Our list of the best medieval maps – ten maps created between the sixth and sixteenth centuries, which offer unique views into how medieval people saw their world. These maps are arranged chronologically, which helps to reveal some of the changes that took place during the Middle Ages in how people created maps.
Madaba Mosaic Map
In 542 AD, a Byzantine church was built at Madaba, Jordan. When it was built, or in the first thirty years after, a large mosaic was laid which depicted the Holy Land with Jerusalem. An earthquake struck Madaba in 746 and the town was abandoned. It was not until 1884 the mosaic was rediscovered.
Only part of the mosaic survives, but it reveals much about the Holy Land. Jerusalem, in particular, is finely detailed, showing streets and buildings.
The T-O Map of Isidore of Seville
Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636) was one of the leading scholars of the Early Middle Ages. Near the end of his life he wrote Etymologiae, a kind of encyclopedia of world knowledge that filled 20 volumes. Among the pages of this work is a map of the world he created. Isidore describes the world this way:
The mass of solid land is called round after the roundness of a circle, because it is like a wheel [...] Because of this, the Ocean flowing around it is contained in a circular limit, and it is divided in three parts, one part being called Asia, the second Europe, and the third Africa.
This type of map, which historians refer to as a T-O map, became the basis for many medieval maps.
The Mappa Mundi of Saint Beatus of Liébana (c.730 – c.800)
Beatus of Liébana was a monk geographer from the Iberian Kingdom of Asturias during the eighth-century. He created this world map around the year 776, basing it on the accounts given by Isidore of Seville, Ptolemy and the Holy Bible.
The original version of this map does not survive, but several copies were made, including the one shown here, which comes from the monastery of St.Sever in France. Some interesting details including placing the Garden of Eden at the end of Asia and locating a fourth continent beyond Africa.
Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1165 or 1166) was born in the north African town of Ceuta but spent much of his early life traveling around the known world, going as far as York in England, Hungary and Anatolia. He settled on the island of Sicily and began working for the Norman King Roger II. In 1154 he created for him the Tabula Rogeriana, which offers a description of the world and over 70 maps of various places. The centre-piece of this book is his world map, which depicts Europe, Asia and the northern part of Africa (the southern part of the world is at the top of the map). Al-Idrisi states that it shows ”the seven climatic regions, with their respective countries and districts, coasts and lands, gulfs and seas, watercourses and river mouths.”
See also: Al-Idrisi and His World Map (1154)
Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain
Matthew Paris (c. 1200 – 1259) is one of the most well-known people from 13th century England. This Benedictine monk wrote many works and illustrated them himself. He also created several maps, including this one of Britain which he drew around 1250. This map features over 250 place names and includes such features as Hadrian’s Wall and Mount Snowdon in Wales. You can read more about this map from the British Library.
Hereford Mappa Mundi
Created around 1290, this large map of the world is another version of the T-O map but much more detailed. Owned by Hereford Cathedral for hundreds of years, they almost sold it off in the 1980s, but a public outcry led to a £3 million donation which created a new home for the map in Hereford.
In his book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Simon Garfield gives his own own vivid description of the Hereford Mappa Mundi: ”The map is frantic – alive with activity and achievement. Once you grow accustomed to it, it is hard to pull yourself away. There are approximately eleven hundred place-names, figurative drawings and inscriptions, sourced from biblical, classical and Christian texts…In its distillation of geographical, historical and religious knowledge the mappa serves as a itinerary, a gazatteer, a parable, a bestiary and an educational aid. Indeed, all history is here, happening at the same time: the Tower of Babel; Noah’s Ark as it comes to rest on dry land; the Golden Fleece; the Labyrinth in Crte where the Minotaur loved. And surely for contemporaries – locals and pilgrims – it must have constituted the most arresting freak show in town. With its parade of dung-firing animals, dog-headed or bat-eared humans, a winged sphinx with a young woman’s face, it seems closer to Hieronymus Bosch than to the scientific Greek cartographers.”
See also: Making a Mappamundi: The Hereford Map
The Vinland Map
Scholars are not sure if this is genuine map from the 15th century, as it was only revealed to the public in 1965 under somewhat suspicious circumstances. But if the map is real, it is the earliest depiction of North America, revealing new details about the Norse settlement of Vinland.
The Maps of Piri Reis
The Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis (ca. 1470 – 1553/4) compiled his Book on Navigation in 1521 – it contains detailed information on navigation, and includes accurate charts and maps of Europe and the Mediterranean area. He included maps of ports such as Istanbul, Venice and Alexandria (which is displayed above). He also produced two maps of the world, the first in 1513 and the second in 1529.
This map was first printed in Venice in 1539 – it was created by the Olaus Magnus, a Swedish ecclesiastical official who lived in Italy from 1524 to his death in 1567. This map of Scandinavia is very large (125 cm tall and 170 cm wide) and is colourfully illustrated with various animals and monsters.
The Gallery of Maps
When visiting the Vatican Museum, one will enter a long hallway known as The Gallery of Maps. The gallery was commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII, with the 40 panels created by Ignazio Danti. They depict Italy and its various regions, including this map of Sicily.