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Introducing the Oxford Outremer Map



Introducing the Oxford Outremer Map

Nicholas L. Paul


What we call the “Oxford Outremer Map” is a thirteenth-century drawing of the geographic region roughly bounded by the Orontes river valley in the north, the Nile delta in the south, with the Mediterranean coastline marking the western boundary and Damascus, the Sea of Galilee and the anti-Lebanon mountain range roughly constituting the eastern edge. Historically, this area has been known by several names, including the Levant, Palestine, Syria, and al-Shams, and it is today home to the modern states of Israel and Palestine and parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. At the time the map was created, this area was ethnically, linguistically, and confessionally diverse, but it had been ruled since the early twelfth century by European Latin (Roman Catholic) Christians who came to region in the context of crusading expeditions to wrest control of the city of Jerusalem.[1] The French-speaking ruling class referred to their land as la terre d’Outremer (“the land across the sea”.) Since this was the most common name for the region in England, where the map was produced, and because the map is now housed in one of the colleges of Oxford University, we call this the “Oxford Outremer Map”.

The map is generally attributed to Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of the abbey of St. Albans, located about 20 miles outside of London.[2] Matthew Paris is well known to medieval historians as a writer of historical and religious texts, including his famous Chronica maiora (which narrated events of his own lifetime in great detail) and vernacular French lives of saints Alban, Edward the Confessor, Thomas of Canterbury, and Edmund of Canterbury.[3] Matthew is no less famous as an artist, and the surviving copies of his historical works and several other manuscripts from St. Albans preserve Matthew’s own illustrations.[4] Among these are about a dozen maps, including a map of the four winds, four maps of Britain, a mappamundi (world map) and map of the world’s climate zones, and maps showing an itinerary from London to Apulia and thence by sea to Jerusalem.[5] Among all of these maps is Matthew’s map of Outremer.

The Oxford Outremer Map is drawn across one side of a bifolium (a single sheet of parchment folded in half). A high-quality digital photograph of the map can be seen here. The bifolium was later sewn into a manuscript of the Bible, partly copied by Matthew Paris, now in the library of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.[6] The parchment bifolium on which it was drawn, however, already had on the reverse side two paintings made several decades earlier in the twelfth century. As a result of the color bleeding through the parchment, it is very difficult to discern the comparatively light penwork of the map. Attempts to reproduce the map with photography –even using high quality digital images–do not yield a useful image for close study and consultation.

Starting with a high quality digital image of the map, we initiated a process of restoring the drawings on the bifolium together with the no less significant text accompanying them. You can read all about this process in our essay on the digital enhancement of the map. Our restoration produced a much clearer image of the drawings as they were originally inscribed upon the parchment. We then used this image to create an interactive exhibit powered by Omeka, linking the images and text on the map with a database[LM1]  of information regarding the places Matthew sketched and their importance and status at the time when the map was made.

The map is very unusual for its time, principally because of its content and orientation. All maps are rhetorical or ideological constructs, but in the central Middle Ages many maps portrayed the world through a specifically Christian religious framework that combined geography with sacred history. Most maps were centered on Jerusalem and were especially detailed with regard to the sacred geography of the Holy Land. They are also usually oriented to the East, reflecting the direction of a pilgrim’s travel toward the city and enabling Christians to make “virtual” devotional pilgrimages to the city in prayer.[7] Like these maps, the Oxford Outremer map demonstrates a significant preoccupation with sacred geography, and provides the travel times in days (dieta) south along the Mediterranean coastline to Jaffa where pilgrims would ultimately disembark for Jerusalem. But strikingly, Jerusalem is not at the very center of the map, and is not generally out of proportion with other population centers. The map is also oriented to the North, like Matthew Paris’s two maps of Britain.

