TITLE: Hidgen World Maps

DATE: ca. 1350

AUTHOR: Ranulf Higden

DESCRIPTION: More or less elaborate diagram-maps, in the tradition of the early medieval world maps, were still being produced in the 14th and 15th centuries. One of them, in various versions, appears in copies of a compendious and immensely popular universal Latin history book, the Polychronicon, written in the mid-14th century by Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk at Chester (ca. 1299-1363). That he was English may be significant given the English associations of the group of world maps that include the Ebstorf and Hereford maps (Book II, #224 and #226). As a testimony to its popularity, some 150 manuscript copies of the Polychronicon have survived and are illustrated by a world map, all having similar geographical content, although their individual form and shape vary considerably. On some the map is circular, on some a pointed oval (vesica piscis [fish bladder] or mandorla type), and on some it is a rounded oval. The circular Higden maps are thought to be simplifications of the earlier oval maps, and they certainly appear in later manuscripts. The cities of Rome and Jerusalem are always prominent, but are rarely placed in the center of the map.

On the late 14th century copy the world map (below) occupies a double page, 46 x 34 cm. It is oriented with East at the top, Jerusalem near its center and the heads around the map represent the twelve winds. Not too surprising, in Britain (shown in the color red, lower left) there are more town symbols than are shown for all the rest of Europe. In fact, there are some 39 castellated towns throughout the entire world map, 14 of which are in England alone, while there are only four throughout all the continent of Africa. Not all of these town symbols are the same, for instance Jerusalem, Rome, Babylon, and Santiago de Compostella (Spain) are quite unique, large cathedral-like drawings with considerable more detail than the other identified towns. Higden uses red lines to separate specified geographic areas. The few mountains that are displayed are colored green like the oceans.

The water areas are shown in green (except for the Red Sea shown in red). Islands are shown as blocks of text throughout the sea or ocean. There are 12 wind-blowers surrounding the map. Major rivers are shown: the Euphrates and the Tigris enclosing Mesopotamia (which means ‘between two rivers’; see above), the Nile snaking its way across Africa without emptying into any larger body of water, the Rhine coming down from the Alps, and even the Thames meandering past Oxford and London.  Many of the descriptive labels are excerpted from the text of the Polychronicon, indicating that its creator was familiar with Higden’s book, and perhaps used this very copy to annotate the map. This copy is thought to be closest to the original prototype. The oval shape of Higden’s maps and its simplification, the vesica piscis, is a particular characteristic of his, but not original. The map historian R.A. Skelton implies that a lost prototype (which may have been a large world map such as that referred to by Matthew Paris a century earlier) was probably circular and that the oval shape was an adaptation to the shape of the codex leaf. It is more likely, however, that the oval shape was derived from the practice described by Hugh of Saint Victor of drawing maps in the supposed shape of Noah’s Ark (which, by the way, is actually pictured at center-left on the map displayed below).

World Map by Ranulf Higden, 1342, 46 x 34 cm, British Library, Royal MS. 14 C.IX, ff.1v-2

This manuscript has the ownership inscription of John Wardeboys, who was abbot of Ramsey at the time of its dissolution in 1539. England is to the lower left side, with a red background. Fourteen cities are represented and identified, including London, Winchester, Lincoln, Oxford, Worcester, Gloucester, Norwich, Northampton, York, and Exeter.

The world map of Higden, derived as usual from a variety of Roman sources, is found in the first book, and some 21 extant examples can be traced to the 1342 London manuscript of the Polychronicon for which stemmata have been developed by Konrad Miller, with modifications by R.A. Skelton.

Higden was a monk of St. Werburgh’s, Chester, from 1299 until his death in 1363. Commonly styled the Polychronicon which comes from the book’s longer title Ranulphi Castrensis, cognomine Higden, Polychronicon (sive Historia Polycratica) ab initio mundi usque ad mortem regis Edwardi III in septem libros dispositum, Higden’s Polychronicon became the most popular history book in medieval England and, as mentioned above, more than 120 manuscript copies survive today. It traces the history of the world from the Creation down to Higden’s own days. It consists of seven volumes. Book I is devoted to a geographical description of the world, while Books 2 through Book 5 encompass the history of the world. Only the last two volumes deal with English history.

The Polychronicon is highly traditional in structure and sources. It depends largely on classical writings such as Pliny’s Etymologia (especially as transmitted by earlier medieval writers and encyclopaedists, notably Isidore of Seville (Book II, #205), on medieval chronicles, on travel accounts such as those of Vincent of Beauvais, Giraldus Cambrensis and Marco Polo, on the Alexander legends and, above all, on the Bible. Although Higden occasionally interjected stories and observations of his own, and sometimes criticized earlier authors, he was generally satisfied with their information. He shows little sign of being aware of the advances in knowledge made after 1250. Although he was evidently proud of Chester and of the English language, the tone of his text is not at all nationalist. Indeed, he is sometimes quite critical of the English.

