Religion and Geography in the Early Middle Ages

Natalia Lozovsky. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Geographical studies in medieval Europe, like other branches of knowledge in that period, developed by incorporating scientific and philosophical achievements of classical Greece and Rome into the framework of Christianity. Geographical interests formed an important part of medieval education and worldview, but geography was not instituted as a separate discipline and geographical studies did not yet have a distinctive name. The term geographia was used very rarely until the fifteenth century, and special geographical texts usually bore titles such as Cosmographia (Cosmography) or De Orbis Terrae (On the Earth). Different genres could accommodate geographical information: biblical commentaries, encyclopedias, histories, special geographical treatises, and accounts of pilgrimage.

Many scholars, from the eighteenth century to modern times, have pointed to the tight connections between geographical material and the Christian worldview characteristic of medieval thought as the main cause of the decline of geographical studies in the Middle Ages. This view, however, is anachronistic. Medieval geographical studies did not pursue the same goals as modern geography, and they used different methods of collecting and evaluating information. Medieval maps, unlike their modern counterparts, did not always accompany geographical texts, and until the arrival of the portolans, or sea charts, in the thirteenth century, they were not meant for practical use in the modern sense. Thus mappamundi, or maps of the world, which ranged from schematic drawings to large and detailed pictures, presented the same worldview as medieval geographical writings, compiling information from biblical and classical sources and sometimes adding contemporary data.

Geography in the System of Christian Knowledge

Medieval geographical studies, as practiced by Christian scholars, described the earth as part of the material world created by God. Christian scholars believed that God was both the source and the ultimate goal of all knowledge and that studying the Bible was the best way to approach the understanding of the divine. The tradition of using classical knowledge in Christian culture originated in the first centuries of Christianity in the works of the fathers of the church, although they disagreed on the extent and exact contents of the classical learning useful to Christians. In their influential works, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Basil of Caesarea (c. 330-379) endorsed the use of classical knowledge and set up models for the Middle Ages to follow. Augustine explained that in order to understand the Bible and to attain an understanding of divine things (sapientia), a good Christian needed some knowledge of secular subjects (scientia), including geography. Augustine also demonstrated how to use classical geographical information in the Christian context in his own biblical commentaries. Augustine’s ideas, expressed in Latin, formed the foundation of learning and education in Western Europe, where Latin was the language of learning. Basil’s Hexameron was a commentary in Greek on the biblical account of the first six days of creation. In his discussion of the biblical text, Basil used and adapted geographical and physical concepts of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. His ideas strongly influenced discussions of geographical questions in Greek-speaking Byzantium. Translated into Latin by Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397), Basil’s Hexameron also became influential in the West.

The program of Christian studies and the classification of knowledge proposed by Augustine was further developed in the West by Cassiodorus (c. 490-580) and Boethius (480-524). They fully incorporated the program of the seven liberal arts, inherited from antiquity, into Christian education. This program consisted of the verbal arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Geography did not explicitly appear in any medieval classifications, but it had a place within the studies of the created world (scientia), to which the liberal arts belonged. Cassiodorus included geographical readings in the program of education that he proposed for his monks. During the later centuries, medieval schools also taught geography, often as part of geometry, in the context of the quadrivium. Medieval historians also included geographical material in their books, often dedicating special sections to the description of the world and its regions. Thus geography functioned in various contexts, all ultimately serving the goals of edifying Christians.

Because Christian authorities endorsed the use of classical learning, the main features of Greek and Roman geography were preserved and transmitted to posterity. Among these were theoretical ideas, such as the conception of the spherical earth, the division of the earth into climatic zones, and the existence of three continents. Christian Europe also inherited descriptions of the regions based on old Roman provinces, as well as ethnographic tales about barbarians and monsters who lived at the edges of the earth. The Latin West acquired its knowledge of classical geography from books by Pliny the Elder and Pomponius Mela (both wrote in the first century), Solinus (third century), Macrobius (c. 400), and Martianus Capella (fifth century). Also popular was the geographical description of the known world with which Orosius, a Christian scholar of Spanish origin, began his Histories against the Pagans (written around 416). Orosius’s geographical introduction was entirely based on classical sources. The Greek-speaking East had access to classical geography in the book written by Strabo (first century), as well as in the writings of the fathers of the church. Manuscripts transmitting these works were copied throughout the Middle Ages, and Christian scholars used them to study and teach geography and as sources of data in composing their own treatises.

The Christianization of the Picture of the World

Early medieval scholars borrowed from the previous tradition the essential features of the classical picture of the world, placed them in a Christian context, and adapted them to the biblical worldview. To reconcile classical information with Christian doctrine, scholars proposed various theories about geographical matters. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Byzantine merchant, wrote his Christian Topography in Greek between 535 and 547. In this book he offered a thoroughly Christianized vision of the world, refuting the theory of the spherical shape of the earth and debating with classical Greek authorities. In his view, the world is shaped like the Tabernacle of Moses; the earth is flat and rectangular and surrounded by the ocean. In addition to theoretical ideas, Cosmas included descriptions of places that he had visited during his trade expeditions. Some manuscripts of Cosmas’s book include maps that represent his ideas: some of them show the rectangular earth, surrounded by the ocean; others demonstrate the great mountain located in the north that he thought accounted for the setting and rising of the sun.

