7. Mappa mundi

The fourfold division in place


The division in place is elementary. Where are we? Where is our position? This is the type of questions that every human being poses in an early stage of existence. Knowledge of the location is of prime importance. Or, like GROENEWEGEN-FRANKFORT (1951) put it in connection with the visual art: ‘The problem of space is a problem of relation. ‘Only with an active knowledge of the place and its possibilities are we able to survive’ (fig. 17).


Fig. 17 – The fourfold-division in place as a natural scheme. The classical ‘Tetragonus mundus‘ is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). He, indeed, summarized the scheme and moulded it in a well-developed philosophical system, but the roots are older. Four directions enclose a square world, divided in three parts (Asia, Africa, and Europe). South (Auster) is placed at the top and East (Oriens) to the left, which is in defiance with the present map drawing. The picture originates from a ninth century manuscript of Beda’s ‘De Natura rerum’ (Clm. 210, fol. 132v; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München) (ESSLING, 1909; BROWN,  1978).

To find a location is a matter of division of space and subsequent valuation of distances. The first positioning is based on a division-concept. The early history of geographic orientation in the Europe has many examples of a strong awareness of the importance of division, in particular, the three- and fourfold variety.

Konrad MILLER (1926/1986) referred in a contribution to the Arabian cartography (‘Zur Geschichte der arabischen Kartographie’) to the possible origin of the three-fold division of world-space. He placed the source of the first cartographic division (in Asia, Europe and Africa) at the joining point of these cultures in the Aegean Sea, on the isles of Rhodos and Samos and at Milete in Asia Minor.

This observation was supplemented by the remark that the Asian cultural influence pointed to a four-fold rather than to a three-fold division: the names of Europe and Africa do not occur in the Bible, and Asia is only mentioned as a Roman province. Furthermore, the Arabs in the Middle Ages did not use a three-fold division of the world. They imagined a cup-like appearance symbolized by the old-Sumerian sign (4000 BC) of two concentric circles: the inner circle as the earth, surrounded by sea and an outer circle. The ‘Four Corners of the Earth’ were known as ‘kanephot‘. They were the seat of the four winds and divided the world in four parts.

The history of the ‘mappa mundi‘ (world-maps) was divided in four subperiods by WOODWARD (in: HARLEY & WOODWARD, 1987; part 3: Medieval Mappae mundi, p. 286ff):

1. The ‘patristic period’ (of the Church fathers) from the beginning of the fifth to the end of the seventh century;

2. The period from Bede (672/73 – 735) to Lambert of Sint Omer (ca. 1100);

3. The period from Henry of Mainz (1100) to Richard of Haldingham (1300);

4. The last period, starting around 1209, was dominated by Franciscan monks. Roger Bacon (c. 1214 – 1294), John Duns Scotus (c. 1265 – 1306) and William of Occam (c. 1290 – c. 1349) were influential.

Unfortunately, Woodward did not state the criterion on which this division was based. It seems, likely, to be the ideological environment in historical time: a ‘classical’-patristic group, a missionary group, a cosmological group and finally a Franciscan group, all spaced over a period of nearly thousand years from 400 – 1400. Within these groups, the variety of forms is considerable. Some points of interest – with particular attention to the number of divisions in each group – will be highlighted here:

1. The world views of Crates (of Mallos), Macrobius, Orosius and Isidore of Seville are labeled together. They are typified as the ‘patristic group’ because they are also used by the Church fathers. Crates (c. 150 B.C) embodied the ‘older tradition’ of a four-parted world. In this view, the globe had four occupied quarters, bearing the names: Perioikoi, Oikomene, Antoikoi and Antipodes (fig. 18). Oikomene was the term originally used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to the inhabited earth.


Fig. 18 – The world-view of Crates of Mallos, c. 150 BC, a grammar scholar from Pergamum. He envisaged four inhabited quarters on the globe: Perioikoi, Oikomene, Antoikoi and Antipodes.

Macrobius (c. 395 – 436) used an elaborate method, with a Pythagorean undertone, to arrive at a five-fold division of a circle. Some hundred-and-fifty ‘mappae mundi‘ using Macrobius’ scheme are known. They became models for many medieval mappae mundi (ANDREWS, 1925).

The following quadruple procedure was used, which became known – some four hundred years later in the time of Rabanus Maurus (died 826 AD) – as the ‘ratiocinationis quadrivium‘ (fig. 19):

a. Division: Lines of 24, 30 and 36 degrees are drawn in a quarter-pie of a circle; this procedure results in a division of 4/60-, 5/60- and 6/60th parts of a quarter circle,

b. Definition: Lines are drawn (in a half-circle) through the intersection of the angle-lines with the circle (A, B). The result is a horizontal three-partition (of the quarter circle).

c. Demonstration: The mirror image of the half-circle three-division results in a six-division of a full circle.

d. Resolution: The mirror-plane is now left out and the full circle is divided in five parts, build up of the following division of the circle: 36, 30, 48 (24 + 24), 30 and 36 degrees.


Fig. 19 – The four stages, later known as the ‘ratiocinationis quadrivium’, to arrive at a ‘Macrobian’ world map, based on a five-division of a circle.

