Map is Not Territory

I’m not known for my navigational skills; maps make me panic in the same way an algebraic equation does. So, I’m a sceptical fan of Google maps: I want that calm, patient voice to tell me when to turn right or left, but she has let me down a few times, and I’ve obediently beetled down the wrong country road, or ended up in a dead end laneway.

At the moment, I’m researching my third novel, and gradually working my way toward building a sense of place. One of the basic elements I like to have in my mind is a simple map, just to have a sense of the physical spaces my medieval characters will negotiate.

When I began The Anchoress, I knew the cell would be the main focus and I already had a strong image of its external walls and its interior in my mind. The village began to grow outward from there as I researched medieval villages and the agricultural cycle. It all began from Sarah’s experience: so, for example, when Sarah heard the sounds of workers in the fields, I imagined what direction and how far away they were; when she heard Winifred shouting, I imagined her house among the lanes of houses.

But there came a point when I needed to see it all together, to draw a map of the complete village: church, river, mill, laneways, and fields. This is a rough map I drew very early, just enough to plot the main points of the village and to set the topography more clearly in my mind. When I look at it now, I realise some things moved along the way, and it seems so simple, so much less than the life of the village in my mind and hopefully, in my words, but it was enough to orient me.

That village, Hartham, is fictional, so my aim was to make it authentic in terms of what we know of thirteenth-century English villages. For my second novel, Book of Colours, set in London, the situation was very different. London is a real city with a long history. It has changed and grown so much since the fourteenth century, and while it was wonderful to walk the present day streets and develop a sense of land, topography and river, I needed to create a place as authentic to the past city as I could; I decided to begin with a map, to know the streets where my characters would walk.

Marjorie Honeybourne’s reconstructed map of London in the time of Richard II

We have no maps of London drawn up in the period, but I found a reconstructed map and obtained a large copy of it from the British Archives. It looks like any other simple map, which is, according to the Macquarie Dictionary: ‘a drawing of a particular area such as a city, a country, or a continent, showing its main features as they would appear if you looked at them from above.’

But this map’s origin is so much more, and suggests that the definition is above is too narrow. It’s the wonderful work of Marjorie Blanche Honeybourne who, as part of her Masters degree, investigated a range of documents such as court rolls and land contracts, and put together snippets of information with archaeological evidence to produce a detailed reconstructed map.

Here is a close up of London with the areas that are the main focus of my novel: Paternoster Row, St Paul’s, West Cheap and St Michael’s le Querne.

I love this idea. Rather than producing a map based on measurements, angles and compass points, Marjorie took tiny mentions of names, places and dates — each one the surviving fragment of what would have been a larger story —and pieced them together into the framework created from a living city. A contract to build a cellar in Paternoster Row might mention the owner and the builder, but even though the why, when and how are now unknown, the document catches at the tail of a story, of living people who left this tiny trace.

Maps become personal when we know the stories of the places they locate. Years ago, when I first read Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, I spent hours studying the map in the front of the novels, tracing Ged’s home and world, and the travels he took. But the map would mean nothing to me without le Guin’s stories: the struggles and discoveries the characters make, and the images created in my mind by her words.

I stuck Honeybourne’s map to my study wall above my desk and studied it. Even though I had walked some of those streets, now so changed, for my fourteenth-century world it was at first simply a network of streets and lanes dotted with churches and surrounded by a wall, with a river running through it. But as I researched, then began writing and the story grew, particular parts of the city took on life: characters walked and talked there, and the markings of street, church and lane on the map became real to me. Now with the novel finished and so many characters in my mind, I could draw this city, marking its places with scenes from the novel. I could draw the gargoyle at the dock; Will and Dancaster in the tavern; Gemma walking on the Moors; Nick at the apothecary …

In that way, it would be like so many medieval maps;  they don’t especially want to tell you how to get from A to B, but instead they tell stories along with geography. The Hereford Mappa Mundi (‘cloth of the world’), created around 1300, is probably the most magnificent example. Painted on a large, single piece of vellum, it is a rough geography of the world marked with trade and pilgrim routes, rivers, and oceans. The shape of and location of countries and continents is vague and imprecise in terms of the Macquarie Dictionary definition above.

