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Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Middle Ages and the Renaissance

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This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the first post in the series here.

We start our journey into imaginary worlds this summer by examining maps and texts created during the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. This time period spans roughly from 1100-1699. We’ll be focusing more specifically on maps, and the works that inspired them, created from 1300 to 1650. Some of the earliest imaginary maps were designed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Probably the most famous is the map of Dante’s Hell, from the Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy was written by Dante Alighieri from 1308 to 1320. It is an epic poem in which the author travels through hell, purgatory, and paradise. As Ricardo Padrón notes in Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, it “constitutes a rich and complex meditation on the philosophical, moral, and political issues central to Dante’s time.” Understandably, the Divine Comedy became widely popular and illustrations to aid readers on their journey with Dante surfaced in the 15th century. One of the most popular was Antonio Manetti’s work. His maps spurred the study and refinement of Dante’s world. Padrón again writes, “Dantean cosmography became an intellectual fad that attracted the attention of some leading thinkers, including no less a figure than Galileo Galilei.”

"Overview of Hell"
“Overview of Hell” by Antonio Mantetti, 1506, courtesy of Cornell’s PJ Mode Collection.

Padrón also notes that this scholarship trend in the 15th century was based on the desire not only to understand the world Dante created, but also to understand the real world. Ptolemy’s Geographia had just been rediscovered, renewing the world’s interest in cartography. By refining maps of Dante’s world, scholars were trying to fit the order of real geographic places in Ptolemy to the imaginary places in the Divine Comedy.

The Inferno according to Dante. 15th Century. B&W photographic reproduction. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The Inferno according to Dante. 15th Century. B&W photographic reproduction. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps this desire for order and symmetry is why another famous work from the Renaissance, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, came outfitted with maps. Utopia is a world in which order and symmetry are highly valued. Instead of maintaining the upper and lower classes that existed in Europe at this time period, the people of Utopia share their wealth with one another. The sharing of wealth creates order and symmetry because everyone is the same class. Disrupted order of the class system and in daily life that peasant revolts caused in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance could not take place in Utopia because everyone is equally wealthy. Also, during the time that Utopia was written, guilds existed to reward and benefit specialized labor. The citizens of Utopia saw all trades as equal, none being more prestigious than the other. Every trade and tradesman was treated the same, creating symmetry in the citizens of Utopia’s work lives.

Utopia, 1st Ed.

Map from the first edition of Utopia, 1516, courtesy of University of Cambridge Saint John’s College Library.
Utopia, 3rd ed.
Map from the third edition of Utopia, 1518, courtesy of Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

In the first (1516) and third (1518) editions of Utopia, the maps found in its pages echo the themes of order and symmetry that appear in the text. On the map of the first edition, the island is located in the center of the map, as symmetrical as it could possibly be on the page. Castles are placed on the outside of the island, almost perfectly equidistant from each other. The map from the third edition is more intricate, but the symmetry of the map still remains. Large settlements on Utopia are also equidistant from each other. They almost form an “X” pattern.

Stepping out of the pages of books, some of the most famous maps of imaginary places created during the Renaissance were of steps in an imaginary journey, like the journey to love. One such map is the “Royaume d’Amour/Kingdom of Love.” It was created by Tristan l’Hermite and Jean Sadeler, and published in 1650. This map is a depiction of the Island of Kythira (Cythera), in Greece. Aphrodite was said to have lived there, making the island a perfect place for the Royaume d’Amour. It includes fictional place names such as “Grande Plaine d’Indifference” (the Great Plain of Indifference). These are places that lovers who travel in the Royaume d’Amour would eventually reach on their journey.

"Royaume d'Amour"
“Royaume d’Amour.” 1970 facsimile of original 1650 map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The desire to map imaginary worlds may have taken off during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but it has only grown stronger over the centuries. It has seen a Renaissance with online interactive mapping in recent years. We’ll be exploring this in more detail over this summer. For next week, we’re going to focus on arguably the most famous fantasy map: J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings series and its influence on the modern fantasy map.

Comments (5)

  1. I’m loving this summer series! Another great blog entry.

  2. This is a wonderful series. I would encourage the Geography & Maps Division to scan and make digitally available in picture format(if possible)the Library of Congress-held maps referred to in these posts. The 2 Utopia maps, for example, in this post. Teachers reading your posts might want to incorporate primary sources in their lessons.

  3. A wonderful read. One of my favorite college courses was my Elementary Greek course where we read through Cebe’s Pinax and worked on a corresponding map. Antique maps have always been a passion of mine, especially those that include mythical lands.

  4. Greatly enjoying these posts for both their sheer interest and for the scholarly background. Splendid, thank you!

  5. Thank you for this interesting post, which leads me to a more general question: How accessible were maps to the general public in the Renaissance? How widespread was the knowledge they represented?
    Thanking you in advance for a reply.

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