Author Topic: A Cartload of Cartography 1: Ancient & Medieval Maps  (Read 1726 times)


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A Cartload of Cartography 1: Ancient & Medieval Maps
« on: August 04, 2018, 08:45:14 PM »
A Cartload of Cartography 1: Ancient & Medieval Maps
By Tar-Palantir

Right, so you’ve worked out how your world should look based on sensible principles of earth and planetary science, so you don’t have things such as your rivers flowing uphill or your mountains forming tessellating hexagons. But, how do you actually design the map?

Fig 1. An idealised T-O type map.
This is rather a big question and really depends what you’re aiming to achieve. Are you aiming to produce something that a notional traveller could actually use to navigate or more of a pictorial overview of the world? Are you trying to show the whole thing, or are you leaving convenient unmapped bits round the edges to expand into later on? What’s the in-universe source of your map – is it something that might have been drawn from memory by one of the characters, or is it from the equivalent of the Ordnance Survey or NASA? These are all things you probably want to think about before making your map. But, to help you out with answering them, I’ll run through a bit of terrestrial cartographic history to show what sort of styles you might want to consider, assuming the main factor in your choice of style is the nominal broad historical era you envisage your world occupying. The bias will inevitably be somewhat eurocentric, but I’ll say a bit about other civilisations too.

Maps from Antiquity and the early Medieval age are very rarely maps in the way we think of them. From the 6th century through to the High Middle Ages, the main driving force behind the production of maps in Europe was the Church. As such, the point of a map was to show the world in a way that supported Christian theology and teaching. The actual geography was a rather secondary aspect. This of course makes good sense – in an age when most of the population were illiterate, having a big picture that showed a lot of Biblical stories was an invaluable teaching aid.

Fig 2. Part of 'Tabula Peutingeriana'
The earliest maps in this vein were the simple T-O kind (Figure 1), that showed the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa bisected  by the Mediterranean (the stem of the T) and the Nile and Don (the crossbar), all encircled by the Ocean river (the O). Jerusalem was at the centre. Towns and cities of Biblical and current political importance might also be marked, but it was mainly a pretty simple schematic depiction of the world. These later evolved into the very elaborate mappa mundi (Figure 3) that essentially embodied the same principle, but with more random artistic representations of medieval and Biblical legends, such as Prester John, the wall Alexander built to keep out Gog and Magog, blemmyes and so on. So, if you’re aiming for this sort of feel, try to come up with a simplified geometric pattern that sketches out your world, centre it on something that might be equivalent to Jerusalem, and then, depending on how creative you’re feeling, fill in the gaps with all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

You might therefore ask: how did anyone get anywhere? Long-distance pilgrimages were often made in this age, and travellers had to know where to go. The answer is something called an itinerarium (Figure 2) or a periplus. These weren’t pictorial maps, but lists of towns (the itinerarium) or harbours and landmarks (the periplus) between two points, in order, with distances, so travellers knew where they had to get to next. Essentially, they were linear route maps, and the better kind would provide a schematic of the route as a straight-ish line, as well as information on things such as water sources and way-stations. What they did not include was any notion of topography or of a 3D space.

Fig 3. The Hereford Mappa Mundi
Pre-Christianity, the Romans didn’t really go in for maps – the itinerarium is the closest they got, whilst the periplus dates from the Ancient Greeks, if not before. Maps, in the sense we think of them, did exist, but were more academic curios restricted to libraries than anything actually used by anyone. Emblematic in this regard is the work of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek Alexandrian geographer of the 2nd century AD, who put together a world map in his Geography that influenced many later medieval and early modern cartographers (Figure 4). Ptolemy was fully aware his map only covered about a quarter of the globe, but had no information about what the other three quarters were like or what was there. He could only get somewhat accurate positional data for the Greco-Roman world, and less accurate fixes for places such as China, of which the Romans were aware. This highlights a central problem in all medieval and earlier mapmaking: it was inherently local and anything trying to depict a region further afield was inevitably based on hearsay – even Al-Idrisi’s Book of Roger, a medieval proto-atlas, was a bit useless once you got beyond the Mediterranean and Near East. Coupled to this, no one had yet worked out any way of determining longitude precisely, though latitude could be got down to minute-level precision by measuring the length of the longest day at a place or by using an astrolabe. As such, the idea of a ‘world map’ was fundamentally flawed at this stage and didn’t really exist – Ptolemy’s map has a lot of blank space around the edges to make this apparent.

Fig 4. A 15th century version of Ptolemy's world map.
Thinking about non-European cultures, this kind of predominantly symbolic mapmaking allied with simple schematics for daily use remained the dominant school, generally until European empires came to the fore and started to spread ‘modern’ mapping culture. This is because the concept of what we call a map is very much the result of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and relies very much on a Western idea of science. As such, other cultures tend not to have created something similar until they encountered the Western scientific mindset. So, for instance, the purpose of Chinese mapmaking for most of its existence was to glorify the Middle Kingdom and the Emperor as its ruler, and pictorially display the Chinese concept of an ordered world under the Mandate of Heaven. Everything outside China was inherently inferior and uninteresting, so why on Earth would you bother to make a map of it? This is a point you should think about when designing your map – if the culture nominally behind it has a radically different idea of the world and of what ‘science’ is, that would be reflected in their cartography. The modern world map is very much the product of a specific Western culture and idea of science – if you think your fictional culture doesn’t fit into that mould, give them a map that reflects that.

To sum all this up: if you’re going for an early-style, large-scale map, think how it might interact with and depict the legends, religion and history of your world and about how much of that world your supposed source might actually know about in any kind of detail. Or, if there’s a particular part of it you want to highlight, drawing up an itinerarium and/or periplus for what might be a common journey through it could be a good idea. Stay tuned for part 2, when I'll move on to talk about the Renaissance and beyond...
Definitely not Ar-Pharazôn.