In Praise of Groveling Wits

I’ve always taken umbrage at John Dryden for slandering puns as the ‘lowest and most groveling form of wit’. I was raised in a punning family. My father was an inveterate and unrepentant punster until life beat the humor out of him. He was the Speedy Gonzalez of puns, and I loved that about him. He wielded puns like a musketeer wields a rapier. Agile, quick, and deadly. My sisters and I would be left holding our wounds, groaning in pain around the picnic-cum-kitchen table while he’d chuckle gently. Every punster knows joy that comes from the infliction of deep, deep agony in one’s verbal victim. My father is still alive, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard a good/bad pun out of him. It was this transformation from impish punster to resigned parrot that, to me, served as the most painful indicator of his diminution. So, to our friend Dryden, I say, “Low? Low?!” I don’t even comprehend the connection of that word to wordplay. Pun. Pun loudly. Pun proudly, and let the gibes fall where they may.

Perhaps that is not entirely true. About puns being lowly, I mean. I did just have to apologize this evening to my flatmate this evening for referring to some game show disaster as a “vowel movement.” Around my friend’s agonized objections–“So bad! So bad!”–I heard the telltale thumping of my mother flipping in her grave. Over the years, my mum’s gotten a lot of exercise in there. A lot.

another boring hunt scene

Another boring hunt scene (BL Gorleston 210b – because I am totally obsessed with this manuscript)

It’s hardly surprising as I had her flipping in her grave before she died. I’d do something sub-standard that usually involved burping, and then she and I would do our little dance. By way of explanation, a super-nervous stomach meant I was basically a human eructor set as a child, and gas, so far as my mother was concerned, belonged ever and only in cars. Any hooo…. I’d belch, count to two, and like clockwork…

“Liesl Ruth! I despair of ever turning you into a young lady.”

To which ever-popular refrain, I would protest, “Oh Mom! I’m not that bad!”

Thereafter followed a sigh to wallop all sighs ever sighed. Desdemona breathing her last had nothing on my mother. Elinor exasperated by Marianne’s declaration of poetic love could not rival her. Little Amy Dorrit, lamenting for her foolish relatives, could only pale by comparison. My mother’s sigh was a masterpiece of controlled exhalation, discrete rather than maudlin, but replete with emotion. It suggested depths of emotion that even she would not admit to. The air echoed with a dozen different, unspoken failures. You could have built bridges with her sighs. Sometimes I did things just to get her to sigh that sigh. It was magnificent.

Maybe she was right. Maybe I was that bad.

Unlike my father, my mother did not pun, but neither did she roll her eyes or sneer at my father or diminish him for his sense of humor. For that, I am unspeakably grateful. I like having that memory of grace between them. I say grace, because there are a lot of people out there of the Dryden ilk who treat punsters like hardened sinners.  Après pun, their faces become as immobilized as an eighteenth-century death masks, and you know—you just know–they’re consigning you to some wholly inappropriate ring of purgatory for molesting their ears.  Why inappropriate, you ask? Because Dante did not create a ring for what other people consider bad wordplay. Not in the Purgatorio, not in the Inferno. Okay, he doesn’t celebrate us in Paradiso either, but that’s fair. So, take that, Dryden. Low, my sweet Aunt Fanny. No pun merits shaming. No, not even if you refer in awe to the giant baked potato on your plate as a potentator. No! Wipe that look off your face, reader. Not even then.

So, the rules of engagement for those who do not revel in “low” wordplay: Sneering? Not acceptable. Do not stretch and elongate your nostrils like some bactrian afraid of infection. Wit is not contagious. The more’s the pity.  Eye-rolling? Acceptable, so long as there’s a twinkle in that eye. Groaning? Perfectly acceptable. In fact, please groan. Loudly. We know that deep down beneath that groan is deep and abiding admiration and no small amount of jealousy that you didn’t get there first.

Of Swanmaidens and Smiths

I don’t usually post excerpts of the books on which I’m working, but this is self-contained “bit” which revolves around the telling of an Old English/Old Norse tale. The story of Weland which follows arises when Prince Sebastian (the blighter whose proclivity for Shakespeare upset the chronology of these books) discovers a gap in the knowledge of his page Lewis. For the telling, the prince has sought out the court scop (bard), an old man named Deornlaf. Lewis, for the record, is referred to as ‘Lion’ by most of the castle.

