Maps & Sources

Most of the documents that historians use are written texts, but pictures and maps can help us understand the medieval world too.

Medieval Maps

This map from an early fifteenth-century manuscript gives us a sense of how some medieval men and women viewed Britain.

BL MS Harley 1808 f. 9
from a collection of histories belonging to a Derbyshire family

You may need to zoom in to read the names on this map. The medieval spellings are not very different from modern ones. Where are north and south on this map? Which places did the artist think were most important?

The map below is of Scotland. It was drawn by a spy called John Hardyng for a chronicle he wrote to present to Henry VI.

BL MS Lansdowne 204 ff 226-7
Hardyng’s Chronicle (first version c. 1450)

You’ll find north and south are again not where you would expect – once you’ve worked that out it will be easier to identify the places. What impression does this give of Scotland?

The next map shows the world divided into three: Asia, Africa and Europe. It is in a book that was made in Bruges for Edward IV.

BL MS Royal 15 E III f. 67 from “On the Properties of Things”
by Bartolomeus Anglicus

Note the size and position of Europe. What might this suggest?

This map comes from a history called the Polychronicon which was very popular in the fifteenth century. Its style was common in the middle ages.

BL MS Royal 14 C ix ff. 1-2
Mappa Mundi in Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon

Jerusalem is in the centre (and Noah’s ark can be seen a little to the left above). England is the red island at the bottom left with Wales appearing as a separate island below it. What does this map tell us about what is important in the world? Does the map above it suggest a similar world view? You can find a zoomable version here, the whole manuscript here and a different artist’s version of the same map here.

It is often claimed that men and women in the middle ages thought the world was flat. This isn’t true. That is why the images above are round. An eighth-century Northumbrian historian called Bede wrote “The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth . . . It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball.”

The map below was created in Florence, Italy somewhere between 1450 and 1475. It was drawn following the instructions in Ptolemy’s Geography. Ptolemy was writing in about 150 and although there were probably maps in his original work, it seems copies did not survive into the later middle ages.

BL MS Harley 7182 ff. 58-9
“A concise drawing of the whole habitable world”

Can you find India and China on here? What are the main regions referred to in Africa?

There is a more detailed map of Britain in the same book.

BL MS Harley 7182 f. 60

Although the map was drawn in the fifteenth century, it was using a second-century book. This means that the placenames are Roman and it includes the names of the tribes of Roman Britain.

You will have realised by now that medieval maps were not designed to help people work out their journeys. Instead, for this they used itineraries which listed the places to travel through and the number of miles (or days’ journey) between each.

All of the maps above are now in the British Library and you can see more about the books in their Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. You can discover more medieval maps on their blog and here.

Other very well known medieval maps include the Gough Map (made in the fourteenth century, and held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) and the Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral (made around 1300). You can search digitised versions of these maps on their websites.

The copyright on these images belongs to the British Library and they are in the public domain.