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Book Review, NRJ 58.4

November 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

Chet van Duzer

Chet Van Duzer's study of the wild sea monsters adorning European maps from the tenth through the sixteenth centuries is a lavish survey of the panoply of monsters, whales, hybrids, and bizarre creatures occupying the middles and the margins of old oceans and newly-charted seas. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps follows the transformation of these creatures from imaginative emblems of the dangerous seas to the common whales harvested in the high north of sixteenth-century Spitsbergen and Newfoundland. After noting that most early European maps do not feature sea monsters or whales, Van Duzer clearly and convincingly shows that depictions of sea monsters can represent transforming notions of the sea and its dangers, but also highlight the playful imaginations of artists and mapmakers of medieval and renaissance Europe.

Van Duzer has written an unparalleled study on a wondrous and often overlooked medieval and renaissance artistic tradition. The closest related work is perhaps James Sweeney's 1972 Pictorial History of Sea Monsters and Other Dangerous Marine Life. The sea monsters depicted throughout Van Duzer's beautifully illustrated British Library volume strike absolute wonder in the reader today, and the author provides valuable insight into what medieval and renaissance viewers must have made of these sinewy, silly, horned, fanged, and fearsome creatures. The choice to include images of marine monsters on maps was typically that of the patron, and mapmakers had a wide array of models, observations or imaginations to guide their depictions. The rationale of the patrons and artists, though, in the placement, character, and quantity of monsters on maps could be multifaceted. Van Duzer's study helps to explain which, where, and why monsters appear. He accomplishes this through a chronological and descriptive survey of key maps in the sea monster canon, always cross-referencing relevant maps to create a genealogy of images. These sea creatures served as geographical warnings for sailors of dangerous or unexplored areas, as simple decorations, as moral cautions, or even as horror vacui fillers. Among the book's most engaging sections are the comparative ‘Pictorial Excursus,’ which focus on whimsical and dangerous sea monsters and the ‘cartographic career of the walrus.’ These brief digressions are particularly successful in their choice comparisons of illustrations, underscoring transformations of certain themes and images from early to later maps. 

If any critiques are to be made of this incomparable book, one could point to the potential benefits of a more synthetic conclusion that could bookend the brief but immensely useful introduction. Having witnessed the transformations of various creatures throughout Van Duzer's survey, a synthesis of outcomes could underscore the changing roles these images played in the minds of audiences from medieval Europe and beyond.

Scholars will appreciate the twenty-two useful pages of endnotes and the index of manuscripts. These accompany a somewhat less useful two-page index. More importantly, scholars gain a ready, chronological hand list of maritime imagery upon famous and less famous early European maps and globes. General readers will delight in the detailed look at the animals and outskirts of medieval geographies. Finally, Van Duzer reminds scholars that it sometimes helps to let the eye wander to the margins, to get a different historical perspective of medieval perspectives of their surrounding seas. This critical analysis of a hitherto ignored cartographic trope adds much-needed depth to our understanding of medieval and later perceptions of the sea and its mysterious creatures. 

  • London: The British Library, 2013
  • 9” x 9-3/4”, hardcover, 144 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00
  • ISBN: 9780712358903

Reviewed by Vicki Ellen Szabo, Western Carolina University

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