If you know the tale of Weland, I have taken liberties. You are forewarned.

Below is an image of an eighth-century piece known commonly as the Franks Casket. The left side of the front panel shown here includes various elements of the story told below. Look for the swans on the right (of the left panel) and the thin, prone body under foot to the bottom left.

British Museum, Franks Casket, front panel Right side: presentation of Magi Left side: composite scene of events from Weland’s tale.

Winding down a stone stair to the apothecary’s, Sebastian wondered why Deornlaf, who was an old man with bones as gnarled and twisted as a wind-tortured ash, would choose to ensconce himself in the castle depths rather than in one of the upper halls before a roaring fire. The answer became apparent the moment Lewis opened the heavy door to the apothecary’s sanctum and melting warmth poured from the room. True, the scent that accompanied the warmth reminded the prince of bad eggs, but noses are more adaptable than old bones.

“Not you!” shouted a fierce voice. “I’m not done yet, and how many times do I have to tell yo– Oh! Your Highness Oh! Ah. Er–” Chagrin transformed the apothecary’s countenance. He hurried forward to bow before the prince. “I had no idea that—”

“We’re not here for anything from you,” said Lewis, with a warning glance. “In fact, we don’t want you at all.”

“Lewis, don’t be rude! Læc, we are indeed not here to bother you but Deornlaf. Lewis thought that perhaps–. Ah, thank you.” Sebastian hurried over to press the shoulder of the white-haired man bundled before a roaring fire. “No, my friend! Do not rise. If you bear me any love, stay as you are.”

“Your Highness! I did not hear you. My ears are not what I’d like, but then, so much of me is not as I’d like,” lamented the old man with a papery laugh. “Ah! The ubiquitous Lion, pacing abroad rather than hunting in the shadows today?”

A vicious sneeze saved the child from having to respond. When the sneeze was followed by another, and then another, the apothecary started grousing under his breath about small children and the perils of contagion. Whether for the apothecary’s comment or the child’s inauspicious sneezing, Sebastian shot Lewis a wary glance.

“Deornlaf, could I trouble you for the tale of Weland. It appears that my page—my apologies, Læc, if you have had him underfoot—has never heard it.”

Deornlaf reached out a hand to sift the small page’s fine blonde hair between his bent and crooked fingers. “Never heard it and you with hair pale as the flax the swan maidens spun? Well, we can’t have that. Sit you down. Warm yourselves on this miserable day.”

“I must go, Deornlaf,” apologized Sebastian. “Lord Cotton has been expecting me for the last hour or so, and I must fulfill his disappointment no longer. Rectify my page’s lamentable ignorance and I shall be indebted to you.”

The prince’s parting command to Lewis that he be good drew a scornful snort from the shadowed regions where the apothecary was shuffling about. Deornlaf shifted his eyes to the fire and began.

“Weland was the third of his father’s sons, the cleverest of hand and the craftiest of mind. When he took the hammer in hand, or when he blew the bellows, Weland had no equal; and for his skill, a swan maiden named Ealhwise loved him for a time,[1] and Weland wrought his swan maiden a ring of deepest red-gold and set it on her arm. ”

Sebastian shut the door behind him and set his course for the library. It never crossed his mind, as it would never have crossed any Dyrnan’s mind, that the story of Weland might not be for young ears. Besides, tales of great deeds, even of great revenge, have a particular charm when the elements are raging and one is safe before a crackling fire.

“One morning Weland rose to find Ealhwise flown. Many a day he sat forlorn. Her ring rested in his hands as he grieved for nights with her white arms wrapped round his neck. Thus was Weland when the false King Niðhad set his men upon him. To capture the smith was no small task and the smith’s hammer struck down many before they hamstrung him, cutting the sinews of his knees that he might be the captive of his craft.  Niðhad imprisoned the smith on an island and there the king would come to demand wonders. Weland’s own great sword hung at the false king’s side, for Niðhad took all the smith’s treasures as his own. The most beautiful of rings, the arm-ring of Ealhwise which the king himself had wrested from the smith’s hands, was given to Niðhad’s only daughter Beaduhild; and thus the king himself bound his daughter to the smith.

