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Mapping the Holy Land

Mapping the Holy Land

Mapping the Holy Land
Canterbury Cathedral Library H/Oo-7-1

The maps which are the focus of this month’s ‘Picture this…’ are taken from Canterbury Cathedral Library’s copy of Jacques Bongars’s Gesta Dei per Francos. Bongars (1554-1612), born in Orléans and educated at the universities of Jena, Marburg, Orléans, and Bourges, was a French diplomat and historian who served Henry IV of France on diplomatic missions in Eastern Europe between 1593 and 1610. Aside from his political activities, Jacques was a keen bibliophile and collected a personal library of over 3,000 books and 500 manuscripts. His contributions to scholarship included a number of text editions and source collections. Bongars’s most significant work was the Gesta Dei per Francos (Hanover, 1611), an impressive edited collection of crusading accounts.

The collection was presented to the new young king of France Louis XIII, who succeeded his murdered father in 1610. This was the very first time such an extensive number of crusading texts had been brought together in one volume and many of these had never been edited or printed before. As some of these texts are still awaiting a critical edition and a number of the manuscripts used by Bongars are now lost, the collection remains a standard work in crusading historiography and is gratefully used by scholars to this very day.

The work consists of two parts. The first contains most of the accounts of the First Crusade from the twelfth century as well as William of Tyre’s Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum (c. 1180) and Jacques de Vitry’s Historia Orientalis (c. 1224). Most of the second part is taken up by the Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis, the Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross by Marino Sanudo Torsello (c. 1270 – c. 1343), and also included Sanudo’s letters and Pierre Dubois’s De Recuperatione Terre Sancte.

Marino Sanudo Torsello or ‘the Elder’ was the son of a Venetian patrician and his book is one of a number of crusade proposals that circulated in Europe after the fall of Acre, the last crusader stronghold in 1291. The Book of the Secrets was officially presented to Pope John XXII in 1321. The first book contained a plan for a naval blockade of Egypt to obstruct the Mamluk economy in preparation for military action. The second book outlined a military assault on Egypt followed by a crusade to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. In the third book, Sanudo compiled an up-to-date history of the Outremer (‘the land overseas’), making use of the accounts of -among others- William of Tyre, Jacques de Vitry, and Vincent of Beauvais. Sanudo added his own personal experience and geographical knowledge of the Eastern Mediterranean. The work ends with advice on how a new Kingdom of Jerusalem should be organised.

Of particular interest here are the detailed maps that accompany Sanudo’s strategies. Although Sanudo only mentions four maps in the introduction to his book, the edition by Bongars held at the Cathedral Library contains five maps: a world map, a map of the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, a map of the Holy Land, and two city maps, one of Jerusalem and one of Acre. Sanudo’s book survives in twenty-three manuscripts, ten of which contain versions of these maps (one of these can be found in the British Library: Ms. Add. 27376). Bongars seems to have based his edition of the Book of Secrets and the five complementary maps on a manuscript held in the Vatican Library (Ms. Reginae Cristiae 548). The resemblances and stylistic similarities between Sanudo’s maps and the maps from the atlas of the Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte show that they must have collaborated. However, none of the maps in Sanudo’s Book of Secrets are signed by Vesconte, and historians have argued that the maps of Palestine and Jerusalem were based on earlier versions and that the map of Acre must have been by Sanudo’s own hand.

The first map depicts the known world and is modelled on the so-called T-O maps with Jerusalem in the centre. Although some of the later Medieval cartographic developments are shown on the map (e.g. the polar axis shown by a star icon in the North on the far left of the map) overall, the map has a biblical outline. The map is the most detailed and accurate around the Mediterranean, in the places best known to merchants. The further to the East, the more distorted and the less detailed the map becomes and more mythical elements can be found. The world map can be seen as an attempt by Sanudo to convince his patrons and audience of his geographical knowledge. It is interesting to note that the knowledge of the Far East is not updated with information from the travels of William of Rubruck, the Franciscan missionary who went to Karakorum between 1252 and 1255, or of fellow Venetian Marco Polo, who travelled in the Far East between 1269 and 1295.

Grid map of the Holy LandThe map of the Eastern Mediterranean is clearly meant to provide strategic information for a naval campaign. The grid map of the Holy Land serves a similar purpose. The information on waterways, mountain ranges, and fortifications, and the lack of indications of sacred shrines in comparison with contemporary Western maps of the Holy Land, show that the map is meant to complement Sanudo’s text, making it possible for the reader to visualise the military strategy in detail. The grid is an interesting rare feature for the early fourteenth century and served to calculate distances. Working with a grid and focusing on geographical landscape features instead of on cities was quite an innovative technique and caused the map to be far more precise than others of its time.

Sanudo's map of Jerusalem's defences and water supply system

Although not drawn to scale, the map of Jerusalem is in fact the first map to accurately show the city’s rectangular outline instead of depicting it as a circular celestial holy city. Again the focus is on strategic details: the city walls, the road system, and the defensive structures. While on other maps the Holy Sepulchre is the centre of attention, here it is barely noticeable. The most interesting feature of the map is the emphasis on the city’s water supply system and the indications of the locations of the water reservoirs. The map of Acre shows the strength and importance of the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem just before its fall in 1291 and is the only map of Acre at the time of the crusades with such detail.

These maps are more than just a glimpse of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land in the early fourteenth century. They provide us today with information on late medieval cartographic developments. Most importantly, the maps should not be seen just for their geographical information, but also as the visual representation of Sanudo’s crusade plans. For ten years after presenting the maps to the pope, Sanudo visited noblemen, princes and monarchs throughout Western Europe, handing out copies of his work and urging people to organise a new crusade; by the time he died around 1343, no crusader had left for the Holy Land.

Jan Vandeburie: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent
Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further Reading:

  • P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London, 2012)
  • Evelyn Edson, ‘Reviving the Crusade: Sanudo’s Schemes and Vesconti’s Maps’, in Eastward Bound, Travel and Travellers 1050-1550 ed. by Rosamond Allen (Manchester, 2004), pp. 131-55
  • Marino Sanudo Torsello, The Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross/Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis ed. by Peter Lock (Farnham, 2011).
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