Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer 144 pp, 115 colour illustrations British Library Press, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB, 2013, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-0712358903
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 225–226, March 2014
How to Cite
Flatman, J. (2014), Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer 144 pp, 115 colour illustrations British Library Press, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB, 2013, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-0712358903 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 225–226. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_17
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
This extremely attractive volume deserves a place on everyone's shelves if they are in any way interested in maritime art and iconography. At £20 hardback (in high-gloss paper and full colour) it is well worth buying for the illustrations alone, but thankfully the images are joined by an exemplary text that is erudite without ever being elitist. Serious scholars will find this volume of use for years to come thanks to its voluminous endnotes, just as much as more general readers will return to its pages for education and entertainment alike. Chet Van Duzer is to be heartily congratulated on producing such a welcome volume, and the British Library Press similarly congratulated on having the sense to produce it to such high standards and at such a good price. Publishers of other, similar works, where the imagery is fuzzy black-and-white on pulp paper but three or four times the price, should take note: it is possible to produce good books at a reasonable price. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps deserves to sell by the bucket (perhaps monster?) load.
The book is essentially divided into five chapters in style if not name, the changeovers identified by a series of ‘pictorial excursi’ on specific themes akin to the ‘chapter’ breaks in a medieval illuminated manuscript, a nice nod to the wider context of such illustrations. Thus ‘chapter’ one is broadly classical to early medieval, focusing on mappamundi, before an excursus on the dangers of sea monsters; ‘chapter’ two, medieval, focusing on early nautical charts before an excursus on whimsical sea monsters; ‘chapter’ three, late medieval before an excursus on the cartography of the walrus; ‘chapter’ four, early renaissance before an excursus on (more) whimsical sea monsters; and chapter five, late renaissance. These chapters are bookended by an exceptional introduction (on which more below), the aforementioned endnotes, and an index both of the book and the manuscripts cited. The book is stuffed full of good illustrations and detailed case-studies, but, to pick some stand-out examples, the following are particularly fine both for the interest of the illustration and the text: discussion of the Gerona Beatus mappamundi of the 9th-10th century on pp. 15–18; of the Gough Map of c.1400 on pp. 36–7; of the section on whales in 15th-century charts on pp. 48–55; of the ‘manuscript with the most monsters’ (a mid 15th-century Latin manuscript of Ptolemy's Geography) on pp. 61–5; of the Rylands Library map of 1546 on pp. 94–7; of the Mercator ‘Great Map’ of 1569 on pp. 103–05; and finally of the first Atlas (or ‘Theatre of the World’) of Abraham Ortelius of 1570 on pp. 108–11.
As the introduction outlines ‘curiously, the subject has been little studied’, so this book really is the only substantial work on the topic; it sits usefully alongside Szabo's Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic (reviewed in IJNA 38.2) and the reviewer's own Ships and Shipping in Medieval Manuscripts (reviewed in IJNA 39.1) as one of a series of works on the medieval marine arts produced in recent years. The introduction clarifies that the main sources of sea monsters are mappamundi and nautical charts, and that the types of monsters depicted are mostly sea-lions, dogs and pigs (with variations on and the intermixing of these three). Van Duzer then goes on to argue that there are two often overlapping roles for such images; firstly, as graphic records of information about sea monsters, including direct indications of danger to sailors, and secondly as decorative elements. Here I would raise my one note of disagreement with what is otherwise a faultless text. I would add a third role for such images, that of the broader moral, educative role of such monsters as emblems of certain negative character traits and/or evidence of evil to be found among or encountered by readers and viewers (seen especially where these monsters are used in illuminated manuscripts, of which Van Duzer includes a fair number). But this is a minor quibble and does not detract from the tremendous service that Van Duzer has performed in bringing this book together. It is unquestionably worth buying and will remain for the foreseeable future the definitive work on the subject.