The Centre of the World? Jerusalem in Early Modern Thought

This depiction of Jerusalem comes from Bernard von Breydenbach's Itinerarium Terrae Sanctae (Itinerary of the Holy Land). This edition is probably from 1502. The engraver of the print is unknown.

This depiction of Jerusalem comes from Bernard von Breydenbach’s Itinerarium Terrae Sanctae (Itinerary of the Holy Land). This edition is probably from 1502. The engraver of the print is unknown. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

A piece on this blog from 2014, which discussed Worcester Cathedral Library’s 16th and 17th century books containing Hebrew scripture, briefly mentioned the importance of Jerusalem to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic worlds. It contained a picture from a medieval manuscript which presented the city in an idealised, non-topographically accurate form.

A medieval depiction of Jerusalem. With thanks to Konstanze Kupski for the original article and for finding this picture. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Last September, I explored the development of world maps in the Early Modern period, looking at how the perceptions and depictions of the world changed over time. In this article, I’d like to combine the themes of these two pieces to investigate the Early Modern understanding of Jerusalem, as theorised in cartography and historiography.

A key theme around conceptualisation of the city concerns the perceptions of Jerusalem as a physical location and as a spiritual idea- the location of the Crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and hence the basis of Christianity. The relationship between these notions can be encapsulated in the views of Jerusalem as the spiritual centre of the world and as its geographical centre. In medieval thought, these facets were one and the same, as reflected in cartographic tradition where the city was literally at the centre of the world. It was the prime locus in the ‘mappaemundi’ (‘world cloths’, from which the word ‘map’ derives) with human existence emanating outwards from it. Jerusalem’s presence in the middle of medieval maps was less a faithful reflection of topographical accuracy, and more a firm assertion of its crucial nature to history, Christendom and human life.

However, as exploration, science and religion developed over the Early Modern era, the Holy Land and Jerusalem began to solidify more as geographical realities, fixed in space relative to the world around it and no longer at the hub of the world.

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In the frontispiece of Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614), the new centre is the Atlantic, the regional embodiment of the Early Modern spirits of discovery and cross-continental trade. Jerusalem goes unmarked. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As the understanding of the world’s form grew firmer, and as Europe’s political and economic clout rose, Jerusalem drifted from the centre of maps. Even in smaller scale regional maps, Jerusalem no longer took centre stage.

Jerusalem is found the far left of this map of Asia, made in 1663 by John Goddard and published in Worcester's 1674 edition of Peter Heylyn's Cosmographie. Jerusalem is overshadowed by Anatolia and dwarfed by Tartaria (largely modern Russia) in the north. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Jerusalem is found the far left of this map of Asia, made in 1663 by John Goddard and published in Worcester’s 1674 edition of Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie. Jerusalem is overshadowed by Anatolia and dwarfed by Tartaria (largely modern Russia) in the north. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As a region, its spiritual importance remained intact, but the geographical focus had shifted. It may have been the notional centre of Christendom, but it was no longer the topographical centre of the world, and in maps it usually appeared no different from any other city.

Furthermore, it began to face new levels of cartographic scrutiny. Maps of the Levant were nothing new; the 13th Century English monk Matthew Paris, for instance, produced a map of Palestine. However, these maps were generally grounded in a tradition of pilgrimage, and acted as itineraries, travellers’ guides and as illustrations to accounts- geographical accuracy was neither a priority or easy to achieve. However, with the progression of cartographic technique, a large number of maps were created in the Early Modern period as scholars like Gerard Mercator (famous for the eponymous projection which is the basis of modern world maps), Peter Heylyn and Walter Raleigh sought to flesh out the geography of the area. Maps -which aim to provide a fixed snapshot of a particular space- show how the understanding of Jerusalem had changed; science began to outpace religious ideology, and the city was no longer at the centre of existence.

