Top 5 Medieval Maps of England: The Art and Science of Ancient Cartography”

The history of cartography, or map-making, is a fascinating journey that tells us much about how people understood their world in the past. Medieval maps of England are particularly intriguing because they blend art, science, religion, and myth. These maps provide valuable insights into medieval society, culture, and beliefs. In this article, we will explore the art and science of medieval cartography in England, examining some notable maps of medieval English towns and the techniques used to create them. Let’s have a look at the medieval England timeline with ancient cartography. 

People used animal skin, kind of like fancy leather, as their paper. They drew lines and symbols with ink made from things like soot (like what comes out of a chimney) or crushed berries. Some maps even have colorful decorations, making them look really cool! Back then, people didn’t have fancy tools to measure distances exactly. So, the sizes and distances on the maps weren’t always perfect. Instead, the goal was to give a general idea of where things were, like towns, rivers, and mountains, in relation to each other.

Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi by 1025-1050

The Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi refers to a series of medieval maps from England, dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries. These maps are important historical and cultural artifacts, showcasing the geographical knowledge and religious beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon people. They often depict the world as a circle, with Jerusalem at the center and the three known continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa) radiating outward.

Medieval map of England-Mappa Mundi
Mappa Mundi By Anglo-Saxon

These maps are valuable for understanding the worldview of the Anglo-Saxons, as well as their artistic and cartographic skills. These Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi by 1025-1050 maps are also significant in the study of medieval Christianity, as they often include depictions of Biblical events and figures. Although it is highly stylized and not geographically accurate by modern standards, it is an important artifact that shows how early medieval people perceived their surroundings. The Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi places a strong emphasis on religious and mythical elements, reflecting the spiritual and cultural context of the time.

Exploration by Matthew Paris in 1250 AD ( Totius Britanniae Tabula Chorographical )

Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and chronicler, created a series of maps of medieval England with cities. These maps are highly detailed and provide important insights into the geography and political landscape of the time. His maps often included detailed drawings of castles, towns, and other significant landmarks, helping people understand the geography and important places of the time. The “Totius Britanniae Tabula Chorographica,” created by Matthew Paris in the 13th century, is one of the most detailed and significant maps of medieval England cities. This map not only showcases the geographical understanding of the time but also serves as a historical document that reflects the cultural, religious, and political landscape through the England map. 

Exploration by Matthew Paris
Exploration by Matthew Paris

This made the maps not only geographical tools but also educational resources that taught about history and religion. Fortunately, four of his maps have survived and may be found in various English libraries. Even though these maps aren’t perfect by our standards – Jerusalem might be in the middle because that’s what people believed back then, and some unknown areas are empty or have pictures of monsters – they’re still super helpful for historians. They show what England looked like way back when, where towns were, and how rivers flowed.

This exploration by Matthew Paris in 1250 AD included towns, rivers, and even certain topographical features, among other fine details. Paris was an artist as well as a mapmaker. His maps were both aesthetically pleasing and educational since they included wonderful decorative components. Religious narratives were also a key feature, with references to Biblical events and figures. 

Hereford Mappa Mundi in the late 1290s

The Hereford Mappa Mundi is a medieval map of the world, created around 1300 AD on a single sheet of vellum. It is one of the largest and most elaborate medieval world maps known to exist and is rich in detail and symbolism. The  Hereford Mappa Mundi map in the late 1290s is circular in shape and features various geographical, historical, and theological elements. Most people agree that the map was made in the late 1290s by a single person using English Gothic writing. 

Hereford Mappa- Medieval map
Hereford Mappa- Medieval map in 1290

This 13th-century England map is currently housed at Hereford Cathedral in Hereford, England, where it has been on display for centuries. It is a unique and important historical document that provides insight into the medieval worldview and knowledge of the world. The map contains both religious and geographical elements, with Jerusalem being placed at the center and various biblical events depicted throughout.

Medieval England Map in the 14 Century: Portolan Charts

Portolan charts were navigational maps used by medieval sailors in Europe, primarily during the 13th to 17th centuries. These charts were detailed and highly accurate for their time, showing coastlines, ports, harbors, and various navigational aids such as compass roses and rhumb lines. Regarding medieval England, portolan charts would have likely included information about the surrounding seas, neighboring countries, important coastal landmarks, and ports frequented by English sailors and traders. 