For months, Weland labored, spinning treasures at his anvil, as his swan maiden had once spun flax. With his tongue he spun curses for the man who had lamed and held him prisoner, so that the smith’s heart became dark as the soot that stained his roof. The work of Weland’s hands had never been more beautiful nor the thoughts of his heart darker, than when Niðhad’s daughter stole to the island where her father held Weland captive. She wanted to see the smith her father held so dear, and so, she broke the ring that she might seek him out with reason. Beaduhild held out the pieces of the ring to him while, from behind the veil of tears in her eyes, she watched to see how the smith would take up what he had made, how he would receive her, and if her beauty would draw his eyes from his treasure. When Weland’s eyes lit upon Beaduhild, he smiled at last for she was very fair and her father loved her. Cut sinews and crutches made no difference to the smith’s skill with hammer or words. So, he wooed the girl, and Beaduhild mistook the brightness of his eyes for pleasure in her charms, the tremble in his voice for wonder at her love.

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Strange Eulogies

Like most of us, I remember exactly where I was and I what I was doing on this day seventeen years ago. I was lecturing on Beowulf. Whether I was just introducing the poem or whether we had actually begun Grendel’s attack upon Heorot, I do not remember. What I do remember (to my shame) is giving the unknown student who interrupted my class a you’re-a-very-daring-person look before he informed me the university was closing because of attacks on New York City and that, as our building was located right behind the Massachusetts State House, we were to evacuate immediately.

Beyond a rather stunned injunction for everyone to be safe and leave campus immediately as directed, I do not remember a word I said to the class. The silence with which they vanished in a matter of seconds was memorable even if my words were not. Rather than fight the crowds on the abysmal Green Line, I wound my way down the oddly empty side streets of Beacon Hill to the Church of the Advent to give the madness of the subways an hour or two before going home. Where other people may have a memory of crowds and chaos, I have a memory of being alone and feeling oddly solitary on the city streets. There may have been people. There must have been people, but I remember feeling as if the city had been deserted.

advent angel

Angel over the choir, Church of the Advent, Boston

For the next hour or so, I sat quietly mulling in the quiet of Church of the Advent. After asking the heavens what the world was coming to (and receiving no definitive answer), I alternated between reading Psalms from the bible in the pew in front of me and Beowulf I had with me in my satchel. Aside from the fact that there’s nothing like translation for clearing one’s head, life seemed a strange echo of art at that moment.

Item 1: A hall ruled by Hrothgar, king of the Danes; a hall in which the great men of their world boast and make plans; a hall in which these great men decide amongst themselves how their world shall go because they have the power to bend it to their wills and make it so.

Þa wæs Hroðgare      heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd,      þæt him his winemagas
georne hyrdon,      oðð þæt seo geogoð geweox,
magodriht micel.      Him on mod bearn
þæt healreced      hatan wolde,
medoærn micel,      men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn      æfre gefrunon,
ond þær on innan      eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum,      swylc him god sealde,
buton folcscare      ond feorum gumena.
Ða ic wide gefrægn      weorc gebannan
manigre mægþe      geond þisne middangeard,
folcstede frætwan…
healærna mæst;      scop him Heort naman
se þe his wordes geweald      wide hæfde.
He beot ne aleh,      beagas dælde,
sinc æt symle.      Sele hlifade,
heah ond horngeap. (ll. 64-82a)

Thereafter was fortune in war vouchsafed to Hrothgar, and glory in battle, that the vassals of his kindred hearkened willingly unto him and the numbers of his young warriors grew to a mighty company of men. Then it came into his heart that he would command men to fashion a hall and a mansion, a mightier house for their mead-drinking than the children of men had ever known, and there-within would he apportion all things to young and old such as God had granted him, save the people’s land and the lives of men.

Then have I heard that far and wide to many a kindred on this middle-earth was that work proclaimed, the adorning of that dwelling of men… the greatest of houses and halls. For it he devised the name Heorot, even he whose word far and wide was law. His vow he belied not, the rings he dealt and treasure at the feast. The hall towered high with horned gables wide…. (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Mariner Books; Reprint edition. 2015, p. 14)

Item 2: An outsider, a monster, uncivilized by the standards of these men, a son of Cain and thus cursed with all his kin; a creature to whom the sounds of rejoicing in the hall were torment.

