A Privileged Source of Information

The Disappearance of Fanciful Flourish from World Maps of the Middle Ages

Stefan Halikowski Smith


So geographers, in Africa maps

With savage pictures fill their gaps

And o’er unhabitable downs

Place elephants for want of towns


Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).



Until the 13th century, European world maps had been devotional objects, intended to evoke God’s harmonious design in a schematic form. They were appropriate, for instance, as altarpieces, but also as a fitting gift to ruling monarchs. They tended, however, to be symbolic representations of the world, most commonly the Christian universe as Jean Germain’s 'Spiritual mappamundi' c. 1450 to Philip the Good of Burgundy testifies.


One of the most outstanding of the medieval world maps or mappamundi, and one that has survived unscathed, is that bearing Richard Haldingham’s name, dated to 1156 and conserved in Hereford Cathedral in England. The map is truly ‘an encyclopedia in disguise’ full of drawings and descriptions illustrating man's history and the marvels of the natural world. Next to biblical narrative, such as Noah’s Ark, for example, we find purely invented beings, such as the tigolopes, but also recognizable animals such as the lynx, albeit ascribed fictitious qualities: `The lynx sees through walls and produces a black stone’. (See below Asia Minor. Detail from the Hereford Mappamundi, 1156, from Konrad Miller, Die Herefordkarte, s.l.: A. Bonz, 1903).


Much of this clutter was to alter its form and gradually to disappear from European maps in the early modern period. It no longer became perfunctory to see empty cartographic space as space to fill with all kinds of flourishes and emblems, as if fearing the emptiness of white sections of parchment. In any case, maps were no longer simply devotional objects, but came to record the progress in that European project which has become known as the Age of Discoveries.


As such, maps came to preserve valuable ethnographical and commercial information as we find in the Cantino map, 1502 and which some historians contend was a copy of the so-called ‘Padron Real’ held in the warehouse of the India House (Armazém da Guiné e Indias) in Lisbon, on which new discoveries were recorded as soon as information was collated in the light of returning expeditions. To provide an example, above the Portuguese trading stations established in Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, the following inscription is made: “. . . they bring to the most excellent prince Dom Manuel King of Portugal in each year twelve caravels with gold; each caravel brings twenty-five thousand weights of gold, each weight being worth five hundred reais, and they further bring many slaves and pepper and other things of much profit.”


As much as new information was added, older information was taken away. Classical constructions such as Taprobana, which was depicted as a giant, unrecognizable subcontinent sticking out into the Indian Ocean on Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographiae Universalis, Basel, 1558, were gradually phased out, though only by around 1640. Aures Chersonesus, or Golden Peninsula, portrayed as a dangling appendage off the Asian underbelly, was another victim of progress. The Great Southern Land, an inheritance from Ptolemaic geography in that Ptolemy had envisioned the Indian Ocean as an ‘inland lake’ hemmed in by land on all sides, was only finally cleared up with Captain James Cook’s repeated voyages across the southern Pacific in the 1770s.


Moving on from the active deletion of myth, we need to address the heuristics of empty space. J.B. Harley has unearthed the coded relations of power in outwardly realistic Renaissance maps, showing how they concealed information for political or economic reasons, and used allegorical decoration to further hidden agendas. For example, blank spaces in early maps of the Americas presented those territories as open to European conquest. But blank spaces didn’t universally mean windows of opportunity. Emptiness could also mean neglect - as can be seen in the indication solitudo in the north-western segment of Alexandre de Rhodes’s Histoire du Royaume de Tunquin (Alexandre de Rhodes, Histoire du Royaume de Tunquin, et des grands progrez que la predication de l’Évangile y a faits, Rome 1650). Arguably, the area of the world slowest to be well charted by Europeans was Arabia Felix, partly due to its natural inhospitability, but also due to the inveterate hostility of its inhabitants towards Christians. As one of the earliest Arab reports of Portuguese sightings off the coast of Aden went: ‘The Feringhis [Franks] are here. May God curse them’.


With the explosion of Dutch professional map-making in the service of the Vereinigde Ost-Indische Compagnie in the seventeenth century, the world became more recognizable to us today than was ever the case before. These maps increasingly functioned as hydrographical and topographical tools, they were in themselves commercialized objects and professional tools at the service of the field of geography. We can appreciate some of this from the rhetoric and imaginative flourishes which were packed into the side panels of Joan Blaeu’s world maps. A cosmographer is depicted with his astrolabe, while a geographer sets to employing a pair of compasses (Joan Blaeu world map, 1648, Frederik Caspar Wieder, Monumenta Cartographica, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1925-33, vol. 3, plates 51-71).


But we can most easily appreciate how far we have come from the mappamundi tradition of the Middle Ages when we stop to consider the motifs at the top of each respective map. Rather than a Christ enthroned and a Last Judgement scene, as we find in the Hereford Mappamundi, we see a Dutch company official seated within the clouds and waving a baton of authority. The motif is much the same, but it is decorative rather than authoritative, and the strange icons that litter the map are sidelined curiosities and exotics rather than strange creatures implicated within the strictures and coordinates of Euclidean space, which constitutes reality itself.


The European cartographic revolution of the Renaissance meant many things: the shift from a symbolic to a geometric space; a challenge to the commanding presence of the ancient Alexandrine geographer Ptolemy and his vision of the world; the sixteenth-century Dutch cartographer Mercator’s supreme efforts to depict the sphere in two dimensions more realistically than had ever been the case before. But the cartographic revolution of the Renaissance also meant a new attitude to fanciful flourish – banished from the contents of the map to the sidelines, flourish became metaphor, not something people necessarily any longer believed in.