Book Review: Space in the Medieval West: Places, Territories, and Imagined Geographies, edited by Cohen and Madeline–By Emerson Storm Fillman Richards

Book review: Space in the Medieval West: Places, Territories, and Imagined Geographies. Edited by Meredith Cohen and Fanny Madeline. Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. xix+266 pp. £70,00. ISBN 13: 9781472402370.

Ernest Hemingway described Paris as a moveable feast, and the joint venture of the Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris and the University of California, Los Angeles, titled Space in the Medieval West: Places, Territories, and Imagined Geographies, fits Hemingway’s characterization. This collection of eleven Franco-centric essays was cooked up at a “three-day symposium on the theme of space organized by the International Medieval Society of Paris” (1). Space, even if semi-confined by the loose perimeters of “medieval” and “French,” is a vast and dauntingly interdisciplinary subject. Editors Meredith Cohen and Fanny Madeline divide the eleven essays addressing facets of this theme into a tripartite sampling of how modern scholars can engage medieval space(s) and how this branch of Medieval Studies is necessarily “mutually supportive, rather than nationally or disciplinarily specific” (13).

The introduction, by Meredith Cohen, Fanny Madeline, and Dominique Iogna-Prat, serves as an apéritif, explaining the aim and nascence of the project and providing a brief history of the position of the Middle Ages in spatial scholarship—that is to say, how geographers, historians, anthropologists/archeologists, and literary scholars have worked compartmentally on the question of medieval space. Although fairly brief, as most of the essays, one of the strengths of this collective effort is the wealth of footnotes. Beginning in the introduction, it is only a rare page that is not replete with footnotes. The introduction also serves as an overarching theoretical framework that responds primarily to Henri Lefebvre’s seminal 1974 La production de lespace, which states that “space became a medium and a material product that interacts with society” and is comprises three concepts: “physical, social and mental dimensions” (6). These essays simultaneously compliment and challenge Lefebvre by way of reassessing “Lefebvre’s assumption that [Christian] hegemony determines space and demonstrate[s] that space is constructed by multiple and changing forces” (13).

The organization of these essays starts with the micro and ascends to macro. Part I, “Places, Monuments, and Cities,” is predominately driven by the idea of space-as-architecture, focusing on specific places, rather than entire realms. The essay by Emanuele Lugli (University of York), “Squarely Built: an Inquiry into the Sources of Ad Quadratum Geometry in Lombard Architecture Between the Eleventh and the Twelfth Centuries,” postulates that the cathedrals of Moden and Cremona show “proportional schemes” that are found in “passages from late classical manuals for land surveyors and administrators,” now titled Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum [The Collection of Roman Surveyors] (23). Scholars have ignored this work for about two centuries partially because it was thought that the method of land division that the Corpus described, called centuriation, was unknown during the Middle Ages. Lugli’s effort joins those of some recent archeologists to prove that this was not the case and in fact he claims, “the centuriation was the very repository of geometrical schemes” (24). Using maps and architectural/geometric illustrations, Lugli’s essay achieves both ease of reading for the non-expert as well as enough detail to benefit scholars of medieval architecture, geometry, and the intersection of classical and medieval culture.

Shifting from Italy, Stefaan Van Liefferinge (formerly at the University of Georgia) offers an architectural/cultural look at Paris’s most famous cathedral of the same era in “The Geometry of Rib Vaulting at Notre-Dame of Paris: Architectural or Exegetical Space?” by offering the role of rib vaulting as merely a structural convenience, Van Liefferinge argues for the “geometrical similarities between vaulting units and a representation of a sacred structure in a Biblical exegesis of the twelfth century” (39). Thus he uses Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1096- 1141), who believed that “the work of a theologian could be compared to a master mason erecting walls” (43), to make his argument about the semantic structure of the cathedral.

This essay and the next, “Gothic Drawing and the Shaping of Space” by Robert Bork (University of Iowa), support each other well. Bork begins by addressing “the aesthetic and emotional power” of gothic architecture. “The soaring proportions of their interior spaces,” he notes poetically, “…urge visitors’ gazes upwards into a realm far above the spaces of everyday life.” Bork’s central thesis seeks to demonstrate how these spaces “are psychologically and formally compelling because they arose… from a drawing-based and fundamentally non-spatial approach to architectural design” (51). The chapter provides a succinct overview of when and how architects used drawn, bi-planar plans to construct (and occasional spectacularly fail at constructing) gothic structures. For exemplars (each with accompanying illustrations), he first uses the plans of Villard de Honnecourt (c. 1225-1250), who may not have been an architectural professional. The next object of consideration is the Reims Palimpsest, demonstrative of “a single plane figure to set the proportions of his [the architect’s] façade, even through the drawing depicts elements that would occupy several distinct planes in the completed structure” (62). Then he considers the Strasbourg Plan B, which shows the results of a planner’s planar confusion, and finally, the Clermont-Ferrand Façade Drawing, to round out the end of the Gothic period at 1500.