Modern scholars often cite Cosmas’s work to demonstrate the decline of geography in the Middle Ages due to the pernicious influence of religion. But Cosmas is an isolated example. His book did not enjoy wide circulation; it was little known in Byzantium and inaccessible to the Latin-speaking West. Thus, the theory of a flat earth remained marginal to medieval geography, whereas the mainstream adopted classical ideas of the spherical world.

Classical geographical ideas entered the mainstream of Christian thought and education via compendia of Christian knowledge, which followed the influential model established by Isidore of Seville (c. 570-636). In his Etymologies, Isidore collected information from classical authorities and placed it in a Christian context. He presents information about peoples and languages, rivers and seas, regions of the earth, and measurements of distance. His geographical outline of the world in its details follows Pliny, Solinus, and Orosius, but it is structured and complemented by biblical references in such a way as to create a Christianized picture of the world. His earth is spherical, and his account of its regions begins with Paradise and ends with Hell. In between he lists the old provinces of the Roman Empire and follows the classical division of the earth into three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. Throughout his encyclopedia, Isidore provides etymological explanations of names and words, borrowed from classical and Christian sources. Isidore’s encyclopedia, transmitted in hundreds of manuscripts, influenced later geographical accounts both in its material and its method.

Hrabanus Maurus in his encyclopedia On the Natures of Things (De Rerum Naturis), composed between 842 and 847 as a reference tool for reading scripture, continued Isidore’s tradition and went even further in his Christianization of the classical geographical material. Borrowing both the contents and the etymological method from Isidore, Hrabanus adds to them the exegetical methods of biblical commentaries. He looks for symbolic meanings behind the physical world. For instance, the division of the earth into the three continents, according to Hrabanus, signifies the Trinity. Structuring his account of the regions along Christian lines, he places Jerusalem at the center of the earth, and in describing Palestine he often associates places with biblical events.

In the second half of the ninth century, John Scottus Eriugena, the first major medieval philosopher in the West after Augustine, included theoretical geographical material in his magisterial synthesis of Christian knowledge, On Natures (Periphyseon). When discussing the created world, he treated in detail the shape and size of the earth and reported the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes’s calculations of the earth’s circumference. Analyzing the symbolism of the numbers in Eratosthenes’s result, John Scottus connected these calculations to Pythagoras’s idea of numerical and musical proportions underlying the structure of the world. He concluded that all these numbers and proportions reveal the structure and harmony of the world as being entirely in accordance with the scriptures.

In subsequent centuries, the compendia of Christian knowledge followed the same pattern, including geographical information among other data about the created world and drawing on established authorities, both Christian (Isidore and Orosius) and pagan (Pliny). Among these encyclopedias were Honorius of Autun’s Imago Mundi (c. 1110), Lambert of St. Omer’s Liber Floridus (1112-1121), Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia (1211-1214), Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Maius (c. 1260), and Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius (1266-1267).

While working with classical information, medieval scholars were particularly concerned to reconcile it with the Bible. Many geographical concepts and places mentioned in the Bible and particularly important to Christianity had little or no equivalent in classical geography. One such place was Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, described in Genesis 2:8-14, and not mentioned in classical descriptions of the world. According to the biblical account, the Garden of Eden, where God put the first man, was located in the East. It pleasantly abounded with trees, and a great river ran through it. Beyond its boundaries, the river divided and became four rivers, named the Phison, the Geon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Since Genesis implies that the Garden of Eden was located on earth but does not specify where, it left abundant room for Christian scholars to speculate on the location. The predominant medieval geographical and cartographical tradition, from Isidore of Seville on, placed Paradise in the East. It also usually identified the biblical river Geon as the Nile and the Phison as the Ganges, but some remarkable exceptions placed the Phison in Europe and thus connected Paradise to that part of the world. A biblical commentary composed in Canterbury between 650 and 750 displayed rather vague ideas about European geography, suggesting that the Phison was the same river as the Rhône, which in turn was the same as the Danube. The cosmography of Pseudo-Aethicus, composed between the fifth and the eighth centuries, mentions a river Geon beginning in the fields of Gaul. One ninth-century monastic history claims that the Geon is the same river as the Seine, where the monastery was located.

