Europe and Empire c.1115

On folio 241r of a manuscript known as the Liber Floridus, now in the care of the University of Gent Library, is a brightly coloured map of Europe. To modern eyes it might seem unremarkable, once one has understood that Italy is at the top and Spain at the bottom. But in closer inspection this map, drawn around 1115 by a Flemish canon named Lambert, is one of the most interesting things in a manuscript full of marvels. For this is not just a map of Europe: it is to my knowledge the first map of Europe.

Of course, maps had been drawn before that showed Europe, sometimes in greater detail than this. But in these maps Europe was always part of a wider context, part of the entire world (take for instance the famous Cotton Tiberius map drawn around a century earlier). In Lambert’s map, Europe is all there is to see, and that makes it rather peculiar.

Not only is Lambert’s map the first map of Europe, it is also often described as the first map to show political boundaries. As the rubric helpfully explains, ‘The kingdoms which are drawn around with red belong to the empire of the Romans and the Franks’. And sure enough, you can easily make out a red line that includes what we would now call France, Germany and Italy.

Drawing a line around an empire on a map might again seem unsurprising. Yet there does not seem to have been a precedent. After all, the ancient Roman empire had been strongly associated with universal rule and jurisdiction. It was written about as if it encompassed the whole earth. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the god Jupiter’s promise to the Romans is ‘For these, I set no limits in space and time; I give them empire without end’. The Roman empire had boundaries in practice, but not in theory.

Lambert’s map presents us with a very different concept of empire, one that is visually clearly bounded. It includes Italy, Aquitaine, Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony, which are all marked on the map; but not Spain, nor Scandinavia, eastern Europe or the Balkans – still less Britain, which is marked as inconsequentially floating in the Ocean. The empire is thus presented as merely a part of Europe’s territory, albeit a major one.

This perspective is echoed in the list of peoples that Lambert provides underneath the map. Lambert’s list seems to be based on one written (probably) in the seventh century, in a text known as Aethicus’ Cosmographia (I will check this once the libraries re-open). In the Cosmographia’s list of peoples, the Romans enjoyed special treatment: they alone are described not just as a people, but as ‘senatum populumque Romanum gentemque togatam’ – the SPQR of imperial grandeur, with togas to match. But Lambert stripped the Romans of this distinction. In his list, the Romani (and the Franci) are just one of the many peoples who inhabited an ethnically fragmented Europe.

Why did Lambert draw this peculiar map which broke so many cartographical conventions? The historian Albert Derolez, who has worked extensively on the Liber Floridus manuscript, thought that Lambert had designed this map to accompany extracts from the Annals of St Bertin which Lambert had copied earlier in the manuscript, extracts which described the divisions of the Frankish empire in 839 and 870. This hypothesis has lots to recommend it: it might help explain why Lambert’s map includes all of the kingdom of France in the Empire, which was not exactly the reality of his own day.

Yet Lambert’s rubric is written in the present tense: he says these kingdoms ‘belong’ (pertinent) to the empire. And he also hints at present-day reality by colouring the Rhine in red, as if to distinguish the lands ruled by the French king from those ruled by the Salian emperor. And Derolez could not explain why, if Lambert intended his map to illustrate the historical extracts, he changed his mind and put it somewhere else instead. So perhaps the map might represent how this Flemish canon pictured the world of his own day, not how he imagined the ninth century.

Whatever Lambert’s motives, to limit the empire spatially, circumscribing it with a red pen and distinguishing it from the rest of Europe, was a remarkable step to take. In the early twelfth-century world of this Flemish canon, empire was a phenomenon that was meaningful, and one that transcended contemporary political borders – but it was not the overall frame of reference. This was empire conceptually and cartographically cut down to size.

  • Further reading. Lots has been written about the Liber Floridus, and quite a lot about this map. Here’s a selection:
  • You can see the whole Liber Floridus manuscript online
  • More information about the manuscript: https://www.liberfloridus.be/index_eng.html
  • My attention was drawn to Lambert’s map by Klaus Oschema’s important Bilder von Europa, available open access online https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/mf43
  • The starting point for study of the Liber Floridus is now Albert Derolez, The Making and Meaning of the Liber Floridus (2015), unfortunately priced for libraries rather than individuals.

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