Ða se ellengæst       earfoðlice
þrage geþolode,       se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam       dream gehyrde
hludne in healle;       þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes.       Sægde se þe cuþe
frumsceaft fira       feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt se ælmihtiga       eorðan worhte,
wlitebeorhtne wang,       swa wæter bebugeð,
gesette sigehreþig       sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte       landbuendum
ond gefrætwade       foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum,       lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum       þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ. (ll. 86-98)

Then the fierce spirit that abode in darkness grievously endured a time of torment, in that day after day he heard the din of revelry echoing in the hall. There was the sound of harp and clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth, a vale of bright loveliness that the waters encircle; how triumphant He set the radiance of the sun and moon as light for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the world with boughs and with leaves, life too he devised for every kind that moves and lives. (ibid, pp 15-16.)

There is, of course, much debate over Grendel’s malice and motivations.  Any number of readings turn the poem inside and out and on its head, and yet, while I resist as anachronistic and inauthentic readings that romanticize or excuse Grendel, the poem’s representation of the attack on Heorot requires that the dynamics of power and “civilization” be included in the analysis of this deep enmity.  Did Grendel chose the path of mearcstapa (l. 103. haunter of the marches/waste borderlands), or did rejection by men condemn him to occupy this precarious edge along society’s boundaries? How much (if any) responsibility do the men of Heorot bear for the ire of the creature that comes against them with a malice so determined that it seems to have been refined in fire?

I will not belabor the analogies, such as they are, to the modern context of the U.S. as a superpower. I will add only the confession that when we returned to class the next week, these were connections that I did not, for better or for worse, have the stomach or courage to make directly. The immediate aftermath of such a tragedy did not seem the place to do so. Now, the remembrance of those next classes is for me filled with a lingering sense of my own moral cowardice, as if I failed both the poem and my class.





Rome and Ancient Lactose Intolerance

Prefatory Apology: To my friend who works in cartography. You know who you are. You know, moreover, who I am and that there is no help for me. Mea culpa for what follows.[1]

Well, after the last two or three deeply earnest posts, I have wholly exhausted my shallow reserves of solemnity, and will now return to my modus operandi of chronic irreverence, quotidian frivolity, and ubiquitous piffle. I think I want that last on my tombstone:  L.R. Smith, purveyor of ubiquitous piffle.

It’s not even 7 a.m. and that’s the epitaph done. Methinks I’m in for a ripsnortingly productive day.

Speaking of ripsnorters, one of the maps that I never got around to discussing was an absolute monster of a map.  Although itself made in the Renaissance, the Peutinger was based upon a much earlier map which had served as a model for medieval mappæ mundi, or maps of the world. And what a world the Peutinger Map represents. It is essentially a road map of ancient Rome from the house of Pretorium Agrippinae in the upper left across eleven glued folia to”PIRATE” in the lower right of the last folio. It is both delightful in its beauty and impressive in its scope and implication.

If you go to the viewer here, you can scan through and get a sense of what a monster of a map it is. Excerpts like Figure 1, which shows the Mesopotamian Valley with its winding rivers and scattered cities, simply cannot do it justice.

Peutinger's Beautiful Mesopotamian Valley

Figure 1. excerpt Peutinger Map. Hosted by Ancient World Mapping Center at UNC, Chapel Hill.

Thematic maps like the Peutinger with its road and cities contain hundreds of stories that are lost upon us unless we either know or take the time to hunt down the correct volume of Loeb and do due diligence matching up history with cartography. I’m going to save you the trip to the library with a gem, or perhaps cheese-curd, of forgotten history.

If one scrolls over the map toward the coast of North Africa, one finds Numidia (approximately where modern Algeria is today). This was the site of De Bello Iugurthino (The Jugurthine War) which took place between 111–105 BC when Jugurtha of Numidia took on Rome. We know of the story from Sallust (or Gaius Sallustius Crispus, born about 86 BC) who his version of the events sometime after 41 BC.


Figure 2. Numidia

For those who don’t know, the Jugurthine War (Yogurt War) was the great dairy war of the Roman Empire. This was a trade war to caste the current U.S. president’s trade wars with various international economies (or personalities) into deepest shade. Really great. Tremendous even. Think back to the 2015-16 battles over milk pricing and quotas in the EU–because who among us didn’t follow that exercise bureaucratic folly with bated breath–then just let everything go really, really sour.

