I was watching the first episode of the BBC series Seven Ages of Britain (currently being screened in Australia on the ABC) in which the presenter, David Dimbleby, visits the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence to look at the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving example of a complete (or nearly complete) Bible.
According to the program (and Wikipedia) it was produced in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and was commissioned as a gift for the Pope in 692. The book is huge – it weighs over 35kg – with over a 1,000 pages of beautiful script in vulgate Latin and intricate illustrations, all laboriously completed by hand by the monks of the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow.
As Dimbleby turned the pages he paused briefly to describe the manuscript’s contents page and I suddenly realised that we were looking at what appeared to be a very old mind map. I went to the ABC iView site to review the program and grabbed a snapshot of the page (all copyrights acknowledged, etc).
Strictly speaking it’s a knowledge or information map, rather than a mind map (I don’t imagine the monks were brainstorming the Bible). It’s a simple org-chart diagram – I’m assuming the two main branches are the Old and New Testaments and the sub-branches represent the key sections, but somebody with a better knowledge of the Bible’s structure can correct me!
I did a quick search of the web to see if there are any earlier examples of mind maps or similar diagrams. It appears that the concept of visually mapping information dates at least to the third Century, when the philosopher Porphyry of Tyros used a form of decision tree to represent the concept categories of Aristotle. However the only illustration I could find of these was from a later translation.
Obviously, non-European cultures have also made extensive use of illustration in various ways to represent complex information, from simple pictographs and drawings to the extremely complex diagrams of some Central and South American pre-Columbian civilisations. However, this page in the Codex Amiatinus may be one of the oldest extant knowledge maps in European culture. Even if it isn’t, it’s remarkable in terms of its simplicity and restraint. While it is clearly hand drawn, it almost has the regularity of a software-generated map, combined with the creative use of different line colours and icons (all undoubtedly highly symbolic).
The thing that struck me the most was how accessible it was; it’s easy to recognise, 1,300 years after it was drawn, that this is some form of contents page or publication guide – even if, like me, you are neither a regular church-goer nor a Latin scholar!