This is the first of a new series of blog posts, each highlighting one element of medieval history. I love maps and wanted to share some medieval maps with you today.
Medieval maps weren’t always intended to be used as guides for traveling—often they were meant to illustrate our relative place in the world. Maps that showed all of the world are called mappa mundi (maps of the world) although they don’t look familiar to us.
1. Isidore of Seville and T-O Map (ca. 636)
Isidore of Seville wrote an encyclopedic reference to the world in the 7th century called the Etymologiae (or Origines) in which he gathered and quoted classical sources as well as including his own observations. In this work, he included a map of the world, shown at right. East is at the top of his map, and this format became known as a T-O map (because the world is an O and the continents form a T inside it.) The idea was that everything originated in the east—the continents are assigned quadrants, which don’t show their exact locations or shapes. This reference was copied many times from the time of its completion into the Renaissance. There’s an online translation available here if you want to read some of the work.
2. The Psalter mappa mundi (ca. 1265), is so named because it was in a psalter. A psalter is a book of devotions including passages for prayer and contemplation, like the Psalms. These small books could be owned or commissioned by individuals and might have illustrations. This map is now in the collection of the British Library.
You can see that this is another T-O map, although it’s more detailed. The red dot in the middle of this map is Jerusalem, the center of the world in the medieval mindset. East is again at the top of the map, where Jesus and the angels are shown presiding over God’s creation – Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Europe is in the bottom left quadrant, just as in Isidore’s map. You can see a full-size version of this map on the website of the British Library, right here.
3. The Anglo-Saxon Cotton World Map (ca. 1040)
This map is named for the Cotton Library, of which it was a part. It is now in the collection of the British Library.
This map keeps the east at the top but doesn’t have Jerusalem at the exact center. Britain, in the lower left corner, is larger and more detailed, probably because the map was created in Britain.
There’s a wonderful online utility available here where you can scale the map to see the detail better.
4. Matthew of Paris’ Map of England (13th c)
Matthew of Paris was a chronicler in Henry II’s court, who provides a wonderful record of life in 13th century England. While Matthew’s map looks more familiar to us, with north at the top, it’s based on older documents called itineraries. These were more like guides than maps, listing places to stop and often distances in succession when traveling from one location to another. Matthew’s map documents the journey from Dover to Newcastle.
This map is now in the British Library and they have a page about it on their website, here.
Here’s an itinerary from Matthew, so you can see the difference. This documents the journey from London to Dover. An itinerary was useful when the route was traveled regularly—by a king’s court or an archbishop’s court, for example. These authorities traveled their respective realm or diocese at regular intervals to hold courts locally. You can read more about itineraries and maps in this article on the British Library website.
There’s also a book which includes translations of Matthew’s writings along with his illustrations called The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris by Richard Vaughan. It contains only about a sixth of Matthew’s chronicles, but provides a glimpse of 13th century life all the same.
5. The Gough Map (ca. 1370)
Another wonderful map, this one is late medieval and focuses on Britain rather than the known world. (It’s named for the collector who bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library in the 19th century.) This map is significant because it breaks with both the theological presentations of the earth and the notion of an itinerary and begins to document the reality of the land. East is still at the top.
The other wonderful thing about this map is the interactive website that lets you explore it more closely.
6. The Hereford Mappa Mundi (ca. 1300)
This world map is the largest medieval map that survives. It’s roughly 62 by 52″ and drawn on a single sheet of vellum. The map is named for Hereford Cathedral in England, where it is part of their collection. It is a T-O map, so you’ll find Jerusalem in the center and England in the lower left corner at the perimeter. Eden is around the edges. 🙂
There’s an online resource here where you can examine the map in closer detail.
7. A 12th Crusader’s Map of Jerusalem
After the Christians conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and the Latin Kingdoms were established, the city of Jerusalem itself became the subject of many maps. Here’s one that draws on the established pattern of T-O maps, again with east at the top. Jerusalem is depicted as a circle with a wall around its perimeter, and various churches are documented inside (and outside) its walls. A knight, possibly a Templar, is pursuing an opponent across the bottom of the map.
You can see a larger version of this map here.
I researched medieval maps and city plans while writing my Champions of St. Euphemia series, in which a party of Templar knights (and former Templars) journeys from Jerusalem to Paris. Their leader, Gaston, is leaving the Templars to return to his home estate and takes a pilgrim as his bride before the party leaves the Holy City. He also agrees to deliver a secret treasure to the Temple in Paris, one that he soon learns someone in his party is willing to kill to possess.
That series begins in Jerusalem with The Crusader’s Bride.