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Mapping the Middle Ages, from Ptolemy to Planoudes (c. 150-1500)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: one essay of 5000-5500 words (100%)

Module description

How did people in the Middle Ages picture their world? We are used to seeing maps wherever we look, from the schematic line drawings of a tube map to a detailed depiction of the earth with ice caps and mountain ranges. Such ubiquitous depictions of space, however, may be a very modern phenomenon. The use of maps or map-like depictions of space prior to the fourteenth century is a matter of major historical debate. The classical Roman world made some use of projected images of space, culminating in the second century with the creation by Claudius Ptolemy of huge lists of places situated in a calculation for mapping the world based on astronomical observations and mathematical theory, but it is unclear that this knowledge affected the medieval view of space. Was it lost, or did it not do what new ideas needed? How did people in the Middle Ages think about their world instead?

Then, in the final decade of the thirteenth century the Byzantine monk, poet, mathematician and philosopher, Maximos Planoudes, announced to a friend in a letter that he has rediscovered Ptolemy’s Geography. While the exact nature of his discovery is contested, within decades copies of Ptolemy’s maps had proliferated across the Mediterranean and came to underpin the age of maritime exploration and cartography down to the nineteenth century.

‘Mapping the Medieval World’ will use a series of objects, famous and obscure maps, itineraries and travel texts, including material in the Wellcome Trust map collection, to think about medieval concepts of mapping and space from the creation to the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s maps, to ask how people from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages pictured their world, and how their views of space shaped what followed.

Indicative Module Content

    • Introduction: what is a map? Cartographic systems and the history of cartography
    • Conclusion - maps from the classical to the modern world: were the Middle Ages a ‘blip’?
    • Ptolemy and the classical geographers - who drew Roman maps and why?
    • The Christian Topography - a new world vision for an old audience?
    • The Madaba Map - were medieval maps designed for going places?
    • Itineraries and geographies - is travel a visual exercise?
    • The Peutinger Map - what is it?
    • Al-Idrisi - how was Muslim space different in the Middle Ages?
    • The Hereford Map - physical or salvific space?
    • Maximos Planoudes - how did the rediscovery of Ptolemy change the Mediterranean?

    Learning objectives

    By the end of the module, you should be able to:

    • use maps as evidence for historical processes and be able to talk about cartography and the history of cartography using suitable terminology and evaluate technical literature on the subject critically
    • understand the different cartographic approaches illustrated by a range of objects produced from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages
    • understand how change and continuity can be seen in cartographic systems between c. 150 and 1300
    • evaluate the effectiveness of different cartographic systems in terms of their aims and uses, including for unintended audiences
    • think comparatively about cartographic systems and the uses of maps in societies
    • situate medieval and Late Antique societies within wider debates about the history of cartography
    • demonstrate bibliographical competence.