Maps and views blog

2 posts from March 2014

19 March 2014

Made with the British Library's map collection: The Isle of Eels

A few weeks ago we were delighted to meet the author and artist Rus Madon who has used maps from the British Library's map collection to create his own modern map of historical geography. Despite containing an only moderately dreadful pun on the name of Ely, the map sets the scene of Rus's historical novel, and also gives us a really good picture of how the Fens looked in the 11th century. How relevant those old maps can be. Rus writes: 


I am writing a Young Adult story about a girl who lives in modern-day Ely, a city in the fens a few miles north of Cambridge. She travels back in time to the year 1071 when Ely was defended against the Normans by Hereward the Wake. The more I wrote about 11th century Ely, the more I wondered what it actually looked like. So to help answer the question, I set about drawing a map of medieval Ely.

Rus Madon, 'The Isle of Eels', London, 2013. Ink and pencil on paper. Maps X.8006

The fens were drained by the Dutch in the 17th century, and this reclaimed landscape is now fertile farmland. I used the resources of the British Library to look for the oldest maps of the area prior to this engineering feat. All maps of the area are thought to derive from a survey of the area carried out by William Hayward at the beginning of the 17th century. This map was destroyed in a fire, but it is believed that Sir Robert Cotton, a keen collector of fenland maps, had a copy made.

After William Hayward, A map of the Fens, circa 1620. Ink on parchment. Cotton MS Augustus I.i.78

It is an extraordinary document. Looking at the hand drawn map, you can see the lost Isle of Eels emerging from the fens; I was literally looking back in time.

Detail of Cotton MS Augustus I.i.78

I supplemented this information with a review of existing Ordnance Survey maps, using the 5 metre contour line to sketch out land that would have been above the ancient water table. I then did what every good cartographer needs to do: Fieldwork.

During the summer of 2013 I drove the back roads and lanes that criss-cross the island, making adjustments to my map, extending the sweep of a hill, noting natural hollows in the ground, and removing the causeways and embankments that had been added much later. With the island outline now mapped came a greater challenge; how to determine the courses of the old waterways. Two huge artificial gouges to the northwest of Ely look like a spaceship has crashed and furrowed a path towards the sea. These are in fact two “rivers” commissioned by the 4th Earl of Bedford in 1630 which helped in the process of draining the fens. This, along with other workings over the centuries carried out in the fens, resulted in the modern day river system of the Great Ouse flowing west to east and joining up with the Granta (now the Cam) to flow north to the right of Ely. If I wanted to know where the rivers used to flow, I was going to have to dig deeper. Again, the British Library opened her vaults and I came across a pivotal paper published by Major Gordon Fowler in 1934.

This paper outlined the possible ancient watercourses of the area. Along with several other authors and notably the excellent Henry Darby, I pieced together how the rivers would have flowed around the island in Saxon times. The Granta has not changed much since those times, but it came to light that the West River flowed east to west and joined the Great Ouse to head north to the left of Ely! This was a very different system to that seen today. Once a few of the Roman lodes had been added back in (such as Reach Lode and the famous Cardyke), the geography of the map was complete. The final step was to add the main settlements that would have existed in 1071. For this I used a mixture of references from the Domesday Book and the Liber Eliensis, the so-called Book of Ely, written in the 12th century by monks at Ely Abbey.It took 200 hours to complete the map (a copy of which I donated to the British Library), but it was worth it. Now I can travel back in time to 1071 and see the Isle of Eels through the eyes of my heroine.

References Astbury, A.K. The Black Fens. (1958). Shelfmark (10362.i.10) Darby, H.C. The Medieval Fenland. (1940). Shelfmark (8219.1.1/8) Dring, W. E. The Fenland Story. (1967). Shelfmark (X.709/24064) Fowler, G. The extinct waterways of the fens. (1934) The Geographical Journal, 83, (1), pp30-36 Maps C.7.c.3(45) (1632) MS Facsimile 315 Cotton MS. Augustus I.i.78. (1603) Ordnance Survey Explorer Series; 225, 226, 227, 228. Cassini Historical Maps (Old Series) 1805 to 1836; 154, 143, 142. Rex, P. Hereward, The Last Englishman. Tempus (2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4462-8 Rex, P. Hereward, Outlaw and Hero. The Ely Society (No Date) ISBN 0-903616-22-X Bevis, T. Flooded Fens. Bevis (2001) ISBN0-901680-70-2 Liber Eliensis. Translated by Janet Fairweather. Boydell. (2005) ISBN 978-1-84383-015-3 The Domesday Book. The Domesday Book Online (

R J Madon

14 March 2014

Good news for fans of medieval maps!

