Europe’s Place in the World: Evidence from Medieval Maps

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Europes Place in the World: Evidence from Medieval Maps


Theology and Geography. Throughout the Middle Ages, Europeans notions of their own place on the globe continued to be shaped not only by observation of the world around them but also by religious considerations. Nowhere is Christian theologys impact on European geographical thought more apparent than in the medieval tradition of the so-called T-O maps. These maps placed the city of Jerusalem, the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, at the center of the world. Their makers customarily aligned these maps such that east was placed at the top since according to Scripture the Garden of Eden had been located at the eastern edge of the world (Genesis 2:8). The T-O maps portrayed the three continents known to medieval Europeans (Europe, Asia, and Africa) as distinct landmasses separated by bodies of water that collectively formed a T. This T was inscribed within a larger O-shaped mass of water that encircled the whole: the great Ocean Sea. Subsequent scholars have often pointed to these T-O maps as evidence of the general ignorance of medieval European civilization and the blindness to scientific truth induced by strict adherence to Christian theology. It is likely, however, that medieval Europeans interpreted these maps in spiritual and allegorical terms rather than as faithful representations of physical reality. Moreover, alongside this essentially theological tradition of cartography ran a more practical medieval tradition of mapmaking based upon observation of minute geographical detail.


To fifteenth-century Europeans the known world included only three major continental landmasses: Asia, Africa, and Europe itself. Accounts in the Norse sagas of the lands visited by Leif Ericsson were scarcely known outside Scandinavia, and even well-educated Europeans in the Renaissance era were completely unaware of the existence of the Americas. With the exception of the Vikings voyages and perhaps a few other mostly forgotten moments of contact, the peoples of the Old World and the New World lived in complete isolation from one another. Over the centuries preceding Christopher Columbuss accidental encounter with the American coastline, however, at least a few Europeans had actually written about the possibility that there might exist other continents unknown to Europe. As early as the time of Christ, for example, the Roman geographer Strabo wrote: It is possible that in the same temperate zone (of the northern hemisphere) there are actually two inhabited worlds, or even more, and particularly in the proximity of the parallel that runs through Athens that is drawn across the (Atlantic) Ocean.

In the fifteenth century too there were at least some who believed that other continents, heretofore unknown to Europe, might exist in other parts of the globe. In 1476, for example, the Italian scholar Lorenzo Buonincontri wrote that the existence of a fourth continent had to him become a foregone conclusion. Ironically, Columbus, like many late-fifteenth-century Europeans, would prove oblivious to such considerations, maintaining until his 1506 death that the lands he had visited were either islands near or parts of the Asian mainland.

Source: Thomas Goldstein, Geography in Renaissance Florence, in The European Opportunity, edited by Felipe Fernández Armesto (Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995), pp. 122.

Portolans. To medieval navigators in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the T-O maps provided little practical assistance. In order to protect their crews and cargoes from disaster, shipmasters needed reliable charts that provided notice of dangerous rocks or shallows near the entrances to particular harbors and the proper compass headings to travel from one place to another. Throughout the Middle Ages sailors gradually compiled such empirical data based upon experience and observation of physical reality. Mariners then compiled and summarized such information in charts that they called portolans, or harbor guides. Venice and the other principal commercial powers of medieval Europe often guarded the vital information contained in their portolans as state secrets. For ships sailing in the well-charted waters of the Mediterranean Sea, rarely if ever leaving sight of land, these portolans provided essential information to assure the safety of their voyages. For Christopher Columbus and other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sailors who journeyed into unfamiliar regions, however, they were, of course, useless.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Mans Search to Know His World and Himself (NewYork: Vintage, 1983);

William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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Europe’s Place in the World: Evidence from Medieval Maps

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