How to Read Medieval Maps: A neglected source for answers on many different questions (12th to 16th c.)

Course Description: 

Cartography as a means to graphically represent the physical earth for all sorts of purposes and including many different layers of additional meaning developed, as much as we can tell from our sources, in Latin Europe mostly in the later Middle Ages. We have world maps (mappae mundi) and drawings we might call regional maps or plans already from the early and High Middle Ages; in the 13th c. maps of coast lines (Portolan, Portulan maps) were developed. In the 15th c. the “Geography” by Claudius Ptolemaios (2nd c. AD) was translated into Latin, his maps were constructed according to his detailed instructions, and partly altered according to more recent information. We also find the first (preserved) globe from 1492/ 93 – at a time, when the backside of the earth (whose spherical shape had never been forgotten) became interesting and new ways to more or less known land (an indavertedly to completely new land) were searched and found.

On the first glance, most medieval maps cannot serve the purpose maps are – from a very modern perspective – made for; they seem to be very poor attempts by rather inept cartographers because you cannot travel with (most of) them – and they are, therefore, very often not taken seriously by geographers. But taking them seriously as products of their time that served the purposes they were actually made for very well can give us a whole range of interesting insights, as rich sources for geographical and ethnographical information, into medieval world view, into medieval realities, into contemporary contexts of “practical” representations of nature. Not the least they are – by transforming the history of salvation into a geography of salvation – one of the frameworks into which medieval authors could put forward their interpretation of world order and programs for changing it.

Course goals: Medievalcartography (in all its manifestations) counts among the fields of medieval history that have been widely ignored and are still marginal, except for specialist approaches. Not the least, it suffers from prejudices according to which medieval maps are no “real” maps, not willing or able to deal with “reality” – which only changed when the supposedly deep cut of the outbreak of modernity around 1500 created a completely new idea about the usage of maps. Medieval maps are made for transdisciplinary approaches: .They are diagrammatic combination of text and image creating a third medium that is on one hand very suggestive, on the other hand hermeneutically challenging. The hermeneutic challenge is enforced by the fact that medieval mapmakers, depending on the specific type of map they were dealing with, seem to have been aware of the fact that they were representing God’s creation and therefore created works that have to be read on several levels of meaning, not the least according to the four sensus scripturae.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will learn to find and work with sources they usually have rarely considered or even have considered but could not understand in their full meaning. They will be encouraged to approach medieval thinking seemingly very far from our own or at least, from what is generally considered reasonable in modern societies.

It is possible for any participant who would like to present ideas about maps/ a specific map to contact me in order to schedule such a presentation.


A) It is required to follow the course and participate in the discussions during classes (50 % of grade)

B) It is required to prepare the sources and chose one – or one that is dealing with a comparable subject in a comparable length (a choice will be prepared, but ideas from the side of the students are very welcome) – in order to prepare a translation and a short (2 pages) interpretation in written form by the end of the seminar (both 25 % of grade each).