Medieval World Maps

John Speed’s World Atlas, England, 1625/27. (1)

Comparison to contemporary map.

In Crossing the Ocean Sea, we discussed the difference between the two types of maps used during the 1200s and 1300s: portolani and planispheres. By 1630, maps were as scientifically accurate as portolani and as illustratively beautiful as planispheres.

The most recent map available to Master Thomas Beecher of the Talbot and Master Peter Milbourne of the Arabella was John Speed’s world map drawn between 1625 and 1627 [shown above]. Speed (1552-1629), who died in 1629 at the age of seventy-seven years, created an entire atlas of maps illustrating the world from different perspectives. He was both an historian and a cartographer.

Before Speed’s death, the Puritan leader Reverend John White purchased a copy of the atlas for the library White helped build in his home town of Dorchester, England. [We will hear more about Reverend White and the 180 or so of his followers who sailed on the Mary & John in 1630 to join Winthrop’s group in Massachusetts.]

Unlike most maps of the time, which were labeled in Latin, John Speed labeled his Atlas in English. He indicated the earth as a sphere with the globe flattened as if it were an orange peel. As you can see, he drew two circles, one with Europe, Africa, and Asia in the center and one with the Americas in the center. Cartographers no longer thought Africa was connected to an unknown continent at the bottom of the earth.

Not all Medieval mapmakers inserted a land mass at the bottom of the globe as Speed did. He labeled it The Southern Unknown Land [Terra Australis Incognito in Latin]. Some scientists believed there had to be a landmass at the bottom of the globe to balance the weight of Europe at the top. When the Dutch first discovered Australia in 1606, they incorrectly assumed it covered the whole south pole. When John Speed drew his chart, Europeans had sailed no farther south than Australia.

As we have mentioned, maps and charts are not exactly the same thing. Most charts are maps, but not all maps are charts. Maps, as they are used in this book, are meant for finding one’s way around some sort of space. They show the location of bodies of land, bodies of water, objects on the land, place names, and maybe where the treasure is hidden. Charts are meant to help mariners navigate through bodies of water. Charts tell sea captains where ports are located. Some offer additional useful information such as the depth of the sea in various places and tide levels.

Famous Cartographers

During the Renaissance years leading up to the Great Migration to New England, the principal cartographers lived in the Netherlands [known by the English as the Lowlands]. The seven countries that made up the Protestant Netherlands – of which Holland was the largest – were the geographic center of shipping for Europe. The countries were experiencing their Golden Age of Trade, riding on the stern of Portuguese trade after the Portuguese discovered a route to India under Africa in 1498.

The most influential cluster of cartographers gathered at the Catholic University of Louvain [aka Leuven] in Belgium. The senior member of that clique was Gemma Frisius (née Jemma Reinerszoon, 1508-1555), who was also a mathematician, geographer, philosopher, instrument maker, physician, and astronomer(2). [Most likely he was nicknamed Frisius after Friesland, Netherlands, where he was born.] Gemma Frisius began studying at Louvain in 1525 at age seventeen, soon after the American continents had been introduced to mapmaking. He served from that time to the end of his short life as a member of the university faculty.

As an instrument maker, Gemma Frisius helped improve the astrolabe, cross-staff, and astronomical rings. In 1530 he constructed a globe that became famous throughout Europe, especially in England. [Only nine years earlier, the Basque navigator Juan SebastiÁn de Elcano completed the first around-the-world voyage as part of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1521.] Important to our upcoming stories, Frisius’ globe indicated a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Orient called the “arctic strait of the three brothers.” He was referring to Spanish and Portuguese records claiming that the three Corte Real brothers – VascoAñes, Miguel and Gaspar – whose stories we told in Crossing the Ocean Sea, sailed that strait between 1500 and 1502. [Today’s scientists insist that feat was not accomplished until 1903, four hundred years later.] Frisius was not the only cartographer who named islands in the North Atlantic after the Corte Real brothers, as you shall see.

