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Stories from Jewish History | The Jewish Mapmakers of Majorca

Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin
On an island in the Mediterranean in the 14th century there lived a mapmaker and his son. Their story, like all good stories, is at once highly particular, a tale about idiosyncratic individuals in a distinct time and place, but also tells a larger story: a story about the way in which Jews participated in creating knowledge that has shaped our collective view of the world, quite literally.

Four leaves (each split in two) of the Catalan Atlas, showing the Mediterranean basin
Four leaves (each split in two) of the Catalan Atlas, showing the Mediterranean basin
One of the fundamental characteristics of the premodern world was its smallness. I don’t mean its geographical smallness; in actuality, people (of some classes and groups) traveled frequently and often far afield. What I’m referring to is its demographic smallness—the small and human scale of cities, institutions, communities. It’s hard for us not to retroject the largeness of our present world when thinking about the past.
This comes into play when we start poking at the details of the story of the Jewish mapmakers of Majorca (Mallorca). Often portrayed as a well-developed “school” or highly structured “workshops,” the evidence permits us to say something more conjectural and limited, though no less interesting. What we’re talking about here is a handful of individuals who created remarkable, often accurate, maps recording the state of knowledge of world geography. (The relatively large number of Jews in Mediterranean Europe involved in creating navigational charts and instruments, or astronomical ones with bearing on navigation is, however, notable.)
The Catalan Atlas
Designed for viewing while walking around a table, with six large vellum leaves that fold out, the Catalan Atlas of c. 1375, attributed to a Majorcan Jew, is one of the most magnificent maps of the world produced by the human hand. It depicts in great detail the cities and rulers of the world known to medieval Europeans, from the Atlantic to China, relying upon travel literature of the day. The atlas contains an early example of a compass rose and lines typical of a portolan chart, a way of recording sailing directions by reference to degrees from a cardinal direction. These emerged in the 13th century (there are arguably earlier iterations) and were probably based in part on sailors’ observational data of coastlines. (Here’s how to DIY your own portolan chart; in short: it’s complicated.) The use of portolan charts was enabled by knowledge from the Islamicate world and by compass technology; interestingly, one of the earliest mentions of the magnetic compass in the Latin West appears in a 12th-century Hebrew treatise about precious stones by another Jewish scribe-scientist, Berekhiah ha-Nakdan (see here).
Leaf IV of the Catalan Atlas, showing the eastern Mediterranean, including the "Red" Sea
Leaf IV of the Catalan Atlas, showing the eastern Mediterranean, including the "Red" Sea
We know that a mappamundi, a presentation map of the world, was commissioned by Peter (Pedro, Pere) IV of Aragon (and Majorca) in the 1370s; we also know that a mappamundi was sent in the name of Peter’s son the infante (crown prince) John (Joan), later John I of Aragon, as a gift to his cousin Charles V of France, in or before 1381. (The dates are important because they don’t strictly confirm that the current map we call the Catalan Atlas was the same one commissioned by the king, potentially affecting the attribution; but most scholars attribute the map called the Catalan Atlas to a Cresques Abraham commissioned to make it by Peter IV.) The map seeks to present loosely-linked Aragonese territories as parts of a sizeable and cohesive empire and indicates the value placed by the ruling powers on trade routes, notably those outside of Christian Europe.
The so-called Catalan Atlas is currently at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (BNF MS Es 30; see my post here for how to “read” manuscript names), where you can see good images of the manuscript; also check out the different leaves with descriptions here at the University of Pittsburgh and read translations, from Catalan, of the text on the map here.
It’s worth getting a close look because (a) it’s stunning and (b) its iconography continues to affect our collective imagination. Take for example the Catalan Atlas’ depiction of Mansa Musa, the storied king of Mali. Then run a basic Google image search for “Mansa Musa” and watch as current depictions of basically the same guy pop up. He’s also purported to be the inspiration for Marvel’s King T'challa of Black Panther fame.
Cresques Abraham
Now it’s time to meet our protagonist, Cresques Abraham. Cresques (also spelled Crescas, in Hebrew, קרשקש) is a common name among Jews of Provence (southern France) and Catalunya (northeast Spain), and we see it used as a personal name and as a surname, at a time when surnaming was evolving and didn’t have the fixity or legal importance that it has today. It’s not entirely clear whether Cresques was his personal name (most likely), patronymic, or surname. There’s a fair amount of documentary evidence—meaning physical documents from the period—about a person of this name or its close variants in the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón (ACA) and the Archivo Capitular de Mallorca.
We know that the maritime-minded Peter IV hired Cresques to make maps and compasses, titling him magister mapamundorum et buxolarum. The king later granted Cresques the status of royal familiar, an official courtier, which exempted him from wearing the rodella (Jewish badge); and also the right to appoint and regulate shochtim (kosher slaughterers) in Majorca. We know that in 1361, Cresques’ father Avraham bought him a seat in the synagogue of Majorca (today’s Palma, the city) in honor of his scribal work. We know that his wife was named Settadar and may have been from the Maghrib (northern Africa).
