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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Maps, the Mind and Memory

Map of Jerusalem by Konrad Grünenberg, 1487

When I was about seven my parents moved from a house that they themselves had built in what was then an outer suburb of Melbourne, to an old house in a more central neighbourhood, one that was in many ways far less interesting. The wild scrub, the open fields and the orchards, were replaced with typical suburban houses, streets and public gardens. One of the ways I coped with this change was by drawing maps. I drew maps in great detail, maps of our old neighbourhood, from our house on the corner of pot-holed Stevenson's Road and Birdy Street, maps that followed the dirt track that passed under humming pylon wires, past blackberry bushes and the cow pond full of croaking frogs. I followed its line through the fields scattered with cow dung and giant mushrooms, all the way down to what we called the Golden Dam, a rocky canyon through the middle of which ran a small creek. All of this was real and through these maps I reconstructed in my mind a memory of the places that I had known and loved.

But when I finally returned to the neighbourhood over half a century later, I found that some of the memories that I had preserved in those maps, and through them had stamped on my mind, were not in fact real. Places I recalled vividly were not there and could never have been there. They must have been the product of my imagination. This discovery has bothered me ever since because I find it hard to accept that those maps illustrated invented rather than reconstructed memories.

It must have been a bit like this for pilgrims who travelled to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages and who subsequently, having returned home, wrote descriptions of what they had seen, occasionally accompanying them with maps or illuminations. These pilgrims were mostly monks - the few people in medieval society with the ability and opportunity to write down or illustrate their impressions. They left behind a body of works known as itineraria. The name comes from the Latin word used in the Roman period for a road map, which indeed was the form many of the earlier written accounts took - lists of places in the order in which they were visited, and distances between them, with some brief details of what had been observed, mainly relating to holy sites. By the twelfth century however, these descriptions were more detailed and more informative of what the travellers saw around them. No longer limited to place names, distances and holy sites, they were now illuminating records of people and places, buildings, animal life, vegetation, geographical features, ceremony, customs, foods and dress. They are one of the most valuable sources available for the historian.

But there are many discrepancies in these texts and maps, inaccuracies and gross exaggerations, and not infrequently there is obvious copying verbatim from the works of other travellers. Like my childhood maps, these texts and illuminations, made in a different place and after the passing of some time, were influenced by the memory playing tricks on the mind and confusing the real with the imagined. That is something a historian should always keep in mind.

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Paul Hyams
Paul Hyams

Nice job, Adrian. I enjoy your blogs when I get to read them, and appreciate the fact that you can say something worthwhile in brief. That takes me a lot of time and effort, which is why I confine my pseudo-blogging to FB.

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