The content of the map includes sites of political and religious significance in addition to topographical and environmental features, including noteable flora and fauna (you can read more about the locations on the map here.)  Among the settlements marked are pilgrimage sites and places, people, and events mentioned in the Scriptures, but they also include a large number of other places, most notably fortified sites built to defend the kingdom. The map’s creator took special care to identify the fortified places, either by drawing crenellated walls or towers (as at Emmaus or Recordane) or adding the abbreviation “cast.” (for castellum, as at Qal’at ad-Damm or Safran). The meaning of other visual markers – the use of red ink for names, the letter “c.” in red ink, and a red ink rectangle around the site name– are not fully understood, but seem to also relate to the status or defensive functions of particular sites. These are only some of the many mysteries of the map.

Another of the map’s mysteries is the date of its creation. The political world projected in the map appears to reflect a relatively brief period in the thirteenth century when the city of Jerusalem was in Christian hands and accessible to pilgrims via the road from the port of Jaffa. This is the period between 1229, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II acquired control of Jerusalem by treaty with the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt al-Kamil, and 1244, when the city was conquered by the Khwarezmian Turks. The land that it encompasses is unnamed, but is the territory between the principality of Antioch (to the North), the Ayyubid sultanate of Egypt (to the South), and the Ayyubid sultanate of Damascus (to the East), corresponded with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which, if somewhat diminished, was still the central Latin principality in Outremer. It is tempting to try to date the map more precisely based on the sites that were recorded or omitted. Prominently featured on the map are the fortified mill sites of Doc (Da’uq) and Recordane, which were the subject of a major dispute between the crusading Military Orders of the Temple and Hospital in 1235.[8] On the other hand, the map lacks the major Templar fortresses at Beaufort (returned to Christian hands in 1240) and Safed (constructed in 1240-1). If we are led to consider the later 1230s as a potential context for the map, then the further possibility arises that its production was related to the crusade preparations of the English prince Richard of Cornwall, who took the cross in 1236 and, having made final preparations in the Autumn of 1239, journeyed to the East in the summer of 1240.[9] Matthew Paris took care to note in his Chronica maiora that Richard visited St Alban’s on the eve of his departure for the crusade.[10] Although he was there to secure intercessory prayer in support of his crusade, more mundane types of strategy and geography would also have been foremost in his mind. He would have benefited from a reliable picture of the political situation in Outremer.[11] P.D.A. Harvey has observed, however, that the two documents copied on the upper part of the right half of the bifolium relate to events of 1246.[12] If, as Harvey believes, Matthew Paris sketched the map around these documents, then he did so after this date. The apparent contradiction between the dates can be resolved if, as Harvey argues, Matthew Paris was copying (and perhaps also editing) a map that had originally been executed some time earlier.  

As with the various arguments that have been advanced for the date and political context for the map’s production, much of what has been written about Matthew Paris’s Outremer map is at this point conjectural. Unfinished, obscured by the colors on its reverse, and outside a manuscript context that would help to explain or contextualize it, the map is not as well known as the more spectacular cartographic projects of medieval England such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the Gough Map, or Matthew Paris’s own maps of Britain, all of which have been the subject of their own digital exhibits. Although it contains critical details of the geography and settlement of the Near East, it is never mentioned in the context of other great medieval Mediterranean geographical works, such as the twelfth-century Tabula Rogeriana of the Sicilian Arab geographer al-Idrisi or the eleventh-century Egyptian Book of Curiosities held and digitally exhibited at the Bodleian library.[13]  The Outremer map could usefully be compared with the map of al-Sham drawn by the tenth-century Persian geographer Ibrahim Ibn Muhammad Istakhri which frames roughly the same area is similarly concerned with detail.[14]  

Since Konrad Miller and Reinhold Röhricht first drew attention to the map, each publishing drawings of it in 1895, the Oxford Outremer map has been known and cited by scholars of the history of cartography.[15] As our page of suggested further reading shows, however, in the succeeding century, the place of the map within cartographic research and in the modern historiography of the crusades, crusader Outremer, medieval England, and the work of Matthew Paris has been as muted as lines on the map itself.[16] Particularly surprising is the marginal position the map has occupied in the many recent works on the art and mapmaking of Matthew Paris. The outstanding exceptions to the general silence regarding the map can be found in the works of Evelyn Edson and P.D.A. Harvey, whose excellent scholarship in articles and book chapters on the map have guided and supported this project. Edson’s online essay about the map should be considered a first port of call for those seeking to learn more about the map and its production.