But what we know about him has been broadened by the compelling suggestion made first by Jaume Riera i Sans and then by Katrin Kogman-Appel, that our Cresques Abraham is to be identified with a certain Elisha ben Avraham.
The Farhi Bible
The manuscript known as “The Farhi Bible” is an ornate illuminated Chumash. Its colophon (a statement of the scribe, found in a minority of Hebrew manuscripts) is detailed, citing the author’s name as Elisha ben Rabbi Avraham ben Rabbi Benvenisti ben Rabbi Elisha and states that he’s also known as Cresques. It records Elisha’s birthdate, an unusual feature for a colophon: Wednesday, the 28th of Tammuz 5085, which works out to July 11, 1325. If this is our Cresques, then in combination with the documentary data, we have a fairly robust picture of who he was.
A poor image of the privately-held "Farhi Bible"
A poor image of the privately-held "Farhi Bible"
The Farhi Bible has, like many celebrated Hebrew manuscripts, a complicated provenance; owned by the Farhi family of Syria, it was confiscated from Haim Farhi, an advisor to the Ottoman governor of Akko (Acre) who was assassinated in the early 19th century. It eventually fell into the hands of the British (you’ll find that manuscripts “fall into hands” and “come to be possessed” a lot), returned to the Farhis, and was then purchased by David Sassoon. It’s still held by privately and technically known as Sassoon MS 368.
Why does all this matter? Well, because if Elisha, the scribe of the lavish Farhi Bible, is also Cresques the mapmaker, this allows us to better understand his craft. But to determine that, scholars need access to the manuscript. (The Farhi Bible also contains, as do many late Sefardi illuminated Bibles, a compendium of interesting and in this case rare rationalist works, including an Occitan-Hebrew glossary. This makes my head explode because I’m currently researching Occitan Jews and wow, would I like to take a look at that.)
Anyway. Kogman-Appel somehow, thankfully, got a close look at images from the Farhi Bible. Her conclusion: there is “no doubt” that the famous map attributed to Cresques Abraham was made by the same hand as the illuminator-scribe of the Farhi Bible (she’s also published a book on the subject).
This, in turn, reveals to us definitively that Cresques/Elisha was learned in the Judeo-Arabic tradition, descended from a family or rabbis, and trained as a scribe, not as a mapmaker or an illuminator. Cresques/Elisha produced potentially many recognizable manuscripts in addition to the maps attributed to him and his son. How did he learn the arts of cartography, illustration, illumination? He may have been influenced by Angelino Dulcert, a celebrated Christian Genoese cartographer who emigrated to Majorca and was active there in the first half of the 14th century; but we don’t really know. If Cresques/Elisha had an atelier, it seems to have been sui generis, the product of a man applying his scribal skills and knowledge of science to the lucrative demands of the expansionary Crown of Aragon.
A family of mapmakers?
Cresques had a son, Yehudah, known in vernacular as Jafudà Cresque and born c. 1360. Yehudah evidently learned cartography from his father; after his father’s death in 1387, it’s recorded that he finished a map begun by Cresques. Later, Yehudah worked in the employ of John I, now the king of Aragon.
This is where our story takes a dark turn. In the spring of 1391, mass rioting broke out against the Jewish community, first in Aragon proper, then spreading to other parts of Iberia and continuing into 1392. These riots were a profoundly devastating force shaping subsequent Jewish history. Many Jews converted to Christianity under duress (there were also those who converted voluntarily), including Yehudah. He took the name Jacobus Ribus (Jaime Ribes, Jaume Riba), settled in Barcelona, and continued to work as the king’s mapmaker; from 1399 he is referred to by the title magister cartorum navigandi.
The 1447 portolan map of Gabriel de Vallsecha, possibly related to Cresques Abraham
The 1447 portolan map of Gabriel de Vallsecha, possibly related to Cresques Abraham
Some scholars associate Yehudah Cresques/Jacobus Ribus with one Mestre Jacome de Malhorca who is purported to have worked as a royal mapmaker in Portugal in the 1420s in the court of Prince Henry the Navigator (Infante Dom Henrique o Navegador), although this is debated. What is clear is that we see a number of Converso mapmakers with origins in Majorca working in 15th-century Iberia, of whom Mestre Jacome is one. A Haim Ibn Risch is attested, possibly Yehudah’s son, converted under the name Juan de Vallsecha. Haim/Juan’s son, Gabriel de Vallsecha (Vallseca, Devallsecha), is also known as a mapmaker. In 1439, de Vallsecha made a portolan map that was acquired by Amerigo Vespucci (it’s currently owned by the Museu Marítim de Barcelona; you can see a similar one he made, from 1447, at the BNF, here and pictured above, and a third version dates from 1449.) Meciá de Viladestes, almost certainly a Converso, produced a portolan map in 1413. One Yehudah Ibn Zara (Abenzara) was working in the later 15th century; Cecil Roth wrote a pamphlet about him.
Jews and Conversos were not the only mapmakers in the Mediterranean during the period, during which many portolan maps were produced; but they are noticeably represented, especially in the Balearics. At the same time, they belong to a small phenomenon. We don’t know for sure, but it’s likely that many of the Majorcan Jewish cartographers were either from a single family, or acquired the skills required for mapmaking as students (or students of students) of that family. This small but distinguished group marshalled knowledge valued in Sefardi Jewish culture, even after being forcibly converted, to create an enduring picture of the world.
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Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin @tamar_marvin

A weekly newsletter featuring lesser-known stories from Jewish history—and what they can tell us about Jewish life today. Written by a semikha student at Yeshivat Maharat and PhD in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Studies.

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