Map of Palestine by Matthew Paris

Medieval local maps

Very few local medieval maps survive. P.D.A. Harvey explores how medieval local maps were created and used.

Most medieval plans of Jerusalem are more diagrammatic than realistic, for they show the city within circular walls, its shape neither in the middle ages nor in antiquity.

Circular plan of Jerusalem

Circular plan of Jerusalem

This 13th-century plan of Jerusalem shows the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple of Solomon, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the River Cedron and the Mount of Olives.

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In the 12th century, when the city was in the hands of the crusaders, we find a map of its principal streets and monuments set more realistically in a parallelogram, and in the early 14th century Pietro Vesconte produced a plan of Jerusalem that was closely based on direct observation. He also produced plans of Antioch and Acre – but in this last he had been anticipated by the vastly disproportionate plan of Acre on Matthew Paris's map of Palestine.

Matthew Paris's itinerary maps from London to Palestine

Map of the Holy Land by Matthew Paris

This 13th-century map of Palestine shows the plan of Acre, disproportionately large, Jerusalem and coastal cities marked by castles and towers.

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The source of Matthew Paris's map is not known; with the camel beside it, it is oddly reminiscent of the stylised Jerusalem on the Ebstorf map. In the 14th and 15th centuries several plans of Jerusalem resulted from pilgrims' visits, culminating in the magnificent bird's-eye view that appears in – indeed, again it wholly dominates – the woodcut map of Palestine accompanying Bernhard von Breydenbach's account of his visit to the Holy Land. This was published in 1486; the view was the work of Erhard Reuwich, an artist from Utrecht whom Breydenbach, himself a canon of Mainz, took with him to record the journey in pictures.

'Liber secretorum fidelium crucis' by Marino Sanudo with maps by Pietro Vesconte

Plan of Jerusalem by Pietro Vesconte

These plans of Jerusalem (left) and Acre (right) by Pietro Vesconte illustrate the work of the Venetian author Marino Sanudo entitled Liber secretorum fidelium crucis.

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This illustrates one important point about medieval local maps, maps of areas personally known to their compilers. What we see are not simple ground plans – detailed features above ground level were drawn pictorially, like the towns on most other medieval maps. These pictures might be realistic or conventional; but it means that we have to see as a map any representation of landscape viewed as though from above the ground, from some point unattainable in reality. It means too that these picture-maps of the middle ages were the ancestors of both the large-scale maps and the bird's-eye views of later ages. It is only in work of the 16th century, when consistent scale began to be applied to local mapping, that it becomes possible to draw a distinction between the two ways of depicting landscape.

We see this in city plans from medieval Italy. These owe nothing to classical models; the earliest we know, of Verona in the 10th century and Rome in the 12th, seem entirely original works. Each is a more or less symbolic representation – pictures of some of the city's more distinctive monuments within conventional walls, akin to the little pictures of London and other towns on Matthew Paris's itinerary. But from this beginning pictorial plans of cities were drawn with ever increasing detail and realism. They are not numerous; Rome has the largest number, and these are based on only half a dozen prototypes. But they include Florence, Milan and several towns outside Italy in the eastern Mediterranean – the plan of Constantinople in Buondelmonti's book of islands belongs to this group. The tradition culminated in the late 15th century with some wholly realistic and very detailed bird's-eye views of which the finest is undoubtedly the view of Venice by Jacopo de' Barbari, printed from wood-blocks in 1500.

View of Venice in 1500

This bird’s eye view by Jacopo de’ Barbari displays Venice at the height of its power.

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An earlier plan of Venice, drawn in the 12th century but known only from later copies, is a true ground-plan, drawn more or less to scale. This, with some other indications, raises the interesting possibility that measured scale-plans, though clearly very rare, were not unknown in the towns of medieval Italy. But the only surviving medieval city plan that specifically accepts the concept of scale – it has a scale-bar – is of Vienna, with a smaller inset plan of Bratislava. We know nothing of how, why or by whom it was drawn nor even to which of the two plans the scale-bar is meant to relate, but it is a mid-15th century copy of an original drawn in about 1422; we may guess at Italian influence or even that it owed something to the geographic work then proceeding at Vienna and Klosterneuburg.

The origin of the plan of Vienna is scarcely more mysterious than the distribution of other local maps and plans in medieval Europe. Even when we count every possible map – the few lines roughly sketched with a couple of place-names, the outline plan of a building, the diagram of part of an estate – very few exist from the 15th century and very few indeed before 1400. From England some 37 in all are known, starting with the mid-12th-century plan of Canterbury Cathedral; they are distributed fairly evenly over the country, with some concentration in eastern England around the Wash. From Ireland, however, we have only a supposed seating plan of the Hall of Tara, and from Wales and Scotland nothing at all. From the Netherlands there are some 17 maps or closely related groups of maps from 1307 onwards, all from a fairly narrow coastal strip stretching from Hilversum to Bruges, but moving further east there is practically nothing – from the whole of Scandinavia, Poland and north Germany we know of only two sketch maps of about 1464 showing lands of the Teutonic Order in Pomerania. However, in southern Germany, France, Italy and Spain more local maps have come to light in recent years and it is likely that before long we shall be able to assess their distribution and chronology in a way that is not possible at present.

Plan of springs at Wormley in Hertfordshire

Plan of springs at Wormley in Hertfordshire

This mid-13th-century copy of a plan drawn in the 1220s illustrates an account of how the three-mile long pipe was laid to the abbey.

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The local maps in any particular area, such as England or the Netherlands, conform to no particular form or style; they are an extraordinary mixture, from the careful bird’s-eye view to the roughly sketched ground-plan. Just as we saw in the regional maps from north Italy, the crucial point was simply the idea of drawing maps, not drawing them in some particular way. We may reasonably ask what it was that led people in these areas occasionally to draw these local maps, but we can only guess the answer. The cause may well have differed from one area to another. Certainly some local maps were drawn to produce in courts of law as illustrative evidence of rights and claims, following the precepts of the Italian legal writer, Bartolo da Sassoferrato; given this impetus, they will sometimes have been drawn for other purposes as well. But there is little to suggest that maps were used before the 16th century in law-courts in England. Here the modest growth of local map-making from the late 14th century onwards may be connected with the way English builders now began to produce plans of new buildings to show their clients; these plans are mentioned in contracts, though only a single example survives. From southern Germany and central Europe on the other hand we have a considerable number of late-medieval building plans, drawn with great care and – unlike the solitary English one – to scale. Unlike the English building plans, however, they were drawn not to show clients but as a working tool, a technique of the builders' craft, and may have been carefully guarded as a trade secret.

The one question we need not ask is why there were so few local plans in the middle ages and none at all over much of Europe. We might conclude that Italy and England were more map-minded than any other parts of the continent, that someone living in the later middle ages would be more likely to come across a map in these two areas than anywhere else. But even here maps were few in number and largely restricted to particular uses by limited groups of people. Maps were practically unknown in the middle ages.

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.

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