Medieval(ish) matters #15: What’s lurking in the background of medieval maps? And what did medieval people really know about the wider world?

HistoryExtra content director Dr David Musgrove gets the lowdown on the latest research into the Gough Map and the Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi to find out what they tell us about medieval English aspirations on the world stage

Hadrian's Wall (UNESCO World Heritage Site, 1987), near Housesteads, England, United Kingdom, Roman civilization, 2nd century.

Consider maps, and you likely think of them as tools to get from A to B without the inconvenience of getting lost. You might not dwell on any underlying political context to your cartography. So, let’s talk about medieval maps.


I had a fascinating chat the other day with Dr Catherine Delano-Smith, who is heading up the Leverhulme-funded project ‘Understanding the medieval Gough Map through physics, chemistry and history’. You can follow the project’s work through its splendidly droll twitter feed.

The Gough Map (named after the 18th-century antiquarian Richard Gough, who purchased the map and bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library) is one of the most important medieval maps. It shows Britain, with a somewhat different – but recognisable – outline from that on modern maps, and lots of interesting details of towns, rivers and other features. It is large (around 55 by 116 centimetres) and fills two pieces of sheepskin parchment.

Under the sheep skin

Dr Delano-Smith’s collaborative project is an interdisciplinary effort to get under the (sheep) skin of the map. Various scientific tests on the map have been carried out, including an instructive 3D scan, which sheds light on the pin-holes that seem to have been used to prick outlines of prominent places or buildings. These pin-holes were noticed in the 19th century, but the scanning work has enabled a better understanding of what they are about:

“We have come to the conclusion that the pinholes are likely to relate to the first production of the map and that they record a hitherto unknown, arguably unorthodox, form of transferring information onto the map by means of replicating a template, although not every place marked on the map has associated pinholes; many were just inserted into an appropriate space,” noted Dr Delano-Smith in the 2017 article New Light on the Medieval Gough Map of Britain (Imago Mundi 69).

The research team has further established that the map is an amalgamation of three successive layers of work: layer one shows the whole of Britain from Scotland to the English Channel; layer two is a reworking of that map south of Hadrian’s Wall; and layer three is a re-inking of place-names in the south-eastern/central quadrant of England.

That’s the general stratigraphy of the map, and it looks like these reworkings took place over the course of a century or so, but dating is difficult, as Dr Delano-Smith explains: “It is such a hotch-potch that it’s very difficult to work out precisely. On the whole, the map seems to come from the decades just before and just after c1400, with some later additions.”

Fossilised features

The pinholes, it’s proposed, reflect the copying of a now lost proto-map from the reign of Edward III – which itself probably incorporated some information dating back to Edward I – onto which new material was added in the second half of the 14th century and later. In this way, it could be said that the map we see today contains a number of fossilised features, making the chronology the map represents all the more tricky to disentangle. Wales, for example, did not attract much interest from the English crown after c1300, while for Edwards I to III, Scotland was arguably the overriding political concern up to 1335 as they tried to make good the English claim, conducting a number of campaigns. All sorts of events and interests, though, might account for a particular place being marked on the map.

So it is the complex political context of that period in British history that’s going to be an area of focus for the Gough Map project team now. Certainly it seems that the map had a long working life, though exactly what it was used for, and by whom, is still very much a matter for research.

Useless for getting from A to B

One thing to squash is the idea that it’s a map for travelling or a map with pilgrimage routes. If you’ve got places on a map, you can always work out the general direction in which your destination lies and create an itinerary -assuming the places are shown in correct spatial order – but until modern times, for finding the way as you rode or walked you relied on local information gained stage by stage. In fact, travellers would have found the Gough Map useless both for way-planning and way-finding. It’s hopelessly inaccurate in that respect,” says Dr Delano-Smith.

This leaves the question of what the map was for. If it was used by different people over a long period of time, it could of course have had various purposes to match their particular interests. At present Dr Delano-Smith does wonder if it might have fulfilled the role of an office document of some sort. Something to use and be referred to by the growing body of bureaucrats and administrators working within the apparatus of government in England.

It certainly shows evidence of wear and tear from being rolled and unrolled over the years, and of being pored over: as “Over the years readers and users of the map […] looked at it from the same side,” the 2017 article notes, “their garments gradually rubbed out the markings in southwest England and Wales to illegibility and occasionally invisibility.”

One line of thought that Dr Delano-Smith’s team is considering at the moment, as she is going to outline more fully in a forthcoming article, is that it might be more profitable to attempt to assess the map’s usefulness as a strategic document connected to the crown’s need, at a time of heightened military and economic pressure, to move resources about the kingdom on an unprecedented scale.

Wondering about Hadrian’s Wall

It’s interesting that the line of Hadrian’s Wall is described on the Gough Map as the Pict’s Wall. As Dr Delano-Smith points out, this name was taken, like the crenellated line itself, from one of Matthew Paris’s maps of Britain (c1250). But as I was looking at that, I was reminded of a conversation I’ve had recently on our podcast with Professor Gordon Noble and Dr Nick Evans about the Picts. In that podcast, we talked about the phasing out of Pictish language and identity in the ninth century AD, so I was curious about why this wording was still in play several hundred years later, and I dropped Dr Evans an email to ask him if this might be some sort of slight from an English scribe.

