The Ravenna Cosmography

IN SOME OF WHAT is written about Horncastle and its history, the Ravenna Cosmography and Bannovallum are mentioned to form a kind of triangle of reference with Horncastle at the apex. On those occasions William Stukeley is cited for making the association explicit and making direct

connections which are invalid. However, this view may no longer be quite correct.

The Ravenna Cosmography was, as its title suggests, a world book of sorts. In fact, it was a large work of some five volumes which set out to describe the world as it was then known, — the seventh century.
It contains an enormous list of place names — some 5,000 — from all over the Roman Empire. The difficulty is that the copying scribe was prone to copying incorrectly, — there are far too many errors. Further, the names are organised only very broadly in a way that makes geographical sense. [see note below]

Little of the work was original, nor did it claim to be. Rather it quoted from many sources: the Bible, authors such as Porphyry, Aristarchus, Ptolemy, and many Greek and Latin texts whose authors are unknown today. Use was also made of an itinerary known as the Tabula Peutingeriana. Bearing in mind that only a remnant of the imperial library could have survived in Ravenna, after the barbarian invasions, we must recognise that it started with clear severe disadvantages.

The map [above right] is a reconstruction of a world map which could have appeared in the Ravenna book. [For a larger, 70kb, version of the map, click here.] It first appeared in The Dawn of Modern Geography by C Beazley. That seventh-century world is hardly related to the one we know today; certainly no one would want to go to sea and navigate by it, except perhaps in the Mediterranean. However, the Tabula would have been far more accurate and reliable on land.

The Tabula was basically a route map or itinerary of a kind sometimes known as a cartogram. Rather than being a one-sheet map as we know them, it was a long scroll of some 22 feet in length, indicating distances between places, with useful information of the kind one might find in a gazetteer.

William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum was a direct descendant of the format.

The Cosmography’s relevance here is that it mentions a place called ‘Bannovallum’ which Stukeley famously suggested was identical with Horncastle. The identity is clinched for him as Bannovallum is placed immediately after Lindum. George Weir comments that…’it is to be regretted that Ravennas gives no distances.’ [Distances being crucial to a route map.] Weir also makes a mistake in giving the Cosmography’s name as ‘Ravennas’ — he has mistaken the scribe’s home town as his name. [This is not entirely absurd as people were frequently known by their town of origin: John of Gaunt [Ghent] and Leonardo da Vinci spring to mind. Famously this idea has been derided as nonsensical or whimsical or wishful thinking.

However he may not have been so wrong after all. The origin and meaning of the name Horncastle has been discussed on another page on this site. The latter part of Bannovallum — the Latin ‘vallum’ — translates as a ‘palisade’ or ‘fortified place’, equivalent to the familiar ‘castre’ or ‘castle’.

But it is the translation of ‘banno’ which is so intriguing. In his recent book, Lincolnshire Place-Names, 1998, KC Dickens states that ‘banno’ is the Celtic word for horn. The identity of shape seems unarguable.

No objection can be made about two languages inhabiting one word or name, after all Lincoln is a compound of Old English and Latin. Nor does the fact that our modern day spelling allows only one ‘n’ in Banovallum signify very much. Spelling changes over time. Indeed spelling was pretty much a free-for-all until Dr Johnson laboured to apply a fixative and establish uniformity with his dictionary.

This is, of course, far from definitive. It does, however, make for a pause. Stukeley may have made the link for all the wrong reasons but the matter is not quite so black and white as one first thought.

Note: In An Atlas of Roman Britain, Jones and Mattingly, Blackwell, 1990, there is a map [p31] which attempts to show the route required to be taken to follow the order in which places are cited in the Cosmography.

ยง Words do not evolve neatly or scientifically; rather they respond in time to likenesses and metaphor and intuitive use and pronunciation. [John of Gaunt’s ‘Gaunt’ is an Englishing of Ghent — which suggests something about pronunciation.] For instance, retaining the shape of a horn in mind, it’s interesting to note that the word ‘ben’ — as in Ben Nevis — means a ‘peak’ or ‘prominence’. And the Scottish word ‘ben’ flows out of the Welsh word ‘ban’ which means a peak also. Peaks and horns have strong similarities of shape. It’s not hard to imagine the ‘o’ falling off banno — to become ‘ban’ while still associated with a similar shape.