It is the intention of this site to make possible further analysis of this artwork and encourage scholars of different disciplines and backgrounds to bring their expertise to bear on the map and its mysteries. If you have suggestions or comments regarding the map, we invite you to send them to us.

For further reading, see our bibliography of works related to the map.

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[1] Malcolm Barber, The Crusader States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

[2] Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958)

[3] Chronica maiora, ed. H.R. Luard, Rolls Series 57 (7 vols., London: Longmans, 1872-1883); The Life of St Alban, tr. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Thelma S. Fenster (Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010); The History of Saint Edward the King, tr. Thelma S. Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010)

[4] Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Maiora (Berkley: The University of California Press, 1987)

[5] Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris, pp. 321-376

[6] The bifolium is catalogued as Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 2*

[7] Daniel K. Connely, The Maps of Matthew Paris: Medieval Journeys Through Space, Time, and Liturgy (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2009), pp. 5-49.

[8] For the conflict, see Judith Bronstein, The Hospitallers in the Holy Land: Financing the Latin East, 1187-1274 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2005), p. 114.

[9] For Richard’s crusade see Michael Lower, The Barons’ Crusade: A Call to Arms and Its Consequences (Philadelphia: the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), pp. 129-148, 158-177; Sidney Painter, “The Crusade of Theobald of Champagne and Richard of Cornwall,” in A History of the Crusades, 2nd ed., ed. Kenneth M. Setton et al., (6 vols., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969-1989), 2: 463-485, esp. 483-5; Peter Jackson, “The Crusades of 1239-41 and Their Aftermath,” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 50:1 (1987), 32-60, esp. 46-8.

[10] Chronica maiora, iv: 126; Lower, The Barons’ Crusade, 148.

[11] For an argument for the political and strategic utility of maps in a crusading context see Benjamin Z. Kedar, “Reflections on Maps, Crusading, and Logistics,” Logistics of Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, ed. John Pryor (Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 159-184.

[12] P.D.A. Harvey, “Matthew Paris’s Maps of Palestine”, in Thirteenth Century England VIII; Proceedings of the Durham Conference 1999, ed. Michael Prestwich, Richard Britnell and Robin Frame (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001), 165-77.

[13] For the particularly relevant image from al-Idrisi’s map see here.

[14] For a sketch of the map made in 1840 with Roman transliterations of the labels see Kedar, “Reflections on Maps,” p. 165.

[15] For the earliest drawings see Konrad Miller, Mappaemundi: die ältesten Weltkarten (6 vols., Stuttgart: Roth, 1895-8), iii: 152-6; Röhricht, Gustav Reinhold.“Karten und Pläne VI,” in "Karten und Pläne zur Palästinakunde aus dem 7.-16. Jahrhunderts." Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins 18 (1895): 173-182, plates 5-7 at 178-82 and plate IV. For the place of the map in the history of cartography see P.D.A. Harvey, “Local and Regional Cartography in Medieval Europe,” in J.B. Harley, and D. Woodward, eds., The History of Cartography. Volume I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (Chicago, 1987), pp. 464-498

[16] For the exceptional reference to the map among historians of the crusades, see Ronnie Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 68, 98. Among the scholars of Matthew Paris, Lewis [The Art of Matthew Paris] refers to the map only in a footnote, Daniel K. Connelly [The Maps of Matthew Paris (Woodbrige, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009)] mentions it only briefly andDaniel Birkholz [The Kings Two Maps: Cartography & Culture in Thirteenth Century England (New York: Routledge, 2004)] does not mention it at all.

Introducing the Oxford Outremer Map