Mappaemundi in the age of GIS

We’re only into week 2 of the M.A. in Public History, but we’re already learning some amazing things about what historians are able to do when they go digital. This week, we were invited to write about our own research interests and how they are intersected by emerging digital technologies. The topic of mapping has been on my mind lately, especially given that we’re going to be learning how to use historical maps and GIS very soon. It struck me that while mapping has proved to be an invaluable resource to digital historians, especially environmental historians, some maps might be better suited to digital manipulation than others. How does a digital historian approach documents that are unique, contain both images and text, are written or drawn in decidedly un-modern ways, or that are created with odd materials like ox hide? All of this is true of the medieval mappamundi, by far the most interesting primary “document” I have ever written about.

Hereford Mappamundi

What good is a computer when faced with the 13th-century Hereford Cathedral mappamundi?

In April I delivered a paper entitled “The World Map, 1200-1500: Cartography and Ideology in the Mappaemundi of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Incidentally, the theme of the conference was “Global Positioning Systems” (interpreted loosely). Although the paper I delivered focused on three case studies, the backbone of my argument was based on my examination of a group of mappaemundi created between 1200 and 1500. I analyzed the features of these maps (shape of the land masses and bodies of water, location of important landmarks, centering, orientation, framing, religious/mythical/historical imagery, rhumb lines, wind roses and more) and noted both their relationships to tradition and their adoption of anything innovative.


In this way I was able to demonstrate that, while world maps did retain many traditional features up to 1500, in the fourteenth century there was an exponential growth in the number of maps made and the number of maps which exhibited new features (like rhumb lines, coastlines derived from sea charts, and so forth). I then used the body of the paper to suggest that these changes were not simply results of new technology that allowed for more geographic accuracy, but that the maps reflect changes in the ways that people conceived of “the world.” In the writing of this paper I depended on technology in a number of ways. Most importantly, I never would have been able to write on this subject at the small university where I pursued my undergrad if I hadn’t been able to view these maps and read secondary material about them online. I also relied on my computer to generate the graph above. But can digital technology be applied to these medieval maps in other ways?

I did notice that some researchers at the Universitat de Bundeswehr Munchen’s Institute for Computer Engineering have done some interesting things with the 1470 “Zeitz” map. (Be warned: this page takes a long time to load.) It is called “Accuracy Examination of Old Maps,” and through a distortion grid overlaid on the map, it does clearly show how and where the map is inaccurate when compared to the physical world. This strikes me as a somewhat pointless, if clever, use of digital technology on this kind of document. I don’t need a computer scientist to tell me that the map is inaccurate. Besides, the map was never made with physical accuracy as the ultimate goal. Such analysis doesn’t tell me who made it, why it was made, or even how it was made. To learn about these things, I have to study the context of its making and try and get inside the mind of the mapmaker(s). A real strength of what this team has done, however, is the version of the map which is over-subscribed, translated and marked up with place-names. Stuff like this (in English) was a life-saver for me, since my knowledge of Latin is admittedly sub-standard. Having parts translated and points identified is also useful when you’re working with documents that are difficult to read due to condition, and you can’t travel to physically examine them. When I first started exploring the topic of mappaemundi, a simple key to the Hereford map found on Wikipedia gave me an impression of its basic structure, even if it didn’t tell me much about the fine details. If I had as much information with me on every map as these researchers have compiled on the Zeitz map, my work would have been much easier. At that point, perhaps I could have even used a collection of distortion grids to better compare how distortion differed from map to map and decade to decade. If only there was a database of digitized medieval maps and corresponding translations, distortion grids and city markers! At that point computers would start to become really handy for mappamundi geeks. (Except in the cases of T-O maps, which represent the world as a “T” shape inside of an “O”…no real reason for distortion grids or place markers there. But I digress.) With handling concerns, ownership issues, translation decisions, and conflicting interpretations, this might be just a nice dream…but then again, with the technology already at our disposal, perhaps such a virtual collection is nearer to the realm of possibility than one might think.

Fra Mauro map

I have no reason for sharing Fra Mauro’s 1450 map with you, other than that it’s gorgeous. Enjoy!


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