Since moving to England, I seem to have developed a growing fascination for all things old. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in sunny southern California, “ancient” refers to any architectural or cultural artifact built sometime around 1880. Perhaps it’s because I now live around the corner from a little priory chapel founded around 1170. It could also be because I spend most of my study time here in Durham reading in the cathedral library — a beautiful stone and wood-beam hall with stained glass windows, creaking floors, and a massive vaulted ceiling — which was once used as the monk’s dormitory in the 11th century. Around here, history is tangible in ways I never quite experienced growing up in Rancho Cucamonga.
I mention this because the other day I made an interesting discovery while watching In Search of Medieval Britain. In this short BBC documentary, Dr Alixe Bovey, a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Kent, uses the oldest surviving route map of Britain in order to chart her journeys back into the world of the Middle Ages. It’s called the Gough Map and it was made sometime around 1360. Bovey notes,
The Gough map is named after its last owner, Richard Gough, an antiquarian map collector who donated it to the Bodleian library in 1809. It’s one of the first maps that tries to depict Britain accurately with more than 600 towns and almost two hundred rivers.
One of the most interesting things about this map is the direction of its orientation. We are quite accustomed to seeing the world pictorially depicted North to South. However, Bovey points out that “the convention at the time was to put the East at the top because that was the direction of Christianity’s holiest city: Jerusalem.” The more I look at this map, the more I am struck by how concretely it signifies the radical alterity of the medieval social imaginary.
A research project sponsored by the British Academy has made available a fully interactive version of the Gough Map accessible here. It’s well work having a look at.