Maps of the world, ‘mappae mundi’, proliferated in mediaeval times. There are known to have been more than a thousand of them. To say that most were primitive would be an understatement, but accurate cartography wasn’t necessarily the principal reason for producing them. For imagining how the world was from the eighth century onwards, these were often designed to highlight harmonious order of God’s creation, but in 1375 came a map - the Catalan Atlas - that was different.
This revisited principles established by the Romans, most notably Ptolemy in his work ‘Geographia’, and by the Ancient Greeks. Abraham Cresques and his son Jehuda created a map of the world with the intention of aiding navigation. The great seagoing explorations had yet to start, but when they did, they would need aids. The Cresques atlas was not just the most important map from the Middle Ages in Catalan, it was pretty much the most important of all - at the time, at any rate.
Abraham and Jehuda were from what came to be known as the Mallorcan cartographic school. The island was a key centre for cartography, largely explained by the fact that inhabitants of this island in the Mediterranean were seafaring and had amassed great knowledge. This went beyond the Mediterranean - to England, for example - but it was, naturally enough, constrained knowledge. It is argued that this school was responsible for coming up with highly accurate nautical charts around the turn of the fourteenth century - so-called portolan charts. It was this understanding of charts that led to the commissioning of the Catalan Atlas by Joan, then prince and later the king of Aragon.
As king, Joan forged an alliance with France, which helps to explain how the atlas came to be a French possession; it was in fact a gift to his cousin Charles, who became Charles VI of France in 1380. So, was the great work by Cresques father and son not looked upon as being strategically important by the Aragonese crown? Perhaps not, but it is believed that Abraham and Jehuda were responsible for other important maps; these were masters of their art - or science.
The two, art and science, combined, as the Catalan Atlas has its imagery as well as its maps. In part, it drew on sources like Marco Polo for showing the orient. As questions have been raised as to the authenticity of Polo’s travels, similar questions can be asked of the representation of lands such as China in the atlas. Joan of Aragon and Charles of France would doubtless have been aware of questions being asked about Polo’s research, but they were probably unconcerned - the Mallorcan cartographers had, after all, produced the finest mappa mundi of all, and they were sponsor and beneficiary.
The work by Abraham and Jehuda obviously has to be considered in the context of the times - what was known, what could be known and what was imagined. But the atlas wasn’t a flight of fantasy, not at all. The science outweighed the art and it was highly prized and well remunerated, not least by Joan of Aragon. Even so, those were times when highly regarded figures like Jehuda could encounter difficulties. His father was dead by then, but Jehuda was a Jew who was forced to become a ‘converso’, a convert to Christianity, through the persecutions of the very same monarch who was a sponsor. Joan of Aragon unleashed the persecutions in 1391; Jehuda came to be known as Jaume Riba.
The atlas came to be forgotten. It was in the early nineteenth century that it was discovered in a vault at the library in Paris. When the discovery was made, it was deemed to have been a work of great but unappreciated importance, and there was one element of the atlas that was felt to be of particular importance. Placed in the Atlantic to the side of Spain and France, there was a form of compass. This was in fact a representation of the eight winds - the eight winds of the Mediterranean in Catalan. They were named and the names survive to this day. North was ‘tramuntana’, which is believed to have been derived from the Latin ‘trans montes’ and - or so it was once argued - was an Italian word from the early sixteenth century.
This clearly wasn’t the case. The Cresques atlas used tramuntana, and Ramon Llull, who had been dead for some sixty years by the time that the atlas was being produced, had used a word that was very similar. The depiction of the winds has led to the view that Abraham and Jehuda in effect invented the names of the winds, or at least consolidated their use. These were winds that were well known; they had been for centuries. They weren’t imagined. They were real and their representation was accurate. Yet the winds have names that have passed into the imagination and into the folklore of Mallorca.
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