Medieval Maps - reliable for navigation while flying?

[i](Inspired by a recent thread, Ithought I'd post this here as a separate topic rather than completely derail the other.

And I'm sure there are other threads on this subject - if anyone has a link, feel free to post, thx!)[/i]

In a word, my opinion is "No, not (very) reliable for navigating while flying". For walking/sailing, sure, but not flying.

The problem is that maps of this era all took the approach of a Subway/Tube Map ( - which shows the best way to get from A to B, and from B to C, and from C to A, but doesn't represent any actual spatial relationship between those 3 points. Which makes sense - no one cared about actual relative positions re the compass - just how to walk/sail there. If the map did that, it was reliable and therefore "accurate".

So, a map of the coast of England could be drawn in one long straight line, or as a perfect circle, or a series of S-shapes (to save space!) - the distances between ports and any significant headlands/landmarks was all that mattered. Accurate.

Here's a top-quality map of the whole world, perfect for flying long distances. Of course, it's ca. 1321, and so far more advance and detailed than maps of our era... (north is "left")

Pietro Vesconte, 1321

Here's a map that shows how to get to anywhere in the Islamic world, ca.1154. And because it's Islamic, it is so much, MUCH better and more advanced than equivalent European maps of the era. I'm sure you'll recognize the Med' in the right half of the map... (North is "down"!) The "east" coast of Africa is seen across the top-left of the map (for convenience rather than any "accurate relationship"). (EDIT: fixed, thanks to Tugdual!)

al-Idrisi, ca 1154

(Here's a detailed view of same, too big to post here.)

Her's a wonderful map of Great Britain. Of course, this also is a very bad example, because it is so much more accurate and detailed than AM era maps would be, being ca 1360.

(Edit: map link gone: see )
Gough Map of Great Britain, ca 1360

Ah! Here we go! This world map is much closer to what we're dealing with, but still shows clear signs of how much cartography advanced in the 60 years since 1220. (It even shows the location of Noah's Ark - talk about convenience!) I'll let you orient yourself. (Hint - North is east on this one too... I'm pretty sure...)

Hereford Mappa Mundi, Hereford Cathedral, ca 1280

(If this is worth a closer look: )

(Edit - replaced some broken links)

Navigating with maps, as opposed to local knowledge, seems pretty fraught with error regardless of the means of transport. That said, I'd probably follow the coast as far as possible, then rivers, then cities / churches / other prominent landmarks - whatever is marked on the map. Chances are you might see some one Roman roads marked out, depending on the scale, which might be a real help.

For instance, if I needed to get from Orkney to London, going by your GB map, I'd take the eastern coastline until I hit a particularly large estuary, and then turn inland and follow the river. If I needed to get from Orkney to Canterbury, I might do the same except head south-eastish once I hit London.

Unless you know the route I'd expect frequent checks with locals to make sure you were on the right heading. It's about reading what you've got as best you can, and then making up any inadequacies by using local knowledge.

Basic answer: no, medieval maps were useless for navigation when flying. And were mostly useless for non-flying purposes too.
From watching a BBC series on the history of maps, most were used as wall hangings/decoration/boasting ('my map has the Ark of the Covenant on, and more dragons than yours')/etc whereas written sets of directions were used by merchants - more like the 'route listings' you can get from most online maps nowadays, but without the pretty graphics. Eg 'take the A6 southwards for 12 miles, then take the A61 for..'

Advanced answer: if you have a group of PC magi who want to fly, they will make their own maps, based on what the countryside actually looks like quite quickly. (No-one else will generally understand these maps.) They still get lost very often until they get the hang of it, and travelling to new locations tends to need a lot of asking the way. Or using ACs, when available, to determine the correct directions to fly in (since, in my game, teleporting to unknown locations often leads to mishaps. Teleporting home is usually quite safe).


My basic answer for this is, there almost certainly would have been, had flight magic existed.

Yup. However this is actually NOT a problem. You should just adjust what you´re looking for/asking about.
Instead of just a map, you should also ask for the equivalent of an ocean navigators charts/rutters or what each individual used for this. The notes or knowledge about landmarks, prevailing winds, the smell of those winds when coming from different directions, the look of the sea at this or that time of year... This kind of detailed description or "roadmap", will very likely work very well.

So essentially, good maps of the kind we have today, no probably not, or at least not nearly as precise, but something easily good enough to let people go somewhere they´ve never been before with a good chance of getting where they want without too much delay, yeah probably not a big problem at all.

North is down. Lef to right: Persian Gulf and Red Sea; center is Caspian and Black Sea; Adriatic, Italy, Sicily and Spain are recognizable on the right.

Thanks! Great maps!

Yes, listen to Tugdual. To be more specific, that is the Indian Ocean and some of the waters around Indonesia in the upper left, with the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea coming off of it.


