Map of Scotland by John Harding

Medieval maps of regions

P.D.A. Harvey explores medieval maps of regions.

In the early 14th century Pietro Vesconte used portolan charts as the basis for a map of Italy. Much earlier a few similarly ingenious persons elaborated some part of a world map to serve as a map of a single region. Among the oldest maps of this sort is one of Asia, drawn at Tournai in the late 12th century as an illustration of works of Jerome. Again in the 12th century one of the earliest manuscripts of Lambert of Saint-Omer's encyclopaedia contains not only the usual circular world map but also a quadrant-shaped map which is in fact the first map of Europe by itself that is known to us. It is not simply a section of Isidore of Seville's world map drawn large – it has been elaborated with detail drawn from other sources. Alternatively, it may be that these maps of Asia and Europe derive directly from older regional maps and that we should see them as relics of regional mapping in the Roman period.

Tournai map of Asia

12th-century copy of map of Asia

This 12th-century map shows the Black Sea and Anatolia disproportionately large and at the top extends beyond India.

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However, the four mid-13th-century maps of Britain drawn by Matthew Paris certainly had two world maps as their starting-points: three are based on one, the fourth on another. Even the three differ in detail, but they all represent an attempt – indeed, an extraordinarily successful attempt – to build up a map of Britain from its outline on world maps closely related to the Cotton map. As on the Cotton map there is a broad bay in the south-east corner of England, the Cornish peninsula is emphasised, the rest of the west coast of Britain is dominated by just two protrusions and two deep indentations, so that Galloway adjoins north Wales, and the north coast of Scotland sweeps in a gentle but indented curve from south-west to north east. Some at least of the rivers may have come from the same source: they are sufficiently like the English rivers on the Hereford map to raise the possibility of a common origin. That Matthew Paris's maps derived from maps of the world is confirmed by the curved top left border of two of them reflecting Britain's position at the edge of a curved world map, and by the notes or coastal outlines, also on two of the maps, of neighbouring lands – Britain is not viewed in isolation.

Matthew Paris's map of Britain

Matthew Paris's Map of Britain

The most detailed of Matthew Paris's four maps of Britain; note the river system and the two walls across the country in northern England and southern Scotland.

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Within his outline Matthew Paris set quite a variety of features drawn from other sources. Central to all four maps is an itinerary, drawn as a straight line, from Newcastle to London and Dover, passing through St Albans, where he was himself a monk. Also included are some places within easy reach of St Albans and another group in north-east England around Tynemouth, where the abbey had a cell, as well as some prominent features whose existence must have been common knowledge – Hadrian's Wall, the Fenlands, the Forest of Dean. Besides these there are some more place-names and natural features, and some topographical notes such as 'A very cold area extending to the north', written on one of the maps in north-east Scotland. Like the authors of some world maps Matthew Paris realised how efficiently a map will convey any information relating to places.

Map of Britain by Matthew Paris, Royal MS 14 C. VII

Maps of Britain by Matthew Paris

Based on a different world map, this is the simplest of Matthew Paris's four maps of Britain.

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John Harding's mid-15th-century map of Scotland is another British regional map with outline derived from world maps – though less obviously so. It is known in three versions, illustrating different copies of his chronicle. Harding was an Englishman; as an 1819 British Museum catalogue put it, he was 'a restless and time-serving character’, whose ‘grand object was to stimulate, at all times, the princes whom he served to the conquest of Scotland'. Thus, unlike Matthew Paris's rather desolate picture of Scotland, he filled his outline with place-names and cities, giving a view of busy prosperity. This gives it particular interest as an early example of a map drawn for political purposes; but in the history of cartography it is less remarkable than the Gough map of Britain, which was drawn in several stages in about 1400, copying an existing map or maps.

Map of Scotland by John Harding

Map of Scotland by John Harding

John Harding's 15th-century map of Scotland uses pictorial symbols to show castles, churches and towns; west is at the top.

