my earlier post on maps, I thought I would go into some of the details of the mappa mundi. As many of you may know, the basic form for these maps is called the T-O map, since the main structure is a "T" inside an "O." The T and O are formed by water, so that the water bounds and shapes and encloses the land, even though the land takes up most of the space and is the focus of the map. The T is the Rivers -- the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Tanais (i.e. the Don). The O is the ocean, a nameless circle that surrounds the land. The T also separates the continents, with Asia on top, Europe on the bottom left, and Africa on the bottom right. You can see in the above map that each continent is associated with one of Noah's sons: Asia with Sem (Shem), Europe with Iafeth (Japheth), and Africa with Cham (Ham). Jerusalem is at the middle of these maps, where the rivers and continents meet. This location means that Jerusalem was literally the center of the world, the most central and important location available. Move further from that center and things get . . . stranger. On the edges of the map are the so-called monstrous races. Human-like creatures with single feet, or with no heads, or with dog heads, populate the margins of the earth, far from Jerusalem and yet still part of the landed realms. An early (and still very informative) work about the monstrous races is John Bloch Friedman's The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. There's also much interesting work being done on the placement of Great Britain on these maps, and more still to do. Both Asa Simon Mittman and Kathy Lavezzo have discussed the meaning for England, and English map-makers, that Great Britain is also on the edge of the world in these maps, and I suggest their work to those interested in the topic.
There is much to say about all of this, but I want to focus here on what is barely apparent on the maps: the ocean. Though the ocean forms the "O" and bounds the circle of the land, it nonetheless takes up very little space on the maps. We moderns, used to maps that depict the ocean as more than 70% of the earth's surface, may be surprised to see just how little ocean there is on these medieval world maps. I argue that this is not because medieval mapmakers misunderstood the ocean's vastness, but rather because their maps were ideological, encyclopedic, and aesthetic creations, and the ocean's place around the edges suited these purposes. It left the map symmetrical, but also left the land, and therefore those things that had happened on land, as the primary focus. The land in these maps is covered in classical and biblical and historical details associated with the various spaces on the earth. Humans are at the center of this narrative, and the land is humanity's realm.
my last post on Titanic for more about that.) No man-made contraptions can stay on the ocean's surface, none can leave a trace of human presence except in the depths of the ocean floor, subsumed by the ocean itself.
So the ocean is a blank space on these mappae mundi. It does not partake in the narrative domain of the land, nor does it participate in the historical or ideological aims of the land. It is a realm apart.