A Little Lesson In …

Medieval Maps

First, banish the notion that people of the Middle Ages think of maps and its functions the way you, as a modern person, think of them. They did in fact have the word mappa, but the word meant ‘cloth’ rather than ‘map’. There was in fact no word with the modern meaning of ‘map’ in Latin or in the vernacular languages. What did they use it for then?

Here’s a clue: other words used to name them were carta (document), descriptio, figura, pictura. They were created to present a graphic (as opposed to textual) representation of the world, or a part of the world, in terms of not just geography but also objects, concepts, mythology, theology, cosmography.

The earliest, simplest sort of these is what is known as a T-O map, so named because of the shape. Before the high Middle Ages the people then were really only aware of three continents. It’s also a form of tripartite map — that is, the world split into three parts.

There was some speculation that another continent, inaccessible to people in the northern hemisphere, exists somewhere down below. Why inaccessible? Looking at this zonal map, you can see that there are a few bands, with the topmost and lowermost band considered ‘inhabitabilis’ because it would be too cold. People inhabit the temperate zones, but in the middle there is a band, generally marked as a ‘torrid zone’, because it is too hot. Later when the Europeans explored the West African coast, for a long time before the 15th century they could never go past a spot known as Cape Bojador (rough seas and shallow beds), and so it became a kind of boundary of the torrid zone.

An important observation to make here: look at the shapes of the maps. The people in the Middle Ages were under no illusion that the world is flat, centuries before Columbus.

The next set of maps to emerge, developing from the T-O maps, was the mappa mundi or ‘world maps’. Now, again, their function is not to accurately represent geography, but to tie in religious (and even mythological) stories and situate them — i.e. you often find images such as the Tower of Babel, the Red Sea (with a line indicating where the Israelites crossed), and Noah’s Ark. These maps, in a sense, unite ‘history’ and geography, or rather, make no distinction between them. Their function is not at all to assist travellers, but to impress the laity with a vision of the entire world in one single picture (supposedly it would have been quite miraculous for them to see this back then); as a pedagogical tool, that is, to teach religious lessons — the Ebstorf map (just one example among a number of mappa mundi to have survived to the modern era, though the Ebstorf itself was destroyed during WWII) below shows the body of Christ enveloping the world.

His head is next to the Garden of Eden; you might notice by now that mapmakers back then orient their maps with East at the top rather than North at the top; this would be the case until the 16th century. Jerusalem is, as is often the case, at the centre — you might even have heard of the expression that ‘Jerusalem is the navel of the world’, here it is literally at Jesus’ navel. You can just about see his hands to the side and his feet at the bottom.

The Ebstorf map was apparently made in the 13th century. By now people had a vague idea of the geography around the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and often you can see a misshapen England and even Ireland at the bottom left (that is, northwest) corner. Which is why what happens next is so surprising to today’s scholars.


Portolan charts, thought to be navigational charts for sailing vessels due to the fact that it maps the coastal line and the littoral towns and ports but not the inland features (though whether that really was its function remains contested, as none of the surviving portolan charts seemed to have actually been used on ships).

What is striking is that, suddenly, amidst all these rather inaccurate mappae mundi that is packed full of non-geographical imagery in the 13th century, out pops a map that has surveyed the Mediterranean to an amazingly accurate degree, and like later maps is filled with rhumb lines (those lines you see crisscrossing the entire map), and usually (but not always) without the religious or mythological imagery of the mappae mundi. The Carte Pisane shown above is the oldest surviving portolan chart, though there has been references to such charts earlier in the century. Their sudden appearance marks the kind of historical discontinuity that intrigues academics about where they came from, who were the first portolan chart makers, who were their influences, but overall it’s a mystery with its answers too fragmented by history to be able to be discerned conclusively.

Over the 14th and 15th century, production of portolan charts accelerated, and today about 180 from that era survive. Progression can be seen in more and more place names (always written on the land side to avoid obscuring danger points on the coastline) being crammed in, appearance of flags, inclusion of a scale (but never a legend). Interestingly, in some cases the accuracy of the coastlines become worse as the decades go by, probably as a result of copy errors.

Some of these portolan charts, particularly Catalan ones, were quite ornamental in its presentation, perhaps because they were made for regents or kings or other such VIPs.


There is much we can surmise about the people of the medieval ages from these maps. We can understand their worldview and their priorities by what they choose to portray on their maps and what they’re concerned about. For the mapmakers of the earliest ‘maps’, geographical accuracy was never in their mind; for portolan charts, however, it is certainly one of their considerations. But it is worth noting that throughout this period, people still largely depended on textual description rather than maps for itineraries or for the listing of land boundaries and estates — describing routes and boundaries via writing is seen as more accurate than drawing maps.

Later still, in the early modern age, kings and other such rulers would come to understand the power of maps. Maps would be used to display the extent of their territories — but also to show them where to invade or colonise next. Maps would later be allowed by magistrates into the courts to resolve disputes. Maps allow a governor to govern. Maps would also be considered a strategic tool, such that some powers (like the Portuguese) would forbid maps to be made because they consider their geographical discoveries to be state secrets; there were times maps were falsified to throw off rivals.

The size of the known world doubled in just the 16th century, following the Portuguese explorations to the east and the Spanish to the west (you might remember the Tordesillas Line from high school), followed by the other European powers. At some point, along with the development of navigational technology, came latitudes and longitudes on the maps, replacing the rhumb lines. And finally, there was the advent of publishing, and the ability to print maps rather than have them be crafted by hand.

By the early 18th century, the last small Mediterranean workshop specialising in portolan charts disappeared.

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