Exploration of England by Portolan Charts
Exploration of England by Portolan Charts

These 14th-century maps of England played a crucial role in maritime navigation and trade during this period, enabling sailors to navigate the waters and reach their destinations safely. This map, which is part of a Portolan chart of Western Europe, was drawn in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte. Portolan charts are navigational maps for ship captains. The straight lines that crisscross many portolan charts reflect the thirty-two directions of the mariner’s compass from a specific position, with the primary lines focused toward the magnetic north pole.

Gough Map from 1360-1370

The Gough Map is a medieval map of Great Britain believed to have been created around 1360. It is one of the oldest surviving maps of Britain and provides a unique insight into medieval cartography and the landscape of England during that period. This medieval map is named after its original owner, collector Richard Gough, and is currently housed in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. It is a highly detailed and decorative map showing cities, towns, rivers, and other geographic features of England.

Richard Gough Exploration
Richard Gough Map from 1360-1370

The Gough Map has been the subject of extensive study and research, shedding light on medieval cartography and the way in which people in the Middle Ages viewed and navigated their environment.  It includes detailed information on towns, rivers, and roads, making it an invaluable resource for historians. The Gough Map is also notable for its use of a grid system, which helped improve the accuracy of the depiction of distances and locations.

Exploration of England by Christopher Saxton in the early 16th century         

Christopher Saxton’s map of England and Wales is a pioneering achievement that stands as a testament to the evolution of cartography. While it captures the geography of the Elizabethan era, its roots lie in the medieval tradition of map-making, blending artistic creativity with scientific precision. Saxton’s work not only provided an accurate representation of the landscape but also offered a valuable historical and cultural record. His maps laid the groundwork for future developments in cartography, making them an enduring legacy in the history of English map-making.

Medieval England by Saxton
Medieval England by Saxton

The map includes topographical features such as rivers, mountains, and forests, as well as towns and cities with relative sizes and locations clearly depicted. Major cities like London, York, and Bristol are prominently featured, and county boundaries are clearly delineated for the first time, crucial for administrative purposes. The map is adorned with elaborate decorative borders, coats of arms, and cartouches, which provide historical and political context. The seas are populated with illustrations of ships and mythical sea creatures. Saxton’s use of copperplate engraving allowed for greater detail and consistency in reproduction, making his maps widely accessible. His maps were far more accurate than previous efforts, providing a reliable tool for navigation and planning.

The Legacy of Medieval Cartography

Medieval maps of England are more than just historical artifacts; they are windows into the past that reveal how people in the Middle Ages understood and interacted with their world. The blend of art and science in these maps reflects the medieval mindset, where religion, mythology, and empirical observation coexisted. These medieval maps of England also laid the groundwork for modern cartography. While they may not meet today’s standards of accuracy, they represent significant achievements in the history of map-making. The techniques and knowledge developed by medieval cartographers influenced later generations and helped pave the way for the more precise maps we use today. 

By analyzing the symbols, landmarks, and annotations, historians can glean valuable information about trade routes, travel patterns, and even the development of towns and cities. They not only provided practical information but also offered a visual narrative of the medieval world, reflecting the cultural values and beliefs of the time. These medieval maps serve as invaluable historical documents, revealing insights into the geographic knowledge and societal structures of their era. They highlight the importance of geography in medieval life, from pilgrimage routes to military campaigns, and offer educational insights that help historians. 

Interesting Facts about Medieval England Maps and Cartography 

  • The world beyond England was largely unknown or depicted based on myth and legend. Sea monsters and fantastical creatures often filled the unexplored areas, reflecting the limited geographical understanding of the time.
  • Jerusalem’s centrality and the inclusion of religious imagery showcased the deep faith of the mapmakers and their audience.
  • Medieval maps often used symbols to represent towns, forests, and mountains. These symbols, while not always realistic, conveyed the essence of a place and aided in understanding the map’s layout.
  • Despite their decorative growth, the primary function of many medieval maps remained useful. They were utilized for navigation, land ownership records, and military preparation.
  • England’s medieval Maps often included mythical creatures and fantastical elements. For instance, sea monsters, dragons, and other mythical beings were frequently depicted in the oceans and unexplored regions.
  • Many medieval maps were created by monks and had a strong religious focus. Important biblical events and locations were often highlighted, and religious symbols were prominently displayed.


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