Higden began work on the Polychronicon early in the 1320s and regularly updated it until his death in 1363. Other chroniclers contributed their own ‘continuations’ to Higden’s text until after 1400. Scribal copies of Higden’s own work, with his own continuations, have survived in three versions: a short version which includes events up to and including 1327; an intermediate version extending the narrative to 1340 which was probably written in that year (this is the most common of the three, with nearly seventy surviving copies); and a final-the rarest-version which goes to 1360 and was presumably written shortly after that date. The original manuscript of the earliest version is lost, but the copy that the Huntington Library possesses is now generally accepted as Higden’s working copy for the intermediate version, which contains the text up to 1327 with continuations recording events up to 1352. In this case, Higden himself is likely to have been responsible for the additions as well as the core text, and the Huntington Library manuscript, therefore, should be regarded as the most authoritative expression of Higden’s own intentions.

Detail of England on Higden’s world map,
14 cities are named

Maps in the Polychronicon

Maps are found in some copies of the intermediate version of Higden’s Polychronicon. Their occurrence or non-occurrence, however, is so apparently arbitrary and the design of most of them so unrelated to the text as to prompt questions about Higden’s attitude towards maps and about the nature and purpose of these so-called Higden maps.

There is no evidence that Higden himself, unlike his famous predecessor, the chronicler Matthew Paris (Book II, #225), was particularly cartographically literate. Almost certainly the now-lost original short version of the Polychronicon did not contain a map. After a few years, however, Higden evidently concluded that a map would be appropriate, and the intermediate and final versions of the text specifically refer the reader to a map. Unlike Paris, however, Higden was either unable or unwilling to create a map specifically for his description of the world. Indeed, evidence suggests he had some difficulty in finding a suitable world map. It is surely significant, as John Taylor has pointed out in his The Universal Chronicle of Ranulf Higden (1966), that several of the later copies of the earliest version have a blank folio - or a completely unrelated piece of text - at the end of the prologue to the first book - exactly where the map is to be found in the Huntington Library manuscript.

The map that Higden finally selected for what is now the Huntington Library manuscript HM 132 was probably an already rather ancient model. It presented the essentials of his worldview without the frills (such as the texts and illustrations relating to the Marvels of the East and to the Bible) found on the great 13th century world maps. The map in the Huntington Library manuscript is simple. Its basic structure is to be found also on the Beatus and the Anglo-Saxon world maps (Book II, #207 and #210) of several centuries earlier, two map types probably deriving from a now-lost later Roman prototype and possibly thus going back to the administrative world map known to have been made for a portico on the Via Flaminia, Rome, under the direction of Augustus’s son-in-law, Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 B.C., Book I, #118).

Detail of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v 

There is no pictorial illustration on the Huntington map apart from the depiction of Adam and Eve in Paradise and two dogs’ heads outside the map. Only the principal cities, rivers, seas and provinces of the classical world are named, except in Western Europe where some medieval place-names appear. Boundaries are picked out in red. The map omits all legends, notably those referring to the Marvels of the East or to the Bible (with the exception of an indication of the passage of the Hebrews across the Red Sea) even though these are dealt with in detail in the text.

The absence of any explicit connection between illustration and text brings to mind the acute observation made by Rudolf Wittkower in relation to the divergence between the illustrations and the text in 15th century copies of Marco Polo’s travels: ‘No medieval artist aimed at a descriptive illustration of a text.  As a rule he addressed his public through exemplars ... fixed by long tradition ... [The] medieval reader on his side did not expect a literal text illustration, but rather a visual clarification in terms familiar to him’. As with illustrations, so with maps, Higden may have realized that the map he selected was not ideal, but he was not sufficiently cartographically sophisticated to be bothered by it. Almost certainly his chosen map was a familiar image that, because of its very familiarity, would have been as acceptable to his readers as to himself in providing an illustration of the world.

In the course of the 1340s - possibly before Higden had selected a map to fill the space left in the text for it - a copyist, perhaps working for Ramsey Abbey, Huntingdonshire, created a larger, more detailed and better-executed world map, which illustrates the text much more fully. In some ways this work resembles the great maps of the previous century with their descriptive texts. Map scholars such as Armando Cortesão, R. A. Skelton and David Woodward have all followed Konrad Miller (who, however, did not know of the Huntington Library map) in focusing their attention on this map from Ramsey Abbey. Undoubtedly it is relatively more informative than the Huntington Library map,
but there are major problems in terming it the Higden map, as has been the practice. First, the Ramsey Abbey map has no proven link with Higden himself. Second, the inclusion in the same manuscript of another simpler map that is closely related to the Huntington Library map and may, therefore, be a slightly later addition to the Ramsey Abbey copy of the Polychronicon, suggests a loss of confidence on the part of the copyist - a feeling, perhaps, that with the fuller map he was unacceptably stepping out of line. Third, it is worth recalling that the fuller Ramsey Abbey map produced no cartographic progeny, whereas the Huntington Library map is related to, and is probably the ancestor of, no fewer than ten oval or circular maps, including the Evesham world map (#236.2), which were being created up to and into the 1460s.

