World concepts – what do they say about us?

World concepts – what do they say about us?

How do we see the world? Well, the quick answer is: That depends entirely on which perspective we see the world from. In our daily lives we normally see the world from ground level whilst walking or driving through the landscapes surrounding our lives.  Naturally, this view gives us a short-distance view of the world, as landscape features or buildings often impede our views. In addition, our proximity to the ground naturally limit how far we can actually see.

Should we be as fortunately to stand in an entirely open space, e.g. a low-lying island in a sea, it looks like we are standing in the middle of the world with everything unfolding as circular space around us. In this view, our world move outward from ourselves past something known (our island) slowly into the nothingness of the unknown (the periphery). In this respect, this way of seeing the world is very similar to how we construct our identity in ever outward expanding circles of less and less importance to us.


If we try and transpose this view from the ground perspective to a bird-eye view, we do not necessarily see the same kind of world – not today, anyway. Seen on a world map of the predominant Mercator type, Copenhagen is very off-centre, and my sense of identity does not progress outward in concentric circles but rather in wobbly spaces, ever changing, as I go out and discover more and more of the world.


However, if we go back to the very earliest maps that survive until today, a significant proportion of these are of the so-called ‘Jerusalem type’, referring to a map type that always have the city of Jerusalem in the center. In the medieval Christian world, Jerusalem was seen to be the center of the world, so maps written in the Christian tradition would naturally have Jerusalem at it center with the best known parts of the world being closest to Jerusalem and the lesser known parts straddling the periphery. As such, this type of map resembles both how we perceive of the world from a ground perspective as well as how we intuitively define our identity with the most important (ourselves!) in the center with less and less important things being situated further and further away in the periphery.

Since airplanes and hot-air balloons did not exist in medieval times, it seems natural that a map portraying the world should be drawn in this way, thus matching not only how the world could be perceived from a ground perspective and how we as human beings construct identity from a center-periphery perspective.

Medieval Map

Since the old ‘Jerusalem type’ maps seem to owe at least some of their appearance to how we perceive identity, do we then see this map type also at smaller scales? We do indeed – a very interesting selection of hand-drawn maps by local vicars as part of their reporting interesting aspects of their parish(es) to the antiquarian survey undertaken by Ole Worm of all of Denmark in the first half of the 17th century. The West Jutish part of the survey contains 27 maps depicting the parishes described by the local vicar. These maps are drawn at a time when printed maps are still a relatively new phenomenon, why the Mercator map tradition we now orient ourselves in relation to was not the established one yet.

Hand drawn map

So, how were these maps typologically? There were generally three types. Some maps, albeit in a clear minority, were drawn in a generally geographically true matter, a similarly small number were drawn in an almost aerial perspective. The most common group, however, were drawn in the ‘Jerusalem type’ tradition but with a considerably degree of variation in the actual execution, detail and precision between the maps. The common denominator between the maps is the central position of the church – which is not surprising, as this was the most important thing around for the authors, the vicars. The various villages, farms, mounds and streams are either scattered more or less regularly throughout the map, or simply on the rim as on the map of Lunde parish, albeit being situated in a general direction in relation to the church. Apart from this, these maps do not have any geographical reality drawn into them, as can be seen from a quick comparison between the 17th century parish map and a modern one.


So why did these maps get drawn in this way if they could only show the general orientation of everything of interest in relation to the local church? This is difficult to say. ‘Jerusalem type’ maps could not have been very common in 17th century West Jutland, as they were largely outdated by then. Considering the close proximity (closer culturally than geographically) to the Netherlands, one could rather expect to see maps laid out in the new Mercator style the Dutch maps were exponents of. Since we do not this type much among these hand-drawn maps, I suspect that they are not necessarily influenced by other map types but rather by the cognitive processes used in how we construct identity. If this is so, the ‘Jerusalem type’ would thus represent the “natural” way of perceiving the world – starting from the important, progressing through to the least important. In the eyes of Christianity the most important place was Jerusalem – in the eyes of the local vicars it was the parish church, their Jerusalem.

Post by Peder Gammeltoft


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