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.
Matthew Paris’s map of Britain
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.
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.