Medieval maps look nothing like modern ones. And that’s not just because geographical knowledge and cartographic techniques were different in the medieval period. Medieval maps served specific purposes, and the goal wasn’t always getting from point A to point B. These may look like weird medieval maps to us, but they were valuable objects in the Middle Ages.
These strange maps, which stamp the head of Jesus Christ on the world, or show the location of the Earthly Paradise, often served religious purposes. Medieval cartography was an art form, and maps often manipulated size or features to emphasize a moral message.
Medieval maps carry a message that many of us can understand today - and remind us that beliefs about the world are constantly changing.
T-O Map From Isidore Of Seville's 'Etymologies,' Circa 600
Many medieval world maps followed the same general style, known as the T-O map. These maps showed the three known continents in a T-shape, ringed by an O of water - sort of like the Trivial Pursuit wedge of the world. This simplified version of a medieval world map emphasizes the simple shape of the world in its lines.
Asia is shown at the top of the map, with Europe and Africa below. The Mediterranean, the Nile, and the River Don make up the water separating the continents.
This style of map, which didn’t prioritize accuracy, was meant to highlight the harmonious balance between the continents. It was also clearly a religious map: Jerusalem was at the center, and mapmakers often included religiously significant items, such as Noah’s Ark or the Earthly Paradise.22562Is this weird?
Psalter World Map, Circa 1265
Just in case the religious nature of the map isn’t clear, the Psalter Map, made in the 1260s, drives the point home by placing a giant image of Jesus on top. This small map, measuring only 6.6 inches high, was painted in a 13th-century copy of the Book of Psalms. In addition to Jesus holding court over the world, the Psalter Map places a large bull's-eye over Jerusalem at the center.
Mythical monstrous people inhabit the right side of the map, while the Red Sea is actually painted red. But these monsters are not just figments of the unknown mapmaker’s imagination: they are based on classical texts like Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny claimed a North African tribe was “said to have no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in the breasts.” Here, Pliny’s classical tales mix with biblical knowledge on one map.16044Is this weird?
Tabula Peutingeriana, 1265
The Tabula Peutingeriana, an itinerary map, is a reproduction of a Roman map, showing the highways of the Roman world all the way from England to Sri Lanka. It isn’t to scale and manipulates space to show the road system. Pictured are stopping places, prominent towns, and mountain ranges.
The Tabula Peutingeriana is also massive at 22 feet in length. At that size, it wouldn’t be useful for a road trip, but with 555 cities and 3,500 place names, it is a chronicle of Rome’s reach.
The map’s geographic information dates back to before at least 79 AD, since you can spot Pompeii. The original map has been lost, but we still have a copy thanks to a monk who reproduced it on 11 scrolls in 1265.15455Is this weird?
Itinerary Map By Matthew Paris, Circa 1250s
At first glance, this medieval itinerary map by Matthew Paris doesn’t even look like a map. Instead, it’s a line of castles and buildings crossed by red text and blue waves. The map charts a route from London to the Holy Land, highlighting all the sights along the way. The mapmaker included rivers and hills, alternate routes, and places to stop on a religious pilgrimage.
At the bottom left of the map, you can see Matthew Paris’s depiction of London as a thick city wall ringing a blue church.
Like many medieval maps, this one was not intended to be carried on the road. It was an expensive work of art that may have been used for an imagined pilgrimage - one where the pilgrim never had to leave England.10135Is this weird?