Thursday, 22 September 2022

Al-Idrīsī’s twelfth-century description and map of Lincolnshire

The following short piece was originally published in the Lincoln Record Society News Review, 18 (2021), pp. 2–4; the version presented below is the fully-referenced version of this text.

The aim of the following note is to direct attention to an often-overlooked Arabic account and map of Lincolnshire found in the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī khtirāq al-āfāq, ‘The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands’, of the Muslim scholar al-Idrīsī, composed c. 1154 for Roger II of Sicily.(1)

The North Sea and the east coast of England on al-Idrīsī’s mid-twelfth-century Arabic map, from a mid-thirteenth- to early fourteenth-century copy. Note, north is at the top and south at the bottom; the river running across the centre of the image is the Witham with Boston on the left and Lincoln on the right, whilst Grimsby is shown on the coast to the north of the river (Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Arabe 2221, f. 338v–339r; Public Domain)

Al-Idrīsī was a descendant of the eleventh-century Ḥammūdid dynasty of Málaga in al-Andalus (Spain), a distant branch of the Idrīsid family that ruled Morocco from the late eighth to late tenth centuries, and his Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī khtirāq al-āfāq is one of the great geographical works of the medieval period.(2)  Preserved in ten manuscripts dating from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, this work was written in Sicily for Roger II (1112–54) and gathered together a vast array of information on the various regions of the world known to its author and was illustrated by a series of 70 maps. As part of this, al-Idrīsī included a brief description of eastern England that runs as follows:

Herein is the second section of the seventh climate, containing a portion of the Ocean wherein lies the island of lnqlṭrh [England, l’Angleterre]… From the town of ǧrnmūdh [Yarmouth, Gernemutha/Gernemuda] to the town of nrġīq [Norwich, Norwic] is ninety miles. The town of Norwich is distant ten miles from the sea, and from there to aġryms [Grimsby] is a hundred and fifty miles by sea. From the said town of Yarmouth the sea[-coast] curves round in a circle, but still tending northwards. From the said town of Grimsby to the town of afrwīk [York, Evrvic] is eighty miles. The latter lies at a distance from the Ocean, and on the border of the peninsula of sqwsyh [Scotia], which is contiguous with the island of England… From the town of York to the estuary of the river of bskh [Boston] is a hundred and forty miles, and Boston is a fortress (ḥiṣn) situated on this river twelve miles upstream from the sea. From the aforementioned of Grimsby to the town of nqwls [Lincoln, Nicolas] inland is a hundred miles; the river flows through the midst of it and flows out of it towards the town of Grimsby, but flows into the sea on the south of the latter, as we have mentioned before. From the inland Lincoln to the town of York is moreover ninety miles, and from thence to the town of dūnālma [Durham, Dunelme] eighty miles northwards.(3)

Al-Idrīsī was by no means the first author of an Arabic text to discuss and describe this island, as I have discussed elsewhere, but he was the first to name it Inqalṭāra, England (Angleterre), rather than Britain and the first to leave us a description of places in Lincolnshire.(4) In terms of his knowledge of this area, which has been considered to derive either from one or more informants or even from a visit to England by al-Idrīsī himself,(5) we can highlight several points of interest.

First, Lincoln appears as Nqwls,(6) reflecting the French name for the city, Nicole, that is recorded from early twelfth century through to the late fourteenth and which shows the Anglo-Norman interchange of n/l arising from dissimilation.(7) Lincoln is described in the text as being located on both sides of the River Witham, something that accurately reflects the twelfth-century situation with the old walled city to the north and the medieval suburb of Wigford to the south, and this is replicated on al-Idrīsī’s accompanying map of England, where Lincoln is the only city depicted straddling a river (see Fig. 1). Al-Idrīsī’s claim that this river both flows into the sea to the south of Grimsby and ‘flows through the midst of it [Lincoln] and flows out of it towards the town of Grimsby’ is similarly of interest. This has been described as ‘a major error’ and a result of confusion, but this need not be the case.(8) Rather, it could again reflect a degree of genuine knowledge of the Lincoln region in the first half of the twelfth century, as Lincoln and Grimsby were indeed connected by inland waterways in the twelfth century, with one being able to travel by boat from the Witham at Lincoln north-westwards along the Foss Dyke and then down the Trent and the Humber through to Grimsby after 1121, when the Foss Dyke was renovated and made navigable again by Henry I.(9) That al-Idrīsī (or his informant) was indeed aware of this route is confirmed by his statement that ‘from the inland Lincoln to the town of York is moreover ninety miles’, something that is certainly not true via road or sea, but is almost exactly true if one travelled to York by boat via the Foss Dyke, the Trent and then the Ouse.(10)

