The History of Old Maps (Copy)

Maps have been around since time immemorial. Here we attempt a short guide to historical old English maps featuring the most important milestones of progress from their makers and publishers.

In the earliest examples they detailed ownership of land and charted military movements. It’s known that back in 2,000 B.C. wealthy Babylonians were having plans of their private estates moulded in clay and that by 300 B.C., the Greeks had created tablets on stone detailing the East Mediterranean area.

Earliest Map Forma-Urbis Romae

Set in Stone: one piece of a huge map made from 100’s of marble stones circa 203-211 AD

Back between 300 B.C. and 170 A.D. the Greeks by further study of the moon and stars had plotted some basic latitude and longitude of places across the world already known to them including Britain. The Romans in a more worldly fashion plotted the growth of their empire writing valuable descriptions of many areas of Europe, including many by Caesar. The Emperors Augustus and Theodosius had maps made of the wider known world.  These maps have mostly disappeared, many being lost in the fall of the Western Empire in 476.

Map of England, by the Roman Claudius Ptolemy

England by Roman Claudius Ptolemy

Similarly, the early Anglo-Saxons surely must have made very basic plans for occupying and building on land and planning battles but surprisingly no evidence exists prior to 1250 which was long after the creation of the map of England, by the Roman Claudius Ptolemy c. 168 A.D.

The Matthew’s Map

Sometime before 1150 a group of scholars, which soon became famous, had been formed by the Benedictines at the Abbey of St. Albans which came under the direction of the historian Matthew Paris in 1250. Through the extensive study of books and this historian’s own knowledge along with accounts given him by merchants, sailors, soldiers and monks from other monasteries, Paris began work on a map that was to become famous.

Distances would likely have been calculated from manuscript sources and from contemporary reckonings in miles; but it’s probably as well that no scale was featured in the map for there were some serious inaccuracies with the shape of the land and the locations of towns and landmarks. Directions would have been a difficult challenge, as the only objects then used for large surveys in England were sun dials with various kinds of hour glasses for observing the positions of the sun, and a compass which consisted merely of a needle, periodically magnetized with a lode stone, enclosed in a piece of cork, which was placed in a bowl of water. The polar star hung approximately over the true North, and from it and the sun, latitude would have been roughly calculated.

Matthew Paris Map of Great Britain

Matthew Paris Map of Great Britain

So perhaps Matthew’s map was not intended to be wholly accurate. Its main purpose may well have been to show English pilgrims and perhaps also Crusaders and troops bound for France their shortest route to Dover, the departure port for travel to places of pilgrimage abroad like Normandy and Picardy in France. There were many distortions in south, central and south-eastern England, such as placing Middlesex in the east Midlands, Suffolk at the south-east corner of the country, and the mouth of the Thames and Dover near the centre.  In fact, a large proportion of the country was simply shown as the south coast and pilgrims and Crusaders would have seen at a glance all the towns, monasteries and monastic guesthouses along their route.

However, the map remains a fascinating piece. There are many ports, such as Orford, Shoreham, and Wallsend, which have long fallen into disuse, river ports such as Boroughbridge (Pons Burgi) and Northallerton and important river crossings like Earlsferry and Queensferry. The Yorkshire Moors are shown as Blakhamoor, extending from Tyne to Humber; Windsor Forest appears as a “vivarium” south of Windsor; and the Peak in Derbyshire has its famous Cave of the Winds. Many of the legends on the map, such as that describing southern Wales as full of mountains, forests and marshes, and its people as uncultured, war like and boastful of their descent from the Greeks, are copied from the Roman descriptions, while Scotland, about which the Romans knew little and the English of 1250 not much more, is depicted very inaccurately. In other ways Matthew reveals much knowledge of the science of cartography. He has oriented this map to the north, although almost all contemporary foreign maps were oriented to the east, in the direction of both the Holy Land and the site of the Terrestrial Paradise, in which men still believed; and the four cardinal points of the compass are together with the names of the lands opposite them across the seas, such as Norway, Flanders and Normandy. In their choice of symbols and colours to represent the features on their maps Matthew Paris and his successors used the style of the small intricate illustrations which adorned most of the important manuscripts of the time.

There already existed, however, some simple picture keys for maps, probably developed by the Graeco-Roman cartographers, which can be seen here in their earliest English form. The sea is green, the rivers and lakes blue, and Snowdon, though it looks like nothing but a pile of crags, is as good a depiction of a mountain as any used by mapmakers for the next three hundred years or more. The towns are indicated by groups of walled castles as they continued to be shown up to the eighteenth century. The red lines around them may representing roofs of red tiles; this feature being adopted on later maps where towns are coloured red.

The maps were drawn on parchment or dressed sheepskins and the paints for the hand colouring were made from red and white lead, ochre, indigo, verdigris and vegetable juices.

The Hereford Map

The Hereford map known by this name because it belongs to Hereford Cathedral) is one of the finest and most typical medieval world maps that has survived. It was drawn in around 1280 by Richard of Belleau in Lincolnshire and measures about 4 by 5 feet. The map is on parchment, and its details are picked out in fine colours and gold. Its border consists of a zig-zag pattern combined with leaves which is notable as the earliest known border on an English map. It has a large picture of the Last Judgment, with impish devils hauling the damned away in the foreground. The current known world, which includes most of Europe and Asia, but only the northern part of Africa, is represented as circular, with a broad band of ocean flowing round it. The east is at the top, and a stately Jerusalem stands proudly in the centre.