The writings of Paulus Orosius (c. 383 – post 417) had a great influence on later map makers, but no specific maps of this Christian historian are known. The knowledge was derived from his book ‘Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII’ (Seven Books of History against the Pagans’), which was dedicated to St. Augustine (354 – 430).

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636) was the most influential member of the ‘classical’ group. He lived around the same period as Gregorius (c. 540 – 604). His books ‘De natura rerum’ (612 – 615) and the ‘Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX’ (622 – 633) became the sources of references of much later mediaeval knowledge. He was influenced by Ambrose, Augustine, Boëthius, Cassiodorus, Lucretius, Lucan, Macrobius, Orosius, Pliny the Elder, Sallust, Servius and Solinus. Some six hundred and sixty ‘Isidorean’ world maps in manuscripts remained (DESTOMBES, 1964).

Often the ‘Isidorean’ maps were – without much criticism – associated with the so-called T-O maps, who got their name from a three-fold division of a circle: Asia in the upper half, Europe (left) and Africa (right) share the lower half (fig. 20). The biblical association with the sons of Noach – Sem, Japheth and Cham – was generally known.

Careful classification is essential here: most of these maps were, according to DESTOMBES (1964) and ARENTZEN (1984), copied between the eleventh and fourteenth century, thus in a different frame of mind with regards to the number of divisions used in a communication.


Fig. 20 – Three-fold division in map-making. 1. A T-O-map of Brunetto Latini, early fourteenth century (Bodleian Library, MS Douce 319); 2. From an eleventh century manuscript of a ‘Commentary on the Apocalypse of Sint John’ by Beatus of Liebana (Bibl. Nat. Paris, MS Lat. 8878, fol. 7r); 3. From a twelfth century manuscript of Bede’s ‘De natura rerum‘ (Bibl. Nat., Paris, MS Lat. 11130, fol. 82r); 4. World map of Isidore of Seville, 1492; printed by Gunther Zainer, Augsburg.

Von den BRINCKEN (1970, p. 264) states firmly that ‘eine Vierteilung nach den vier Weltreichen Daniels ist übrigens Kartographisch nicht belegt‘ and also: ‘Die T-Karte ist die weitaus verbreitetste Form der mittelalterlichen Karte.’ In a general sense this statement is true, like earlier figures in DESTOMBES’ catalogue (1964) of the ‘mappae mundi’ (between AD 1200 – 1500) confirm. The T-O-map was sanctioned by the Church and fitted in the three-fold way of thinking, which manifested itself in Europe after the year 1200. Scrutiny  of the total number of maps might actually show that the majority of T-O-maps were drawn in or after the twelfth century.

2. The second period in the drawing of ‘mappae mundi‘ is indicated from Bede (672/73 – 735) to Lambert of Sint Omer (c. 1100). They are loosely grouped as ‘missionary’. The world map of Bede is preserved in fifteen original manuscripts, and hundred-and-seventy-five secondary versions are known. In this same period Pope Zacharias (pope from 741 – 752) had a world map painted on the wall of the Lateran Palace (now lost). Charlemagne (described in the ‘Vita Karoli Magni‘) possessed three silver tables with pictures of Constantinople, Rome and the ‘whole world’. Another source of pictures came from the ‘Commentary on the Apocalypse of Saint John’ by Beatus of Liebana (between 776 – 787), copied in many ‘scriptoria‘ in Spain and Southern France (KLEIN, 1976). Towards the end of this period the encyclopaedic ‘Liber Floridus‘ of Lambert of Saint Omer provided many pictures of mediaeval conceptions (DEROLEZ, 1968) (fig. 21/22).

augustusFig. 21 – A miniature of Emperor Augustus with a mappa mundi in Lambert of St. Omer’s ‘Liber floribus’ . c. 1120. In: ARENTZEN (1984).

The ‘Liber Floridus‘ was composed in the years before 1120 and offers a broad survey of all types of divisions: fol. 19v en 20v mentioned the six periods of the world, fol. 24r the winds, fol. 24v the five zones of the earth and fol. 25v gives the positions of the moon, winds and elements (eight-division). Fol. 88r figures the elements and the year (Annus) on the ‘altare Dei‘, situated at the ‘abissus‘. Fol. 221v depicted the zones of Macrobius and the ‘Sphera Platonis‘. Finally, on fol. 241, a ‘Europa Mundi Pars Quarta‘ is visualized (fig. 22/23). These examples show that no particular division thinking is dominant in the ‘Liber Floridus‘.


Fig. 22 – Europa in four parts. Liber floribus. Gent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Ms 92, f. 241r. The numerological character (of the number 4, pars quarta) is obvious in this incomplete map.


Fig. 23 – The original ‘Liber floribus‘ (1121) in the Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM) exhibition ‘The world in a book’ from September 30th 2011 – January 8th 2012 (photo: Marten Kuilman, 27 November 2011).