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Much of the Gough map's outline also stems from world maps, but the south and east coasts of England must have been taken from an up-to-date portolan chart. However, the map's greatest interest lies in what it shows inland, an elaborately drawn river system on which many towns, and some lesser settlements, are correctly placed. Red lines mark some routes between places, with notes of distances, but this has not been done systematically and there seems to have been no attempt to maintain a consistent scale. Even so, the Gough map is an extraordinary production, hinting at cartographic principles then unknown outside the Mediterranean. It is the more extraordinary in that we know nothing of its origin or its use; we do not even know who owned it before 1768, when it belonged to the Suffolk antiquary Thomas Martin (Richard Gough, after whom it is named, bought it when Martin's collection was sold).

The Gough map

Acquired by Richard Gough in 1774, the Gough Map of the British Isles is remarkable in its detail and in showing Britain with an outline not so far from what we recognise today.

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Held by© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Maps of Asia and Europe may have taken Roman regional maps rather than world maps as their starting point and so may some of the medieval maps of Palestine, the Holy Land – indeed, this is one part of the Roman world from which a regional map actually survives in the Madaba mosaic. Medieval maps of Palestine are very varied. Some show Jerusalem on a vastly larger scale than the rest of the country and one can see these either as regional maps or as plans of the city with the names and directions of other places simply as an adjunct. On the other hand, one of Matthew Paris's two maps of Palestine (this one exists in three versions) is dominated by its plan of Acre; when he drew it in the mid-13th century this was the principal town still in the hands of the crusaders.

Depiction of Constantinople, from Christoforo Buondelmonte, ‘Liber Insularum’

Depiction of Constantinople copied from Christoforo Buondelmonte's ‘Liber Insularum Archipelago’.

A map from Cristoforo Buondelmonti's Book of Islands, dated 1485, showing Constantinople. 

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Another group of regional maps derived from portolan charts, those in the books of islands, or isolarii. These were travel books, giving interesting information – mythical, historical, geographical – about the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, and the account of each island was illustrated with a map. The earliest we know was written about 1420 by the Florentine Cristoforo Buondelmonti, who described his own journeys in a book addressed to his patron, Cardinal Giordano Orsini at Rome. It seems to have initiated an entire genre: other isolarii were being written and copied or printed for another two hundred years. Certainly Buondelmonti's book was very popular and widely read, for it survives in many 15th-century manuscripts. Portolan charts probably provided the coastal outline for the maps in the book, but on all but the smallest islands internal features are shown, even in some detail – mountains, rivers and settlements, with thumbnail pictures of the principal buildings and towns. These were presumably the work of Buondelmonti himself, who must have sketched maps and pictures of the place he visited and described. In all they are an impressive achievement of regional cartography in the early 15th century.

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

Liber secretorum fidelium cruces by Marino Sanudo. c. 1321.

This map of Palestine by Pietro Vesconte is divided into squares of one league or two miles with towns and cities located in their relative position on the grid. This map accompanied a work by the Venetian author Marino Sanudo entitled Liber secretorum fidelium crucis.

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One of the most interesting of the medieval maps of Palestine was drawn by Pietro Vesconte of Venice in about 1320. In its purpose it was like Harding's map of Scotland: it illustrated a book by Marino Sanudo that urged a new crusade to reconquer the Holy Land, now entirely lost to the Christians. Cartographically, however, it was far more sophisticated than Harding's map, though a century older. It is covered with a network of squares, and the accompanying text explains that each represents one league or two miles; every town is placed in the appropriate square and – confirming the picture presented by the map – the text identifies the square where each town is to be found. The rivers and mountains were drawn in with less precision and they differ somewhat in the seven surviving copies of the book. This may seem to us an entirely normal and rational way to set out a map, but in the 14th century it represented an enormous conceptual leap, and confirms that Vesconte was a man of skill and imagination. Where he (or Sanudo) got the necessary information – the list locating the towns – we do not know; both this and the grid may derive from Arab sources, and a more remote connection with grid-based maps in China is not impossible.

