Category Archives: multi-post

The view from above (final)

[this is the fourth and last segment of a post started here (part 1), and continued here (part 2) and here (part 3)]

When the view from above encounters architecture, the result is the architectural plan, like the Plan of St Gall already mentioned. Modelling and representing architectural space was a double effect of writing. Writing helped the human mind master categories of impersonal space away from lived experience. It also, interestingly enough, provided the source for some of the earliest architectural plans. These were plans of buildings described in written texts handed down in manuscript. The most common in the West was Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, described in several books of the Old Testament.

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This plan of the Temple in Jerusalem complete with architectural elements (columns, entrances and wall thickness) and captions was derived from the Book of Ezechiel (chapter 41), Harley MS 461, f. 29v.

Looking at things from above without being above is one of the most striking achievements of human culture. Looking at things up from below, like the first humans looking at the heavens, or looking down at things from the International Space Station is no small matter either. But it does well to remind ourselves that putting pen to paper is far more than a simple act. It is a breakthrough into a world beyond our vision, where little remains impossible and invisible.

The view from above (part 3)

[this is the third segment of a post started here (part 1), and continued here (part 2)]

Mind maps were the most popular type of diagram. By the time universities emerged towards the end of the 12th century, diagrams had become the main tool for organising information and knowledge. A way to understand the human soul (anima) was through complex diagrams linking Aristotelian theory with modern (i.e. medieval) ideas.

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A pie chart of the human soul, with diagrams of human faculties, fields of knowledge and types of emotions, Harley MS 658, f. 41r.

Screenshot 2020-01-03 at 12.25.49.pngA complex zoomorphic diagram connecting elements of ethics, kinship, law and theology, Cotton Roll XIV 12, membrane 37.

Diagrams offered an overview of various fields of knowledge, like language, rhetoric, logic, maths, astronomy or music. They fostered abstraction and the view from above, which accustoms the human mind to look at things lying beyond the field of vision.

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While it was common to represent the constellations of the zodiac in manuscript, it was quite rare to depict all the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere in one diagram, like in this 11th-century manuscript from Canterbury, Harley MS 647, f. 21v.

The development of cartography tracks the evolution of diagrams closely. Admittedly, maps already existed in the ancient world, but the science of mapmaking emerged in the medieval period. Maps are views from above, using an abstract representation to model a field lying beyond the field of vision. While a diagram of the universe, like in Harley MS 647 (see image above), projects a theoretical model independent of empirical observation (notwithstanding occasional medieval stargazing), a nautical map is an abstraction derived from experience.

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This nautical chart of the Atlantic coast uses coastal outlines and rhumb lines for sailing navigation. The history of modern mapmaking begins with portolan maps like this one made in Venice around 1331, Additional MS 27376, ff. 180v-181r

The view from above (part 2)

[this is the second segment of a post started here]

It is no wonder that the earliest surviving architectural plan is that of the monastery of St Gall from the 9th century [link:]. Our sense of scale comes only in the 13th century and that of perspective much later.

Diagrams, however, abounded in medieval manuscripts. By the 12th century, diagram-based learning became the dominant mode in Western education. When the Paris theologian Peter of Poitiers wanted his students to learn the Old Testament, he designed a collection of diagrams connecting the figures of the Old Testament to each other and to the narratives in which they featured. Peter’s Compendium was hugely popular in the later Middle Ages and inspired other diagram-based works, such as universal chronicles and chronicles of English kings.

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This roll of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium connects the Patriarchs of Israel through a series of diagrams and roundels. Abraham’s failed sacrifice of Isaac has pride of place, Royal MS 14 B IX, membrane 2.

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A genealogical chronicle of England from Brutus to the death of William the Conqueror, using diagrammatic medallions to show royal continuity, Add MS 8101, membrane 3.



The view from above (part 1)

How often do you use the expression ‘bird’s-eye view’? Chances are a lot. Although we have never seen the world through the eyes of a bird – a GoPro camera attached to the back of an eagle does not count -, we like to imagine birds looking down on the world, taking a distanced and dispassionate picture of the situation on the ground – although an airborne predator never looks down dispassionately. We favour this perspective because it is the scientific perspective, the ideal of objectivity, the hands-free approach. It is what we have today.

We owe the birds-eye view to science, and we owe science, ultimately, to writing. Scholars have observed that while an oral culture is empathetic and participatory, writing and literacy promote a sense of objective distance and dispassionate gazing. Science evolved due to the human ability to imagine the distance between observer and object, and to devise a formalised code. Writing accomplishes both tasks.

While writing appears in the 4th century BC, as the recent exhibition at the British Library so wonderfully showed, science really takes off during the Middle Ages, while literacy continues to challenge the oral societies of Western Europe. One of the earliest symptoms of the scientific mind is the ability for abstract, birds-eye view of visible and invisible objects. This means having the ability to draw plans and create two-dimensional diagrams used to describe concrete or abstract objects.

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This diagram illustrating the subdivision of philosophy into the seven liberal arts provided an overview of human knowledge which was easy to commit to (visual) memory, Harley MS 2637, f. 15v