Symbolic space - constitution on the edge

Functionality of limiting depictions on maps in the middle ages and the early modern times

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 2+


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2. Medieval Mappae Mundi – Ebstorf and Hereford
2.1. Simultaneity of the Non-Simultaneous
2.2. Facing the Unknown – Monster-Galleries

3. Early Modern Time Cartography
3.1. The Map that Named America
3.2 Two Maps of a Very Later Period

4. Conclusions and Prospects


Figure 1: The Ebstorf-map
Figure 1.2: The Ebstorf-map (detail of the monstrous races on the right edge)

Figure 2: The Hereford-map
Figure 2.1 : The Hereford-map (detail of the monstrous races on the right edge)


Reference List

1 Introduction

Not only since the initiation of cartography-history medieval maps and those of the early modern times intrigued but also bothered modern viewers. It is evident that in any map the world is presented as flat. This fact resulted in the assumption, medieval mind considered the world as a flat disc. Be that as it may, it is hard to decide or maybe impossible to find out, whether the presumed technical inability of creating three- dimensional representations of the world (like globes) truly leads to a limited two- dimensional worldview in the middle ages. Especially if we assume that antique knowledge was passed on succeeding generations, knowing that already Aristoteles declared the earth as a compelling round sphere. Nevertheless it is remarkable that there seems to be a development of mapping, changing through differing concepts and differing utilization of maps in various fields. This change of different modes of depictions of the world was over years used by generations of scientists[1] to postulate a successive development from somewhat religious maps (like the Hereford-map, the Ebstorf-map and other medieval T-O-maps)[2] to scientific maps like the Waldseemüller- map or other later maps.

Using this kind of chronological order is in my context misleading, for it implicates a coherence in mapping over a „grand durée“ which does not meet the diversified sources. Thus, it is rather promising to re-contextualize the T-O-Maps and regard them as a kind of “geography of meaning” as Marina Münkler did.[3] In postulating the primacy of fixed locus and the inessentiality of measurement in those artefacts, the early modern measuring maps can be considered as first attempts for a mathematical-precise opposite.

Following this approach means taking a closer look at the maps and trying to find out what kind of world is depicted there, what exactly is represented and, in a matter of space perception as this essays questioning demands, what spaces are depicted and how they are delimited.

Upon this closer examination a methodological closer consideration of the use of the maps and its rules and conditions is indispensable. Maybe a differentiation between depicted world models, as the considered period covers howbeit the birth of measuring geography,[4] results in a distinction of differing depicted spaces. This way possibly the edge-phenomena variations like monsters, cosmological signs and other symbols taken out of a rich knowledge-reservoir you may find in medieval as well as in early modern mapping, can maybe enlight the idea of the space that they are delimiting. In case of imposing restrictions on the topic, the following thoughts are based on single case studies of maps with differing edge-depicting practice between 1200 and 1760.

2. Medieval Mappae Mundi – Ebstorf and Hereford

First of all a try of describing medieval mapping: the maps treated here[5] are presented with an easterly alignment, so the top of the map is shown as place of the paradise, the origin of the creation and sunrise. Both maps are extraordinary in size: The Ebstorf-map measures 3.58 by 3.56 meters, the Hereford map 1.65 by 1.34 meters. By this, all pictorial signatures and textual explanations or descriptions are viewable down to the smallest detail. The text on the maps is mainly latin, in case of the Hereford-map combined with some Old French.

Both maps present a round landmass more or less deeply rutted by rivers and seas. On the Ebstorf-map the T-O-scheme is not that clearly implemented or viewable beyound any doubt, like on the Hereford-map where a big shimmering T catces one’s eye. Anyhow the sign of the cross – symbolism is very present.