I would point out that in the 2nd century AD Ptolemy already made something like this -- which is pretty good up to a few thousand miles from where Ptolemy lived.

Oh good, i thought that was so before reading a few names on the map got me wondering ( in the Black sea, i think the text says "bahe nilas"(Nile ocean or something???), which rather threw me off... ).
IIRC, wasnt all maps from the islamic areas of the time made with south as "up"?

Ah yes, that one is pretty impressive.

By Jupiter, you're right! :open_mouth: I sure botched that "Interpret Ancient Map" Ability roll! :unamused: :laughing: (Will fix above, thanks!)

Would never have recognized "Europe" as that little slice in the bottom right, but I'm more Euro-centric and the map is (understandably) more... um... Islamo-centric.

(Now that I see it, I love England! Land's End is hilarious!)

But my point is even better illustrated - look at Italy (the fat peninsula that sticks out, right to left, parallel w/ the "lower shore" into the Med at bottom right). It's as big as all the rest of "western Europe", but that's b/c the ports are more important. And the relative angle isn't as important as the relative position of the ports and coastal landmarks.

And yet we inexplicably have maps such as any of the above. No, wait - it's quite explicable, nm.

That "map" was drawn between 1300 and 1500, and probably at the end of that period. There is no evidence that any actual "map" that Ptolemy (150 BC) drew nor copy of same survived. What did survive, in Greek and then Arabic, were written descriptions of his map (written in Greek and/or Arabic), and his radical germ of an idea for a system of global coordinates, which inspired later maps like the Vesconte map (above, top). This shift is evident in the explosion of new, better maps around 1300, when the text was translated into Latin and Europeans re-discovered it, brought to their attention by maps such as the al-Idrisi, above. (Tho' they, too, had overlooked it for centuries).

All the "good" European maps, above, are from right around the time this translation was made. Before, all Europeans knew were only TO maps, of which the Hereford (above, bottom) is a remarkably "useful" example.

No, it was not just the "germ of an idea" that survived. The coordinates of thousands of landmarks also survived. That's what allowed later cartographers to reconstruct Ptolemy's world map, and what allows us to say that Ptolemy's map was pretty accurate.

I don't say this often, but... whatever. :unamused:

It was a germ until someone (re)implemented it. Until the 1300's, they were just sitting there, a curious theory from an antique foreign scientist.

Your argument is comparable to... if, in the future, someone proved Tesla's theories and perfected his "free energy" devices, then clearly we all today are enjoying them. But we aren't, even if today you can find his theories and patents with a little digging.

All the accurate coordinates in the world are useless if no one was using them. And they just weren't, at least not in Europe.

Well, I'm glad you finally agree - "later" cartographers, but not in 1220. Sorry, but maps sucked. Unless someone can provide some hard evidence to the contrary, I think that's the end of discussion on that point, at least.

Honestly, I think you are misunderstanding what I said. I said that over a thousand years before the game period, Ptolemy made a map of similar accuracy to this. We know he did because he left the coordinates of thousands of points, so that anyone can reconstruct it.

The existence of bad maps in 1220 does not change this simple fact (which has even made it into an official Ars Magica product). Just like the existence of many lousy musicians today does not disprove that Bach and Beethoven composed great music centuries ago.

Your analogy with Tesla's theories is misleading. Tesla never built anything matching his theories. Ptolemy did draw his world map. It's not just a "curious theory from an antique foreign scientist". It's a real map, well known by the ancients, and easy to reconstruct by anyone who has the coordinates.

So what? So was steam power, and celestial navigation, and, quite possibly, the principles of the antikethera machine. And dozens of other lost and refound technological secrets. And Atlantis.

No one did reconstruct it. It was all but lost to educated knowledge (in Europe, anyway) until the 1300's. That's the point.

And there's another point that that brings up - no one needed it to be reconstructed. No one was "flying", so maps that showed how to walk/sail from A to B were all that was needed, and "accurate" geographical representation was just unnecessary. As if today someone wanted to make all street maps show satellite patterns overlayed. With extremely rare and obscure exceptions, we, as citizens or academics, just don't need it, so there's no reason to produce it.

No one (short of a flying mage) needed maps of greater accuracy. Not until the advent of increased maritime technology (that eventually led to 1492 et al), was there any demand for such an oddity, or did people even start to think of "land" in that way.

Rather, no one is currently known to have reconstructed it.

And in Mythic Europe somebody might have.

Google maps would therefore seem to prove that what isn't needed may still get done.

The thing is accurate maps are both pretty easy to do with magic and incredibly useful for mages. A InCo spell of where am I on the map can be of as much use as many centuries later surveying equipment.

Now the math behind a lot of surveying wouldn't seem beyond the classical or medieval worlds, but they did not feel the need for maps of that accuracy, but with mages it is important.