Mappa Mundi and 'The East' Since ancient times, Europeans were accustomed to thinking of a world centred around the Mediterranean. Reinforcing this centrality, Christians would make Jerusalem the symbolic centre of the medieval world. There was little real knowledge about the Far East (India, S.E. Asia and China), and on medieval maps these regions were depicted according to Christian iconography and ancient mythology. As result, the ‘East’ in medieval geography bore little relation to an actual topography. It was known primarily as the source of certain products (silks, spices etc.), and its regions, vaguely located, were named accordingly – ‘Seres’ (meaning the land of silk), the ‘Spice Islands’ etc.
The East as a construct, however, was far more important than its vague reality as a place. Greeks and Romans represented it predominantly as the abode for monsters, fantastic creatures and ‘inhuman’ humans (as in cannibals), and these otherworldly sites were later overlaid with Christian mythology, to locate for example, Earthly Paradise (co-incidentally not far from present-day Hong Kong). This was generally drawn in the furthest eastward point of medieval maps and because of its enormous significance, it was place at the top – i.e. the EAST was the ‘high point’ of the Christian of the world.
Hereford Mappa Mundi (c.1300) [widely available on the internet – Google]
In the medieval period, European maps were drawn as illustrated texts specifically designed to instruct readers in the Christian world, and to reinforce Christian mythology. They were rarely used for getting from A to B, although they might indicate the routes to the Holy Lands (Palestine) for pilgrims from Northern Europe. Completely useless for navigation at sea, we can regard these ‘texts’ as symbolic representations of a fixed cosmos preside over by a Christian God. Accurate charts for shipping were not available in the West until the 15-16th century, when the age of European Discovery and Exploration made them a practical and economic necessity.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi is a highly decorated and densely annotated work which depicts a circular land mass in three segments, with Asia occupying the top semicircle, Europe the bottom left quarter and Africa the bottom right quarter. This puts the East at the top of the map, and Jerusalem at the centre. The three land masses are separated by the rivers, Don and Nile, and by the Mediterranean Sea. This inner circle then surrounded by a generic Ocean. The basic form of such maps had changed little since Greek and Roman times, when world maps adhered to a ‘T’ in ‘O’ template.
Inculcating ideology in mapping
The history of projecting maps as representations of the world has been and still is fraught with the politics of nationalism, imperialism and religious factions. And the method by which a map both ‘centres’ and ‘easts’ the world is influenced by scientific/mathematical, aesthetic and ideological demands.
The Medi-terra-nean (literally ‘middle earth’ from the Latin) reflects European belief that this sea demarcated the centre of civilization. The 'East' (that is the Far East) was considered strange and ‘other’ because it was far away, and believed to be subject to extreme weather and laws of Nature which were not amenable to human habitation. It was assumed ‘normal’ human beings could not exist here. Furthermore, lack of much reliable evidence of life in the East encouraged myths. In the Far East of Greater India and Southern Africa, legendary man-beasts and monsters were assumed to exist. (NB: ‘Indus/Indies’ was a generic term for ‘far away’ in the medieval period). Some beasts were entirely fantastical, while others, such as the Rhinoceros and Crocodile, might be indistinguishable from dragons and unicorns in medieval accounts. But for a medieval audience, the boundaries between fact from fiction were often porous – a point Mandeville exploits mercilessly. While Marco Polo tries to separate fact from myth, his factual account might not have been widely appreciated by contemporaries who had difficulty believing in his China.
The ancient idea of the East as the West's weird and exotic ‘other half’ was carried forward and later integrated into Christian topography. Christian Paradise was located at the extreme East, and so, in ‘T’ in ‘O’ maps, at the top of the map. The religious significance is obvious: it was from Paradise that humankind fell, and the journey back to Paradise after the Fall was the furthest and hardest journey to make. Christ came to earth and departed this earth, ascending to Heaven from a point signifying the centre of the world in the Holy Lands. Pilgrimage from Europe is always up to the Holy Lands, and pilgrimage to Jerusalem reconfirms its symbolic centrality to Christendom.
Mythology, Pilgrimage and Missions The literature of Ancient Greece, such as Herodotus' The Histories, Pliny the Elder’s ‘Natural History’ and the ‘Letters’ of Alexander the Great to his teacher Aristotle, added to the idea of a Eurocentric world, in which the outer reaches, especially in the East, were subject to ‘wonders and marvels’. These are represented in the so-called ‘Wonder Books’ and Alexander Romances, which fed the European imagination with stories of the strange customs, flora and fauna of the East and Africa (see Campbell, The Witness and the Other World).
In Christian pilgrimage narratives of the medieval period (C 8-13th), semi-realistic narratives of journeys began to appear. There are many narratives, and even a few guidebooks, on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the ultimate destination for European and Middle Eastern Christians. Pilgrimage narratives include those by Egeria and Arculf and Adamnan (see Cambell, The Witness and the Other World). By the late medieval period (C 12-13), the Pope was sending envoys to India, China and Mongolia to seek allies and attempt to create a Christian presence in the East (See Dawson, Mission to Asia). These were contemporaries of Marco Polo, whose own ‘mission’ to Asia, although not essentially a religious one, still had to be sanctioned by the Church. Polo was the son of merchant and shows little concern for promoting the Christian church in China, although he does mention well-reported attempts to convert the Kublai Khan.
