SLIDE #232

TITLE: Hidgen World Maps
ca. 1350
Ranulf Higden
More or less elaborate diagram-maps, in the tradition of the early medieval world maps, were still being produced in the 14th and 15th centuries. One of them, in various versions, appears in copies of a compendious and immensely popular universal Latin history book, the Polychronicon, written in the mid-14th century by Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk at Chester (ca. 1299-1363). That he was English may be significant given the English associations of the group of world maps that include the Ebstorf and Hereford maps (Slides #224 and #226 ). A testimony to its popularity, some 120 surviving manuscript copies of Polychronicon are illustrated by a world map, all having similar geographical content, but their individual form and shape vary considerably. On some the map is circular, on some a pointed oval ("vesica piscis" [fish bladder] or mandorla type), and on some it is a rounded oval. The circular Higden maps are thought to be simplifications of the earlier oval maps, and they certainly appear in later manuscripts. Rome and Jerusalem are always prominent, but are rarely placed in the center of the map.

An example of Higden's mandorla or almond-shaped maps is shown here, perhaps representing a common Christian symbol of the aureole surrounding Christ. This example measures 35 by 21 cm and is oriented with east at the top. It uses place-names to show relative positions/locations and virtually no attempts to draw the actual landmasses or bodies of water.

The classic example of the use of an oval shape for a world map by Higden is shown here on this late 14th century copy, where it occupies a double page, 46 x 34 cm. It is oriented with east at the top, Jerusalem near its center and the heads around the map represent the twelve winds. Not too surprising, in Britain (shown in the color red, lower left) there are more town symbols than are shown for all the rest of Europe. In fact, there are some 39 castellated towns throughout the entire world map, 14 of which are in England alone, while there are only four throughout all the continent of Africa. Not all of these town symbols are the same, for instance Jerusalem, Rome, Babylon, and Compostella (?) are quite unique, large cathedral-like drawings with considerable more detail than the other identified towns. Higden uses red lines to separate specified geographic areas. The few mountains that are displayed are colored green like the oceans.

The water areas are shown in green (except for the Red Sea shown in red). The Nile River is shown to run west to east across Africa without emptying into any larger body of water. Islands are shown as blocks of text throughout the sea or ocean. There 12 wind-blowers surrounding the map. This copy is thought to be closest to the original prototype. The oval shape of Higden's maps and its simplification, the vesica piscis, is a particular characteristic of his, but not original. Skelton implies that a lost prototype (which may have been a large world map such as that referred to by Matthew Paris a century earlier) was probably circular and that the oval shape was an adaptation to the shape of the codex leaf. It is more likely, however, that the oval shape was derived from the practice described by Hugh of Saint Victor of drawing maps in the supposed shape of Noah's ark (which, by the way, is actually pictured at center-left).

The world map of Higden derived as usual from a variety of Roman sources, is found in the first book, and some 21 extant examples can be traced to the 1342 London manuscript of the Polychronicon for which stemmata have been developed by Konrad Miller, with modifications by R.A. Skelton.

LOCATION: British Library, London

*Bagrow, L., History of Cartography, pp. 71-72, plate XXI.
*Destombes, M., Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500, #47.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume I, pp. 312-13, 325, 327, 348, 352-53, plate 15 (color).
*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, p. 37, plate 26 (color).
*Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 182, 186.


Late Medieval Maps