Part I concludes with a move from pure architecture towards geography and urban planning with “Marking the City of Christ: Spatiality and the Invention of Utrecht’s Medieval Cross of Churches.” David Ross Winter (Brandon University) here delves into the crux of the kerkenkruis, a “cruciform spatial-architectural ensemble of ecclesiastical structures that has dominated the core of the city [Utrecht] from at least the middle of the eleventh century” (77). The problem exists that no “explicit literary reference to the ensemble survives from the time of its construction” (77), so it is possible that modern scholars are projecting significance onto this feature. The difficulty with literary evidence having primacy is explicitly explored later in the chapter and further argued by way of the chronological development of the kerkenkruis, which in some ways acts as a focused history of Utrecht. Winter argues that the pattern is “simultaneously medieval and modern” (77) and that the semiotic intention of the Middle Ages cannot be overlooked.

Part II, “Spatial Networks and Territories,” begins the shift from specific places to entire regions by looking at how the vocabulary to delineate these regions changed over time. Anne Lunven (Laboratiore du Centre de Recherches Historiques de lOuest/lInstitute national de recherches archéologiques préventives), contributes “From Plebs to Parochia: The Perception of the Church in Space from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Diocese of Rennes, Dol, and Saint-Malo)” (translated by Emanuele Lugli). After defining the words plebs, “local ecclesiastical communities… not specific to Brittany c. 800- 1000,” and perochia, “meaning ‘parish’ [and] spread quite late in Western Europe” (101), Lunven continues to nuance these definitions by systematically marking the fall of plebs into disuse in favor of parochia behind the Loth line which is “an approximate eastern boundary that indicates the maximal extension of the Breton tongue in the ninth century before its progressive ebb” (105). That is to say, this imaginary line which demarcates the area in which Breton was spoken has gradually been pushed West over the course of the suppression of the Celtic minority language by the dominant francophone culture. This shift shows modern scholars that the “members of the [Breton] community defined themselves in relation to a space of which they were more or less conscious and not to a space of worship, to which they never expressed a direct sense of dependency” (114) and the rearrangement of that space is based on linguistic and conceptual rather than physical criteria.

Thomas Wetzstein (University of Rostock) writes about the traverse of language across geography in “New Masters of Space: The Creation of Communication Networks in the West (Eleventh-Twelfth Centuries)” (translated by Raeleen Chai-Elsholz). The aforementioned centuries were a hot time for communication, in which “the structure of exchanges in the West underwent profound mutations,” and so Wetzstein poses three questions of these centuries: “who maintained these networks [of communication], why were they formed, and how did they operate?”(117). He tailors his query to three sets of communicators: popes, Cistercians, and scholars. Wetzstein examines the writings of these groups to probe the question of “what does ‘communications’ mean when speaking of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” Ultimately, it must be secondary communication, that is to say, communication that was recorded in some manner, rather than primary communication, which is oral, that Wetzstein looks at through the three lenses.

The final chapter of Part II by Ada-Maria Kuskowski (formerly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) combines legal history with cartography. “Inventing Legal Space: From Regional Custom to Common Law in the Coutumiers of Medieval France” examines the coutumiers, “private works that set the customs and usages of a specified region in writing” (135), which were “written in the vernacular in northern France in approximately the second half of the thirteenth century, because the territorial attributions in these texts have been a main source for the customary map of France” (137). One of the points of interest is the changing way in which the borders of modern France are defined; the king shifts from being rex Francorum (king of the Franks) to rex Franciae (king of France)—that is to say, king of the Franks, a people, to king of France, a place (145). While these documents serve not only as a tool to understand medieval law but also, due to their regional vernacular languages, to trace their diffusion and the change of language(s), it is important to remember that the coutumiers “were not understood by their authors to be purely regional, nor did they see ‘custom’ as a geographically fixed category” (137). Thus the chapter concludes with the suggestion that these documents can represent the fuzzy borders of a region, rather than the strict lines that divide regions on a map.

Part III completes the journey from micro to macro. The section is titled “Cartography and Imagined Geographies”—a heading that I question. Is it not correct to assume that many, perhaps even most, geographies of large regions in the Middle Ages were imagined since the cartographer had probably not surveyed the peripheries himself (therefore relying on secondhand descriptions and his own imagination)? Or if he had traveled to the lands about which he wrote and drew, was the cartography then imaginary?

Sandra Sáenz-López Pérez (Center for Research in the Humanities and Social Science/ Spanish National Research Council) begins this final section with a close cartographic reading in “The Image of France in the Beatus Map of Saint-Sever.” The significance of this mappa mundi (Ms. lat. 8878, Beatus codex of Saint-Sever, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 45bisv- 45terr) is that it is “a unique example within this cartographical corpus as it moves away from the Hispanic models and reveals a French identity” (160). The Beatus mappa mundi are representations of how the apostles diffused throughout the world to spread the Word of Christ. Two examples of uncharacteristic elements of this particular map are (1) the area that is French covers nearly a quarter of the world and (2) an illustration of original sin. Further, Pérez explains that “the Saint-Sever mappamundi does not fulfill the original purpose of the map, which was to explain geographically the text of the missio apostolorum (mission of the apostles) which precedes it, for it does not include all the toponyms of the geography of the apostles’ evangelization mentioned textually” (167). What the map does do is show an early French understanding of territorial self and pride in place.