The Rise of Trade and the Mongol Peace In the late medieval period (13th - 15th centuries), European merchants (like Polo and his father and uncle) from rich city states such as Venice and Genoa began to explore the possibilities of travelling to China by the land and sea ‘Silk Routes’. For centuries, Arab traders had been bringing goods to Europe, and information about the 'real' East had been circulating among European merchants all this time. So it would be wrong to assume that Europeans knew nothing of the 'real' China and the 'real' India before Marco Polo. As well as Arab traders, who had been travelling by sea to the East for a thousand years or so, friars from Europe and Persian merchants had made the journey overland to China. Even Polo’s father and uncle had visited China previously, according to the Prologue to Polo’s book. Polo’s reputation is not based on being the first western traveller to visit China, but on his extensive and largely realistic book, fortuitously written during a narrow window of opportunity for travelling to the East during the Mongol Peace.
Trade between Europe and China intensified during the Mongol Peace (1245-1345). For Europeans, travel overland to and from China was safer and more profitable than it had ever been before, or would be again for several centuries. The Mongol Peace resulted from the uncontested power of the Mongol (Tartar) empire which stretched from Mongolia, through Russia, Central Europe, China, Persia and Arabia.
The Emergence of a ‘Real’ East.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Far East in the western imagination changed from being a place of curiosity and wonder, a symbolic site, to a real place, a site of adventure, profit and opportunity. To some extent, this reflected a general shift in power in late medieval Europe. The Church was no longer all-powerful, and although the merchant classes did not dispense with the institution of the Church, a different relation was formed, preparing the way for combined military, religious and trade missions, during which the Christian Church was used as the moral force behind atrocious acts of colonisation and genocide in the New World (see for example, Las Casas's description in his TheDevastation of the Indies – a dubious text, but a reflection of the truth).
Undoubtedly, Christopher Colombus was urged on by reports of a rich civilisation in (Cathay) China, as described in Polo's Travels. We know he had read Polo and it was his plan to sail west to find the gold and silk of China and the spices of the Indies.
To see just what excited Columbus at the prospect of finding Cathay, we need to look at both Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville. In different ways, they articulated 'the East' for an increasingly curious Western audience alive to the possibilities of travelling to discover material goods, wealth and power. The seeds of European exploration and colonization were being sown, and religion was often a convenient mask for naked greed.
The concern for material wealth greatly changed the nature of travel narrative, although it did not necessarily lead to an objective record of the facts. The secularisation of travel writing and the adoption of realist methods, such as the use of the 'eye-witness' account, and the inclusion of considerable learned material, managed to persuade readers that these accounts were 'real'. But Polo and Mandeville almost certainly did not directly experience much of what they claimed to have seen (especially Mandeville, who might have experience very little first hand). There writings were neither entirely real nor entirely fanciful, but as with all travel writing, it is when the narrative strays from the simple facts that it engages the reader. Through travel writing, we learn something about the audience and its worldview. In Polo and Mandeville, especially, we learn about how the East was constructed in the western imagination, and see the origins of the continuing history of East-West relations.
Points for discussion
1. Consider the shifting historical significance of the ‘East’ and its symbolic attachments
2. Consider how religious symbolism is overlaid on ancient ideas of the world without displacing them.
3. Consider how worldviews are produced and represented through maps.
4. Draw a ‘mental map’ of the world, compare with others and discuss the significance of centring, easting, proportion, contingency and erasure.
Paul Smethurst (HKU, September, 2012)
Further Reading: Campbell, Mary Baine. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, (1988)
Critchley, John. Marco Polo’s Book. (1992).
Dawson, Christopher Mission to Asia. (1980).
Gould, Peter and White, Rodney Mental Maps (1986)
Higgins, Iain Macleod. Writing East : the "travels" of Sir John Mandeville (1997)
Howard, Donald R. Writers and Pilgrims: Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives and Their Posterity. (1980).
Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (1999).
Moseley, C. W. R. D. ed. and trans. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (Penguin edition, 1983).
Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia: (1960).
Polo, Marco. The Travels Of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition (1920). Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated and with an introduction by Ronald Latham. (Penguin Edition, 1958)
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo, with an introduction by Paul Smethurst (Barnes and Noble Edition, 2005)
Wood, Frances. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. (2002).
------ Did Marco Polo go to China? (1995).
Seymour, Michael C., Sir John Mandeville (1993)
Smethurst, Paul. 'The Journey from Modern to Postmodern in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo’s Divisament dou Monde.' in Studies in Medievalism XIII, (Boydell and Brewer, 2005).
Yule, Sir Henry. Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices on China, 4 vols. London: Hakluyt Society, 1913–1916. Zacher, Christian K. Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature of Discovery in Fourteenth Century England. (1976).
Zhang Longxi. Mighty Opposites: From Dichotomies to Differences in the Comparative Study of China. (1998)