Weird History
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Weird Maps from the Middle Ages

Updated January 11, 2021 1.7k votes 344 voters 32.1k views12 items

List RulesVote up the maps that are so bizarre you wish you had a medieval GPS.

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. 

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    Anglo-Saxon World Map, Circa 1025-1050

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Anglo-Saxon map, made in Canterbury between 1025 and 1050, contains the earliest known realistic depiction of the British Isles. However, it is almost unrecognizable as a world map, in part because it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of other medieval T-O style maps. Like the Tabula Peutingeriana, it recalls a Roman past by using Roman names for the provinces.

    The British Isles are at the bottom left corner of the map, with Jerusalem roughly at the center, again showing the influence of religion on medieval mapmaking. As with many medieval maps, the top is east. Before the 1500s, there was no convention about putting north at the top of maps, and many placed east at the top because Europeans were convinced the biblical Earthly Paradise was in the Far East. 

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    Beatus Map, Circa 776 

    Photo: Beatus of Liébana / WIkimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There are multiple versions of the so-called Beatus map, originally included in an 8th-century Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana. Like the Psalter Map, versions of the Beatus map were included in religious texts in order to illuminate the study of religion.

    The Earthly Paradise is shown at the top of the map, with Adam, Eve, and the serpent all making an appearance. But the map also includes fascinating decorative elements. The waters of the world are filled with fish and boats, and palaces also dot the land. 

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    Hereford Mappa Mundi, Circa 1300

    The Hereford mappa mundi shows what the simplified T-O structure looks like with more geographical details. This map, made around 1300, has been in England’s Hereford Cathedral for 700 years, capturing a medieval view of the world. Medieval and biblical history mingle on the map, which includes over 500 illustrations of people, animals, cities, and towns; 15 biblical events; and an array of strange creatures, odd people, and mythological images. 

    The variety in the Hereford mappa mundi points to its intended use: It is a visual chronicle of knowledge, mixing time and space to stun viewers with the scope of the world. And it’s no mistake that the Hereford mappa mundi is housed in a cathedral - it’s also a religious object meant to educate Christians on their place in the world.

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    Da Ming Hunyi Tu Map, 1389

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In China, medieval mapmakers produced the Da Ming Hunyi Tu, also known as the Composite Map of the Ming Empire, in 1389. The map, a full 15 feet wide, was painted on silk and showed the entire world as known to the Ming. It was also produced at a time of upheaval for China, when the Mongol Yuan rulers had only recently been expelled. In the late 1300s, China balanced between an international outlook, which had been promoted by Mongol rulers, and a more internal focus, promoted by more conservative factions. 

    Much of the knowledge in the Da Ming Hunyi Tu came from China’s many contacts with Muslim cartographers and intellectuals, and the place names on the western borders of the map are derived from Arabic names.

    China would send out the voyager Zheng He to explore the world for nearly three decades in the early 1400s. But after his passing, Ming emperors decided to stop voyages of exploration and focus on China. As they argued, “barbarian” nations offered little of value to China’s prosperity.

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