Medieval Maps

As discussed elsewhere with regard to the realms of poetry and memory, the medieval mind had a far different character than the modern, scientific mind. The medieval mind was not concerned with objective representation, but rather subjective representation. In maps, therefore, images of people are central and the depiction of physical space and geography was secondary to the depiction of important figures and places. Jerusalem, because of its importance to religion, was usually central in these images.


Abraham Cresques, Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375

This is a medieval map created by Abraham Cresques. One of Cresques’ contemporaries called him a “master of mappaemundi.” A mappa mundi refers to any European map of the world. As mentioned above, this map was not meant to be navigational, but rather representative of important ideas, principles, people, and places.

Portolan Maps

Pedro Reinel, Portolan Chart, 1504

As Portolan (Medieval Latin portulanus, an adjective derived from portus meaning “harbor, port”) charts became more popular, the practical use of maps became more widespread and the creation of mappaemundi began to fade. Portolan charts, also called harbour-finding charts, compass charts, or rhumb charts, widely considered the beginning of professional cartography, were based on the descriptions of coasts and ports and were meant as guides for European waters. They are characterized by their use of rhumb lines, or curved lines crossing all meridians of longitude at the same, non-right angle. These lines helped navigators find true north. The nautical chart below depicting Europe and North Africa is dated to 1504.

Ptolemaic Maps

World map from Ptolemy, Geographia, by Lorenz Fries, 1522.

Ptolemaic maps depict what was known of the world at the time of Ptolemy, an important 2nd century geographer. These maps only began being published in the 15th century because Ptolemy’s Geographia was not translated from Greek into Latin until 1407 (much of the knowledge of the Greeks was lost until around the same time). Geographia‘s first translator was Jacopo d’Angelo da Scarperia, and he dedicated his Latin translation to Pope Gregory XII. The manuscript was widely popular but also widely criticized. Many translations of Ptolemy’s Geographia came out across the two centuries following d’Angelo’s.