| August 26, 2010 8:13 pm

D'Medici Family Coat of ArmsFor the past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through a book called “Cartographies of Time.”  I’m only about a third of the way through it so far, but it is a fabulous book that both deserves (and shall get) its own post and a proper review.  (Maybe even a whole series.)

But while I am not quite ready to dive into that project, there is one aspect of Cartographies of Time that meshes really well with other things I’ve been thinking about.

In particular, I’ve been really interested in the book’s discussion of the methods used for understanding and recording knowledge. Even more interesting is the ways in which these techniques have evolved through time.  (For a book that claims to primarily be a history of the timeline, Cartographies does a magnificent job of covering many tools: lists, maps, charts, trees and graphs.)

As I’ve read, I’ve found myself enthralled to one particular question, namely: the records you keep and share seem to be uniquely connected to your mindset (a complex amalgam of education, experience, and circumstance), environment, and culture (particularly important is the effect of language).  As these things evolve, the substance of your thinking (and therefore your records and how you express them) also change in divers ways.

Given a rich intellectual and cultural environment, they can flower and spread.  In a barren landscape, the mode and presentation of thought can remain static for centuries.


It’s easy to see such trends in the notebooks and writings of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo Da Vinci - Studies of an Embryo in UteroLeonardo lived in one of the most dynamic times in human history.  There were major changes occurring in farming, navigation, and trade.

This explosion of knowledge, in addition to Leonardo’s desire to explore and understand it all is highly visible in his notes and sketches.  (The tangible evidence of his mind at work.)

Within a single folio, Leonardo wanders amongst hydrodynamics, anatomical structure and ruminates on the source of life.  In some cases, he might visit these subjects on the same page.  To the untrained eye, the whole thing can appear like an unfocused mess.

But even though the notes may not appear to have a logical structure, there is a connection.  Leonardo recorded the information in the order that it occurred to him.

For example, in one folio I’ve been looking at, Leonardo mixes notes and sketches regarding the structure of human limbs and bird wings.  Shortly thereafter appear numerous sketches related to flying machines

Would Leonardo’s interest in flight have developed if he hadn’t first investigated the natural order of things?  Or would his enormous curiosity simply have wandered off in a new direction?

Leonardo’s output also also provides important insight into the world in which he lived.  Of course Leonardo was able to pursue so many interesting and diverse ideas because he was intelligent.  But this isn’t the only reason.  He was also able to think and ruminate because he lived in circumstances that gave him the time and means to be curious.

Just prior to Leonardo’s birth, there was an unprecedented interest in scholarship and learning, fostered by the D’Medici family of Florence.  Because of confluence of financial, political, religious and secular events, there was suddenly an interest in culture, knowledge and thought.   Without those forces, and perhaps more importantly, the political figures who were willing to support inquiry and creative output, it is unlikely that Leonardo would have been able to produce such brilliant stuff.


Things really get interesting, though, when you compare the wealth of Leonardo’s intellectual output to another fascinating record, the Annals of St.Gall.

The Annals of St. Gall (named for a monastery in present day Switzerland) were a record of the Frankish kingdoms (which, at their height covered vast swaths of Switzerland, France, and portions of Germany) throughout the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries  They were very simple documents, kept by the monks of several monasteries, with a list of dates in chronological order in the left hand column and events on the right.The Annals of St. Gall

When you first encounter the Annals, they seem like a very bizarre document.  (A series of entries from 709 to 732, provided in Cartographies of Time, is reproduced at right.)  There isn’t a lot of structure to them.  They seem to begin and end without reason.  There isn’t much logic in the type of events that they record.  But the oddities don’t stop there, as described in Cartographies:

The Annals make no distinction between natural occurrences and human acts; they give no indication of cause and effect; and no entry is given more priority than another.  Below the level of years, references to time are strangely gnomic; in the year 732, for example, the text indicates that Charles Martel ‘fought the Saracens on Saturday’, but it does not specify which Saturday.  There is no distinction among periods, and lists begin and end as nameless chroniclers pick up and put down their pens.