In 1548 Frisius drafted the World Map shown below, which also shows a passage over North America. Notice how large he drew Newfoundland, and how far south he placed it. The position of Newfoundland corresponds to the position of the islands on Zuane Pizigano’s map of 1424(4) which historian Manuel Luciano da Silva concluded revealed an early discovery of today’s Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

World Map by Gemma Frisius, 1548.(5)

While at Louvain, Gemma Frisius mentored the aforementioned English scientist John Dee (1527-1608/9) as well as the famous cartographer Gerard Mercator (1512-1594). Frisius died in 1555 [two years after “Bloody Mary” Tudor became Queen of England] at age forty-six. At that time Mercator was forty-three, John Dee twenty-eight, and John Speed a three-year-old toddler.

Gerard Mercator signed official charts and documents with his Latin name, Gerardus Mercator(6). In 1530, when he was eighteen, he helped Gemma Frisius with the construction of the globe. Mercator graduated with a master’s degree from Louvain in 1532. By age twenty-four, he had become a master engraver, outstanding calligrapher, and skilled scientific-instrument maker. In turn, he mentored the Flemish cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), who was the same age as the English John Dee (1527-1608/9).

Abraham Ortelius hooked up with the older Gerard Mercator at a print fair in Frankfort, in today’s Germany, in 1554, when he was twenty-seven years old and Mercator was forty-two. King Henry VIII was still on the throne, and the future Queen Elizabeth, whom Dee, Mercator, and Ortelius will influence immensely, was a one-year-old tot. After traveling with Mercator to Trier and other parts of Europe in 1560, the already well-traveled Ortelius adjusted the course of his career toward scientific geography. He was probably the first geographer to purport the theory that the continents had at one time been joined together before drifting apart to their present positions.


Gerard Mercator gets credit for being the first cartographer to use the term atlas for a set of maps. However, Muhammad Al-Idrisi created such a set of maps as early as 1154 as we already know. Mercator’s atlas was not published until a year after his death in 1594, when engraver and cartographer Jodocus Hondius acquired Mercator’s copper plates, added some fancy artwork to please his wealthy Dutch merchants, and had it printed.

Meanwhile, in 1554, Diogo Homem of Portugal (1521-1576), who was living as an exile in Spain after fleeing Portugal to escape a murder charge, was commissioned by Queen Mary of England [‘Bloody Mary’] to produce an atlas of the world that included the Canadian discoveries made by Frenchman Jacques Cartier between 1534 and 1544. This was the first such commission by an English monarch.

Diogo Homem came from a renowned dynasty of Portuguese cartographers who had been mapping the world since the time of Henry the Navigator. It is believed his atlas was meant to be a wedding present for Queen Mary’s fiancé, Philip II of Spain. But the book was not published until 1558 after Mary’s death and there are no records of Philip ever receiving it.

A page from Diogo Homem’s World Atlas, England, published in 1558.(6)

Recently, in 2005(7), the British Library republished Homem’s Atlas. According to one of the library’s historians, Rodney Shirley, Homem’s maps of the Americas, “show an astonishing amount of coastal detail, reflecting the many subsequent sea voyages in the sixty years since the discovery of the New World in 1492. On the map of South America there are gruesome paintings of cannibalism and – unique for a Portuguese map – a depiction of the army of Pizarro, the Spanish vanquisher of the Inca empire.”

On the British Library’s web site, Shirley listed the various items included in Diogo Homem’s Atlas: “As well as lunar and solar tables, the atlas consists of a circular zonal map, a large rectangular world map, maps of northwest Europe and the Mediterranean, two maps of West and East Africa, one of the East Indies and three maps covering North and South America.”

In 1564, Abraham Ortelius published a world map, Typus Orbis Terrarum. Note the northwest waterway he drew between the North Pole and the other continents. Like John Speed would, Ortelius covered the southern pole with a huge landmass.

Typus Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1564.(8)

By 1570, Abraham Ortelius had completed an entire atlas with fifty-three maps in it called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum [Theater of the World]. The detail map below shows the Northern Sea. Thirteen years later, Sir Humphrey Gilbert of England will set out to claim Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth with plans to follow Ortelius’ promised path through that Northwest Passage.

