fol.86v The Square world

diagram world dimensions 'Chinese Eratosthenes' article

dimensions of the world according to the ‘Chinese Eratosthenes’


PLEASE NOTE: The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016


Western custom, to the time of the Atlas Catala and even thereafter, was to depict the earth within a circular horizon, around which was the encircling ocean.

The custom in China and regions influenced by its culture was, to as late as the sixteenth or seventeenth century, always to envisage the earth as square, lying below the dome of heaven.

afterword: I have been queried on this point and very happy to be so. Here’s a passage from one of my sources. Rather neatly, this is the same one the header-diagram comes from.

Chinese thought on the form of the earth remained almost unchanged from early times until the first contacts with modern science through the medium of Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. While the heavens were variously described as being like an umbrella covering the earth, or like a sphere surrounding it, or as without substance while the heavenly bodies float freely, the earth was at all times flat, although perhaps bulging up slightly.

The same author also points out an error made by Needham:


C. Cullen, ‘A Chinese Eratosthenes of the Flat Earth: A Study of a Fragment of Cosmology in Huai Nan tzu 淮 南 子’,  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol.39, No.1 (1976), pp.106-127.

… and back to the rest of the original post…

In schematic representations, such as that in the diagram above, and again illustrated below, the four corners of that square are placed on the diagonals, and between them are put written characters, where fol.86v has rosettes as perhaps signs for winds and so forth.

It is the eastern habit, though not a specifically a Chinese style in drawing which I think comes closest of any to explaining the form given the worldmap on fol.86v.

world on reverse of a mirror: Han dynasty

However, Chinese art shows no  aversion to closed, angular forms, to perfectly straight (ruled) lines, nor to the representation of living creatures in naturalistic form, whereas apart from a small number of motifs on a few folios, the  manuscript shows a marked aversion to all of them. The ‘ladies’ are personifications, not persons (I’ll have to explain how i reached that opinion),  and the box-like architectural structures  on fol.86v are, in my opinion, additions made much later than the original, and quite possibly by a westerner.

Western parallels for the ‘square world’ are, however, very few indeed, one being the worldmap commonly called the  ‘Anglo-saxon’ worldmap, or the Cottoniana.

This map is dated to the late ninth, or to the tenth centuries AD, a time considered the depth of Europe’s dark ages, but which brought a Ghandaran-style Buddha as far west as the isolated island of Heligoland.

This is also the time when Scandinavian presence is reported in Baghdad and the beginning of Scandinavian raids into the Caspian

Chinese maps were not permanently constrained by the oldest and sternly  geometrical ‘world’ drawn on such mirrors, but nevertheless the same arrangement of the world underlies the form given later Chinese maps, up until the arrival of the Jesuits  – whose community there kircher hoped to be one.

On the encyclopaedia mentioned (caption to picture below) see first paragraphs in the Cartographic images essay, where it is explained that map is considerably older than its publication date, and Buddhist in origin.

Even earlier, in the eighth century a  Persian embassy had come from Baghdad to in Charlemagne’s court at Aachen.

That the embassy  – recorded by Charlemagne’s biographer –  included eastern, and probably Nestorian Christians can be deduced from the fact that, on noticing a difference between local forms of Christian religious music and theirs,  Charlemagne told both to sort out the differences and present him with a single consistent style for his empire’s church music. This could hardly have occurred unless the Persians from Baghdad had also been Christians, albeit members of the Church of the East, whose Patriarch resided in Nisibis and Baghdad, and some believe occasionally also in Mardin until it passed to possession of the Ak Koyunlu, the pairings reflecting an idea of the  ‘two Iraqs’.

For their medical and classical learning, Nestorian Christians (like the ‘Chaldeans’ ) were held in high regard in Baghdad at that time, used as translators and teachers, as well as foreign representatives. Their role as emissaries to the west continued thereafter, until and including the Mongol period. Forms similar to those used in Asian and in Persian imagery for the paeony also occur in some of our few remaining relics of that church.

Another possible indication of the type of gifts brought to Aachen by that embassy is contained in a record of Rhaban Maur, Charlemagne’s first tutor, who introduces Euclid’s Elements as a means for resolving apparent conflicts in the Biblical text: notably to explain the mutual relationship between the idea of the  ‘four-cornered’ world, and the circular form which was, and remained, conventional in the west.

Maur’s account appears to include allusions to the (similarly ordered) astrolabe, whose manufacture at that time was focussed in Mosul, an old Nestorian and possibly Jewish centre, long predating Baghdad, though it was probably within Baghdad that Nestorian Christians had first translated Euclid into Arabic some decades earlier.

The western world continued to use the image of a flat earth with circular horizon – and yet what is offered in fol.86v, in such objects as the Han mirror illustrated above, and perhaps* even in the Cottoniana, is the easterner’s view.

* see, however, reconstructions of Erathosthenes’ works. Some commentators see the Cottoniana as akin to the group the group of oblong maps found in illustrations of Cosmas Indicopleustes‘ work, The Christian Topography and dated to as early as the 6thC AD. I see less similarity between those maps and the Cottoniana, and effectively no likeness between them and fol.86v – but it is true that the west did have a very early group of non-circular worldmaps.

From the following (9thC) century there comes a story to the effect that  Alfred the Great of England sent an emissary to southern India, to assist the ancient Community of St Thomas and to pay respects to the shrine. Both that community, and the shrine were certainly visited by Franciscan ambassadors in the thirteenth century, some shortly before the loss of the ancient port of Muziris, to which both the Hellenistic traders and servants of the Roman trade had come.

However, the story of Alfred’s contact has been revised by recent scholars, some allowing only that the messenger reached Arabia as ‘nearer India’, others that he went no further than Jerusalem.

The moral of all this is that the ‘far east’ wasn’t necessarily too far for books, objects and even some people to make some or all of the journey at that time.


18th Feb 2015 – re-installed header diagram.

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