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Cartography in the Middle Ages

by Meliora Leuedai de Ardescote

(in progress - trouble converting from PowerPoint)

1. Pre-period mapmaking:

Cartography evolved independently in many cultures (Europe, Asia, Americas, Islands). Maps from ancient times were made from clay, stone, shells, fabric, paper, sticks, bark, shells or other materials. The oldest surviving functional map is a Mesopotamian clay tablet from 2800 B.C., which shows the location of an estate (see photo right). (there is a cave drawing from approximately 6500 B.C. which shows the layout of a city)


Romans surveyed and created road maps for travel and war. The Roman “Orbis Terrarum” is the circular fore-runner to the T-O map. See photo of reproduction of Orbis Terrarum (Right) and the 13th Century reproduction of a 1st Century Roman road map (below).


Greeks possessed maps from as early as 494/499 B.C., proved by the writings of Herodotus, Aristophanes and Aelian. Greeks believed that the world was round, and they defined the poles, tropics, equator and degrees. Erastothenes (276-196 B.C.) the Cyrenian head of the Alexandria Museum Library attempts to measure the circumference of the Earth - despite errors he is only off by about 16% - see Erastothenes map (below).

Claudius Ptolemy (90-160 A.D.) is perhaps the most famous ancient Cartographer. A compiler, Ptolemy is the first to recount the rules of scientific mapmaking. He knew that sphere distortion occurred on a flat map, and believed in scale and proportioning. Ptolemy’s beliefs were lost to Europe in 391 A.D., when Christians burned the Alexandrian Library. Preserved by the Arab world, they were rediscovered and employed in the mid 15th Century - see recreation of the Ptolemaic Map (below).

2. Period Mapmaking

T-O Maps - popular from 7th/9th Century to at least the mid-1300’s. Earliest known Christian maps are symbolic, not functional. They were used to illustrate scriptural theory The circular “O” maps divide the world into 3 continents separated by the Mediterranean, Nile and Don Rivers, which form a “T” - see photo (right). Jerusalem is at the center, East is “Up.”