Second, Boston appears as Bskh/Bska(11) and is shown situated just inland of the sea and located on the same river as Lincoln on al-Idrīsī’s map of the east coast (Fig. 1). Interestingly, Boston is described as a ḥiṣn, a ‘fortress, stronghold, entrenchment’,(12) in contrast to Lincoln and Grimsby, which are each described as a madīna, a ‘town, city’.(13) The reason for this description is open to question, but it is worth noting that the Barditch around the town is thought to date from the eleventh–twelfth centuries and has been interpreted in the past as a ‘defensive ditch’; needless to say, al-Idrīsī’s comment may well add further weight to this interpretation.(14)

Third and finally, it seems clear from both al-Idrīsī’s text and his map that the area from Yarmouth to York, including Lincolnshire, was the part of the east coast of England in which he was most interested. There is, for example, nothing depicted or mentioned to the south of Yarmouth until one reaches the mouth of the Thames and, moreover, little evidence for any knowledge of any sites north of the Humber aside from Durham (which is wrongly mapped on the western side of England, not the east), with the northern bank of the Humber being omitted entirely so that York is consequently placed on the coast and close to the border with Scotland. Similarly, it is noteworthy that the only river depicted between the Thames and Scotland is the Witham. Quite why the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī khtirāq al-āfāq was particularly interested in this area of England is unclear, but we might tentatively wonder whether Lincolnshire’s well-known role in the medieval wool trade from the pre-Conquest period onwards might not have somehow motivated this interest.(15) Certainly, the early fourteenth-century Taqwīm al-buldān, ‘Survey of the countries’ (1321), of Abū l-Fidāʾ, which makes explicit use of a thirteenth-century Arabic description of England by Ibn Saʿīd al-Maghribī (1213–86), praises the quality of English wool, noting that in England ‘is made the fine scarlet cloth from the wool of their sheep, which is fine like silk’.(16) The fame of English wool and the regard in which it was held in medieval Europe is well-known, but this reference and two further ones in the early fourteenth century from Rashīd al-Dīn and Banākatī to ‘exceedingly fine scarlet cloth’(17) from England imply that the renown of English wool products reached well beyond Europe and the Mediterranean in the medieval period.

'Plan of Boston, England', by Thomas Moule, 1837, slightly cropped, showing the Barditch around the town (Source: The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library; licensed for reuse under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence via Flickr).


1. The only reference to it by a modern Lincolnshire historian that I am aware of is in Stephen H. Rigby’s Boston, 1086 –1225: A Medieval Boom Town (Lincoln, 2017), pp. 8, 19, 61, who encountered it via an earlier version of this paper posted on my academic blog at <>.

2. For al-Idrīsī, see J.-C. Ducène, a'l-Idrīsī, Abū ʿAbdallāh', in Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, ed. K. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas, and E. Rowson (Leiden, 2018), consulted online on 25 February 2021 <>.

3. A. F. L. Beeston, 'Idrisi’s Account of the British Isles', Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 13.2 (1950), 265–80 at pp. 278, 279–80, with minor modifications; note, I have included the transliterated Arabic names as read, discussed and identified by Beeston, pp. 273, 275–7. Grimsby is mentioned by name in the previous section by al-Idrīsī, although without any further details, see Recueil de Voyages et de Mémoires Publié par la Société de Géographie: Géographie d’Édrisi, ed. P. A. Jaubert (Paris, 1840), vol. 2, p. 374.

4. On the name of England in Arabic works, see also D. G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2015), pp. 277–8. For an earlier Arabic text that mentions Britain and gives more than just names, see C. Green, 'Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy’: Hārūn ibn Yaḥyā’s ninth-century Arabic description of Britain', in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, ed. K. L. Jolly and B. Brooks (Woodbridge, 2022), pp. 94–114. See also D. N. Dunlop, 'The British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', Islamic Quarterly 4 (1957), 11–28.

