I used to wonder why books lightly touching on the history of cartography often resort to using the above image as “Ptolemy’s map of the world.” Claudius Ptolemy lived during the second century AD; the map that demonstrates his work obviously comes from the Renaissance (1482, to be exact). Surely reproductions existed from manuscripts closer to Ptolemy’s time? Most reference works I came across, like encyclopaedias and high school textbooks, don’t explain the stylistic mismatch or even credit the source of the image at all.
I had a short-term roommate in grad school who tried, via oblique and sundry ways, to determine around which time in the year I was born. I thought this odd (why be so round about asking?) until I overheard her chatting on her cell phone about how she just could not stand Scorpios.
Step back again to undergrad. This time, an ill-considered “wine party” that I should never have attended. At one point the host passed around a book of modernist poetry for us to read aloud, which should have been about the time I should have elected to leave. Anyhow, one of the guests (attending university, studying literature or philosophy or something of that sort) started explaining, with real conviction, how the cosmic rays from the stars can influence us, asking others about their place in the zodiac.
And then there’s my grandmother on my father’s side, who is otherwise a devout secularist and believer in science and nonetheless also believes in ghosts, folk magic and astrology.
There is some basic human connection on the story and language level towards the night sky as an indicator and influencer of life on Earth. Babylonian and Egyptian astrologers were meticulous in their observations, though the form of ancient astrology was far removed from today’s New Age mysticism. There are tablets and papyri exhaustively linking heavenly events to earthly phenomena on a wide rather than personal scale–and they are records of unusual and oftentimes impossible astral events and their meanings. The heavens provided prognosis for famine, catastrophe, and the like, but not whether you’d meet a tall stranger this week.
I re-read Robert Bartlett’s The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages today and came across the following:
For there are animals called dragons and these animals fly in the air, swim in the water and walk on land, and sometimes when in the air they become aroused by lust, whence they often emitted semen into springs and rivers and because of this a deadly year ensued. So a remedy was found for this, that a fire should be made of bones and thus the smoke would drive these animals away.
-John Beleth, Summa de ecclesiasticis officiis (12th century), quoted in Bartlett, 71-72.
For a long time I was only familiar with The Story of Sinuhe from Mika Waltari’s historical novel The Egyptian (1945), which I read when I was 12 years old. Having now read the source material, the strangest part is that The Egyptian is historical fiction based on historical fiction. Like The Report of Wen-Amon, the events in The Story of Sinuhe are at least fictionalized if not outright imaginary. The supposed autobiographical account takes place in the early 20th century BCE, the earliest manuscript dates from about two hundred years later. Taking that as somewhere near the date of composition, it’s like a novelist today writing a story set in the Victorian era. Judging from the various copies floating around, it was extremely popular, an ancient Egyptian bestseller.
As an undergrad in history, I was often warned about reading modern attitudes into people of the past. Yet still I come across those unlikely texts that feel intimately familiar despite being composed in a world so distant in worldview and knowledge than our own. Notably, there’s The Report of Wen-Amon, a papyrus manuscript composed some three thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. Wen-Amon was a priest at the temple of Amon in Karnak, ordered by the high priest Herihor to travel to Phoenicia and obtain cedar wood for a holy barge at the beginning of the eleventh century BCE. The Report is Wen-Amon’s first-person account of his misadventures on the way to Byblos and back, which feels in equal parts Kafkaesque and Douglas Adams-y. He sets out with the gifts required to gain passage through the various kingdoms in Phoenicia, but when he lands at his first port of call, one of his crewmates steals most of the treasures and jumps ship. Wen-Amon tries to get compensation from the King of Dor since the theft took place in his harbour, but the king insists that Wen-Amon is mistaken–since the thief wasn’t one of the king’s citizens, he’s not responsible for repayment. The best he can do is let Wen-Amon stick around while the guardsmen try to find the thief. After nine days pass without any luck, Wen-Amon gets fed up and sails away. Swap out the ship for a plane and the king for a customs official and you have a pretty common story of international travel and theft.
The Deeds of God through the Franks is either staggeringly inept or fiendishly brilliant.
It’s hard to determine which, though.
I am convinced that Guibert de Nogent counts among the oddest writers of the twelfth century. He was not a famed intellect in his lifetime, or for a long time after it; but he wrote a lot, including histories, theological treatises and his best-known work, the Memoirs, and he had a small following devoted enough that his works were copied and recopied and survived. Only his Latin style was famously twisty and difficult, probably deliberately so, and his works, even at the time, were considered…weird. Interest in him increased with scholars in the 80s like Colin Morris turning to the Memoirs as a shining example of the twelfth century “discovery of the individual.” Those scholars, largely, glossed over the actual contents, which include bizarre episodes like the story of the man who ate his own semen, Guibert’s encounters with demons and the Devil, a historical account that has little if anything to do with Guibert taking up the latter half of the manuscript, and a set of unrelated tales taking up the end. The Memoirs are open, Guibert introduces threads and themes but never resolves them, his writing shifts between circular and disjointed, punctuated by a singular sense of humour that I’d best describe as “dark.”