The Historic Hereford Map

Detail of the Nile Delta from The Hereford Map

Although drawn some twenty years after Matthew Paris’s death in 1259, the Hereford map takes us back to early mediaeval times. The countries, seas, rivers and mountains are comically misshapen. England not the least and generally hopelessly misplaced, and the map is covered with a multitude of graphic pictures and written descriptions of monsters and marvels. Here are the wicked giants Gog and Magog, salamanders, phoenixes, lion-bodied gryphons, centaurs, the river Acheron spouting up from the infernal regions and men using their enormous feet as parasols. In fact an intensely interesting world, depicted with great imagination and flair by Richard putting all his skill with pen and brush, introducing into maps an element of art which was to become through the sixteenth century more and more popular. The map must however be viewed more as an illustration of the geographical beliefs of the Middle Ages rather offering function to aid navigation but nerveless it has become through much media attention on of the world’s most well known historic maps.

The Gough Map

A single unfinished copy survives of a remarkable map of Great Britain which was drawn in around 1335, most probably as a result of the wars of the three King Edwards with Wales, Scotland and France (1282-1347). It is known as the “Gough Map” after its discovery by Richard Gough, or the Bodleian Map named after its current home at the Bodleian library in  Oxford. It’s a large, coloured map on two parchment skins. From the surprisingly good configuration of our island there can be little doubt that most of England and Wales had been surveyed, although we know nothing of the methods employed. From the time of Euclid (c. 300 B.C.) it had been known that the relative positions of three places could be fixed by measuring the angles made at each by sightlines to the other two; but the English had no instruments with which to make these triangulations accurately.

The only instruments available for this in 1350 were the magnetic compass and more commonly used the astrolabe. The latter, a very ancient instrument, had been perfected by the Arabs, who from about 800 to 1400 A.D. were the greatest astronomers, navigators and mathematicians in the world. It was already familiar to educated Englishmen in 1387 when Chaucer wrote an excellent treatise upon it for the instruction of his little son. From Chaucer’s Prologue and from accounts of Royal and judicial progresses it’s clear that large numbers of people of all classes were constantly moving about the country and that there was also considerable traffic in coastal waters, so that the face and shape of England were becoming increasingly well known.

One way of surveying the country was, of course, to plot all its main roads, and this was evidently the main, though not the only task of the author of the historic Gough Map. The numerous roads, mediaeval as well as Roman, are shown diagrammatically as straight lines between town to town, but the distances are marked on them. As a testament to the unknown surveyor who carried out this work the same distances appeared in roadbooks published two hundred and fifty years later, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The little clusters of buildings with red roofs and white walls representing towns are smaller and more artistic than any which preceded them, and the Cathedrals in Canterbury, York, Lincoln and other towns and cities are distinguished by grey lead roofs and tall, brightly coloured steeples topped by crosses. Forests, appearing here for the first time on an English map, are each indicated by two attractive small trees, intertwined and coloured green. The author shows all his roads in red, probably by royal command, so that they might be more conspicuous. Scotland is missing many counties, towns and natural features than Matthew Paris’s map included, but it was little known to Englishmen and, like the Hebrides and the Shetland and Orkney Islands, is badly misshapen. The map has the east at the top, and the points of the compass, indications of latitude and longitude and a scale are all lacking, but the names of the nearest countries, east, south . . .

gough map detail of southern england

Detail from the Gough Map of Great Britain, c.1335

. . . and west, are marked at the edges. Importantly from its design, its construction and its intricate details, the Gough map must be considered a “real map” in that any traveller of the period could use it for navigation, and as such a most notable achievement for its time. There is evidence that several other copies of the original once existed, and that they were in use, as they deserved to be, in as late as 1540.

The Estate Map

After 1340 a new kind of map, the estate map, began to appear. By 1400 the monasteries owned well over half the land in the kingdom, and they kept very careful records of their possessions of manors, farms, warrens, woods, mills and fisheries, and of how every parcel of land was utilised and of the many and complicated services and dues owed them by their tenants. The plan of the great Benedictine Abbey of Chertsey which was drawn about 1432, is a good example

Chertsey Abbey History

Plan of Chertsey Abbey 1432 from the Cartulary of Chester Abbey

of the estate plans not only of its time, but of the century that followed. With no scale, and little regard for distance or proportion; brilliantly coloured, it is as much a picture as a map. Nevertheless, the principles of representation and of the use of colours chosen by its author are those which, with some modifications, were continued in English maps up to 1750. The fields, roads and streams are shown in plan, but the buildings and woods in elevation. Ordinary buildings have red roofs, although the monastery itself has a fine leaded roof and spire more like the cathedrals on the Gough Map. The woods are green, the roads a dirty yellow, which was doubtless their natural colour, and the streams are not only blue, but their currents and eddies are emphasized by a damascene pattern which is found, alternating with flowing current lines, on maps back to about 1570. At that time the fields were measured by wooden poles a perch in length from where the old phrase “perch or pole” originated. The standard perch of 16 feet was used, but there was also a perch of only 12 feet, while for woodland it was 18 to 25 feet long. This map would have been seen as modern for the  time in that each field has its name, and, more importantly, its size in acres, and the use to which it was put, such as meadow or pasture. Its author evidently realized the superiority of wash (thin water-colours) over paint as a medium for colouring maps, and from his time onwards. wash came more and more into use.



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