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Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps

Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps

By David Woodward

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Volume 75, Issue 4 (1985)

Abstract: Medieval mappaemundi carry levels of meaning that have been widely misunderstood. Their compilers have been judged on their ability to show geographical reality structured according to a coordinate system, but the primary function of these maps was to provide illustrated histories or moralized, didactic displays in a geographical setting. That medieval thinkers’ understanding of the physical world has also been underestimated is reflected in the frequently repeated views that most medieval scholars thought the earth was flat or that Jerusalem should be shown at its center. This paper challenges these commonly held views in the light of recent reinterpretations in art history and the history of cartography. Several themes are explored, including the type of reality represented by the maps, the way the map center changed as the Middle Ages developed, and the relationship between concepts of the earth’s sphericity and the graphic constraints on the mappaemundi. Finally, the study suggests ways in which we can learn from this genre of maps. We need to evaluate the achievements of the Middle Ages on their own terms and in the context of their purpose. More specifically for cartography, the mappaemundi show that maps may also consist of historical aggregations or cumulative inventories of events in addition to representing objects that exist cosynchronously in space.

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