But you would be seriously mistaken to think that the Annals don’t have a meaningful structure, or that they don’t provide a valuable insight into the world they describe:

The Annals of St. Gall positively breathe with the life of the Middle Age.  [They] ‘vividly figure a world of scarcity and violence’, a world in which ‘forces of disorder’ occupy the forefront of attention, ‘in which things happen to people rather than on in which people do things.’


Is this the power of environment?

The Annals of St. Gall were one of the only document of note to emerge from the Frankish kingdoms during that time.  Though it is important and interesting from a historical point of view, it is hardly innovative or intellectually exciting.  (Not in the manner of Leonardo’s notebooks, at any rate.)

Moreover, it’s tremendously consistent.  Scores of monks, spread through hundreds of years all use the same style and language to record similar events.  Didn’t anyone think, “Maybe I’ll just add a little clarification?”  Other historical lists from different locations include such information, why didn’t they?

If Leonardo had found himself born six hundred years earlier, amongst the Swiss peaks, what might have his entries to The Annals of St. Gall looked like?  Would he have broken the mold and told us more about Charles and the Saracens?  Or would the flower of his promise have died in the bleak and stony soil?

I don’t have any answers to those questions.  Regardless, I find them to be absolutely fascinating.

Do you have any thoughts?  If so, please share in the comments.


  1. Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, 1st ed., Analytic Design (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
  2. H. White, “The value of narrativity in the representation of reality,” Critical Inquiry (1980): 5–27.


3 Responses to “Environment and the Evidence of a Mind at Work”

Ron Tedwater wrote a comment on November 13, 2010

Great work keep it coming

E. C. Schreiber wrote a comment on April 30, 2011

“The Annals of St. Gall were a record of the Frankish kingdoms (located in present day Switzerland) throughout the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries that were kept by the monks of several monasteries. [….] The Annals of St. Gall were the only document of note to emerge from the Frankish kingdoms during that time.”

While St. Gall is located in Switzerland, the Frankish kingdom(s) included what is today Switzerland, without being located there.

And really? The Annals of St. Gall were the only noteworthy document the Franks managed to produce in three centuries?

Somebody (White? Rosenberg and Grafton? Oakes?) doesn’t know the subject well enough to know what they’re talking about here.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on April 30, 2011

Thanks for the reply. My apologies for not adding the scholarly appropriate and qualifying statement “one of the.” I have fixed that in the original post. To address your points:

“And really? The Annals of St. Gall were the only noteworthy document the Franks managed to produce in three centuries?”

Uhm, yes. If you have noteworthy examples, please feel free to list them. The point of the original post is that there is a relationship between environment and the apparent richness of thought it produces. As near as I can tell, that point stands.

The eighth to the tenth centuries were a brutally difficult period. In general, lives were difficult, brutish, and short. There are few examples of any scholarship that survive. (If I’ve made a significant oversight, my apologies. I am not a historian by profession, just an interested layperson. But, I researched examples of contemporary documents both at the time I wrote this post and just now and found no other documents, fragmentary or otherwise.)

Which leaves it to you. If you want to make the assertion that there is gross ignorance here, then prove it. What other noteworthy work emerged in that area during the time period? Flowerings can be seen to the west and to the east. Until you offer an example (or even better, a counterpoint), then you might as well refrain from sneers and snobbery.

“Somebody (White? Rosenberg and Grafton? Oakes?) doesn’t know the subject well enough to know what they’re talking about here.”

These thoughts were written in a blog post, not a peer reviewed journal. I’m not even pretending to be comprehensive, authoritative, or definitive. This post is what it is: a rambling on the Internet. But, with that said, you point to no deficiencies in my logic. Saying, “surely there must be something,” is not a persuasive argument. if you have a counter point to argue, then argue it.

Instead of casting suspicion on the scholarly work of others (most notably that of White, and Rosenberg and Grafton), why not take a moment to prove your own erudition?


Rob Oakes

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