Social Education 55(6) pps. 355-357
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Gerald A. Danzer
One of the earliest types of maps printed in Europe-"T-in-O" maps-appeared at the end of a long tradition of manuscript diagrams of the world. The T, or terra, represents the inhabited earth; the O, or orbis, stands for the circle of the world or the ring of the ocean in which the ecumene is enclosed. Over one thousand such maps survive in medieval manuscripts.
Figure 1, a woodcut by Gunther Zainer, is a small illustration from a page of text in Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (1472), the first printed edition of a compilation of knowledge dating back to the seventh century a.d.
Isidore, Bishop of Seville, compiled his encyclopedia about a.d.630. The volume was actually a compilation of compilations, using as its sources similar works, and summing up the knowledge of classical authors and the teachings of the church fathers. Books 13 and 14 addressed geography, and a T-in-O map became a regular feature in the manuscript copies of the section on the world as a whole. The work, more remarkable for the scope of its content than the depth of its thought, remained a popular work up to the end of the Renaissance. At least seven printed versions appeared between 1472 and 1500.
This simple diagram is often used in textbooks to illustrate the medieval worldview. Understanding this simple drawing, a teacher can use it as a key to more elaborate T-in-O maps such as the one featured on the cover of the September issue of Social Education. In this way, the map lesson will be more than an elementary skill-building activity-it will be a tool for further analysis and broader understanding. It will become a window to another world. With some understanding of medieval maps, students will be encouraged to look at the maps of their own time and place with new insights. In the end, they will recognize their own maps as cultural documents and reflections of our society's worldview.
Looking at the Map as a Whole
T-in-O maps are simple diagrams showing how the earth was arranged according to Christian concepts. They were meant to provide a general view of the world, not to delineate the shape of continents or actual distances and directions. The suggestion of a cross, apparent in the map, later caused them to be seen as theological or devotional statements as well.
The general image of the map, however, carried on a tradition of visualizing the whole world that antedated Christianity. The early Mesopotamian world map, for example, similarly represented the earth as a circle surrounded by an "Earthly Ocean." (See the second article in this series, "The Oldest World Map," in the September issue of Social Education.) The first printed map thus incorporated a basic image nearly two thousand years old. The Greeks and Romans continued the Mesopotamian tradition of illustrating the earth as a circle of land surrounded by water. They also divided the land into the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, each marked off by a body of water. The medieval mind then adapted this "T" to divide waters for Christian purposes.
The prototype for these medieval maps may have been a celebrated "Orbis Terrarum" map sponsored by the emperor Augustus about 12 b.c. It was displayed in Rome for the edification of its citizens. Simplified copies were then made for individual study; these outlines may have furnished the basis for Isidore's drawing.
Woodward (1986) suggests that T-in-O maps and other mappaemundi (medieval maps of the world) should be seen as expressions of time as well as of space because medieval cartographers added references to the Creation, the Fall, Redemption, Judgment, and the Life Hereafter to the basic model of the earth.
The relationship between the shape of the map and the shape of the earth has fueled much current discussion. It is often assumed that T-in-O maps suggest a flat or a disk-shaped earth. Such a view, however, insists on seeing the medieval maps in terms of modern projections rather than as schematic diagrams. (For a fuller discussion on this point, see Woodward 1986, 517-519). In general, medieval world maps were more concerned with the essence of the earth than with its shape or surface features.
Looking at the Map: Parts and Details
Directions. The map is "oriented" to the direction of the rising sun, an ancient tradition. In the Christian view, paradise was located far to the east. Thus, it was properly placed at the top of the map:
Oriens = east, the rising sun
Occidens = west, the setting sun
Meridies = south, the midday sun
Septentrio = north, the seven stars of Ursa Major, or the seven plough oxen
The Ocean Sea. The protean ocean sea from which land arises is a common theme in many mythic traditions. The biblical stories of the Creation and the Flood relate to this idea. Note how the encircling waters in this map are divided from the seas and rivers that form the T between the continents.
The Continents. The continents were labeled according to the classical nomenclature. Each one was then assigned to one of the sons of Noah, reflecting the division of the world in Genesis. Shem (Sem), the oldest son, was represented by the larger birthright portion in Asia. Ham (Cham) and Jafeth were represented by Africa and Europe respectively.
The "T" Waters. The stem, labeled "Mediterraneum," is self-explanatory. The crossbar, the river of the great sea, represents the waters stretching from the Danube or Don River through the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas, and then up the Nile River. Today we would probably use the Red Sea in place of the Nile, but convention dictated the symmetry of having rivers both in the south and in the north.
Decorations. The artist apparently could not resist adding a few decorative flourishes to this plain woodcut. Note the marks around "Asia" and the wavy lines in the "Mare Oceanun."
Locations. If the reader were to elaborate Isidore's map in the mind's eye, he or she could visualize Paradise at the top of the map, Jerusalem in the center, and the Pillars of Hercules at the bottom.
The importance of the mappaemundi in the development of Western thought should not be overlooked, no matter how simple the sketch nor to which allegorical uses it was put. The idea that the earth was understandable, that it assumed a certain form, and that one could place the events of biblical history as well as one's own experience into a readily understood cosmographical scheme-these were all important ingredients in shaping a course for scientific advancement.
One might well ponder whether a similar simple diagram of the earth might be useful in the twentieth century. Perhaps the inability of U.S. students to envision the world as a geographic entity results from their encountering elaborate and technically accurate globes and world maps without first developing a satisfactory or compelling mental image.
Andrews, Michael C. "The Study and Classification of Medieval Mappae Mundi." Archaeologia 75 (1926): 61-76. A simple introduction that develops a system for classifying medieval maps and includes helpful illustrations.Bagrow, Leo. History of Cartography. Rev. ed., edited by R. A. Skelton. London: C. A. Watts and Co., 1964. Chapter 3, "The Christian Middle Ages," emphasizes connections between Roman maps and medieval cartography.Brehaut, Ernest. An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912. The most detailed study of Isidore in English.Bricker, Charles, and R. V. Tooley. A History of Cartography: 2500 Years of Maps and Mapmakers. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.Crone, Gerald Roe. "New Light on the Hereford Map." Geographical Journal 131 (1965): 447-462. This key article establishes the Roman antecedents for the most elaborate of the mappaemundi.________. Maps and Their Makers. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1968. Relates the T-in-O tradition to the "Orbis Terrarum" of Augustus, and it, in turn, to a tradition extending back to Babylonian culture.Destombes, Marcel, ed. Mappemondes, a.d. 1200-1500. Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1964. An illustrated catalog that is a starting point for modern scholarship on the topic.Kimble, George H. T. Geography in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1938. Still a helpful source, although it perhaps separates the medieval world too sharply from its classical antecedents.Saxl, Fritz. Lectures. London: Warburg Institute, 1957. Chapter 1, "Illustrated Mediaeval Encyclopaedias," is a good introduction by a celebrated art historian.Woodward, David. "Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75 (1986): 510-521. Makes a plea for considering the time dimension on all maps._______."Medieval Mappaemundi." In The History of Cartography, edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. A thorough discussion of medieval world maps focusing on a scheme for classifying them. Isidore is discussed on pages 301-302.