The Role of the Town in Medieval and Early Modern Cartography
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
For centuries cartography was limited by tradition and rigid patterns. This resulted from the special role attributed to medieval maps. Let us recall that in comparison with our contemporary concept of the map, its function was understood quite differently: not as an accurate smaller representation of certain parts of the Earth but adjusted to a didactic and moralizing function. The purpose of the map was to illustrate sacred history by presenting elements of theology, depicting places on Earth of particular importance from this point of view. The actual layout of waters and lands was not of paramount importance; space was subject to hierarchy and subordinate to a defined superior idea. One may state that at that time the map did not constitute – by what we understand today – a reflection but a depiction of the world. Town centres played a significant role among sacred places in the city, but their placement and presentation were far from the real geographical location as they only reflected the elements of the convention binding at that time. In this situation on medieval maps we observe what we already have mentioned – a clear valuation of space – with particular attention paid to places located in the centre of the map. In short, we find two traditions in cartography of that time, one originating in Roman times, which placed Rome in the centre and the second, increasingly prominent from the twelfth century, which placed Jerusalem in the centre. The latter pattern, in particular, was applied to the mappae mundi for a long time but with the progress of discoveries it became increasingly questioned. Fra Mauro, a renowned Venetian cartographer from the fifteenth century, showed clear reservations about placing Jerusalem in the centre of the known world. However, he did not have enough courage to reject the church vision of space. Nevertheless, the period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which is of interest to us here, brought about fundamental changes and revaluation in geography and cartography.
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