Even in this map of the Middle East, published in Walter Raleigh's 1614 History of the World, Jerusalem does not appear prominently. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Even in this map of the Middle East, published in Walter Raleigh’s 1614 History of the World, Jerusalem does not appear prominently. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

This early modern understanding of Jerusalem is expanded by exploring the contrast between the newer, more scientific cartography and the more traditional historiography, which was still very much grounded in Abrahamic scriptures.

Worcester Cathedral library has many Early Modern works of world history, and many which focus on the Holy Land. Here, I’d like to focus on just one as an example.

Walter Raleigh is perhaps known for less scholarly pursuits, not least exploration, politics and warfare. But he had a keen mind, and as well as being adept at poetry, he produced a huge History of the World while he was imprisoned by King James for suspected treason.

Frontispiece to Raleigh's History of the World (1614). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Frontispiece to Raleigh’s History of the World (1614). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Raleigh’s narrative begins with Creation, and from there he proceeds to trace ancient history, employing extensive use of the Bible as a source – he includes, for instance, the great flood and the Exodus from Egypt. As can be expected from a 17th Century Christian background, God is the prime agent of action and change- all life and history stem from “that breath-giving life which GOD hath cast upon Slime and Dust”. Mankind is the “Magnus Dei sapiens opus”, the wise work of a great God, who is always in the background of events. Since God is presented here as the driver of history, and as Jerusalem has a central role in Christianity, in the Early Modern period Jerusalem was the fulcrum of human activity and achievement. All endeavour revolved around and ultimately stemmed from its importance.

A chapter of the History details Jerusalem. Of particular note is Raleigh’s report of how the city -in particular, Solomon’s Temple- was sacked by the Babylonian ruler King Nebuchadnezzar. The city and the temple were rebuilt, to become better than ever. There are here obvious parallels with Christ, the city being imbued (perhaps anachronistically) with powerful symbolism. Jerusalem was also destroyed by the Romans: again, a tacit comparison with Jesus. An explicit parallel is mentioned in reference to the aftermath of the successful First Crusade (1095-1099). The new King of Jerusalem, Godffrey of Bouillon, refused a crown of gold, citing Christ’s crown of thorns. From this high-point -from Raleigh’s perspective- Jerusalem and the Holy Land were subsequently lost to Christendom.

The chapter ends with a lamentation. Jerusalem, argued Raleigh, was not the only city to “have beene beaten downe and made desolate… all the great Cities have suffered similarly God’s just will” to punish impiety. The once lush, fertile land around Jerusalem is now stony and barren, reflecting the fall of man perceived by Raleigh. For him, the Golden Age of pious man was over, and the fate of Jerusalem was a perfect microcosm, as ever, of the condition of Christendom.

In Raleigh’s work, the lines between myth and history are often blurred; this is not surprising, due to the ancient history covered and the limited historiography at the time. This is demonstrated well by a long, 26 page chronographical table which attempts to synthesise thousands of years of Abrahamic, Egyptian, Babylonian, Iranian, Greek and Roman historical tradition: events in these different cultures appear side by side, dated to their respective calendars. Thus Noah leads several pages later to the Argo, and so on.

Significantly, however, the foundation of Jerusalem is absent from this table; likewise, in Raleigh’s narrative, the first mention of it is when it was conquered by the Israelites. He admits that “at what time Hierusalem as built (which afterward became the Princesse of all Cities) it doth not appeare”. This temporal uncertainty lends a timeless, ageless nature which, together with the religiously structured historiography, contrasts greatly with the geographic empiricism of contemporary cartography.

Fixed and off-centre in space but dynamic and pivotal throughout time, Jerusalem in Early Modern thought was a real location which could be mapped and which had no special geographic significance while simultaneously being a theological hub, a linchpin of human history. These geographical and spiritual natures, no longer fused as they had been in the Middle Ages, illustrate the development of a complex idea and demonstrate the clash between scientific rationalism and religious faith that would come to define and form the modern world.

Chris Rouse

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