Abraham Ortelius, Septentrionalium Regionum [Region of the Northern Sea], from his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum [Theater of the World], Holland, 1570.(9)

By 1572, Abraham Ortelius’ Atlas had been published as six editions: three variations in Latin, one in Dutch, one in French, and one in German. The atlas continued to be one of the most popular of its kind until 1612, when it was trumped by the Atlas drawn by John Speed.

Historians have found similarities between Abraham Ortelius’ map and the map drawn by Niccolo Zeni that we showed you in the article about the naming of the winds. Unfortunately, some of the false information that was passed from one generation of cartographers to the next – apparently without question – will lead poor Sir Humphrey Gilbert astray.

North Atlantic by Niccolo Zeni/Zeno, 1558
. (10)

Historians believe Ortelius used Zeni’s map as a guide. For example, he used Zeni’s names for the islands in the North Atlantic: Goenlandt [Greenland], Thulelant [Iceland] and Frisland [mythical]. Each island is neatly labeled with ports and towns as if had been thoroughly surveyed. We know Thule was the ancient name for Iceland. It was included on Eratosthenes’ world map back in 194 BCE. But Frisland does not exist, at least not where Ortelius and Zeni placed it. Friesland was part of the Netherlands. Another curious inclusion is Ortelius’ placement of the mythical island of Brasil west of Hibernia [Ireland].

Similar to Zeni, Ortelius named the landmass in the upper left corner Estotilant. Zeni had named the island, Engramelant, which meant the northernmost land covered in snow.

In 1579, the seven Protestant countries of the Netherlands broke off from the Catholic Spanish dominions and formed the Protestant Union of Utrecht. After that, the Protestant Netherlands became a magnet for publishers who wanted to print charts, maps, books, pamphlets, and other material free of censorship by the Catholic or English churches.

Everything printed in the Catholic countries, as well as in Protestant England, needed a stamp of approval from the government to ensure the document agreed with church doctrine. As we pointed out in Crossing the Ocean Sea, church doctrine bowed to the references in the Bible that indicated the earth was flat, such as the statements about the “Four Corners of the Earth” and the “Ends of the Earth.”

Meanwhile, maps in all countries were censored to make sure that competing countries did not know about key discoveries, such as the whereabouts of gold. But the world of international trade and shipping was a small one. Flemish cartographers were able to gather data from explorers of all countries including: Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Basque and Russia. They even incorporated geographic data received from the Native Americans themselves.

The most popular atlas was created in 1585 – forty-five years before the Arabella’s departure – by Lucan Jauz Waghenaur [aka Waghenaer], known as the Mariner’s Mirror. It was published in Leyden, Holland, where the Mayflower Pilgrims lived for ten years before traveling to Massachusetts. The Mariner’s Mirror included a set of charts showing the American, Asian, and European continents. Sir Anthony Ashley, a secretary to the council of war for Queen Elizabeth, translated the atlas from Latin to English three years later in 1588, the year the English navy trounced the Spanish armada. The atlas was so popular that, for a while, all atlases were commonly called Waggoners after Mister Waghenaur. We showed you this map in our last article about the naming of winds.

Lucas Jansz Waghenaur’s Map of Portugal in the Mariner’s Mirror, 1585.(11)

Mapmaking in 1630s

Even though John Speed labeled his charts in English, most cartographers labeled places and oceans using Latin names. Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who was part of the Dutch map-making team of Mercator and Hondius in Holland, flourished after John Speed’s death. Willem’s son, Joan Blaeu, joined him in 1635. Even though that was five years after the Arabella departed for the Charles River, we are including Willem Blaeu’s map in this article because it best reflects what cartographers knew in the early 1600s, and how they typically drew their charts.

World Map by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, 1635.(12)

The international convention for writing labels in Latin allowed all properly educated sea captains from the various nations to read them. The Pacific Ocean was referred to as Mar del Zur [Southern Sea]. The Atlantic was labeled Mar del Nort [Northern Sea]. Mare Atlanticum [Atlantic Sea], was only a small part of the Mar del Nort. Rivers were labeled flus, which was the abbreviation for the Latin word for river, fluvius.

