minima maxima sunt

The Small things are the Great things; as in a grain of mustard seed.

Orbis Terrarum

Circle of Lands

The Latin Orbis Terrarum, translates as the circle of lands, but simply means “The World“. It’s used in the titles of several early maps, such as this world map from “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum” by Abraham Ortelius (1570), which translated means “Theater of the World“.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1570

Another example would be the “Orbis terrarum typus de integroin plurimis emendatus auctus et icunculis illustratus“, which roughly translates as “The World pictured as a whole with many improvements, enlarged and wonderfully illuminated”.

Orbis terrarum typus de integroin plurimis emendatus auctus et icunculis illustratus c. 1660

Both of these examples come after the discovery of the “New World” as can be seen not only from the dates on the maps, but also from the addition of a very recognizable North and South America. Every one knows the story of Christopher Columbus setting sail in 1492, and his struggle with the ignorance of people in the 15th century who thought he would sail off the end of the world. This is a modern myth which strangely enough was still being taught when I was in school, even though the myth was debunked long ago.

The real problem Columbus had to contend with was not a round vs. a flat Earth, but opposing views on just how big the Earth really was. More on this can be found here at the excellent site of Bede’s Library. It was C.S. Lewis who first brought this to my attention in his book “God in the Dock“, in the chapter called Religion and Science, where he points out that the earth being a globe as well as it being a great distance from the stars, was understood from Ptolemy’s Almagest, which is said to be “the standard astronomical handbook used all through the middle ages.”.

To me it didn’t really pose a problem that people believed in a flat earth or in a geocentric universe for that matter. I just figured that people are people and deal with what they know. If they didn’t have rockets or telephones or if they hadn’t sailed around the world then what could be expected? During the enlightenment people believed in a static universe, now we understand that the universe wasn’t always around. It came into existence with a bang. Maybe in a few more centuries we will know something completely different about the universe and people then will look back and think we were in a “dark age”. Or there may be people who see how well the ancients did with what they had. And it’s here that I have to ask myself, if I had lived in those days would mapping the earth, or trying to discern it’s shape and place in the universe have been on my mind? I honestly cannot answer, but it’s clear that the science of those days was not as dark as I had thought; and that startled me.

Mappae Mundi

Mappa Mundi from La Fleur des Histoires. 1459-1463

This is where it gets interesting. So far we have seen a few examples of maps after Columbus, who set sail as noted in 1492 and returned with news of the new continent discovered in 1493. What about maps before this time? Well there were the Mappae Mundi, which were more of a symbolic map sometimes containing absolutely no detail except for demarcation. A zone for Europe, Africa and Asia and sometimes the Antipodes which was a theoretical land on the other side of the world.

The idea of an antipodes comes before Christ, from a dialogue of Plato, where he discusses the spherical world. From the Greek it means opposed (anti) to the foot (pous). In the Latin usage it also theorized a people who lived on the other side of the earth.

A medieval T-O map representing the world as described by St. Isidore in his Etymologiae.

Some of the Mappae Mundi are also referred to as a T and O map.. (Orbis Terrarum). The one to the left you can see the circle of the earth “O” and inside a “T” formed by the waters of the Mediterranean separating the lands. The same can be found on the Mappa above from La Fleur des Histoires. However the Mappae Mundi were not confined to mere schematics, and representation: several were more detailed maps of the known world, which date back from the Middle Ages to B.C. and most represent the world as a circle (orbis).

Pictured below is a Map from 1482, which was made based on information from Ptolemy’s Geographia (c 150). The known world is very recognizable and clearly leaves the unknown world (terra incognito) open to discovery. Notice how Africa stretches across the bottom of the map and eventually connects with Asia.

Map reconstructed from Ptolemy's Geographia -1482

The real fascination for me is that it’s just fun to look at maps. (This is probably from peering over maps of Middle Earth when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a child.) It’s interesting to see the development of cartography, how oceans and land mass were drawn and corrected as well as the wonderful art and imagination of the simpler Mappea Mundi. Along with these there are even some early globes, one of which dates to 1492, which is before Columbus returned with news of the new world in 1493, and another known as The Globe of Crates of Mallus(ca. 150 B.C.). It is truly a wonder how much knowledge men gained without satellites and GPS; especially when you consider that even today there are people who cannot find America on a map.

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One thought on “Orbis Terrarum

  1. Lady of Winchester on said:

    Have you ever heard of Bede’s work ‘On the Reckoning of Time’? In this book he states “”The reason why some days are of unequal length in the roundness of the world…it is not merely circular like a shield, or spread out like a wheel but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions”. I am a Student of Medieval History, and have known for some time that the idea Medieval people believed the earh was flat is a nonsensical fiction, but until I started doing some research on this subject I had no idea just how many Medieval writers clearly refer to the circularity of the globe. What amuses me with Geocentrism is some people’s apparent belief that the Church came up with this idea- they seemingly have no idea that this idea originated with the Ancient Greek writers. I like your blog, have you looked for any books about Medieval Science and technology? Could I also be so intrusive as to ask (because of your reference to C.S Lewis theological work) are you a Christian?

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