On the one side, there were the Romans who were promoting their new technology of bacteria and fermentation (Team Yogurt). On the other side, there were the Numidians who wanted to preserve their well-refined traditions of souring and coagulation (Team Curd) without some big bureaucratic power dictating processes or products. Since the Numidians were dealing with the Roman Empire which employed the most cutting-edge methods for international arbitration, the results were predictably messy. Essentially, the only folks that came out of this well were the early adopters of lactose intolerance who played Switzerland and stayed out of the whole mess.

Alright, this is a complete and utter fabrication. I feel the need to confess what is probably blindingly obvious because I once unwittingly misled a very earnest Harvard graduate student with a yarn about the private papers of the famous Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye. Poor lamb. (The graduate student, that is. Delehaye could hold his own.) Perhaps I should have started by introducing myself as L.R. Smith,  purveyor of ubiquitous piffle.

A word to the curious or earnest:

If you really want to follow up and read the story, you can find it in Loeb vol. 116. With the exception of the Classicists among you, I don’t think you’ll find Sallust’s history isn’t nearly as interesting as mine.

To read more about the Peutinger:

  • Richard J. A. Talbert’s Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered , Cambridge UP, 2010.
  • Simon Hornblower, Anthony Spawforth, Esther Eidinow, Eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, 2nd Ed. Oxford UP, 2014 See pp. 490-491.


The Demons of Indigestion

Two summers ago when I came across this little fellow on Chartres Cathedral I wondered if the stone carver hadn’t had one of those headless wonders called Blemmyes in mind when he carved this demon who is merrily providing a demonstration in infernal torture to the cathedral’s visitors.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. It may be nothing more than a case of the mason’s lunch not sitting well, or perhaps a colleague’s flatulence taking on a life of its own in the mason’s imagination.

Inspiration. It’s a mysterious thing.



On the Virtues: Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 2

Honestly, I don’t know where early cartographers got the gumption to put quill to parchment. I’m constantly tweaking the map for the country in my books. For example, caves play a large part in the second book, and that raises all sorts of geological and geographical questions:

  • Have I set the caves at too high an altitude for the average temperature needed inside?
  • Is a karst landscape even possible in this part of Europe?
  • Will anybody get as worked up about the possible inaccuracy of saltpetre mines in this region?

I sit down with great determination only to have ink dry repeatedly on my nib whilst I dither. (Don’t even get me started on trebuchets and the concomitant questions related to physics.)

Without a doubt, medieval cartographers were made of sterner stuff than yours truly. I mean, one has to be made of stern stuff to be able to commit oneself to a creating a map of the world that is 5’2” x 4’4”. Those are the measurements of the magnificent, thirteenth-century Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 1). The Hereford MM’s grand scale reflects the grandeur of the scale of the places and events depicted. Whatever the Hereford’s makers were made of, I want to be reconstituted with that.

A first glance at the circular shape of the map might mislead the viewer into thinking that its makers laid out the geography in question geographically, A second glance simultaneously corrects that illusion and confounds the reader.

Hereford Digital Mappa

Fig. 1 Hereford Mappa Mundi, 13th cent. (Fig. 2).

The confusion arises in part because, little as it might seem, mappæ mundi like the Hereford are in many ways variations of the T-O maps from the last post (e.g. Fig 2). While the Hereford MM proceeds through multiple layers of geography, those layers are arranged in the same overall scheme as a simple T-O: various layers of Asia are supported by various layers op Europe  on the left and Africa on the right.

If the simple T-O maps sought to orient the reader to the world at large with respect to important biblical history, mappæ mundi like the Hereford take that objective to the next level. The image of Christ in Majesty at the top of the Hereford MM makes explicit what the eastern orientation of T-O maps imply: that all the world and its unfolding history is moving toward one, great end under Christ. Think of it as teleological cartography. So, when the mapmakers included their little city of Hereford alongside important sites from Constantinople to Compostela this signified to medieval Herefordian that she or he was every bit a part of that same glorious, messy, and holy world history as folks from the Garden of Eden and the Exodus (which also make an appearance on the map).

In keeping with the role of mappæ mundi to evocatively map history as well as geography, the Hereford MM includes figures from mythology (e.g. Jason of the golden fleece) and history (Alexander the Great) alike. Marvelous beasts and monstrous races are scattered across the whole, indicating the wonders to be found throughout the wide world. The view can see a charming elephant, or cross-eyes monoceros (unicorn) or even a rather doggy-looking camel (Figs. 3-5).

