Maps in the Middle Ages

Geographical maps are extremely important in our world. Everyone owns some kind of map, even a redneck yahoo with a state map in his glove compartment. Maps have been part of our culture so long that we can’t conceive of a mapless world.

Medieval Europe in the 11th century was essentially map-free. There were some beautifully-painted maps (website here devoted to showing you some of the nicest ones). There were, in rare places, some loosely accurate ones; these were only local. (For example, the map website shows a mosaic-tile map of the region around the church.) Much later, when more people were traveling on pilgrimages, some “maps” showed them the road the way they’d actually experience it: as a linear string of places. The most accurate maps were those used by Mediterranean ships, and they weren’t accurate in our sense. They were accurate in that they correctly aided the pilot to reach one harbor from another; they didn’t look down like a satellite.

Maps were usually conceptual in a way that our modern world can’t appreciate. One conceptual layout literally looked like the letters T and O. Here’s a typical T-O map that suggested how Asia, Europe and Africa related. North is off to the left; the north-at-top mapping convention didn’t exist. Some T-O maps prominently featured Jerusalem at the center; it was the spiritual center and, at the same time, roughly at the T-intersection of a T-O map. It was impossible to tell relative size from T-O maps.

Pragmatic distance was expressed in terms of time, typically walking time or the average sailing speed. Every peasant or townsman knew how much of a day would be taken up in getting to the next town or the lord’s castle. Some who owned horses knew how long it would take to ride, probably at a walk or trot, to a farther town. Peddlers and minstrels knew many such distances and directions. But most people did not leave their immediate neighborhood. Farm to town, back to farm. Village to village. Home to church. A far distance meant several days of walking, which few could afford unless the travel was itself their livelihood.

So nobody had any idea how far it was from Paris to Rome. Marine pilots knew how large the Mediterranean was, but they had little sense of land distances. Very few even of them could have suggested how long it would take a Crusader in Normandy to arrive at Constantinople. Jerusalem, apart from being the center of the world, was completely unknown to all but a very few.

The lack of mapping comprehension is very important for understanding what happened when the ordinary people heard pilgrimage sermons. Their usual pilgrimages were to regional sites, if they went at all: Frenchmen went to Tours or Compostela; the privileged few went to Rome. Villagers went to the local abbot’s grave; one region in France honored a dog as a saint, and people carried gifts and sick babies to the dog’s grave.

Pilgrimages to the actual Holy Land were as far beyond their comprehension as astronomical distances are to most of us. Jerusalem was very far away, for sure. It might even take a fortnight to walk there! Nay, says another peasant, I’ve heard that if you walked a year and a day, you’d not reach it. Nonsense, says another, it’s just on the other side of Rome, and the bishop himself went to Rome and back in one month. If someone had blindfolded a French or German peasant and forced him to walk for one week, then uncovered his eyes and said, “Behold, the Holy Land!” he’d probably have fallen to his knees in awe, even if he was looking only at Mainz or Marseille. They were like children who dig a hole to China.

This entry was posted in Crusades and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply