Tag Archives: Geography

Arctic Animals

I had an arctic weekend. It wasn’t particularly cold here in Salem (rather the opposite), but since I was in a Santa Claus frame of mind, I thought I’d follow up my St. Nicholas post with a historical look at the North Pole, and that led to full immersion in the Arctic. This northern orientation (and two great books: Robert McGhee’s Imagining the Arctic:  the Human History of the Arctic World; Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time:  Ice and the English Imagination) gave me new insights into lots of things, but for the sake of imagery, I’m going to go for arctic animals:  great white beasts of the frozen north.

Before they set out to explore all the unknown corners of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans had lots of ideas about the North which had been passed down from ancient geographical writers like Pytheas, Strabo and Pliny the Elder. The typical Renaissance endeavor involved the engagement, verification and/or dismissal of classical knowledge and for the Arctic, nothing was more influential than the posthumous publication of Gerhard Mercator’s world map, which portrayed the North Pole as a magnetic black rock surrounded by a clearly-marked Northwest Passage. In England, this inspired the erection of “arctic poles” all over the country and Martin Frobisher’s three voyages, from 1576-78, to Meta Incognito (the “unknown limits”; really southern Baffin Island, though Frobisher claimed the entire Arctic for England).


Gerhard Mercator, “Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio”, from his posthumously published atlas, Atlantis pars altera. Enlarged fascimile, Historic Collection, Princeton University: part of a Princeton digital exhibition, Of Maps and Men.  In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage.

Imagine the surprise (or perhaps the expectation) when Frobisher’s men found a unicorn washed up on a Baffin Island beach, or rather a “Sea Unicorn”, as they referred to the creature. This fabled creature seemed to confirm that they were somewhere special, and previously elusive. From this first discovery, northern fish and fauna were always described and depicted as especially monstrous, especially large, especially white.  From narwhals to polar bears, from foxes to hares, these were almost-otherworldly creatures.  The Frobisher “Sea Unicorn” is pictured below, from George Best’s account of the second voyage, followed by two relatively modern caricatures of really large Arctic creatures.

Arctic Sea Unicorn

Arctic Hare 1890s Smithsonian


Anonymous drawing of a BIG arctic hare, c. 1890, Smithsonian Institution, and Charles Sidney Raleigh, “Chilly Observation”, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Arctic Hare (Lepus articus) is the largest North American rabbit, but it’s not that big! And of course it’s the same for the polar bear:  these images convey a sense of the (literal) diminution of man in the vast, frozen Arctic.  I’m quite taken with the hare, so much so that I even “adopted” one through the World Wildlife Fund (I figured that polar bears have more advocates). They are grey in the summer, but apparently turn into white fuzzy balls in the arctic winter.

Arctic Hare

Arctic Hair Greenpeace Ad

Arctic hares in their natural habitat; South African Greenpeace “white is the new green” ad, 2010.

For an Arctic animal in scale, there is no better image than William Bradford’s An Arctic Summer:  Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871) with what looks like an arctic fox walking along the ice undisturbed or unaware of the nearby ship. Yet man is still humbled–isn’t that a piece of a wreck on the shore?  Bradford was a Massachusetts artist whose work, based on his own observations while on an 1869 polar expedition, figured heavily in the Peabody Essex exhibit Journey to the Ends of the Earth:  Painting the Polar Landscape a couple of years ago. More of Bradford’s paintings, as well as amazing photographs from his illustrated book, The Arctic Region:  Illustrated with Photographs taken on an Expedition to Greenland can be found at the Clark Art Institute.

Arctic Bradford

Arctic Fox

William Bradford, An Arctic Summer:  Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art; cast earthenware Arctic fox, Hornsea Pottery Co., 1956, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The Medieval World

The medieval world was ROUND, smaller than in actuality, and largely comprised of a contiguous land mass.  It was not FLAT.  Please excuse my pedantic capital letters, but this week my graduate seminar is examining Columbus historiography, which raises the ongoing issue (not topic) of the so-called “Flat Earth Myth”, the continuing false belief that the majority educated opinion in the medieval “Dark Ages”  was that the world was flat.  Historians have been writing about the Flat Earth Myth for quite some time (see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth:  Columbus and Modern Historians), but despite their assertions it is still with us:  every year I poll the incoming freshmen in my World History class about what they were taught in primary and secondary school and every year more than half of them raise their hands in support of the medieval flat earth.

The novelist and Columbus biographer Washington Irving is generally given credit for inventing the flat earth, to use Russell’s title term. Irving’s multi-volume Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus accentuated the New World heroism of Columbus by emphasizing the “darkness”  of the Old World from whence he came.  First published in 1828, it remained the definitive text on Columbus until the publication of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea more than a century later, influencing and infusing several generations of American history textbooks and students.  Given this text’s popularity, it is easy for me to understand why a student entering college as late as 1950 might have believed in the flat earth myth, but not 2011.

An 1873 likeness of Washington Irving from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, his famous house “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, New York (HABS, Library of Congress), and an illustration from an 1897 edition of The Life and Works of Christopher Columbus.

Many medieval sources, literary and graphic, exist that demonstrate the prevailing belief in the spherical earth, and these sources have been analyzed and discussed at length. Probably the greatest of medieval philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, asserted that “the world is round” in the same way that we might say “the sky is blue”.  It should be common knowledge, but apparently it is not, so here are a few images to reinforce the round medieval world.  I’m beginning, appropriately, with scenes of instruction from the early fifteenth century and then proceeding chronologically.

A geography master from  a fifteenth-century version of the De proprietatibus rerum (a medieval encyclopedia of sorts) of Bartholomeus Anglicus (British Library MS Royal 17 E III):

God holding a very round world, from an Aristotelian manuscript (BL MS Harley 3487, mid 13th century):

Angels turning the (again, round) world on its axis, from Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, Breviari d’amor (BL MS Harley4940, early 14th century):

God creating the Heavens and Earth, and land and sea, from the Bible Historiale of John the Good, circa 1350 (BL MS Royal 19 D II).  This strikes me as a lot of water for a medieval world map, and of course the medievals have no problem illustrating a not-quite transcendent God!

Some images from a fifteenth-century manuscript of thirteenth-century theologian Gautier de Metz’s popular Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334), with (again) a very human-like God creating a very round earth:

Finally, a great image of the elemental round earth from John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, circa 1400.  The manuscript is from the University of Glasgow Library (MS Hunter 59) and the image is from the Library’s web exhibition Chaucer and his World.  Obviously medieval intellectuals possessed lots of incorrect and strange (to our eyes and minds) geographical ideas, including a complete lack of knowledge about the soon-to-be-discovered western hemisphere, but the flat earth was not one of them.