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Trail of Arson, Death : British Map Fragment Alters Notions of Past

January 11, 1987|GREGORY JENSEN | United Press International

LONDON — It looks like a strip of spotted cardboard with a few red markings, but it has laid a trail of arson, death and the plague and is changing some notions about history.

It's one of an astonishing pair of recent discoveries involving both Prince Charles and a London housewife--fragments of maps six or seven centuries old that experts consider of unique importance.

"There really isn't anything else like this anywhere," said British Library official Peter Barber, gesturing at the 14th-Century strip of parchment now known as the Aslake World Map.

Barber, curator of maps in the department of manuscripts at Britain's national library, calls this "the first English modern world map," a phrase that takes some explaining. But explanations get lost in the excitement of its discovery.

"We had no idea what we had," said housewife Joyce Ovenden at a preview of "Lost Worlds," a small British Library exhibit displaying the Aslake map for the first time. "But it was the burglars, you see."

Documents in a Tin Trunk

She said burglaries around her suburban London house worried her so much that she dug into a tin trunk in her basement where she was storing documents inherited from her family's long history.

Ovenden took one document, a tight roll, to the British Library for identification. Librarians said it was nothing special--a 15th-Century rent book from an estate called Creake Abbey.

But the rent book had been re-covered with an old piece of parchment. On it, barely visible under thick green mold, an expert spotted some writing. He called in Barber, an authority on maps, who grew very excited indeed.

Barber identified the parchment as part of an ancient map, which turned out to be more than 600 years old. Such finds are extremely rare. Only one complete medieval map is known to exist, and the last significant portion of such a map turned up in 1911.

By an amazing coincidence, another such fragment turned up about the same time, this one in an office facing Buckingham Palace. This section of a different map, about 75 years older, was in the archives of the Duchy of Cornwall, whose current duke is Prince Charles.

Parts of Africa

More astonishing still, these unrelated segments owned by the prince and the housewife show the same section of the globe: parts of Africa.

The better preserved and larger Duchy fragment, which Prince Charles has loaned to the "Lost Worlds" show, is the type of map that had nothing to do with geography.

For centuries, Barber said, maps were records of history and legend, not the lay of the land. Most were circular, with Jerusalem at the center, and were adorned with fanciful drawings.

"The chap who made this (the Aslake map) began by drawing a medieval world map of that sort," Barber said.

"Just as he was finishing, somebody came along with something like this map here, A Catalan coastal map, and he tried to incorporate that information."

Testing Women's Fidelity

What this means is that the Aslake map is a combination, a hybrid. Mostly it's an old-style "map" depicting legend and history--one drawing shows a tribe testing women's fidelity by exposing children to serpents. But its coastline tries to be geographically accurate and it uses modern place names.

This attempt to show the world's actual shapes is what makes a "modern" map. The Aslake map is partly "modern" in that sense--it's the earliest known map to show the Canary Islands, for instance. It depicts coastlines realistically.

But it was drawn between 1325 and 1375. This "indicates that modern sea charts reached England much earlier than previously believed," the British Library says.

Barber said everyone thought Mediterranean nations like Italy had a monopoly on such knowledge until 150 years later than the Aslake map. So history is having to be rewritten.

The Aslake fragment is only perhaps one-quarter of the original map. So experts are now on a trail laid by arson and the Black Death.

Arson Attack

Creake Abbey, where the whole story started, was burned in an arson attack in 1484--the Aslake rent records cover the previous year. In 1506, 22 years later, the abbey was devastated by the plague. Every one of its monks died.

After that the abbey's papers--the abbey itself is a ruin now--were bequeathed to the archives of Christ's College, Cambridge. And there is a tiny chance that more ancient map fragments are among them.

The theory is that the original Aslake map might have been damaged in the arson attack on the abbey. What remained then was used to cover records, a common practice at a time when parchment, let alone paper, was rare and costly.

And if one rent book could be bound in so precious and unique a fragment, what about other documents?

British Library scholars are searching now to find out.

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