Delightful as the various beasts are, I have to confess that I chiefly delight in the Hereford’s monsters. The map contains many of the same wonders treated in “popular” Latin and Old English texts, such as Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, the Liber Monstrorum De Diversis Generibus (A book of monsters of various kinds), and the Wonders of the East. The Old English translation of Wonders found in the Beowulf manuscript contains a description of the mythical Cynocephali or dog-headed men.

Eac swylce þær beoð cende Healfhundingas ða syndon hatene Conopoenas. Hi habbað horses manan 7 eoferes tucxas 7 hunda heafda 7 heora oruð byð swylce fires lig. Þas land beoð neah ðam burgum þe beoð eallum woruldwelum gefylled, þæt is on þa suð healfe Ægiptna landes.

“Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenæ. They have horses’ manes and boar’s tusks and dogs’ heads and their breath is like a fiery flame. Those lands are near the cities which are filled with all the worldly wealth: that is, in the south of Egypt.” [1]

Wondering what dog-headed men look like? Wondering where to find cities filled with worldly treasure? Wonder no more (Fig. 6). Alright, these “men” aren’t breathing fire, and there are no tusks to be found, but there’s no debating the dogginess of those heads.


Fig. 6.  Cynocephali

Yes, yes, the Hereford has them nearer Norway than Egypt but then, Norway seems to have gotten itself into the wrong place on the map anyway.  It’s all a bit of a muddle, but it’s a charming muddle.

Among the other unique people making appearances both on the Hereford and in the Wonders of the East are the Blemmyes  (Fig. 7).


Fig. 7. Blemmyes.

If Wonders of the East is to be trusted, these Blemmyes (unnamed in the text) are apparently perfectly square as well as headless:

Đonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð men akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.

“Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have eyes and mouth in their chest. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.” [2]

Given that description, one rather expects something approximating a medieval SpongeBob SquarePants, but the makers of the Hereford spared us that image. (There are times when departing from the text really is a good thing.)

To a modern mind with preconceptions of either “Dark Age” ignorance or suspicions of religious homogeneity, I suppose, the juxtaposition of the mythical and monstrous beside the known or sacred might seem a bit jarring. It might even seem to confirm ignorance.  For my part, the fact that such juxtapositions were not odd to medievals is one of the reasons I am so fond of the cultural productions from this time. If a little marvel creeps in from the margins, it’s not the end of the world because the world is still being figured out and everything finds its place.


For a far less frivolous treatment of the Hereford, its contents, and sources, go to Cartographic Images,

[1] The Wonders of the East, in Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, ed. & trans. Andy Orchard. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1995, pp. 188-189.

[2] ibid., 192-193.



On the Virtues of Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 1

I am not, I know, the only person to have vexed relationship with her GPS. Being sent to major highways for the “fastest route” when a local byway really would be more efficient is a ubiquitous GPS violation. Recently, however, my mobile’s GPS has started pranking me, sending me off unnecessary exits, and even changing the destination. Imagine Hansel and Gretel’s bag o’ crumbs starts laughing at them, “MWAH HAH HAH!” and snaking towards the wicked witch’s house. That’s my GPS.

Last week, on one of the few and excruciating occasions when I had to drive into Boston, a traffic snafu sent me digging around with one hand for the mobile, trying to get in the damn password, and speak in my destination, all the while dutifully swearing at and being sworn at by other drivers.[1] Within a few miles of hitting “GO,” my voice joined the choir of anguished souls screaming into the ether.

“Wait! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Not Rutherford Circle! Holy Saint Æthelthryth, how did I get here? How do I get out? Stupid GPS! I’m gonna diiiiiieeeeee!”

I leave the expletives to my readers’ rich and fertile imaginations.

Thus, I expect that it has always been, in sæcula sæculorum. Just as we curse the GPS on our mobiles, countless navigators over countless ages have undoubtedly cursed out cartographers or compass-makers.[2] Imagine the poor Viking who’d made holiday plans for Turks and Caicos only to find himself staring at the rocky coast of Newfoundland. [Please, read the following in a voice that is equal parts Yosemite Sam and the Swedish Chef.]