5. For the latter suggestion, see C. Loveluck, Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, c. AD 600–1150: A Comparative Archaeology (Cambridge, 2013), p. 323, who accepts that al-Idrīsī ‘had visited England prior to his arrival in Sicily in c. 1138’; for the former, see Beeston, 'Idrisi’s Account', p. 280.

6. Beeston, 'Idrisi’s Account', pp. 269, 277.

7. K. Cameron, The Place-Names of Lincolnshire: Part One, The Place-Names of the County of the City of Lincoln (Nottingham, 1982), pp. 2–3, and see, for example, A Survey of the Antiquities of the City of Lincoln (Lincoln, 1848), pp. 23–4.

8. M. Ferrar, 'Al-Idrisi; The Book of Roger The description of L’Angleterre', Cartography Unchained, website, December 2020, consulted online on 25 February 2021 <>, p. 10.

9. F. M. Stenton, 'The road system of medieval England', Economic History Review, 7 (1936), 1–21 at p. 20; M. J. Jones, D. Stocker and A. Vince, The City by the Pool: Assessing the Archaeology of the City of Lincoln (Oxford, 2003), pp. 116, 241; Simeon of Durham, Historia Regum, s.a. 1121: ‘In the same year, king Henry cut a large canal from Torksey to Lincoln and by causing the river Trent to flow into it, he made it navigable for vessels’, trans. J. Stevenson, Simeon of Durham: A History of the Kings of England (Felinfach, 1987), p. 188.

10. Interestingly, the distance given from Grimsby to Lincoln is approximately correct too, in this case if one sailed down the east coast of Lincolnshire and up the Witham via Boston.

11. See Beeston, 'Idrisi’s Account', p. 277 n. 55 and Arabic text at p. 269, line 55; Géographie d’Édrisi, ed. Jaubert, vol. 2, p. 425. The form here suggests that the name encountered may have been one in which the town’s name had already been shortened to Boston or similar, rather than the original Botuluestan etc., although according to Victor Watts this form is only recorded in England from 1235: V. Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 71. With further regard to the name as given by al-Idrīsī, it may also be worth noting that Boston was ‘established within lands belonging to Skirbeck’, just to its south, which derives from Old Norse skirr + bekkr, ‘the clear stream’: K. Cameron, A Dictionary of Lincolnshire Place-Names (Nottingham, 1998), p. 111; N. Grayson, Lincolnshire Extensive Urban Survey: Boston, Historic England/LCC project no. 2897 (Lincoln, 2019), p. 4; Rigby, Boston, pp. 4, 20. The name ‘Boston’ does, of course, appear in a variety of forms on early maps—for example, on the map of England attributed to the Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte in Marino Sanudo Torsello’s Liber secretorum fidelium crucis of c. 1321, Boston is Sanbetor whilst the Wash is labelled as the Gulffo de Sanbetor (British Library, Additional 27376 f. 181).

12. H. Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, ed. J. Milton Cowan, 4th edn (Wiesbaden, 1979), p. 214.

13. Wehr, Dictionary, p. 1055.

14. D. M. Owen, 'The beginnings of the port of Boston', in A Prospect of Lincolnshire, ed. N. Field and A. White (Lincoln, 1984), pp. 42–5 at p. 43; Grayson, Boston, p. 5; Rigby, Boston, p. 14.

15. On the early medieval roots of the Lincolnshire wool trade, see for example R. Faith, 'The structure of the market for wool in early medieval Lincolnshire', Economic History Review 65.2 (2012), 674–700. Note, in about 1200 Boston was second only to London in the scale of its overseas trade, with its trading activity being initially largely based around the wool trade, for which it was England’s most important port at that time: Rigby, Boston, pp. 1–2; S. H. Rigby, Boston and Grimsby in the Middle Ages (University of London PhD Thesis, 1982), pp. 175–6, 195–6.

16. Dunlop, 'The British Isles', p. 25; M. Reinaud, Géographie d'Aboulféda, 2 vols (Paris: A L'Imprimerie Nationale, 1848), vol. 2, p. 266.

17. Dunlop, 'The British Isles', p. 26.

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