Micro Essays

The following are a series of brief sketches, intended to point out interesting features on the maps or in the data for some of the texts, and to offer ideas for more detailed inquiry.


Imagined Saracen Spaces

The most unusual topographic feature of the “The Song of Roland,” is the very large number of imaginary, unmappable places mentioned in the text. These unmappable places are largely inhabited by Saracens, and reinforce the rhetorical mirroring of the empires of Charlemagne and Marsilla throughout the poem, by constructing a relatively detailed, though largely fictional, Islamic world. The Aquilon de Baviere, in which the hero is initially raised among Muslims, shows a similar effort to expand the Islamic world and a relatively thorough treatment of Asia, Africa, and especially Spain. The island of Majorca in Gui de Nanteuil and other related works is, as the kingdom of Agolant, a recurring villain of the Chanson de Geste genre, given a relatively thorough (though likely entirely fictional) description. In each case, fictional particulars are used to fill out real regions, as part of a process of creative extrapolation that blurred real and imagined geographies.

Tobias Hrynick

See: Aquilon de BavièreFranco-Italian La Chanson de Roland, Gui de Nanteuil
Image from BnF Francais 343 anc. 6964


Pilgrimage Sites in the Entrée d'Espagne

The Entrée d'Espagne shows a striking orientation towards pilgrimage sites. At first glance, the most striking feature of this map is the line of places across the northern Iberian peninsula, corresponding to the pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, with a second arc of toponyms following the Ebro river valley (also part of the Route del Ebro of the Camino). Only slightly less remarkable is the cluster of places located in the Holy land. Added to these is another grouping in north-west Andalusia, which at the time of the text's composition had recently been re-taken by Christian forces (perhaps an attempt to fuse the legendary Carolingian conquests with the historical Reconquista).  Together, these sites show a concern with and equation of peaceful pilgrimage, and the armed "pilgrimage," of crusading.

Tobias Hrynick

See: Entrée d'Espagne
Image from "St. James the Greater," by Carlo Crivelli


Trade Routes

Several interesting patterns can be detected in the place-names references by the Estoires de Venise. Three basic clusters can be discerned: one (unsurprisingly) around Venice itself, extending south-east to encompass much of the Adriatic coast; a second in the Aegean (the site of a number of engagements with the Genoans in the War of St. Sabas), and a third around the Holy Land. Taken broadly, this map speaks to both the extent and the limitations of the Venetian trade network – important hubs of the eastern spice trade which Venice exploited, like the Levant and Byzantium, are visible, but also visible is the lack of penetration inland, or strong understanding of the ultimate sources of these goods. Notably, the strong coastal orientation throughout the eastern Mediterranean is not replicated in the west – though the west is less referenced overall, the penetration is deeper, and is oriented not along the coast, but along an axis running roughly between Provençe and the northern coast of France (see Place Names and Population Density, above). The pattern suggests that Venetian understanding of their market greatly outstriped their knowlege of their suppliers.

It is also interesting to compare the patterns of the Estoires de Venise with those of the Moamin and Ghatrif. The coastal orientation is entirely absent here -- extreme prestige goods like falcons were less impacted by the difficulties of overland transport even than the high-value low-bulk goods from the eastern trade.

Tobias Hrynick

See: Les Estoires de VeniseGhatrifMoamin 
Image from Image from BnF Francais 343 anc. 6964


To be French, or to be Italian? Geographic Orientations of the French of Italy

A fundamental question implicit in this project is why Italian writers chose to compose, copy, or translate works in French. One possible explanation is itself geographic -- a notion that texts about France should be in French. While a Franco-centric orientation holds true for texts concerning the Matter of France (matiere de France) epic cycle, the focus on French sites is absent from several of the maps in our collection. Most startling is the Moamin and Ghatrif, where place-names in France are entirely absent. The Pharsale and Hector et Hercule, as well as the Estoires de Venise, though they mention a few places in France, are also clearly oriented elsewhere.

It is necessary, therefore, to consider non-geographical explanations for the use of French in these cases. One possibility is that the language conveyed a degree of prestige -- the translation of the Moamin and the Ghatrif for Frederick II into French might make sense in this context. It is also possible French was a useful stand-in for Latin as an international language for matters as aggressively secular as hunting and hawking, which nevertheless were of interest to a large and multi-lingual audience. This might also help to explain the inclusion of the Matter of Rome texts in the French of Italy corpus, which would have had a similar broad, secular audience. In the case of the Estoires de Venise, this international value of the language seems to have been calculated to be effective both as a way of discussing the Holy Land and reaching out to the growing Angevin power in Italy: the geographic foci of this text may in fact provide a reason for the choice of language, even though France itself is little referenced.

By contrast, texts from the Matter of France maintain strong geographic concentrations in that region, and do not show an obvious attempt to re-orient geographcically for an Italian audience. The Venetian Gui de Nanteuil is a particurally interesting example, since it not only maintains the French concentration, but even maintains a French orientation for the Italian sites -- they are all located on the west coast, away from Venice's own sphere of interest. 

Tobias Hrynick

See: Les Estoires de VeniseGhatrifGui de NanteuilMoaminLe Roman d'Hector et Hercule, Pharsale
Image from BnF Francais 343 anc. 6964


Literary Representations of Demography

A notable feature on many of the text maps is a dense arc of place-name references stretching roughly from Ravenna to Boulogne-sur-Mer: the arc into Italy proper might be regarded as an extension of this same central axis of settlement. This clustering is probably tied not to a particular bias of the authors of the French of Italy, but to broader demographic trends: it was along this axis that much of the urban development of later medieval Europe also occurred.

Tobias Hrynick

See: Composite, Aliscans, Entrée d'Espagne, Les Estoires de Venise, Geste Francor, Gui de Nanteuil
Image from BnF Francais 343 anc. 6964


Human and Natural Components of Place


Mapping place-names invariably does two things -- it describes a physical landscape, and a human one. Though both elements are invariably present, one may be much more prominent than another in a particular case. For instance, “the river Styx,” is much more prominent as a human notion which does not map to a particular geographic site, but was nevertheless imagined as a river, so that issues of landscape were still at play. By contrast, a real river like the Rhône primarily embodies a natural feature of the physical landscape -- the Rhône does not denote a group of people, or a geopolitical entity, as so many of our placenames do. Nevertheless, the appearance of the Rhône in our sources inevitably introduces a human observer and commentator.

Differences between cultural and natural features are not highlighted in our maps, but some interesting features can be perceived from a study of the data. The most intensely culturalized sites are villes -- particularly notable is the frequency with which these sites appear in the texts as eponyms of individuals. This remains true even for descriptions of the Islamic world, when the villes were at times invented. Larger regions (corresponding more closely to modern countries) appear much less in the corpus overall, and show some surprising orientations towards the natural world; they appear quite frequently as the places of origins for animals -- especially hawks and horses. Insofar as French of Italy texts are concerned, one might conclude that people come from villes, while animals come from countries. An interesting project which might be undertaken in the future would be to compare this trend in Italian texts to French texts from less urbanized areas such as France or England to test whether the same distinction holds.

Tobias Hrynick

See: AliscansGhatrif, Moamin
Image from British Library Harley 7026