A new British Library collaboration called the Virtual Mappa project is well under way, using digital images of a selection of medieval world maps - mappaemundi - and some excellent new annotation software (more on that at a later date). High-resolution images of these maps will be available online for public use, with transcribed and translated text, notes, links to outside resources and other tools for understanding these marvellous mappaemundi. I'm the intern charged with annotating the maps and organising all this extra data. I've been up to my ears in Latin text, incredible images and software glitches for a few months now, so it is about time we started spreading the news about the upcoming Virtual Mappa project.


Psalter Map, (London, British Library, Add. MS 28681, f.9)

At first glance, you may not be able to recognise a medieval mappamundi as depicting the same earth we see in maps today, so some basics need addressing. Generally speaking, medieval world maps only show the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, seen somewhat as synonymous with the Roman Empire. Australasia, the Americas and the polar regions don't tend to feature, as they were either unknown or considered to be uninhabited, or populated by 'savages', and therefore of little interest to the 'civilised' Christian populace creating and viewing these documents. And contrary to popular opinion, these maps don't depict a flat earth - it had already been known for centuries that the earth was a globe, and these maps simply attempt to model this spherical shape on the flat surface of a page, similar to the way a modern world map bends and stretches the continents to fit an image of the earth's surface into a neat rectangle. 


The Anglo-Saxon World Map, aka the Cotton Map. (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v)

It must also be noted that even though we call these documents 'maps', they contain a greater range of information than what we are used to with modern maps. Medieval mappaemundi were often more like encyclopedias in geographic form, containing a significant amount of history - especially events from the Bible - and even zoological and ethnographic information. Sometimes the whole of known history from Creation to the End of the World is depicted; monstrous races and mythical creatures abound on the more extravagant maps; and complex Christian connections and levels of meaning which we may never get close to decrypting flow through the map images and text.


Peterborough Diagrammatic Map (London, British Library, Harley MS 3667, f.8v)

The nine medieval maps we have been working with so far come from a timeframe covering several centuries, but have certain common characteristics: firstly, they're all world maps depicting a similar area of the globe (as discussed above). Secondly, they are orientated with East at the top, where modern maps have North at the top. This was standard practice for centuries, and when you learn that 'Oriens' means 'East' in Latin, it is easy to see where we get the English word 'orientation'. Finally, each of these maps was made in Britain, so unsurprisingly each one depicts the British Isles and Ireland, although the varying styles means Britain can look very different in each image.

Britain on the Anglo-Saxon World Map  Britain on the Peterborough Diagrammatic Map

Starkly different details of the British Isles and Ireland from the Cotton (left) and Peterborough (right) maps. (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v ; Harley MS 3667, f.8v)

There are some similarities shared between these medieval maps, beyond the basics we've mentioned. Some of the maps clearly go together, for example the Peterborough (above) and Thorney (St John's Oxford MS 17, f. 6r) diagrammatic maps are effectively copies of each other. The two 'Higden Maps' (CCCC MS 21, f.9r and Royal MS 14 C IX, ff.1v-2, below) have the same colour scheme of turquoise and red, and probably both illustrated copies of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon. Also, Sawley (CCCC MS 66, p.2) and the Hereford Mappa Mundi have some very similar elements which suggest they were both copied from a common ancestor. But there are far more differences that stand out...


The Royal Higden map - England is shown in red in the bottom left corner, with Wales and Scotland depicted as nearby islands. See the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry here for further images and information. (London, British Library, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff.1v-2)

The size of these maps varies enormously, for example the Psalter map is a miniscule 10cm square whereas the Hereford map stands at over 5 feet high. From this we know that one was a personal image for private viewing, and the other designed to be displayed and seen by a large audience. Style differs drastically, from the seemingly accurate 'wiggly' coastlines of the Anglo-Saxon map to the stark diagrammatic outlines of Peterborough. Even between similar sized maps, content can differ - the simpler Higden map shows placenames only, whereas Sawley fits in lots of biblical and ethnographic information in between its cities, rivers and mountains.

Psalter Map Monstrous Races

Detail of Monstrous Races from the Psalter Map (London, British Library, Add. MS 28681, f.9)

Lots of Lost Lions

One of many lions apparently lost in Eastern Russia... (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v)

The selected mappaemundi, then, vary greatly in size, style, content and purpose, can contain levels of meaning wholly lost on modern readers, and are written in the dead language of Latin. Good job that the Virtual Mappa Project will help us to make sense of them all! There really is much more to say about these magnificent medieval maps, so check back here for further images, updates and information.

-  Cat Crossley