Artistic Marks from the Medieval World

In the preliminary pages of this fifteenth-century Italian manuscript containing Valerius Maximus' Memorable Deeds and Sayings, the scribe, or perhaps a reader, has drawn a series of maps of the known world, or sections of it, as it was conceived throughout the Middle Ages. Contrasting with the quasi-realistic representation of Rome encapsulated in the decorated initial "U", these maps, however, suggest a schematic, almost abstract, representation of the world. Interestingly, the drawings of this manuscript seem to be playful additions of the scribe: being randomly located within the table of contents and a preliminary blank page, they have a marginal life of their own, detached from the content of Valerius Maximus' text.


Folio 5r, opening page with historiated intitial representing the city of Rome from Valerius Maximus (fl. 1st c. AD ). Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX (Memorable Deeds and Sayings). Parchment. Italy 15thc. 

On the lower half of the page displayed below we can see a drawing of a schematic representation of a belt of mountains encircling the plain of Thessaly (central Greece): Olympus, Ossa, Pelion, Orthys, and Pindus. These mountains are inside a circle marked with the four cardinal directions: Septentrio (north), Oriens (East), Meridies (south), and Occidens (west). Considering that Valerius Maximus does not describe this region of Greece in his Memorable Deeds and Sayings, we may askwhy did the scribe include it in this manuscript? Was it a playful addition, perhaps by a later reader day-dreaming about the extraordinary myths embedded in these mountains? The unfinished doodle-like nature of the other drawing above suggests this hypothesis.


Folio 2r from Valerius Maximus (fl. 1st c. AD ). Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX (Memorable Deeds and Sayings). Parchment. Italy 15thc

We see again the same representation of Thessaly on folio 4r. Interestingly, this schematic map appears within the text of some medieval manuscripts of Lucanus' Bellum civile as evidenced, for instance, by British Library Harley 2728 (11th c.) and Beinecke Library Ms 332 (13th c.). Next, in the lower half of the same page is a typical T-O map: a depiction of the earth as a circle divided by a horizontal lines across an inner circumference, with the lower half divided by vertical lines forming a "T" in the circle. The vertical stroke of the "T" is the Mare Mediterraneum; the left section of the horizontal stroke is the river Thanais; and the right one is the river Nillus. The circle includes the three known continents: Asia, Europa, and Africa. Lastly, we can see a list of winds ascribed to their respective compass points, except for Occidens since the lower edge has been trimmed: Aquilo, Boreas and Circius; Vulturnus, Eurus, and Subsolanus; Nothus, Auster, and Affricus.


Folio 4r from Valerius Maximus (fl. 1st c. AD ). Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX (Memorable Deeds and Sayings). Parchment. Italy 15thc.

T-O maps represent the known world according to Isidore of Seville's description in Book 14 of his Etymologies. Called orbis because of its likeness to the roundness of the circle or that of the wheel, the known world, argues Isidore, consists of the three known continents (Asia, Europa, and Africa) encircled by an Oceanus flowing around them. Isidore also depicts each of the continents as being populated by the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and Japheth) as we can see in the following two early printed editions.


Woodcut of T-O map on folio 71r from Isidorus Hispalensis (ca. 560-636).  Etymologiae. Paris: Georg Wolf and Thielman Kerver, for Jean Petit at Paris, and Jean Alexandre and Charles Debougne at Angers, 25 May 1499. 


T-O map on Folio 68r from Werner Rolewinck (1425-1502). Fasciculus temporum (Venice: Erhard Ratdolt. 24 Nov. 1480).

Marks of Correction: How to fix a Manuscript Line