Turning from the French view of French space, Jean-Charles Ducène (École Practique des Hautes Études) presents the France represented by Al-Idrisi, who “worked on behalf of King Roger II of Sicily (r. 1095-1154), while employing methods and sources of Arab polygraph scholars” (175). In his chapter, “France in the Two Geographical Works of Al Idrisi (Sicily, Twelfth Century)” (translated by Robert Bork), Ducène considers the originality of the Nuzhat al-mustaq (The Book of Roger) and then the foreign representation of France (Ifransiya) which “when it appears, refers to the Île-de-France” (189). Along the way, he poses and attempts to answer questions such as why Roger commissioned a universal map. Using a chart, Ducène explains Al-Idrisi’s division of the world into “seven longitudinal bands, and variable latitudes (the ‘climates’ or iqlim), which are subdivided into ten sections” (178). After careful consideration of the Al-Idrisi’s placement of the regions of France into his longitudinal/latitudinal paradigm, Ducène concludes, “the space of France was initially conceived by Al-Idrisi within the limits of the continent as Ptolemy had imagined it, but extended where the author’s information would allow it” (194). This essay pairs well with the previous essay to show both domestic and foreign conceptions of French territory and regions.

Nathalie Bouloux (Université François Rabelais de Tours) turns the reader back towards the French idea of what is French with “From Gaul to the Kingdom of France: Representations of French Space in the Geographical Texts of the Middle Ages (Twelfth-Fifteenth Centuries)” (translated by Katherine Bork). Bouloux utilizes three modes of representation of the Kingdom of France: scholarly geographical texts, lay cultural descriptions, and cartography. For the first category, with the attendant heading “Describing Gaul: Dividing its Spaces,” Bouloux hits the highlights of texts by scholars who “sought in effect to think about space as something permanent, which required separating it from contemporary political realities” (198). Examples range from History Against the Pagans (a text from “c. 375- after 418” [199]), to Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), to Hugh of Fleury’s Historia ecclesiastica (1109-10), then to the fourteenth- century John of Saint Victor (first half of the 14th c.) and Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420). This seems like an overly extensive swath of history to put in less than ten pages, and the reader must wonder why the above were selected rather than other scholarly mentions of Gaul, or if this is a complete sampling. The subsection, “Lay Culture and the Description of the Kingdom of France,” however, focuses exclusively on the example of Le livre de la description des pays (“The book of the description of countries”) by Gilles le Bouvier (1386-1455) of the late fourteenth century. The final section, “Making Maps of France,” addresses the “Ptolemean sketch of Gaul” (215), which dovetails with the previous essay, among other drawn representations of France.

The final essay of the book, titled “The Definition and Boundaries of Eucharistic Space in the Grail Prose Romances: Focalization and Dissemination” by Catherine Nicolas (Université Paul-Valéry) (translated by Raeleen Chai-Elsholz), looks at the complex merging of metaphor and space, theology and literature, and psychoanalytical readings of literature and cartography. She begins by addressing the “material psychology, using metaphor to associate the immaterial soul with physical spaces … [which] sets the imaginary foundations of a cartography of the soul arranged around a divine but hidden core” (221). To accomplish this, she presents examples of the gruesome physicality of sin and space between the sinner and God. The sinner is located on the periphery of the space between the saint and a veiled God at the Eucharistic center. She pairs space in Arthurian Romances with Cistercian and Augustinian representations of a hidden God. Nicolas argues, “Romance [such as Haut Livere du Graal and Perlesvaus] takes its cues from narratives of Eucharistic miracles to represent the Real Presence and transubstantiation without significant innovation” (227). Ultimately this essay is more about allegory than it is about cartography, but it makes some fine points about truly imaginary cartographies. The book itself concludes with a page and a half of Frequently Cited Sources.

All in all, this book is just a tasting. Since each of the essays is very specialized and very short, an interested reader will be left wanting more than these amuse-bouches.[1] It seems that each of these essays could be expanded to much larger, individual projects, and a reader who enters the feast looking for a specific taste may be overwhelmed by the seeming lack of continuity between the very specific subjects. The literary scholar interested in the final essay on space in romances might not have much use beyond personal edification for the first, highly technical section on architecture and more.

This project will be a great asset for libraries as a reference book. The individual essays will serve well for both further research projects and as documents to strengthen preexisting arguments since it is published by a well-known press, with chapters by both established and up-and-coming scholars, and supported by very reputable French and American institutions. If you are interested in the many facets of medieval constructions of space and modern understandings of them, make room on your plate for Space in the Middle West.

Emerson Storm Fillman Richards


Emerson Storm Fillman Richards is a PhD student at Indiana University in Comparative Literature. She is currently teaching at Université Paris 10 (Nanterre) and 3 (Sorbonne nouvelle), and auditing courses in paleography at the École nationale des chartes and through the Institut de recherche et dhistoire des textes.


[1] A bite-sized appetizer to whet the eager palate.

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