The centre of both maps is occupied with Jerusalem, in case of the Ebstorf -map additionally a biblic resurrection scene with a risen Jesus performing a blessing gesture is shown. The Hereford-map presents close to Jerusalem another bible scene – a crucified savior. By putting the salvation history in such an exposed position, the main interpretation instruction for the recipients is set. Moreover by putting the east on top of the map, the viewers line of vision is quiete the same like during the service in the church. But this game of definite sacred signs and reading instruction is continued and fortified: On both maps at least a second depiction of Jesus is placed nearby the top, on the Hereford-map as Supreme Judge of the the Last Judgement with arms outspread, on the Ebstorf-map as head of an four-part world-embracing or better encompassing beeing (his hands can be found on the left and right edge, his feet on bottom).[6]

In my oppinion these dual depictions of the savior shows the manner of operation: what is shown is more than just a geographical orbis terrarum. It is an imago mundi – not as depiction of a geographical understood space but a portrait of a world of knowledge or meaning on different stages.

2.1. Simultaneity of the Non-Simultaneous

What you can see in these images of Jesus is a depiction of time while showing salvation history. As Naomi Reed Kline extrapolates on the Hereford map, there is a time- framing on the edge, showing a medieval conception of oneself in a religous-based time-structure: The frame can be read counter-clockwise as a timeline finding its end and final purpose in Christ in Majesty been textual extended by the inscription „Ecce testimonium meum“. Moreover around the final scene surmounting the map there are two heaven’s gates depicted, one opened, with assigned passion scenes (where there is the elect and the resurrected depicted twice auxiliary), another gate closed with an armed angel and a daemon leading the damned. In opposition to the Ebstorf-map, this enthroned Jesus performing the last judgement is located outside the worlds landmass above the map, and the depicted world is not understood as corpus christi.

Nevertheless it is remarkable, that despite the differing conception and framing of the whole, on both maps unsimultaneous events of salvation-history are present in a versatile image program simultaneously. Furthermore as we read these signatures the way Kline suggests - as a circular journey in time - the portrayed salvation history is bound to the time of the map creator. This self centeredness can also be found in the bottom-left corner of the Hereford-map below the seal, referring to him:

Tuz ki cest estorie ont · Ou oyrent ou / lirront ou ueront · Prient a ihesu en deýte· De Richard de hal · / dingham e de Lafford eýt pite ·Ki lat fet e compasse · Ki / ioie en cel li seit done[7]

Through this self-portrayal the map obviously shows a world understood as a temporal limited phenomenon, an “estorie” that can be “ont”, “oyront”, “lirront” or “ueront”, accounting the past the present and the eternal future. Thus it is presented on various stages of the all enclosing sacred timeline. By this, the medieval mappae mundi becomes a kind of map-version of those well known medieval chronicles like the Liber Chronicarum,[8] dealing with the same timecycle from creation to final Judgement.

But in the inscriptions of the hereford map there are also instances of reference, linking to classical knowledge, that a second timeframe the map is tied into becomes evident. Also in the frame there are superscriptions ascribing the theoretical or scientific background of the map to antique authorities as we read:


But the reference to classical knowledge is less easy than it seems. As antique knowledge usally is pagan, it cannot be simply referred on a christian map as appearing in the portayed salvation-history explained above. If we assume, that the referred surveyor of SEPTEMTRION ET OCCIDENS named TEODOCO is Theodosius I. there is no problem integrating this Emperor into a christian map, thus he was the one declaring Christianity as state religion in 381 on the 2nd ecumenical council in Constantinople. In case of the pagan Emperor IULIO CESARE (who is oddly enough identified with his adoptive Augustus) it’s a completely different state of affairs, hence he is a pre-Christian roman emperor and needs somehow to be “converted” to Christianity in order to serve as a valid source of information beyound any doubt:

The classical information processed (though needed for the map here), may be taken from Pliny who probably gathered it from Agrippa, concerning measures and location of places.[10] The Emperor instructing the enrollement of the world is shown with a mitre on his head[11] (sic!), assigned with an inscription, that interprets Lukes NT passage, where there was the order for a census, as the initiation of land surveying.[12] Both biblical and the classical contexts appear transformed to suit each other and fit proper to the cartographers semantic needs, using the ambiguity of the written records, requiring the world even enrolled, described or taxed.[13] Obviously the reference to the bible or better the visualization of belief is as important as the pagan authority, that in a complex construction both are merged. The interesting aspect of this transformation of knowledge from books into a map is not its intertextuality, or the way how biblical and pagan sources are used, it is its appearance on a map. Therefore we have to assume, that either T-O-maps are not a cartographic depiction of the world, or the reproduced world is of another kind.

