pieces - held out against this force until Sicily came to the rescue in September!

Here's what I'm coming to realize: Maps are intellectual force multipliers. When you make a map, you take huge amounts of work done over vast periods of time and you bundle it together. Just consider the amount of work that al-Idrisi did in making his world map. That piece of paper with the continents isn't just a piece of paper: it's a highly-concentrated chunk of negentropy, or order. The waste heat discharged from all that gradual work done over all those centuries to bring together the knowledge distilled into the map hanging on my wall could incinerate the world's armies. And with that energy people can take their brains - which may be ill-suited to the task of visualizing what the map shows, and anyway probably don't have the time, resources or inclination to go across the ocean to find out for themselves what's there - and they can make decisions that change the world. That concentration of power in an unassuming form is, I think, what makes maps so fascinating to me.

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