How were medieval maps drawn centuries before aerial imagery and triangulation?

How were medieval maps drawn centuries before aerial imagery and triangulation?

A world map and a map of Great Britain drawn in the 12th and 13th centuries may at first appear primitive, but the identifiable outlines of the landmasses we know today are remarkable.

How did early cartographers manage to visualize the countries and continents on which they stood on such a scale?

By talking to people and reading history.

The map of Great Britain was drawn by English monk Matthew Paris in the 1250s.  Apart from a year-long mission that took him to an abbey in Norway, and possibly a period of study in Paris in his youth, he spent most of his adult life in the Abbey of St Alban and did not travel much further than the occasional visit to the royal court in nearby London.

Matthew Paris was, first and foremost, a historian.  His chief work, the ‘Chronica Major’, chronicled events from the creation of the world until 1259, the year he died.  His map of Great Britain was intended to complement to his chronicle of English history.

The map is mainly delineated by rivers and coastlines on a north-south axis and names over 250 cities, towns, hills and rivers.

London is depicted the country’s largest city, and Windsor Castle is shown upstream on the banks of the River Thames.  The county of Norfolk is given its literal name “North Folk” after the Angles who settled in the region.  Further north, the city of York is known by one of its Latinised versions “Eburaci”, which would have sounded familiar to Roman ears.

The border between England and Scotland is clearly marked by the 73 mile long Hadrian’s Wall, built between 122 and 130 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  Further north is depicted the Antonine Wall, built by Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius.  The extent of Scotland’s rivers Clyde and Forth are exaggerated, and the top of the country (Scocia Ultra Marina – Scotland beyond the sea) is joined to the rest of the British mainland by a bridge at Stirling (‘Estriuelin pons’).

Paris drew on information gathered by travellers and possibly a now long lost map produced by the Romans, who made the first strides in discovering the true shape of the British Isles under their occupation.  He may also have drawn on the 2nd century account of Egyptian geographer Ptolemy.  Ptolemy’s 7-volume work on the geography of the known world around 150 AD devotes a chapter to ‘Albion island of Britannia’ and describes his seaborne travels around Britain’s prominent coastal features and river estuaries, although none of his maps survive either.

Matthew Paris’ 13th century map of Great Britain, alongside modern map – click on image to enlarge


The map produced by Arab geographer Muhammed Al-Idrisi is even more remarkable than Matthew Paris’ – not only is its scale much bigger, it is also a century older.

Al-Idrisi was born in Morocco and spent his life widely travelling across North Africa and Europe, including Spain, Portugal, the Pyrenees, the French Atlantic coast, England and Hungary.

His map of the then known world was drawn for Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily, and covered an atlas of 70 double-page spreads.  The Tabula Rogeriana, as the map became known was completed by Al-Idrisi in 1154, following 15 years of work at Roger II’s court.

As well as drawing on his travels, Al-Idrisi incorporated the knowledge of Islamic merchants and explorers to depict Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East, as well as accounts of Norman voyagers familiar with the coastlines of Europe and the Middle East, an account by the Muslim admiral Ahmad ibn Umar who may have sailed the Atlantic as far as Bermuda.  King Roger himself enthusiastically interviewed travellers passing through his kingdom.

As well as the map, Al-Idrisi produced a detailed compendium of geographical information titled ‘The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands’, which also credits the ancient work of Ptolemy amongst its many sources.

The book contained all available data on the location and climate of the world’s main centers of population; it also presented the world as a sphere and calculated its circumference to be 22,900 miles – an error of less than 10%.  It remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries and inspired many explorers, including Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama.

Muhammed Al-Idrisi's 12th century map of the known world, with modern satellite image
Muhammed Al-Idrisi’s 12th century map of the known world, with modern satellite image


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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015