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Cartography, Maritime Expansion, and “Imperial Reality”: The Catalan Atlas of 1375 and the Aragonese-Catalan Thalassocracy in the Fourteenth Century

In the year 1380, while Charles V, the king of France was embroiled in the “Hundred Years’ War” with the English, he was presented with a unique item by his cousin, Pedro IV, the ruler of Aragon. The Catalan Atlas of 1375 (see below), drawn with a stunning variety of colors, despite being a portolan chart, depicts most of the known world. Although it contains multiple elements and represents numerous regions, this piece will focus in particular on its depiction of the Mediterranean. The lack of any detailed scholarship pertaining to the Catalan Atlas is particularly striking, especially in light of the fact that it was drawn during the height of Aragonese rule in the Mediterranean.

Since their rise to power in the mid-thirteenth century, the Aragonese had pursued a policy of imperial maritime expansion, driven by religious fervor, strategic considerations, and, naturally, by economic interests. In 1229, the island of Majorca, which had been in Muslim hands since 902, fell to the Aragonese, who then proceeded to conquer Sicily, Minorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, southern Italy up to Naples, and even parts of Greece and Asia Minor. Therefore, by the time that Abraham Cresques, an Iberian Jewish cartographer, had completed the Catalan Atlas in 1375, the Crown of Aragon possessed a sea-borne empire, or thalassocracy, that extended from the shores of eastern Iberia to the Peloponnesian peninsula in the eastern Mediterranean. The Aragonese “empire” was never really a unified entity, but rather a loose confederation of small principalities. Regional Catalan lords in Sicily, Majorca and Greece ruled and administrated their territories semi-independently of royal authority, although there was a strong sense of loyalty to the Crown of Aragon.