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Blank Spaces on the Earth
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The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 223-250

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Blank Spaces on the Earth

Alfred Hiatt


Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say: When I grow up I will go there. The North Pole was one of these places I remember. Well, I haven't been there yet and shall not try now. The glamour's off. Other places were scattered about the Equator and in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres. I have been in some of them and . . . well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet—the biggest—the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after.        True, by this time it was not a blank space anymore. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 1

Marlow, sitting in "the pose of a Buddha" on the Thames, thus cites the unmapped within the map as the starting point of his journey into Africa. Evidently, the blank of the map is here a space onto which various forms of fantasy can be projected—it is imbued with glory, glamour, and "delightful mystery." Its blankness makes it uniform: all blank spaces, whether in South America, Africa, or Australia, look particularly inviting. But apart from fantasy, what the blank invites is touch. The blank encourages interaction with the map in all its physicality, precisely because the absence of "rivers and lakes and names" leads to a projection of the self onto the map: "I would put my finger on it and say: When I grow up I will go there." Of course, what the glories of exploration evoked by the blank, in which the self can be lost and reimagined, paradoxically suggest is that the desire to name and mark—to erase the "delightful mystery" by filling it—is what makes the space inviting. Entry into the blank results in the unspeakable ("well, we won't talk about that") or, in the case of the biggest blank a transformation: from the "little chap" to the grown up, and from the blank, unknown, and explicitly white textual space, to a place of darkness.

This essay is about the representation of blank spaces on the earth in the Middle Ages. It considers the presence of unknown land—land that was the product of hypothesis rather than exploration—on three [End Page 223] world maps, of the twelfth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. This was, by and large, an era before one could finger the blank space of a map and say "When I grow up I will go there." Maps were not so easily fingered in this period and, as I will suggest, the possibility of passage to unknown spaces could not be so easily assumed. This was, however, an era in which the fundamental response to the absence of mapping evoked by Conrad pertained—a mixture of fantasy, curiosity, mystery, and authority filled the space of the unknown on certain medieval and early modern maps. It was at this time, too, that European expansion—the beginnings of those "glories of exploration," and the profoundly dubious glories of colonization that accompanied them—was taking shape.

We, They

Representations of unknown land—land, that is, beyond the "known" (and partially mapped) continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa—belonged in the Middle Ages to a speculative and theoretical tradition of mapmaking. This tradition drew on the theories of the Greek geographers and mathematicians, including Pythagoras (fl. 530 BCE), and Eratosthanes (c. 275-194...