It appears, though, that the association of the Roman walls in Northumbria with the Pictish inhabitants to the north had a long history. The name could have come, Dr Evans explained, from “late Roman writers and Bede, who attributed the building of the Roman walls to Septimius Severus, although I don’t think the Picts were specified as their enemies”, as well as from “Gildas’s De Excidio Brittanniae, which had both walls being built against the Picts by the Romans near the end of Roman Britain”.

From these texts, Evans adds, “the idea went into ‘Historia Brittonum’, which got a relatively wide circulation in England and the Continent from about 1100 onwards. In addition, in the 12th century, the Gaels of Galloway sometimes were called Picts (for instance in Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the battle of the Standard in 1138), and were regarded as savages.”

The Anglo-Saxon world map

One way or the other, the Gough Map is a map with a possible political context. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world map, otherwise known as the Cotton map from its location in the British Library, where it is preserved in MS Cotton Tiberius B.v. It’s thought to date from 1020–1050, and to have been produced in England (in Canterbury perhaps) in the reign of King Cnut or his successors. As the British Library description notes, this world map “contains the earliest known, relatively realistic depiction of the British Isles, seen in the bottom left hand corner of this map”. At the top of the rectangular, full-page map, we see the east of the inhabited world, and a lion standing over part of Asia. The ocean surrounds the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Incidentally, this rather splendid map has just won the Twitter ‘world cup of maps’, in a bit of fun orchestrated by the British Library on social media.

I noticed that Dr Helen Appleton at Balliol College, Oxford, has written an interesting analysis of this map recently in her article The northern world of the Anglo-Saxon mappa mundi (Anglo-Saxon England, v47), so I dropped her a line to talk about it. She explained to me that it’s an outlier in the tradition of medieval mappae mundi (maps of the world), for the simple fact that it’s earlier than most of the others (the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi is dated to c1300 for instance). Also, however, it differs in content: “In most of the later larger mappae mundi, you will have an episode from the life of Christ somewhere in the map. So you’ll get the crucifixion or maybe the nativity shown. And so there’s a very obvious Christian overlay on world history that’s being presented visually by the map, and this map doesn’t do that. So compared to these other maps, it’s very unusual. But on the other hand, it’s a couple of hundred years earlier than them. So it may be representative of its time.”

What it does do is pay particular attention to the British Isles, as Dr Appleton points out in her article: “The Anglo-Saxon mappa mundi is notably rather independent of other cartographic traditions. In particular, it is unusually accurate concerning the shape and inhabitants of Northwestern Europe and offers an exceptionally exact depiction of the British Isles – not until the 13th-century work of Matthew Paris is a better representation made.”

Anglo-Saxon interests

So why is that? Dr Appleton has carried out a detailed inspection of what’s in the map and concluded that “the geography represented on the Anglo-Saxon Map can be seen as an expression of later-Anglo-Saxon interests in the arrangement of space and power”. She sees the map as “the product of an island culture keen to emphasize its connections to Rome, its place in the history of empires, and its links to the rest of the world. The Anglo-Saxon mappa mundi is a fundamentally outward looking document, albeit one that declares its vantage point to be in the north-west. The place of Britain on the map asserts its prominence; it occupies the north-western corner of the map, surrounded by sea, rather than squashed against the boundary, as it is on later maps such as the Hereford mappa mundi.”

So this is where the political context comes in again, and once more it relates to a fossilisation of political ideas from an earlier proto-map. Dr Appleton continues: “I’m arguing that the map, as we have it, is almost certainly a copy of a larger map. And so I was trying to think about when and where and why the larger map would have been produced. So I looked at the history of cartography and how and why maps were used in Europe in the early medieval period. And they very much associated with political power and ideas of control.

“So it made sense to think about the 10th century in England as a kind of logical place for production, because we know that you’ve got the kings Edward the Elder and Athelstan. They were very politically ambitious rulers who were wanting to assert England’s place at a moment of decline in power of the Carolingian empire. This creates an opportunity to become more politically influential,” continues Dr Appleton.

“We know that Athelstan was acquiring a lot of material associated with Charlemagne and the Carolingians, and imitating that sort of mapping is a kind of statement of imperial power. It’s pretty speculative, and unprovable, but it would be a logical point really.”

Two maps, two different expressions – perhaps of English attempts to have more of a standing on the world stage.

Silk Route of the Sea

As an addendum, it just so happens that I’ve been talking to Professor David Abulafia recently for the HistoryExtra podcast about his Wolfson Prize-winning book The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, and particularly the connections engendered by oceanic travel and communication in the earlier medieval period. Looking at a map like the Anglo-Saxon mappa mundi, produced in England but showing the world, it does make one wonder how far someone living in Europe or the Middle East in the Middle Ages would have known about China and the East, the places that feature on the top of the map. I asked Professor Abulafia precisely that, and you can listen to the podcast to hear his reply to that, and his evocative description of the Silk Route of the Sea.


David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the full medieval matters blog series here