“Here be dragons” – the brief history of Middle Ages Maps

Timelines, Visualization
Snapshot and a link to the Timeline


A few years ago, I have visited Hereford in the UK aiming to see the famous Cathedral Chained Library. In the 17th century, books were precious and well protected, very often by chaining them to shelves. The library at Hereford Cathedral is the largest surviving chained library in the world. However, it has also another treasure – the largest medieval map in the world – Hereford Mappa Mundi. When I saw it, I was amazed – it showed the world which I know but presented differently – from a Christian perspective with Jerusalem at the center and East at the top. I bought a facsimile of it and spend hours translating geographic and historical terms to help my parents read and understand it. 

While learning about this assignment – the creation of a timeline of events in the history of information visualization, I immediately thought about Mappa Mundi and how maps accompanied people in their journeys providing them guidance and explaining the world. I decided to focus on the Middle Ages – between 6th and 15th century. I did not want to focus only on the European perspective, but I also wanted to provide space for maps coming from Asian heritage. Therefore, I asked myself, how maps changed during this time and what are the differences between Europe and Asia centered maps.

Methods and materials

While at the very beginning of the work, I have established its focus, I had to learn a bit more about medieval maps. First of all, I started to browse the web and I have encountered the Wikipedia article, which gave me the basis for choosing content for my timeline. By the requirements of this assignment, I could have chosen up to 10 maps, I decided to focus on their form and origin diversity. Wikipedia provided only a very brief description of the maps, therefore I have performed an additional search. These maps are unique and priceless and many materials are describing them in detail. I have listed them in the Additional References section of this article. I used Wikipedia Commons for the graphical illustration of my timeline.

The timeline was created using Timeline Knightlab software, which is both free and easy to use. First of all, I got Timeline Knightlab Google Spreadsheet Template and I have copied it to my own Google Drive. Immediately, just not to get confused, I renamed it and published it to the web. The template is divided into several columns, which already had sample content. When you copy the document link to the form on the Timeline Knightlab page, it will show you how your timeline looks like. When I was settled, I started to replace the sample content with my words and pictures. From time to time, I refreshed my timeline and checked if my work doesn’t go astray.

You can see the Snapshot of my Google Sheet below and my timeline here.

Snapshot of my Google Sheet

Results and Interpretation

For my assignment, I have chosen seven maps and one globe (covered with a map). Though these maps were created within almost 900 years by people coming from different cultures (Europe and Asia), differ in the style and material used to make them, they all have few things in common. They were all made before Columbus discovery of the Americas, therefore there are only three continents visualized on them: Europe, Asia, and Africa.  

Moreover, these maps do not follow modern rules of map making, simply because the conventions were not yet established and they had other aims than to be geographically correct. If you look at what is in the center – “heart” of these maps, you will see Jerusalem, Mediterranean Countries, China, Japan, Korea, places which were important for the map authors. Moreover, these maps are not always oriented towards the North. In at least two cases, the top is East.

It is caused by the fact, that maps were not used for geographical reasons. As David Woodward (1985, p. 510) says “the primary function of these maps was to provide illustrated historic or moralized didactic displays in a geographic setting”. Moreover, in the European context, these maps were not created by cartographers as this position did not exist. Persons, who created them were among other merchants (e.g. Cosmas Indicopleustes), scholars (e.g. Isidore of Sevilla). In the case of Asian maps, used as an example, they were created by the court order and had to serve its needs.


As David Woodward (1987, p. 286) says there are approximately 1100 surviving medieval maps of the world, out of which some 900 were parts of manuscript books. This timeline describes only seven maps and one globe. Moreover, the text used to make each “slide” had to be rather limited due to technical reasons. Eventually, this timeline provides only a snippet of immensely rich information about maps during the Middle Ages and aims to intrigue the viewer and encourage them to look up more information related to each of the maps.

If I had to re-do this timeline, I would add more maps, however, I would categorize them according to their types: Zonal maps, T-O maps, Beatus maps and Complex maps (following Wikipedia). This would allow emphasizing the similarities between maps, even though they were created at different times and places. Additionally, I would consider creating a template for each of the “slides” containing the short information about map creator, context, used material and link to the broader description. This would again allow visualizing how and if maps changed in those 900 years. For future research, I would propose to either further develop this timeline or create a similar one using maps created after Columbus return from his trip in 1492 and discoveries of the Americas. 

Additional References

Encyclopedia Britannica: Cosmas

Albi. Office de Tourisme: Mappa Mundi