3. The third period was fixed – according to Woodward (in: HARLEY & WOODWARD, 1987) – between Henry of Mainz (1100) and Richard of Haldingham (1300). This ‘cosmological group’ reflected a whole new approach to world and cosmos. Charles Homer HASKINS (1924/1960) called this renewal the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’. The tetradic way of thinking reached a new level of consciousness, but with ever-stronger numerological undertones. The Crusades to the Holy Land resulted in a fresh geographic awareness and the translations of the Arabs and Greek documents opened up long-forgotten worlds. This knowledge resulted in ever more elaborate maps.

The famous Ebstorf-map (1235) (fig. 24) and the Hereford-map (around 1290) showed, in the climax of the ‘allegorical’ cartography in the thirteenth century, a wealth on details and did not belong to any distinct type of division.


Fig. 24 – The central part of the Ebstorf mappa mundi shows the square city of Jerusalem. The original map was destroyed in World War II during the bombing of Hanover. A set of black and white photographs of the original map was taken in 1891. Several color copies were made before its destruction in 1943 (Wikipedia).

4. The last period has an overlap with the previous one and runs from 1209 to 1400. It is dominated by the work of Franciscan monks. Influential names were Roger Bacon (c. 1214 – 1294), John Duns Scotus (c. 1265 – 1306) and William of Occam (c. 1290 – c. 1349). The small, but very important book ‘De Sphaera‘ of John Sacrobosco (John of Holywood) is dated between 1220/30 and is therefore earlier than a book with the same title by Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253). The idea of a spherical world was well established. It contradicts the opinion of nineteenth century authorities that the earth of the thirteenth century scholars was thought of as flat.

An exceptional relict of the fourfold, ‘conceptual’ approach to map making can be found in a schoolbook for young clergyman, printed in 1475 in Germany (fig. 25).


Fig. 25 – A late conceptual, four-fold world view. From a woodcut in the ‘Rudimentum novitiorium‘, published in 1475 by Lucas Brandiss in Lübeck. The top of the map is to the east (Oriens) with the four rivers of Paradise flowing from it. At the center, the Holy Land Palestine (and Judea), but no special reference is made to Jerusalem. The land Ophir is in the south (to the right, Auster) and the Pillars of Hercules are visible to the bottom of the map (west). In: STRAUSS (1981).


The ‘Rudimentum Novitiorum‘ (Lübeck, 1475) in a colored version. The book was re-issued from new blocks from Paris in 1488 and Lyons in 1491. In: SHIRLEY (2001).

All these endeavors in map making reflected the basic need of humanity to locate themselves in a seemingly boundless space and draws attention to the problem of relation. In the end, it is the concept of division, which shapes this relation, and which makes it possible to bring structure in an otherwise incomprehensible environment.

The four directions – North, East, South and West – are now generally accepted as the basic division of place. They are – which is much less understood – the living examples of the possibility to think in a structural-spatial fourfold pattern.

ANDREWS, Michael C. (1925). The study and classification of medieval mappae mundi, Pp. 61-76 in:  Archeologia, Oxford, LXXV (1925-26).

ARENTZEN, Jorg-Geerd (1984). Imago Mundi Cartographica. Studien zur Bildlichkeit Mittelalterlicher Welt- und Oekumene Karten unter besonderer Berucksichtigung des Zusammenwirkens von Text und Bild. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munchen. ISBN 3-7705-2258-3

BRINCKEN,  von den, Anna-Dorothee (1970). “…Ut describeretur univer-sus orbis“.  Zur Universal Kartographie des Mittelalters. Pp. 249 – 278 in: ZIMMERMANN, Albert & HOFFMANN, Rudolf (Ed.). Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Band 7: Methoden in Wissenschaft und Kunst des  Mittelalters. Walter de Gruyter & Co, Berlin.

BROWN,  Hanbury  (1978).  Man and the  Stars.  Oxford  University  Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-851001-2 (Ann Ronan Library).

DESTOMBES, Marcel (Ed.) (1964). Mappemondes AD 1200 – 1500. Catalogue préparé par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Geographique Internationale. N. Israel, Amsterdam.

ESSLING,  Prince d’ (1909).  Les Livres a figures venitiens de la  fin  du XVe Siecle et du Commencement du XVIe.  Librairie Leo  S.  Olschki, Florence/Librairie Henri Leclerc, Paris.

GROENEWEGEN-FRANKFORT, H.A. (1951). Arrest and Movement. An Essay on Space and Time in the representational Art of the ancient Near East. Faber and Faber Limited, London.

HARLEY, J.B. & WOODWARD, David (1987). The History of Cartography. Vol. I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterramean. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/ London.

HASKINS,  Charles H. (1924/1960). Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York.

– (1927). The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

MILLER,  Konrad (1926/1986).  Mappae Arabicae. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, Reihe B, Geisteswissenschaften, Nr. 65; GAUBE, Heinz (Ed.)/Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden. ISBN 3-88226-293-1

SHIRLEY, Rodney W. (2001). Mapping of the World. Early Printed World Maps 1472 – 1700. Early World Press Ltd., Riverside (USA). ISBN 0 970351801

STRAUSS, L. (Ed.)(1981). The Illustrated Bartsch,  80, Part I: Anonymous Artists, 1457 – 1475. Abaris Books, New York. ISBN 0-91-3870-50-1

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