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Verba Incognita: A Guide to Deciphering Latin on Maps

This is a guest post by Kelly Bilz, Librarian-in-Residence in the Geography and Map Division.

Even though Latin had fallen out of vernacular use after the fall of Rome (and began to evolve into the modern Romance languages), it lived on in its written form, becoming the lingua franca, so to speak, of scholarship. In particular, western cartographers during the Renaissance used Latin in their maps, resulting in a large collection of maps in the Geography and Map Division written in this ancient language. Seeing these polysyllabic words in a long list of search results can be disorienting; fortunately, being familiar with a couple key terms can help you navigate Latin titles with ease– without having to study Latin for eight years, as I did!

Map by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter, 1775.

Mappa totius mundi : adornata juxta observationes dnn. academiae regalis scientiarum et nonnullorum aliorum secundum annotationes recentissimas. Map by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter, 1775. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The most obvious place to start is with the various Latin words for map, and as in any good language, there are a couple of them, each with different shades of meaning.  The words mappa, tabula, and carta, for instance, all mean “map,” but they originally referred to the different formats in which maps appeared. Mappa, in classical Latin, is often translated as “cloth” or even “napkin,” so it might indicate that a map is mounted on cloth, like the map above, Mappa totius mundi (“Map of the whole world”), by Guillaume de L’Isle and Tobias Conrad Lotter in 1775. Tabula (“tablet”) and carta (where the word “chart” is derived from) indicated something printed on wood or on paper, respectively; however, the meanings of these words evolved from classical Latin to the medieval and Renaissance cartographer usage. They all came to mean “map,” regardless of the material.

Other map words focus on the information presented, instead of the format, like typus, delineatio, and descriptio, and are remarkably similar to their English counterparts (type, delineation, and description).

Imperium Romano-Germanicum. Map by Johann Baptist Homann, 17--. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Imperium Romano-Germanicum. Map by Johann Baptist Homann, 17–. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The next few words in the map’s title will likely describe its geographic coverage. It might be a land (terra) or two (terrae), or even a pars (part) of a terra. Perhaps it covers a specific kingdom (regnum) or empire (imperium), like the map seen above of the Holy Roman Empire from 1700. In the top left corner, there is a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, with even more Latin in his motto, amore et timore (“through love and fear”). Additionally, the terra could also be sancta (holy), if it’s a Bible map.

If it doesn’t cover a terra, it could be a map of an island (insula) or group of islands (insulae). The map seen below, from 1600, Insulae Indicae cum terris circumvicinis, or “Indian Islands with neighboring lands,” is a map of the East Indies, or the Malay Archipelago. So, if you were hoping for the subcontinent of India, you’d know from the word insulae in the title that this map doesn’t cover the area you need.

Insulæ Indicæ cum terris circumvicinis. Map, 16--. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Insulæ Indicæ cum terris circumvicinis. Map, 16–. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Latin terms for landforms and natural features can also be helpful in identifying a map’s coverage. The names of mountains (montes) and rivers (flumina, or singular, flumen) can identify a region—which is particularly useful when looking at a historic map without modern boundaries.

That’s a lot of Latin vocabulary! Let’s see what it looks like when we put it all together using this next map: Tabula Mexicae et Floridae : terrarium Anglicarum, et anteriorum Americae insularum, item cursum et circuituum fluminis Mississipi dicti. It’s a long title, but let’s just focus on the words we know: first, we know that tabula means map, and we can recognize the terra in terrarium (which was later borrowed to become an English word) to know the map covers a set of lands. We can also see the insula in insularum and the flumen in fluminis, so we know that the map contains at least an island and a river (perhaps more!). The place names are also recognizable: Mexico, Florida, America, and Mississippi. Fortunately, many Latinized place names look similar enough to the names we know to be identifiable, but the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association also maintains a database of Latin Place Names, which can be a useful tool. Now that we’ve got a pretty good idea of what this item is, let’s see how we did:

Tabula Mexicae et Floridae : terrarum Anglicarum, et anteriorum Americae insularum, item cursuum et circuituum fluminis Mississipi dicti. Map by Peter Schenck, ca. 1710. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

We find that it is, in fact, a map, covering Florida and Mexico; that the river is the Mississippi River; and the island is actually a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

You can try deciphering these Latin map phrases yourself with other maps in our collection. Ite et discite!