Medieval scholars also used classical information to explain and elaborate on other biblical passages, which in their turn endorsed classical concepts. Thus, an account in Genesis 9:18-19 reports that after the Flood, the earth was populated by the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Christian writers, turning to classical geography, explained that when Noah distributed the earth among his three sons, Shem received Asia, Japhet Europe, and Ham Africa. The tripartite division of the earth, inherited from Greek and Roman geography, thus received a biblical explanation and justification and was widely used in geographical descriptions and maps. In accordance with Ezekiel 5:5, many medieval maps and geographical accounts place Jerusalem at the center of the earth, combining this biblical postulate with depictions and descriptions borrowed from classical geography. The biblical accounts of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 39:2 and Revelation 20:8), two figures or apocalyptic nations that were to bring devastation in the end of times, were combined with the classical tradition and produced the story of Alexander the Great enclosing these dangerous nations behind a wall. The lands of Gog and Magog found their place in medieval texts and maps, among other Christian and classical information. Throughout the Middle Ages, particularly feared peoples, such as the Mongols, were identified as “Gog and Magog.”

Pilgrimage and Descriptions of the Holy Places

Pilgrimage was a way for medieval people to share in the sacred. Travel to the holy land allowed people to see the locations where biblical events occurred, to pray there, and thus to approach a better understanding of the Bible, this ultimate source of Christian wisdom. According to the medieval tradition, travel to places that witnessed the activity of the saints or contained their relics, such as Rome, Canterbury, or Santiago de Compostela, brought people in direct contact with the power of the saints, which they believed could heal their bodies and save their souls. Numerous pilgrims who traveled to the holy land, such as Egeria (late fourth or fifth century), Bernard (ninth century), and John of Würzburg (twelfth century), left detailed accounts of their journeys, enumerating the holy places and recalling connected places in scripture. Some accounts conveyed firsthand experience; others were based on literary sources and other people’s travels. Adomnan in his On Holy Places (De Locis Sanctis) recorded the pilgrimage of Arculf, around 683-684, while Bede (673-735) composed his book of the same name using Adomnan’s text and other sources. Useful reference tools, such as Eusebius’s Onomasticon in Greek and its Latin translation by Jerome, focused on etymologies and the biblical significance of place names. Bede’s book, based on Jerome’s Latin version of the Onomasticon and the history by Josephus Flavius, performed the same service.

While pilgrims’ accounts described specific sights, there also existed special itineraries and guidebooks composed for pilgrims to help them find their way to the holy places. The anonymous Bordeaux Itinerary (333) lists the routes leading from Bordeaux to the holy land, also mentioning the number of miles on each leg of the journey, important stations, and changes of direction. The twelfth-century pilgrims’ guide to Santiago de Compostela, written in French, indicates several routes leading to the shrine from different places in Europe and gives information about the locations and peoples they pass through.

Medieval maps often included various holy places, from Jerusalem to European shrines. The mosaic map from the church in Madaba (sixth century) represents the holy land at the Byzantine period and quotes passages from the Bible corresponding to locations. With east on the top, it places a plan of Jerusalem with several important churches in the center. The map also contains plans of several other cities. Like other medieval maps, this one was not drawn to scale and was not meant as a practical guide for travelers. Rather, this representation of the holy land and the surrounding areas, laid out on the floor of the church as it was, may have served as a symbol of the earthly space within the cosmic space symbolized by the entire church building.

Geography continued to develop in the context of religion throughout the almost one thousand years of the medieval period. Its main theoretical postulates and the principles of place descriptions remained remarkably stable and changed only little. However, it would be wrong to conclude that medieval geography was slavishly dependent on the classical and Christian traditions. Medieval authors complemented the traditional information with new data and thus modified the picture of the world. Two ninth-century writers, Dicuil in On the Measurement of the Earth (De Mensura Orbis Terrae) and an anonymous author in On the Location of the Earth (De Situ Orbis), built on the classical tradition, but each chose and reorganized the classical data in such a way as to shift the emphasis from the Mediterranean area, the focus of Roman geography, to the European regions closer to home. Dicuil, an Irish scholar who worked at the courts of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, gives an account of world geography with particular attention placed on dimensions and distances. He meticulously compared the data of classical sources and criticized some of them because they contradicted his own experience or the experience of other people. He also supplemented information drawn from books by reports of travelers about northern islands and the Nile.

A tenth-century historian, Richer, when describing France, complemented the classical account of Gaul composed by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE with contemporary names of the regions. Explanatory notes left by medieval scholars in the margins of manuscripts updated classical information by filling in contemporary names for peoples and locations. Scholars such as Bede and Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280), while relying on authorities, used their own observations of the natural world. The creators of the Hereford Map (1300) based their large and detailed map of the world on classical information but also included some recent and local data.

The main principles of medieval learned geography in Europe, its reliance on authorities, its essentially bookish character, and its tight connection to a religious worldview were to give way only in the course of the great social, cultural, and intellectual changes that Europe experienced between 1400 and 1700. These changes, brought about by geographical explorations and discoveries and the new value placed on experience and observation, would transform medieval knowledge about nature, separate it from religion, and ultimately turn it into modern science. The processes that took place during the course of the medieval centuries, the growing extent of travel, the overseas expansion, and the rising interest in new knowledge paved the way for this transformation.