If evidence is needed of the decline of cartographic consciousness in England in the second half of the 14th century - perhaps as a consequence of the Black Death pandemic of 1348 – one needs also to bear in mind that only twenty of the surviving 120 or so complete Polychronicon texts in Latin (and only those of the intermediate text and its continuations) contain maps. Even if a few of the other hundred mapless texts may originally have been accompanied by larger, separate maps - in the way that a copy of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia may once have accompanied, explained and elucidated the Ebstorf world map (Book II, #224) – the likelihood must be that most had none. Furthermore, the one copyist of the 1340s who was sufficiently enthusiastic to create the more elaborate of the Ramsey Abbey maps, which closely corresponds to Higden’s text, was an isolated figure. The other copyists became, if anything, less cartographically concerned than Higden and their maps even more conventionalized. By the 1370s they were creating circular maps (or maps shaped like the aureoles often shown surrounding Christ in medieval art), which mostly lacked even the rudimentary coastlines and decoration shown on the Huntington Library Map. The relatively high level of map consciousness and cartographical skill that had distinguished England and the English in 13th century Europe had sunk low.

Ranulph Higden’s world map of c. 1350 shows a walled-off area in the northeast, south of the Caspian Sea. That the Caspian is not an inland sea but open to the ocean signals this depiction’s conservatism. The text specifies that Gog and Magog will break out at the end of the world and do great damage, and that they were enclosed by Alexander. Higden’s work seems to have been very popular: around 185 Latin manuscripts traceable to Higden’s design.

See also monograph #236.2, the Evesham world map, for additional information on Ranulf Higden.


*Bagrow, L., History of Cartography, pp. 71-72, Plate XXI.

*Destombes, M., Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500, #47.

*Delumeau, J., History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition, pp 51-53, 63, 100, 102.

*Edson, E., Mapping Time and Space, pp. 126-131.

*Edson, E. The World Map, 1300-1492,pp. 165-169.

*Galichian, R., Countries South of the Caucasus in Medieval Maps: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, p.190.

*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Vol. I, pp. 312-13, 325, 327, 348, 352-53, Plate 15.

*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps p. 37, Plate 26.

*Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 182,186.

*Miller, K., Mappaemundi: Die aeltesten Weltkarten, Volume 2.

*Scafi, A. Mapping Paradise, pp. 134-136.


Detail of Noah in the ark with a ram, lion, and a stag, from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v

Outline of Higden’s world map from Scafi

An example of Higden’s mandorla or almond-shaped maps is shown here, perhaps representing a common Christian symbol of the aureole surrounding Christ. This example measures 35 x 21 cm and is oriented with East at the top. It uses place-names to show relative positions/locations and virtually no attempts to draw the actual landmasses or bodies of water.
British Library, Royal MS. 14 C.xii, fol. 9v

World Map by Ranulf Higden, 1350, 26.4 x 17.4 cm, Huntington Library, HM 132, fol.4v

World map by Ranulf Higden, ca. 1350, British Library, Royal MS 14.C.IX, fol.2v

This manuscript has the ownership inscription of John Wardeboys, who was abbot of Ramsey at the time of its dissolution in 1539. At the top of the map is a sketch of Adam and Eve at The Fall. Below them to the right is the Red Sea (colored red), interrupted by a label marking where Moses led the Hebrews to safely from Herod. The small square islands near the middle of the page, set against a green sea, include Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, and Sicily.

Reproduction of a Higden world map from Konrad Miller

World map by Ranulf Higden, ca. 1350, 32 x 22 cm, BnF, Manuscrits (Latin 4922 fol. 2)

Reproduction of a Higden world map from Konrad Miller

English manuscript map centered around Jerusalem and to be read from the north-west, in Ranulf Higden, Polychronicon, late 14th century, Oxford University MS. Tanner 170, fol. 15v

Higden mappamundi, 14th century, British Library, 14.C.XII

Higden Circular Mappamundi, 1466, 14cm diameter, British Library, Harl. MS. 3673, fol. 84r

Higden world map, National Library of Scotland

Map of the World, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, UK, Ms.89 Higden fol.13v