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Trans-medieval geographic
Karen Pinto
Gettysburg College, USA
Reading Lilleys masterful plea for the opening up
of the rigid periodization doors of the discipline of
Geography in order to reinsert geographical knowl-
edges of the medieval period brought to mind a per-
sonal anecdote of my own odyssey between the
disciplines of geography and history. Upon settling
on the topic and subject material of my doctoral dis-
sertation medieval Islamic cartography and what it
tells us about the Islamic cartographic imagination
(Pinto, 2002) I wrote to my former undergraduate
advisors in the disciplines of history and geography,
respectively, to announce my choice: the historian
responded by congratulating me on my choice of a
thoroughly historical topic of great import, while the
geographer hailed me for returning to the fold!
Beneath this anecdote lies a semblance of the
anxieties of Lilleys paper: if geographers do not
heed his warning to look before Columbus for the
origins of geography then, geographers could stand
to lose twice over: . . . reducing geographys
territory, and (if I may add as a translation of
hubris) geographys enterprise. And, surely, the edi-
tors in selecting me for this response had no idea that
in addition to providing the angle of non-western
expertise, I could also be chalked up as a statistic for
the veryargument that Lilleyis urgently making: con-
tributing thusly to a reduction of geographys terrain
and an expansion of the historical one by piggy-
backing on the geographically inspired spatial turn.
There is no question that I gravitated from the
discipline of geography to history because of a draw
towards the past that the thoroughly present-centred
discipline of geography, although fascinating with
its emphasis on on-site mapping work then and GIS
now, did not readily afford. It was, however, my
eternal love for geography that drew me towards the
study of the history of cartography and my passion
for Islamic history that drew me into medieval Isla-
mic maps. Can and should these strands be teased
out? Was it the visual turn or the spatial turn that
influenced my choices? Are we, in fact, aware of
any of these turns when we choose? Indeed, are
we at the outset of the 21st century truly bound by
the rigors of one particular discipline at all or are
these boundaries fallacies that we continue to
maintain to keep order in our universe of academia?
Lilley is right to caution geographers to look
back past the 16th century for the origins of geogra-
phy. He is right to call for a more nuanced approach
to the discipline, one that moves back beyond the
strictures of its western/European confines and the
16th century. This should be the historical call in all
disciplines whether it be the historiography of the
science, technology, or geography. To pretend that
the era of Columbus is the beginning of all things
intelligent or worse still to think that rational
Corresponding author:
Department of History, Gettysburg College, Campus Box 401,
300 North Washington Street, Gettysburg, PA 17325, USA
Dialogues in Human Geography
000(00) 11
The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/2043820611404484
thought only began with the Enlightenment is no
longer just hubris but tantamount to setting oneself
up for ridicule by ones more globally centred peers.
The days for thinking Renaissance Europe as the van-
guard of all scientific disciplines and Christopher
Columbus as the discoverer of the roundness of the
world most certainly need to be set aside.
Where I diverge from Lilley is on the subject of
saving geography from the ignominy of losing
ground to non-geographers. My detraction is no
doubt based on the fact that I approach Lilleys argu-
ment as a historian or rather as a quasi-historian,
which is how I believe most of us humanists and
social scientists of the 21st century are better cast
because like many of my peers I am also a closet
geographer, a closet art historian, and a posturing
philosopher, to mention but a few of the disciplines
we straddle and shamelessly borrowfrom. If geogra-
phers or art historians were to accuse me of trespas-
sing in their discipline, I would indeed be caught
red-handed. But so what? Perhaps the problem here
is that we hang on so tightly to the rigors of our
discipline precisely because airtight meaning no
longer resides within them. What we have going
on for sure is the global turn, which has justly cast
its glare among all disciplines to see if the others/the
non-westerns are finally receiving their fair due.
As a medievalist I cheer on Lilley for rallying
our cause. How can any historiography exclude its
medieval past? Yet, for too long now in keeping
with the Renaissance/Enlightenment hubris (or some
may go as far as to call conspiracy but we will avoid
adding hubris to hubris), all beginnings are directed to
the ancient world as the fons origio of all rational,
scientific knowledge, skipping over the dogma and
so-called closed-mindedness of the conveniently
named Dark Ages. Lilleys accusation belongs as
much to the domain of history, philosophy, and com-
parative literature as it does to geography. All must
change but perhaps some are changing faster than
others. The discipline of geography has indeed
lingered too long in the land of Bacon, Diderot, and
Mercator and needs to step outside to look at the
multiplicity of connections elsewhere. The roots of
the curious medieval scheme of learning (Wright,
1925) of seemingly non-geographic subjects in
medieval geographies, such as the admixture of cos-
mology, astronomy, astrology, and theology, can be
tracked, for instance, tomedieval Islamic geographies
and possibly to other pre-modern Asian geographic
While it is good to see the resurrection of
Beazley, Wright, and Kimbles work, we should
also keep in mind that like us they were writing in a
particular space and time and for a very specific
milieu: America and concomitantly western Europes
rediscovery of the Holy Land and the reinvestment of
the Levant in a very particular brand of missionary-
inspired Holy Land fantasizing to which geography
of that period was then naturally harnessed. Thus, it
should come as no surprise that Wright, writing at the
cusp of this movement in 1925, should title his work
The Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades
(OLong, 2002).
OLong B (2002) Imagining the Holy Land: Maps,
Models, andFantasy Travels. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press.
Pinto K (2002) Ways of seeing. 3: Scenarios of the
world in the medieval Islamic cartographic imagina-
tion. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia
Wright JK (1925) The Geographical Lore of the Time of
the Crusades. A Study in the History of Medieval
Science and Tradition in Western Europe, 1965 edition.
New York: Dover.
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