Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
M. B. Synge

Mediaeval Maps

W E cannot pass from the subject of mediæval exploration without a word on the really delightful, if ignorant, maps of the period, for they illustrate better than any description the state of geography at this time. The Ptolemy map, summing up all the Greek and Roman learning, with its longitudes and latitudes, with its shaped continents and its many towns and rivers, "indicates the high-water mark of a tide that was soon to ebb."

With the decline of the Roman Empire and the coming of Christianity we get a new spirit inspiring our mediæval maps, in which Jerusalem, hitherto totally obscure, dominates the whole situation.

The Christian Topography  of Cosmas in the sixth century sets a new model. Figures blowing trumpets representing the winds still blow on to the world, as they did in the days of Ptolemy, but the earth is once more flat and it is again surrounded by the ocean stream. Round this ocean stream, according to Cosmas, is an outer earth, the seat of Paradise, "the earth beyond the ocean where men dwelt before the Flood."


The Turin map of the world, eighth century.

Although these maps of Cosmas were but the expression of one man's ideas, they served as a model for others.

There is, at Turin, a delightful map of the eighth century with the four winds and the ocean stream as usual. The world is divided into three—Asia, Africa, and Europe. Adam and Eve stand at the top; to the right of Adam lies Armenia and the Caucasus; to the left of Eve are Mount Lebanon, the river Jordan, Sidon, and Mesopotamia. At their feet lie Mount Cannel, Jerusalem, and Babylon.

In Europe we find a few names such as Constantinople, Italy, France, Britannia and Scotland are islands in the encircling sea. Africa is suitably represented by the Nile.

Of much the same date is another map known as the Albi, preserved in the library at Albi in Languedoc. The world is square, with rounded corners; Britain is an island off the coast of Spain, and a beautiful green sea flows round the whole.

An example of tenth-century map-making, known as the Cottoniana or Anglo-Saxon map, is in the British Museum. Here is a mixture of Biblical and classical knowledge. Jerusalem and Bethlehem are in their place and the Pillars of Hercules stand at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. The British Isles are still distorted, and quantities of little unnamed islands lie about the north of Scotland. In the extreme east lies an enormous Ceylon; in the north-east corner of Asia is drawn a magnificent lion with mane and curling tail, with the words around him: "Here lions abound." Africa as usual is made up of the Nile, Alexandria at its mouth, and its source in a lake.

There is another form of these early maps. They are quite small and round. They are known as T-maps, being divided into three parts—Europe, Asia, and Africa. Jerusalem is always in the centre, and the ocean stream flows round.

After the manner of these, only on a very large scale, is the famous Mappa Mondi,  by Richard of Haldingham, on the walls of the Hereford Cathedral of the thirteenth century. Jerusalem is in the centre, and the Crucifixion is there depicted. At the top is the Last Judgment, with the good and bad folk divided on either side. Adam and Eve are there, so are the Pillars of Hercules, Scylla and Charybdis, the Red Sea coloured red, the Nile and the Mountains of the Moon, strange beasts and stranger men.


The Kaiser holding the world.

With the Hereford map came in that pictorial geography that makes the maps of the later Middle Ages so delightful.

"This is indeed the true way to make a map," says a modern writer. "If these old maps erred in the course of their rivers and the lines of their mountains and space, they are not so misleading as your modern atlas with its too accurate measurements. For even your most primitive map, with Paradise in the east—a gigantic Jerusalem in the centre—gives a less distorted impression than that which we obtain from the most scientific chart on Mercator's projection."