A linear map showing the route from London to Beauvais from Matthew Paris's Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

Introducing medieval maps

P.D.A. Harvey provides an overview of the origins and form of maps in the middle ages.

Maps were practically unknown in the middle ages. This may seem an absurd way to begin an article that introduces a wide range of maps from many different parts of medieval Europe – but it is a fact, and it is one we must accept if we are to appreciate what these maps were, what they set out to do, how they appeared to the age that produced them. We are apt to take maps of every sort for granted, from the small-scale general map we use to find where places are to the roughly sketched plan we draw to give someone directions or for some other purpose. So far were people in the middle ages from our awareness of maps today that there was no word meaning ‘map’ either in the languages of everyday use or in the Latin used by the Church and for learned writing. When contemporaries referred to what we would call a map they would use some word meaning either diagram or picture, and this was indeed how they must have viewed them: they were pictures of landscape, of regions or of continents, or they were diagrams setting out spatial relationships in graphic form just as they might set out other relationships – administrative, philosophical, theological.

Nearly all the maps drawn in the middle ages were more akin to the sketch map produced for a particular occasion than to the general map that we consult as a work of reference. Each was drawn for strictly limited purposes, with one class of user in mind – the Mediterranean navigator, the long-distance traveller by land, the law-court judging a dispute, the educated person seeking instruction in distant lands and customs. What it showed and how it showed it depended on what purpose it was to serve. If we are to understand and assess a medieval map we must find out why it was drawn, what it was meant to do. Once we have done this – and it is not always easy to discover – we usually find that the map serves its intended purpose with fair efficiency.

It is because they are single-purpose maps of this sort, not maps for general reference, that many medieval maps look so odd to us. Certainly we shall go badly astray if we try to assess them as if they were all-purpose general maps, as if it was only limitations of technique that prevented medieval map-makers from drawing the geographical outlines we are familiar with today. Limitations of technique there certainly were; but there were even more profound limitations of concept. Most medieval maps fall within well defined groups or traditions of map-making. If any other sort of map was drawn we ought to see it as an imaginative leap of real originality. It simply did not occur to people in the middle ages to use maps, to see landscape or the world in a cartographic way.

Instead they often produced written descriptions where we would be more likely to draw a map. Rather than plans of fields there would be what are called terriers, describing often many hundreds of individually owned plots and strips one after the other. For journeys there would be itineraries, listing the successive places along the route. Not many of these itineraries survive – probably most were written on scraps of parchment or paper and thrown away once the journey was over – but those we have are of great interest. Among them are the list of churches that Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury visited in Rome when he went there to receive the pallium in 990 and the route he followed on his way home. 

Itinerary of Archbishop Sigeric

11th-century manuscript

This 11th-century manuscript shows a list of the churches at Rome and a list of the places on the way to the English Channel.

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Another is the elaborate 14th-century itinerary which gives routes from Bruges across most of Europe with distances in local measures – leagues in France, miles in Germany, day's journeys in Hungary and so on. Another was drawn up at Titchfield Abbey in Hampshire between 1405 and 1408, listing routes to other houses of the Premonstratensian Order in England. But it needed the imaginative genius of Matthew Paris, 13th-century monk at St Albans, to convert the written itinerary into a strip map, setting out graphically the route from London to Rome with thumbnail sketches of the places on the way.

Itinerary from London to Beauvais

A linear map showing the route from London to Beauvais from Matthew Paris's Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

This section of Matthew Paris' highly original work shows the road from London to Dover and alternative routes from Calais and Boulogne to Reims and Beauvais.

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When people in the middle ages did draw maps it was thus something quite unusual, something alien to their normal way of thinking. There were of course more medieval maps than those that survive, for many must have disappeared in the course of time. But from chance references to maps now lost and from some other indications we can be fairly sure that the maps we have reflect accurately the overall pattern of medieval cartography: the survivors belong to the same groups, were the same sorts of map, as those that have been lost. This leaves us with some difficult questions. How did the maps that were drawn in the middle ages come into being? Where did the idea for a map come from? How was it compiled? Some of the most sophisticated maps of the middle ages had no obvious antecedents, drew on no pre-existing tradition; their authors are anonymous and we know nothing of how they were produced. The earliest sea-charts of the Mediterranean, the grid-map of Palestine, the Gough map of Britain, the scale-plan of Vienna – these are only a few examples of the medieval maps whose origins are wholly mysterious.

One problem hard to resolve is how far medieval maps drew on classical models. Medieval Europe was a society that functioned largely without maps, but the same was not true of Imperial Rome. The Romans seem to have been much more accustomed to maps of every sort than people in the middle ages were. We have quite a number of Roman picture-maps. Outstanding is the mosaic at Madaba in Jordan, a picture-map of Palestine including a view of the walls and colonnaded streets of Jerusalem, but there are others in mosaics, in manuscripts and even on an enamelled cup and painted on a shield. More impressively, Roman land surveyors used maps in their craft, which medieval surveyors did not, and their maps were drawn to scale, the hall-mark of a real understanding of cartography. But besides maps of surveyed fields we have plans of buildings carved on tombs, all drawn to scale, and fragments of a large-scale plan of the whole of Rome, carved on stone early in the 3rd century AD and set up on a public building where it covered a wall some 13 by 18 metres. These show that maps – even the use of scale – were widely understood in the late Roman period; they were not restricted to particular crafts or to groups of officials. The same is probably true of the geographic maps, scale-maps of the known world and its various lands and regions; no examples survive from the Roman period, but we know them through medieval maps which we are confident were copied or derived from them.

Copy of a Roman text on estate surveying

Copy of Corpus Agrimensorum

This page shows the unmeasured pictorial and diagrammatic maps of towns and their surroundings.

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These certainly were not the only Roman maps known to the middle ages. The diagrams and picture-maps that illustrated Roman surveyors’ manuals were still being copied into late medieval manuscripts of these texts. But though much of the cartography of the Roman period was accessible to the middle ages it was only in particular instances or in limited ways that any continuing tradition can be traced. Whatever medieval cartography may have owed to Rome, it certainly did not take over the whole legacy of the classical past to continue to build on this basis: much Roman cartography was lost for a long period or for ever.

Islamic map of the western Mediterranean

Islamic map of the western Mediterranean

This map of the western Mediterranean is typical of medieval Islamic mapping and shows the north-west coast of Africa to the left and southern Spain on the right.

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However, medieval map-makers may have drawn ideas from other sources besides the maps of the Romans. Europe was not entirely insulated from the Islamic world, which had cartographic traditions and styles of its own. These in turn owed something to Roman mapping and perhaps also to maps from China. The Chinese had developed the idea and the technique of mapping to scale by the 3rd century AD and among other maps one of the whole of China, carved on stone in 1137, shows that the skills had not been forgotten by the time of Europe’s middle ages. We know so little of the origins of many medieval maps that we cannot rule out the possibility of any influence, however remote.

This is an updated version of a text first published in P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps, British Library, 1991.

  • P.D.A. Harvey
  • Professor P.D.A. Harvey is a specialist on the economic and social history of Medieval England and the history of cartography.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.