Mapping in the Fifteenth Century

A guest incunabula blog post by Patrick J. Murray
Patrick J. Murray is a researcher at the University of Glasgow in the College of Arts. He has just completed a PhD on early modern cartography.

The ongoing work by the Library’s Incunabula Project is currently being showcased in the Ingenious Impressions exhibition at the University’s Hunterian Art Gallery. Among the many exhibits on show is a coloured illustration from the Rudimentum novitiorum (‘Handbook for beginners’) published in 1475 by Lucas Brandis which ostensibly depicts the geography of the Holy Land.

Rudimentum Novitiorum (Sp Coll Hunterian By.1.12)

Rudimentum Novitiorum (Sp Coll Hunterian By.1.12)

Yet it also presents a challenge to any preconceptions regarding what maps should look like. Consider firstly its composition. The orientation of a map is understood as ‘the relationship between the directions on the map and the corresponding compass directions in reality’. In 2015, we are used to a north-south orientation, as exemplified by current digitised maps such as Google Maps. However, in the case of the Rudimentum illustration, it is east-west, with the Sea of Galilee at the top and the Mediterranean port of Jaffa at the bottom.

map2Furthermore, the map, as well as depicting a geographical tract, tells stories. It is inscribed with narratives taken from Biblical texts: towards the upper right, for example, we can see Moses receiving the tablets of stone from God on Mount Sinai. Tellingly, such pictures are deliberately achronological – the baptism and crucifixion of Christ are both portrayed on the same plane. Lastly, apart from Jerusalem in the centre every city is afforded its own topographical landmark in the shape of a hill emblazoned with the city name, producing an undulating landscape. The synthetic landscape, inclusion of Biblical accounts, and unfamiliar composition present a striking contrast to our modern, 21st century understanding of cartography.

Yet these unusual characteristics are illustrative of the diversity of cartography as a medium of representation in the fifteenth century. As many examples from the Incunabula Project demonstrate, mapping in the period was not just a means of providing an accurate-as-possible representation of the “real” geographical landscape. It was also a way of expressing ideas and telling stories, articulating political, cultural or religious beliefs, and defining our relationship to the land.

De origine et laudibus scientiarum (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.14)

De origine et laudibus scientiarum (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.14)

Two other cartographic images taken from the collection show how maps are a medium of ideas as well as geographical representation. Included in De origine et laudibus scientiarum (1496) by the cosmographer Zacharius Lilius is a diagram of weather systems entitled ‘Figura Duodecim Ventorum’ (‘figure of the twelve winds’). The figure depicts the world surrounded by the ‘twelve winds’ of the sky, a notion originating from ancient Mesopotamian thinkers. As with the map from Brandis’s text, the orientation is east-west or ‘oriens-occidens’.

However, the map of the world lacks any topographical detail. Instead, it is a circle divided into three, each section connoting the three major known landmasses of the known world – Asia, ‘Aphrica’ and ‘Europa’. This form of cartography, known as T-O projection, is perhaps the most common type of medieval mapping and features in the famous Hereford mappae mundi. For a modern map reader, the image appears very simplistic. In comprising only three continents, the ‘Figura’ evidences the widespread lack of knowledge of the lands of New World until late into the fifteenth century. However, despite such apparent ignorance of the world’s topography, the map reveals the fundamentally Christian fifteenth century world view. The centre of the globe is placed at Jerusalem. At the cross of the two lines of the T, this location serves as the hub of the world’s landmass, with the three continents encircling and converging on the birthplace of Christ. As with the map in the Rudimentum, religious ideas inform the science of cartography as Christian notions of the construction of the universe percolate through the seemingly-neutral science of mapping. Presenting a map centred on Jerusalem is not just an aesthetic conceit. Instead it emblematizes how fifteenth century cartographers sought not only to present an image of the ‘real’ world, but also an image of a profoundly Christ-centred and Christian-inflected cosmos.

Cosmographia (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.21)

Cosmographia (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.21)

While the cartographies of Rudimentum and De origine present images of the geography imbued with an overtly religious narrative, Pomponius Mela’s Cosmographia (1482) delineates a much more familiar image of the world to 21st century eyes. There is a more familiar topographic layout and north-south orientation. In addition, the curvilinear composition accords with our own understanding of the shape of the earth and the curves of latitude that encircle the globe’s geography. Nonetheless, Mela’s map is interesting because it indicates the co-existence of descriptive maps and religious maps in the period – Mela’s work, like that of his fellow Classical Age mapper Ptolemy, was being rediscovered in Europe by the time of the fifteenth century. As a result, mapping was not marked solely by pursuit for greater accuracy. While geographic knowledge of the world was growing in the late medieval and early modern period, the existence of allegorical and narrative maps such as those included in texts by Lilius and Brandis show the diversity of fifteenth century cartography.

In this brief blog I have looked at only three examples from the Special Collections incunabula. By examining this rich archive of cartographical material more closely, we can gain a greater understanding of the diverse ways in which fifteenth century mappers viewed themselves in relation to their surroundings, the world and the universe.

Further reading

  • J. B. Harley The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography, ed. Paul Laxton with an introduction by J. H. Andrews (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
  • The History of Cartography, Volume Three, Part 1: Cartography in the European Renaissance, ed. David Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)
  • Keith D. Lilley, ‘Mapping medieval geographies’, Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600, ed. Keith D. Lilley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-20

Categories: Special Collections

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2 replies


  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #45 | Whewell's Ghost

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