But that’s not so for the medieval mind; for them, the world was so much more than space and location, and the Mappa Mundi brings together symbol, place, time, narrative and spirituality.  Mappaemundi have been described as ‘applying a heavenly order to the geography and history of the fallen world’. So, Jerusalem is at the centre of the world, not because it was believed to be at a geographical centre, but because it was such a significant religious site.  Unlike our usual cartographical orientation, East is at the top, represented by Christ, because that’s where the sun rises and light illumines the world.

The map includes biblical stories of Adam and Eve in Eden, and (below from left) the Red Sea and the Exodus, Noah’s Ark, and Babylon and the Tower of Babel.

Classical stories were also considered important for the truths they told, and they were shown in the location of the tales, such as (below, from left) the Golden Fleece near the Black Sea, columns of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar and the Cretan labyrinth.

There are exotic animals — (from left below) unicorn, camel and elephant, and peoples reported (or imagined!) from other countries beyond the borders of the known world—(from left, below) troglodites or cave dwellers, sciapods, and blemmyes, an artistic expression of the size and wonder of God’s creation.

To a modern mind, these maps might feel quaint and naïve, the sign of a lack of geographical knowledge. But that view fails to recognise our own standpoint: any map is a construction of one kind or another, a reflection of how we create a view of the space we live in. Another example, one that made its way into my novel, is this illumination from the Neville of Hornby Hours, a depiction of the universe, both astronomical and religious.

Neville of Hornby Hours, f 1, The Spheres

Here, God rules over all at the top of the page, along with the angels in heaven, and the demons fall from heaven to dwell in the underworld at the bottom of the page. In between are the spheres as they were understood at the time, including the sun and moon, all travelling around the earth, and in the central sphere, remarkably, he property of the patron of the book of hours is painted in miniature. Is this a suggestion that humans, and in particular, this wealthy patron, are the centre of the universe?

I don’t think so; it’s more that the artist understood how maps are constructions, a particular view of the world. In terms of a mappamundi, religious history is the orientation, so Jerusalem is the centre; in terms of the book of hours, the patron’s position within the world is the orientation, so his property is the centre, from where he looks out at the world God dominates and rules.

Because these artists weren’t restricted to cartographical accuracy, they were free to narrate, to gather together stories and people and spiritual ideas into a single work of art. No longer a simple map.

If I was to map my orientation for The Anchoress, the cell would be at the centre, as it was when I was writing, because everything radiated out from Sarah’s experience inside the cell. My map for Book of Colours would paint that small Dancaster atelier, the emotional and narrative centre of the story.

I will still need google maps to get from A to B, but when I obediently turn right or left, that calm female voice won’t tell me anything about a place, its people and stories.

6 thoughts on “Map is Not Territory

    1. Thanks for reading, Michelle.I thought about Aboriginal paintings as I was writing, but way outside my expertise. I love all the variations in mapmaking, and the way they reflect culture.


  1. Amazing how much we can learn from maps, not just about how they name places, but also about how they lay things out and relate buildings together in sections or areas. Have you ever seen the aboriginal stations of the cross?


    1. Thanks for writing. Yes, I have seen some aboriginal stations. I’m sure there’s a lot to learn from them, and new ways to think about symbols and representation. One of the mysteries for me, is to think about what was happening in Australia during what the west calls the thirteenth century.


  2. Thanks so much Robyn for a fascinating insight into the medieval mind. Maps, locations, our neighbourhood; how we see the world now and how our ancestors understood it to be. No handy pocket-sized A-Z to get around London back then either!


    1. HI Jess, thanks for reading. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. At least back then London was a lot smaller than it is today — though I reckon the back lanes would have been pretty confusing!


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