The handheld ubiquity of the modern map— palm-sized, portable, and narrated by cheerful AIs— can often appear incongruous with the ornate mappaemundi (worldmaps) of medieval Europe. The world that medieval maps display is, upon the modern user’s first glance, often entirely alien. Mappaemundi do not use longitudinal or latitudinal lines. They often feature fantastical illustrations, and appear as art objects that employ gilding and decoration to entertain viewers rather than guide users— at best, serving as semi-usable maps; at worst, abstract compilations of design and color.
However, the ultramodern technology behind Google Maps and that of the elaborate worldmaps of the later Middle Ages is less different than it may seem. Medieval worldmaps visualized the complex networks of information that knitted together the medieval European world, projected on a geographical framework; Google Maps’ colossal machine learning apparatus strives to do the same with the anthropological, moral, theological, and historical ideas and entities of our contemporary world.
Information visualization in any era offers key insights into the ways people conceptualize, narrate, and struggle with cultural models of reality, symbolism, space, and time. This timeline outlines a brief survey of worldmapping technologies from 1050 to 1600 in order to parse apart the complex transition from medieval to early modern models of information visualization, collecting historical data for ongoing spatial humanities research and study of the global Middle Ages.
I sought a topic for this exercise that would be compelling for me both as a trained medievalist and an emergent digital mapmaker. I am confident that the application of mapping technologies to collection materials is a critically under-explored dimension of projects in museums, libraries, archives, and galleries. My work is inspired by projects like the open-source Virtual Mappa tool that employ digital annotation and linking tools (and a phenomenal visualization of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which is featured on my timeline), as well as sites like Journeys to the West: Kitan and Jurchen Travelers in Thirteenth-Century Central Asia and The Trial and Travels of Eleanor Rykener that use ArcGIS storymapping. These projects use mapping technologies to visualize written narratives that problematize the Eurocentrism of so much history-writing, and I strive to challenge those same too-familiar histories in my own work.
This timeline is not intended to comprehensively visualize the scope of medieval mapping tools. Instead, I strove to portray a robust network of technologies that respectively shaped and was sculpted by how medieval Europeans explored, discovered, and visualized their world. Therefore, the timeline ends with the cloverleaf map, a tool from the earlier Middle Ages that gains renewed popularity among Christian geographers in the rocky transition from medieval to early modern conceptions of space, place, time, and religion.
I decided to contain this project scope to mappaemundi (rather than the multitude of maps designed and used by cultures all over the world at the same time) partially because of my own time limits and partially because I wanted to practice using the TimelineJS tool on a familiar item set before applying it to new, potentially more complex, projects. I also decided to choose particular pieces of medieval worldmapping technology and place those on the timeline, rather than finding the first example of that kind of technology—both to keep the visualization concise and to respect the particularly multivalent nature of medieval citation.1
The Knight Lab’s interactive TimelineJS tool provided an excellent medium to explore and visualize the intersection of medievalism and worldmapping technologies. TimelineJS is open-source and allows users to build custom timelines with a Google Sheets template.
Users enter and format data for each planned TimelineJS slide in the Sheet template’s pre-labeled cells (year/s, headlines, event or item description) with the option of uploading multimedia by URL and tweaking background image and color. Upon making the Sheet public, users generate their timeline by pasting the Sheet URL into a portal on the Knight Lab website. Then they can return to the Google Sheet, add or edit data, make adjustments, and play around with the live timeline!
With each row in the Google Sheet representing the data for a slide on the timeline, I made sure to carefully enter the information I’d compiled for each slide into its pre-labelled cell. This included year, headline, item description, and URLs for images and thumbnails. I wrote my own text for item descriptions and headlines and accompanied each description in the Google Sheet with citations and media credit.
I accessed most of the images from the digitized collections at their home repositories and converted them from JPG to URL using an online tool. Notably, the Ebstorf map, which was destroyed in a 1943 air raid over Hanover, was mostly reconstructed from several facsimiles and a set of color reproductions commissioned from graphic artist Rudolf Wieneke by the board of the Museumsverein für das Fürstentum Lüneburg in 1951-1953; the image I accessed was of that reconstruction.
Once I had this data entered, I tagged the landing page with the “title” attribute in the Google Sheet so that users would begin their exploration of my timeline there. I prefer to enter digital maps with context as to both the project scope as well as the designer’s intention, so I strove to make sure users would have that experience with my project as well. I also decided against adding a background on non-title slides, disliking how busy it made the slides look: the colorful medieval maps pop enough against the white background already, and the text is already toeing the edge of crowded. In a future test of this tool with less vivid images, I might experiment with busier backgrounds.
By the end of the sixteenth century, a rapidly-expanding Europe’s embrace of the Mercator projection clarified its decisive departure from the once-unifying cosmography of the Middle Ages. This made outlining the progression of worldmapping models away from the general medieval cosmography a really interesting visualization exercise. The TimelineJS tool makes explicit how abrupt the emergence of dissonant conceptions of space, place, and time between the medieval and early modern periods actually was, and emphasizes how the rapidity of this technological shift could have contributed to the civil, continental, and global violence of this transition.
I’m appreciative that TimelineJS was a user-friendly interface to play around with, especially for a user already familiar with how to conceptually use a timeline but less so with syncing Google Sheets to a tool. The “Preview” function was absolutely crucial to my design process (and overall successful use of the tool). I really liked the way images were formatted automatically with a little shading to make them pop— this little trick negated any need for a colorful background on my slides, which made my job a lot easier.
However, in a future model of this tool, I’d like to see adjustments made to allow more flexible font, text, date, and image formatting. I felt annoyed that I couldn’t use date estimates (i.e. “around 1500,” “2nd century”), especially when I was working with historical ideas as much as actual material and had to eyeball a hard year rather than the more accurate estimated period. I also would have liked to adjust image and text format— I ended up simply reducing the amount of text I used, which worked fine for brevity’s sake, but wouldn’t be my go-to modification if I were using TimelineJS for a larger project. Overall, the tool was helpful for a project of this scale but would fall short if used for a more complex visualization.
1 For more on medieval citation, see Ho, H. (2004). The Legitimacy of Medieval Proof. Journal of Law and Religion, 19(2), 259–298.
Borneman, E. (2014). Types of Medieval European Maps. https://www.geographyrealm.com/types-medieval-european-maps/
Carlton, G. (2015). Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy. University of Chicago Press.
Ducza, M. (2013, June). Medieval world maps: diagrams of a Christian universe. https://museumsandcollections.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1379050/04_Ducza_MedievalMaps12.pdf
Hiatt, A. (2007). The Map of Microbius before 1100. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03085690701300626
—. (2008). Terra Incognita: Mapping the Antipodes Before 1600. University of Michigan Press.
Keilo, J. (2016, August 12). Jerusalem at the very centre of the World, Bunting’s Map and social construction. https://centrici.hypotheses.org/215
Pischke, G. (2014, July 11). The Ebstorf Map: tradition and contents of a medieval picture of the world. https://hgss.copernicus.org/articles/5/155/2014/hgss-5-155-2014.pdf
Williams, J. (1997). Isidore, Orosius and the Beatus Map. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1151330
Woodward, D. (1985, December). Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2563109