The continents were outlined fairly accurately by today’s standards. By 1630, nearly every port and river accessible from the open sea – except for the far northern and southern latitudes – had been discovered and labeled on a chart.

Willem Blaeu’s explorers told him there was no land at the bottom of the world, just ice. So, unlike John Speed and Abraham Ortelius, he did not label the area at the bottom of the map Terra Incognito [Unknown Land].

By 1635, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto had surveyed Florida as far as the Mississippi. French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain had surveyed the northeast corner of the continent along the St. Lawrence River, and as far west as Cape Cod. The area above the St. Lawrence River was called Nova Francia [New France]. The area below the river, in other words, today’s New England, was referred to as Normubega [aka Nüremberg and Norembega]. The waters off Terra Nova [Newfoundland] and Terra CorteReal [Labrador] are labeled Terra Bacalaos [Land of Codfish].

Willem Blaeu labeled the easternmost point on North America next to Newfoundland Cape Breton, giving John Cabot credit for claiming the cape for the British in 1497. Many years will pass before Europeans venture into the interior of the continent.

The mythical places of Antilla, Utopia, St. Branden, Atlantis, and El Dorado have finally disappeared. However, Frisland and Brasil still sit west of Ireland in the North Atlantic.

The interior of South America had been surveyed in greater detail. Since 1595, when Ferdinand Magellan discovered a way to sail through the straight at the bottom of the continent, Spain and Portugal’s conquistadors had been following the Amazon, Oronoco, Magdalena, and other rivers into the deepest parts of the jungles. European explorers had even hiked from one side of the continent to the other.

Like on early planispheres, Willem Blaeu outlined his map with rows of colorful illustrations. He depicted the native nations that had been conquered. He drew the gold-rich Aztecs and Incas elaborately dressed, while he drew members of poorer tribes nearly naked.

At the bottom of his map, Blaeu drew a row of illustrations showing the new Spanish and Portuguese cities in America. Many of the cities had been built directly on top of the Indian cities. Blaeu included: Havana in Cuba; Cartagena in Columbia; Mexico City, the center of New Spain; Cuzco, the Inca capital of Peru; and the port of Rio de Janero in Brazil. Evidently, he did not consider Jamestowne and Plimouth to be large or established enough to merit inclusion.

Next article: Maps of New England Available to the Pilots of Winthrop’s Fleet


  1. Speed, John. World Atlas, London, 1625. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and UK.
  2. There were three majors in college in those days: Science, Law, and Theology. A man studied science to learn about all the sciences. He might become a Master in one or more specialties. A man studied law to help run the government of the country. And a man studied theology to become a priest and run the church.
  3. {{PD-old}} Public domain in the US. Image source:
  4. {{PD-old}} Public domain in the US. Image source:
  5. Scholars used the Latin version of their names on all important documents, which, in the 1500s, were usually written in Latin, particularly if they were to be read internationally. Aristocratic families usually employed the Latin version of the child’s name when recording births.
  6. Homem, Diogo. World Atlas, England, Published in 1558. Housed in the British Library. Image source:
  7. The British Library republished Homem’s Atlas in 2005. Rodney Shirley wrote the review at: You can purchase a copy of the atlas from them if you would like one.
  8. Ortelius, Abraham. Atlas. Holland, 1564. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Holland.
  9. Ortelius, Abraham. Atlas. Holland,1570 {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Holland.,_Abraham_Septentrionalivm_regionvm_descrip.jpg
  10. Zeni, Niccolo. Map of the north Atlantic, Venice, 1558. {{PD-90/it}} Map in the public domain for USA and Italy. Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama. High resolution file available at []
  11. Waghenaer, Lucas Jansz. “Portugal”, Mariner’s Mirror, 1584. Image held by the University of Texas, Arlington Library. {{PD-Old}} Public domain in USA and the Netherlands.
  12. Blaeu, Willem Janszoon. World Map, Leyden, Holland, 1635. {{PD-old}} Public domain in the US and Holland.