2.2. Facing the Unknown – Monster-Galleries

As shown in framing, illustrating and inscripting modes so far, factuality of the shown or depicted map is much more than a measured world. Thus their pictorial reservoir contains lots of surprising items. The last sort I want to treat with, are located on the right border of either the Ebstorf- and Hereford-map. There is a whole gallery of deformed bodies (compare Illustration 3), monsters or mirabilia, preoccupying scientists more recent whereas older researches identified them just as signs of medieval predilection for the unusual or grotesque. On the Ebstorf-Map it is a special feature though the World is an implied christ’s body, the monsters are located on his left, sinister side, referring to the evil implications of left-handeness like Arnold and Walcott extrapolated.[14] The focus is mainly on a dissimilarity of the physis of the creatures as evident in the inscriptions of the Ebstorf-map:

Cynocefali canina habent capita et ora prominentia.

Gens sine naribus equali totius oris planitie deformem habet vultum.

Or the reason for their joining in the gallery bases on in their different behaviour :

Sunt Trogotite, quorum sunt tecta caverne.

Gens ista humanas carnes habet in usu.[15]

Thus in all cases the depicted beings are not only strange but marked with a deficit in comparison to humans.[16] By this, their integration into a conception of the world seems difficult, though the monsters are no representations of palpable experiences in the real world but there is books-evidence providing the knowledge about them as part of the creation. That is why the monsters are depicted inherent the same world, embraced in case of the Epstorf map by Jesus and this embracing-act’s implications.[17] The monsters get an indefinite transcendent status of strangeness by this, only spatial separated from the tangible world. Hence the problem changes to spatial means, generating the monsters ambivalent status, if we consider, on base of their integration into the Christian holism of creation, that their existence was presumed. In this case its quite plausible to argue like Marina Münkler and distinguish more precisely, based on Stagls[18] modes of transcendence, between interpersonal, inner-cultural, and inter-cultural spheres, where modes of strangeness are not directly based on the nexus of width of range and comprehensibility. By this the maps can be interpreted as a clasping of spheres where all stages of medieval worldview and knowledge are presented in a spatial ordered and a systematically composed way. If we keep in mind the self-identification or self-portrayal as an “estorie” as shown above, it is moreover plausible to understand the distance between central Europe (the group-spere of the mapmakers and its recipients) and the edge as a temporal transcendence and the depicted distance in space as its transformation.

Thus it is remarkable that by generating this distance and an ordered placement, monsters on the edge seem to work in a symbolic way. As argued above, there was always a reference to implications that any depictions on the maps bear. Understanding the monsters on the edge as symbols produces the same problem of their contemporary interpretation. Though symbolism-science agrees about the either ambiguous status of symbols, and their variating implications,[19] in my context requirements are fulfilled by understanding monster depictions as symbolism for the both strange and far away sphere, delimiting the world.


[1] The problem of this modern interpretation of medieval maps is the supposed comparison with a scientific tradition, based on a measurable localization of place with Latitude and Longitude. Thus geographers got lots of problems with the T-O-maps, a result of handling the Maps like geographic items, e.g. comparing coastlines without regarding the special status of the maps as G.R. Crone does. Compare: Crone, 1965, pp. 449–451.

[2] The term T-O-maps refers on the sharing of the world between the three tribes of Noahs sons Sem, Japhet and Cham. As described in Gen. 9.19-10.32 this is based on Chams incident, seeing his father under the influence of wine lying naked in his tent. As a result Noah punishes Chams descendants by making them servants of the tribes of Japhet and Sem. The following passage describes all these tribe's dependence concluding in the statement “haec familiae Noe iuxta populos et nationes suas ab his divisae sunt gentes in terra post diluvium” (Gen. 10.32): This bible passage was interpreted in medieval mapping, presenting the world as a tripartite round (O-alike) landmass. The T was formed from the Tanais (Don), separating Asia and Europe, the Nile, separating Asia and Africa, and the Mediterranean, separating Europe and Africa. It is essential to consider like WU Liwei does, that there is no bestowing act described in the bible and just a interpretation of “higly and lowly branches of human being” made the European Christians to develop “such idea into a conception of world geograp geography”. Compare: Liwei, 2008, p. 356.