However, some medieval regional maps owed nothing to classical models and drew neither their inspiration nor their coastal outlines from world maps or portolan charts. In north Italy a distinctive tradition of regional maps grew up in the later middle ages, a tradition that seems to have been independent of any outside source or precedent. More than a dozen of these maps survive, and there are contemporary references to others that are now lost. The earliest dates from 1291, but most are of the 15th century. Some are of quite a small area, such as one of Lake Garda, some are of broader scope and two cover the whole of Lombardy. They are in varied styles; what was peculiar to north Italy was the idea of drawing regional maps of any sort, not a tradition of drawing them in a particular way. Several of the 15th-century maps are of area centred on an important city – Brescia, Verona, Padua – drawn disproportionately large; often roads are prominently shown and distances given. Some of these may have been among the maps of Venetian territories that we know were drawn in the 1460s for the governing council at Venice, possibly Europe's first use of maps for administrative and military planning. They may well have contributed to our few 15th-century maps of the whole of Italy; on the largest of these there are many more internal features than on the maps in Paolino Veneto's work a century earlier, and it is in north Italy that most detail is shown.

An anonymous map of Italy

An anonymous map of Italy

This detailed 15th-century map of Italy is called a 'modern map' distinguishing it from the work of Ptolemy.

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Like these maps of Italy, the maps of Germany attributed to Nicholas of Cusa were – as we have seen – constructed in a framework of geographical coordinates. How these were calculated we do not know, nor how the detailed features were entered on the maps. It is much clearer what technique was used by Erhard Etzlaub of Nuremberg for his two printed maps that cover Germany and north Italy, one published probably in 1500, the other in 1501: their internal detail seems to have come from careful measurement of many routes, their directions and distances. Roads on the maps are marked by series of dots, each corresponding to one German mile, and at the foot are instructions explaining how the map can be oriented by placing a compass on it. The compass was of course essential in constructing these maps, and it is significant that Etzlaub was himself a compass-maker. The use of the compass on land was spreading in the 15th century; a compass was, for instance, an essential component of the pocket sundials that seem to have come widely into use in this period.

‘Romweg’ map of central Europe by Erhard Etzlaub

‘Romweg’ map of central Europe by Erhard Etzlaub

On this map published in Nuremberg in the jubilee year of 1500, dotted lines show the roads to Rome; south is at the top.

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In a sense these measured itinerary maps achieved on land what the portolan charts had achieved in maritime mapping two centuries earlier: every journey followed a route exactly drawn to scale. On land, where routes followed a limited number of roads, most travellers' needs would be adequately met by a written itinerary or by a simple itinerary map, with distances entered but not drawn to scale, such as some of the 15th-century maps from north Italy. Drawing the itineraries to scale was of course an improvement, enabling distances to be assessed along routes unpredicted by the map-maker, but this need not have been seen as essential to a good road map. At sea, on the other hand, where a ship might follow any of an infinite number of routes, the map would have to be drawn to scale if it was to offer any real guidance at all on distances. It is not surprising that sea charts were drawn to scale so much earlier than land maps.

Etzlaub also published in 1492 a smaller regional map constructed in the same way as his maps of Germany with north Italy; it took the form of a circle, centred on Nuremberg, with a radius of 16 German miles. South Germany was one area that led the way in the growing understanding  of cartography, so that in the course of the next century knowledge and use of maps had spread throughout Europe. But it was at quite a late stage in this process that scale-maps like Etzlaub's would be widely understood and used. They were among the most sophisticated maps of their time, and contemporaries may well have found it easier to understand the strange panoramic maps of the four quarters of Germany that were published in 1502, also at Nuremberg, in a book by Konrad Celtes, humanist scholar and Germany's first poet laureate. When we look at local maps we see still more clearly how the idea of drawing maps spread only slowly and was grasped with difficulty in late medieval Europe.

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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