“If I ever get my hands on Cnut Redthumb, I’m gonna rip that laggard limb from limb! I knew I should have bought the map off of Harald Bluetooth.”

Of course, it goes without saying that anyone dumb enough to buy a map from Cnut Redthumb only has himself to blame: everyone who was anyone in medieval seafaring knew better than to trust Redthumb’s maps. [3]

When it comes to medieval maps, it is not so much a matter of all maps not being created equal, so much as maps being created for different purposes, which is not so different from maps today. I, for example, love caves and the maps thereof, like the map of Wind Cave National Park (Fig. 1) which adorns the wall by my desk. However usefully and beautifully it displays the multiple and intersecting layers of the cave system, were one to attempt navigating the surrounding upper world with it, one would roundly deserve to be trampled by any of the massive bison which inhabit that park. I am a firm believer in stupidity being its own reward.

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Many of the maps that populated the cartographic landscape of the middle ages require the adjustment of expectation. Where we have topographic maps and the like to help us better understand our physical geography, medievals had schematic alternatives like T-O maps which laid out their religious geography (see Fig. 2). When readers encountered maps where the waters of the Mediterranean, Nile, and Tanis formed a ‘T’ separating other parts of the known world like Africa, Asia, and Europe, they knew where they stood, so to speak. (It may help to notice in reading this map that East is uppermost.)

TO St Gall

Figure 2. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 236, p. 89 – Isidorus, Etymologiarum liber XI- XX. 92nd century

So, readers of Isidore’s Etymologiæ who came upon this map of the lands of Noah’s sons after the flood would never have dreamt of navigating physically with such a map. That wasn’t its point. Like all good T-O’s it provided readers with a rough schema of how the world they knew of related to the world of scripture and the history therein.

Where T-O maps are pretty sparse, other medieval maps present the world, or sections of it, in far more detail. Fig. 3 is by one of my favorite medieval English artists, the thirteenth-century Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris. I will sing Paris’ praises in another post. They deserve to be sung. For now, consider his map.

Matthew Paris Map

Figure 3. Matthew Paris’ Map of the British Isles. Cotton MS Claudius D. vi. f. 12 v.!1_f012r

With its strongly delineated rivers and abundant cities, Paris’ map shows England as a beehive of development. Sure, you couldn’t find your way from A to B with it, but this map tells you that the journey would be worth it because there’s a lot to see at both points. Looking at this map, the rivers seem to pulse like veins through the heart of England, which, I suppose, is both truth and fancy. And I defy anyone not to be smitten by the way that Cornwall (or Cornubia in Latin) is trying to make a break for it across the Celtic Sea.

A contrasting English map (though not a map of England) shows just how different maps can. The Cotton Map (Fig. 4), was drawn in the eleventh century, some two hundred years before Paris drew up his. Like its more schematic T-O cousins, the Cotton map is oriented with the East on the top. The maker of the Cotton map provides more detail about what is important in the different parts of the world. If it’s not as generally accurate as Paris’ map, we can say that everything stays respectably within the borders. (If you’re looking for the British Isles, they’re in the bottom left.)

Throughout the Middle Ages, there are a variety of world maps such as the Cotton Map. On them, we find the traces of the delight medievals took in parts far-flung, in wild stories, and in the mythic histories of the wider world.

I’ll come back to those wild and wider stories in the next post with the mother of all mappæ mundi (maps of the world): the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi. Where Cotton map’s is home to one solitary lion in the East, the Hereford is chock full of beasts natural and un-.

[1] In Boston, swearing is cosmologically as well as existentially necessary. If a Bostonian drives without swearing, it actually messes with the space-time continuum.

[2] We’ll completely leave out word-of-mouth directions like “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” I mean, what the dickens kind of directions are those? Forget the fact that “right” is relative based upon which way one faces. Forget, moreover, the fact that the stars dance around, so that second star to the right is going to be different in December than it is in July. Morning?! Are we talking break of day? Full dawn or perhaps full-on morning? This is the kind of directional negligence lawsuits are made of.

[3] This is a gross lie. I leave it to my readers whether the gross lie is a) the slander of Cnut; b) the existence of Cnut; c) the idea that any self-respecting Viking would content himself with talk of laggards and limb ripping; or d) all of the above.

A wider-ranging and decidedly less idiosyncratic take on medieval maps can be found on the British Library’s Maps and Views blog.