Learn more:

The Exotic Animals of the Americas

European colonists were fascinated with the wildlife of the Western Hemisphere. They described fauna native to the Americas in memoirs, travel journals and poetry. Pictures of the unfamiliar animals were often printed on maps. In this post I will discuss four colonial era maps that were decorated with illustrations of animals. The two maps of […]

The Atlantic Neptune: An Unparalleled Collection of British Nautical Charts

In the years following the epic struggle for control of North America between the French and British empires, it became apparent to the Royal Navy that there was a considerable lack of adequate charting along the eastern coasts of North America. Thus was born one of the largest charting undertakings to date: The Atlantic Neptune. […]

18th Century Maps of North America: Perception vs. Reality

Between 1755 and 1775, over the course of just twenty years, three seminal maps of North America were published in London, even though those responsible for the maps never left England! These three maps, discussed in more detail below, were prepared for a British audience in an attempt to reinforce opinions regarding British control of North America. A fourth map, also published in London, depicts the extent of the United States in 1802.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Arguably the most important of the first three pre-1800 maps addressed in this blog is John Mitchell’s iconic 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America pictured above. At the request of the English Board of Trade and Plantations, the equivalent of the State Department, Mitchell was tasked with preparing a large map of North America based upon maps provided by each of the thirteen colonial governors. The intriguing story behind the map lies with its illustrated claim of English sovereignty extending from the Atlantic Ocean westward past the Mississippi and, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean. These claims are evidenced by the horizontal colonial boundaries extending into French territory.

Our second map, pictured below, was originally published in London by Emanuel Bowen in 1763. Unlike Mitchell’s map, which incorporated the territorial aspirations of the British colonies, the 1763 map by Bowen illustrated the political realities dictated by the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year’s War in North America.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The third revolutionary map in our saga was published in London by Carington Bowles in 1771. Like the Bowen map illustrated above, it, too, includes colonial territory lost in 1763, but also emphasizes unsettled colonial boundaries.  Of those, the most notable are the western boundary of Pennsylvania, the northeastern boundary of Virginia, and the western boundary of New York, as establishment of each defined those colonies’ access to Lake Erie.

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 1774 ?, 1774]

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 177?, 1771]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The final map of North America in our brief exploration of revolutionary maps was published in London in 1802. Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) produced the most current and accurate cartographic representation of the American West up to that date. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carefully studied the map in 1803 and even carried a copy on the first leg of their landmark expedition. Arrowsmith’s map immediately pre-dates the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and subsequent 1804-06 expedition by Lewis & Clark.  Rather than fill in the American West with conjectural or inaccurate data, he has deliberately left large areas blank, allowing viewers to envision for themselves the nature of the vast territory recently acquired before the landscape could be recorded by scientific surveys.

Arrowsmith, Aaron, and J Puke. A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America. [London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

So why are these maps significant? And how do they illustrate cartographic perception and geographic reality?  First, British control of North America is implied in Mitchell’s 1755 map which depicts British colonies extending from “sea to sea”.  Secondly, the geographic reality of British control of North America are all shown on the commercially produced 1763 Bowen map, the 1774 Bowles’ map, and Arrowsmith’s 1802 map which all relied on factual data. It all comes down to the intentions of each cartographer and those who employed the cartographers!

Learn more:

Creating the United States. A Library of Congress exhibit drawing heavily on items related to American Revolution from various parts of the Library. (April 2008 – May 2012).

Rivers, Edens, and Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. A Library of Congress exhibit showcasing items from various collections the related to Lewis and Clark expedition. (July 2003 – November 2003).

Read more »