[3] Compare: Münkler, 2002, p. 217.

[4] As John Rennie Short explains there are European Maps before the grid and those after. This consideration is in my opinion false thus it implicates a coherence in mapmaking development. Compare Short, 2004, pp. 17f.

[5] I’ll limit my observations on the following two T-O-maps (compare figures 1-2):
1. The Ebstorf-map (Figure 1.): Made approximately in 1300, named by a benedictine monastery where it was discovered in 1830, destroyed 1943 during WW2. Therefore all considerations about the Ebstorf-map are based on photos and other reproductions. Compare: Wilke, 2001.
2. The Hereford-Map (Figure 2.): Made approximately in 1280, located in the cathedral in Hereford (GB). Compare: Kline, 2003.

[6] By the Ebstorf-map’s depiction of the world as christ‘s body, the position of Jerusalem is not only center but also physical the navel of the World - proverbial meaning in german somebody the whole world revolves around.

[7] Translation: „All who have, or shall hear or read or see this history, pray to jesus in godhead that he may have mercy on Richard of haldinghan or of Lafford who has made and contrived it, that joy may be given to him in heaven”.

[8] Hartmann Schedel: Liber Chronicarum, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493. The book was published in latin and german. Compare Schedel, 2003 (Facsimile of the latin version) and Schedel, Füssel, Lamers-Schütze, & Steinbrecher, 2001 (Facsimile of the german version).

[9] These inscriptions are located as a banderole in the framing of the map. The order of presentation here is clockwise, beginning top-left.

[10] Compare: Sallmann, 1971, p. 207.

[11] Its not sure if the depicted headgear is a Christian mitre or a, caused by the cross on its top, can be identified as a papal tiara, as Valerie Flint argues. Compare: Flint, 1998, p. 22.

[12] The insription „Lucas in evvangelio. Exiit edictum ab augusto caesare ut describeretur huniversus orbis” links to Luke 2.1.

[13] That is what the possible translations or interpretations for “describeretur” are.

[14] Compare: Arnold & Walcott, 1996, p. 33.

[15] All latin Quotes taken from the facsimile/translation/explanation project online. Compare: Warnke, 1999.

[16] These descriptions of monsters are mainly taken from Pliny, for a whole list of his monsters compare: Ziegler, Sontheimer, & Pauly, a 2007, pp. 120ff. and Short, 2004, pp. 9ff..

[17] Also the Hereford-map shows the monsters inside the the same world, esp. if we consider the framing as a sign for divine order, the implications are the same. Moreover its remarkable that on the Hereford-map the monsters are widespread distributed over all parts of the non-European world, as Naomi Reed Kline lists them in section “Strange Races”. Compare: Kline, 2001.

[18] Stagl differentiates between small, middle-sized, and large transcendent modes of strangeness each based on a special spatial distance defining a personal-sphere, group-spere or a sphere beyond the tangible world. Compare: Stagl, 1997, pp. 97–99.

[19] Jánosz M. Bak argues, that the meaning of a symbol, understood as something fixed, does not implicate the same meaning in all minds of its interpreters, but meaning of the same field or sphere: „Es ist keineswegs sicher, daß alle, die ein Symbol als 'als für etwas stehendes', begreifen, das gleiche dabei vernehmen, doch ist es anzunehmen, daß ihnen die eine Idee im gleichen Umkreis ins Gedächtnis kommt.“ Bak, 1992, p. 116.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Symbolic space - constitution on the edge
Functionality of limiting depictions on maps in the middle ages and the early modern times
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Geschichtswissenschaft)
Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte der Bildung europäischer Räume in der frühen Neuzeit
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ISBN (eBook)
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Symbolic, Kultur-, Geistesgeschichte, Bildung, Räume, Neuzeit
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Bob Göhler (Author), 2008, Symbolic space - constitution on the edge, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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