Visualizing the order of the world in Isidore of Seville
On folio 138r of Boulogne-sur-Mer Bibliothèque Municipale Ms.0001 (another edition of the tremendously popular Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville), we have a small illustration of his description of the Earth (XIV.2), dovetailed above the decorated A. In the manuscript, the passage reads:
Orbis a rotunditae circuli dictus, quia sicut rotus est. Unde brevis ae(tiam) rotella, orbiculus appellat(ur). Undique enim occeanus circumfluens eius in circuitu ambit fines. Divisus e(st) autem trifaria. Ex quibus una pars asya, altera europa, ter(tia) affrica que libya nuncupatur…
This basically translates as: “the world (orbis) is named for the roundness of a circle, for it is like a wheel; thus a small wheel is called a little disc. In fact, the Ocean flows around it, and contains its boundaries in a circle. It is divided into three parts: Asia, then Europe, and the third is called Africa or Libya.” If taken literally, the characteristic T/O map results: our example is a circle of red ink within the green circumference of the encircling ocean, and divided into Europe, Africa and Asia, oriented toward the east. The square V represents the directions taken by Shem, Ham, and Japeth, the sons of Noah, after the waters of the flood receded, and the earth became fertile and dry.
As a simple aid to visualizing the ambiguous passage of Isidore, this example is much less complex than many other tripartite mappa mundi, and cannot quite qualify as an attempt at cartography. Nevertheless, the conceptual beauty of a tiny model of the world (whether a disc or drawn hemisphere) within the vellum darkness of a manuscript recalls the last lines of the Wallace Stevens poem The Planet on the Table:
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.