A Review of
A World Transformed: Exploring the World of Medieval Spirituality
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2015.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Ellen Mandeville
With Jerusalem and Jesus’ crucifixion at its center, the Hereford Map orients East at the top, England in the lower left, and monsters at the edges. Created around the year 1300, it depicts the history, geography, and destiny of the world according to medieval Christianity. A single sheet of vellum measuring 5’ 2” high by 4’ 4” wide displays its artistry. The original viewers were pilgrims to England’s Hereford Cathedral, some of whom made the pilgrimage annually. Hereford Cathedral still displays the map year round.
Lisa Deam holds a Ph.D. in medieval art from Chicago University. Attempting to maintain a scholarly eye while writing her dissertation on the Hereford Map, Deam discovered “that there was really no way to separate medieval art from medieval faith and spirituality — and from my own faith.” (1) The crossroads of Deam’s scholarly work and her Christian faith has resulted in, A World Transformed: Exploring the World of Medieval Spirituality.
I finished reading the Introduction of A World Transformed in May of this year as rainy skies cleared and the sun shone through. Deam invites the reader to “travel these paths with me. Together, we will be pilgrims on a journey.” (11) I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few lines from The Canterbury Tales’ Prologue:
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, / …. Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”
Translation: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit / The drought of March has pierced unto the root /…. Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage”
(The Canterbury Tales Prologue 1, 2, 12)
Traveling with Deam through a study of medieval maps is a fruitful, satisfying journey toward understanding how medieval spirituality can inform and enlarge today’s practice of Christianity. Primarily focusing on the Hereford Map, Deam also includes the Ebstorf Map and the Psalter Map in her discussions. Digital reproductions and links to other sites can be found on her website.
Much scholarly work has been written on the craftsmanship and artistry of the maps themselves. In A World Transformed, Lisa Deam moves through the what of medieval maps to discover the why of these maps. Medieval Christians depicted far more than geography on them. Along with Asia, Africa, and Europe, these maps depict the Garden of Eden, The Fall, Old Testament history, monsters and monstrous races, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Jesus’ crucifixion, church historical sites and persons, important cites, pilgrimage routes, and the Final Judgment where the Risen Christ sits in majesty: history, geography, destiny.
“I wrote [this book] because sometimes we feel lost on our journey of faith: we need to pause, pull over to the side of the road, and reach for a map to guide us. In this book, I am going to suggest we reach for the Hereford Map. This map, which pictures the creation transformed by the presence of God, teaches us to find our place in the world. If we heed the map’s lessons, we can learn to see our ordinary lives inscribed in God’s plan of redemption that was set in place at the beginning of time.” (4)
The introduction overviews the difficulties and benefits for 21st century Christians contemplating medieval maps. Within a discussion of her own journey with medieval maps, Deam previews the contents of the rest of the book. Three chapters focus on where we find Christ on the map and in our lives: “Finding Christ at the Center,” “Finding Christ in History,” “Finding Christ at the Edge.” Three chapters discuss spiritual journeys depicted on the map that contain metaphors for our lives: “Journeying to Jerusalem,” “Journeying through Life,” “Journeying through the Day.” Two chapters discuss spiritual birth and growth: “Being Reborn,” “Being Centered.” A World Transformed finishes with its “Conclusion: Toward a Practice of Centering on Christ.”
From an organizational point of view, I found it odd that the “Introduction: A Spiritual GPS” was listed in the Contents and referred to in other chapters as “chapter one.” The Conclusion is just that, a conclusion without a chapter designation. I assume this organization was a decision made by the publisher. I found it jarring and disruptive, while reading the second “Finding” chapter, to have the first “Finding” chapter referred to as “chapter two,” whereas I had been thinking of it as Chapter One after the Introduction. Designating and referring to the Introduction as a chapter mars this book’s elegant symmetry: the corresponding Introduction and Conclusion bookending three groups of similarly titled chapters. If labeling Introductions as “Chapter One” is becoming an industry norm, I opine that it is a publishing shift for the worse.
Deam discusses an aspect of the map in each chapter. She relates what its features reveal about the medieval Christian worldview. Each discussion concludes with a section titled, “The Challenge for Our World,” in which Deam narrates her personal interaction with the spiritual implications and how they can impact the reader’s spirituality. Each chapter ends with “Reflections and Practices,” a distillation of the chapter into bullet points: questions on which to reflect and actions to be practiced. Overall, the tone of A World Transformed is that of a discussion with a scholarly friend who, while elucidating the features of medieval maps, points out ways to incorporate into one’s life the spiritual practices gleaned.
In the conclusion, “Toward a Practice of Centering on Christ,” Deam discusses the wide variety of spiritual practices and ways to apply them. Deam acknowledges that the “number of Christian practices available today can seem overwhelming. …. The fourteenth-century Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton helps us through the forest of options. …: ‘There can be many different ways and diverse practices leading different souls to contemplation, for there are diverse exercises in working according to the people’s various dispositions and the different states they are in …’ In other words, there is something for everyone.” (124) The point of the practices are that they lead the practitioner to Jesus. Different disciplines work for different people, or for the same person at different times of life.
I thoroughly enjoyed the pilgrimage of discovery led by Lisa Deam through her beautifully-crafted and engagingly-written book, A World Transformed. Becoming familiar with medieval maps, on which little is recognizable at first glance to the modern viewer, was a disorienting and then reorienting experience. Rather than the modern practice of understanding where one is by centering on one’s own position, medieval maps and spirituality place Jesus at the exact center, while recognizing that He also encompasses the whole. At times medieval Christianity astounded me. It is far more practical, pragmatic, and earthy than much of American Christianity. While at the same time, it recognizes that Jesus’ work as creator, sustainer, and savior affects and transforms every aspect of life. The book may be fully read, but the pilgrimage continues of being centered on Christ and recognizing Him in life’s every aspect. Thank you, Lisa Deam, for lighting a lamp for the journey.