The world as seen by Europeans before 1492

The world as seen by Europeans before 1492

On the eve of what historiography has called "the Great Discoveries", the Christian West has a geographical vision of the world in which Greek, religious and empirical influences mingle, with a touch of mysteries, far from what explorations and conquests of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will allow, decisively changing the way of apprehending the world, to enter modernity. The first explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, are thus still men of the Middle Ages.

The "T in O" world map

It is the "T in O world map" model that is the main hallmark of religious influence on world geography in the Middle Ages. Inspired by ancient scholars and the biblical story, Church Fathers like Isidore of Seville (560-636) divide the world between the three sons of Noah: to Shem Asia, to Japhet Europe and to Cham Africa. It is a geographical vision where the Earth is flat, which partly played on the received idea that the men of the Middle Ages ignored the rotundity of the planet (while it has been known since Antiquity, and that medieval scholars, studying the sciences of the Greeks, could not ignore it). The East is above because it represents Eden, Paradise.

This “T in O” model persisted until the end of the Middle Ages, and the three sons of Noah sometimes gave way to the Three Wise Men, who were also each symbols of a “continent”, even if this term dates rather from l 'modern era.

The role of portulans cards

Nautical charts, which developed especially from the thirteenth century, are fundamental to understanding how Europeans saw the world at the time. Originating from the Italian thalassocracies (Pisa, Genoa, Venice), Portulan charts were used from the 13th century for navigation in the Mediterranean. Involving the use of the compass, they show on the map, most often a parchment, the coast lines and the various ports, as well as the pitfalls. A network of lines drawn on the sea allow the navigator to reach a port marked on the map.

First made for navigation, and therefore thanks to precise observations, they quickly become collector's items, often idealized representations, combining cartographic indications and figurative iconography, exhibited in studiolos and princely palaces. Portulans are richly decorated with geometric and floral motifs, coats of arms, ships, animals, and other designs. They constitute simple catalogs of ports, the names of which appear captioned in red or black, according to their importance, without mentioning the distances which separate them. The main river courses and sometimes orographic accidents are mentioned by means of a schematic outline, without real proportions.

From the Ptolemaic world map to the globe

The role of the Greeks is obviously central in the geographical thought of the world. In the 15th century, it was the vision of Ptolemy, a 2nd century Greek geographer, which became the most popular, and with it the influence of Eratosthenes and the sphericity of the Earth gradually imposed itself, to the detriment of the plane and religious vision of previous centuries.According to Ptolemy, the Indian Ocean was closed, which we discover in representations of the 15th century, such as that of Nicolaus Germanus (1482). In 1450, the monk Frau Mauro produced a world map that synthesized several cartographic cultures, Christian but also Arab, integrating empirical information, drawn from the first explorations of the time. If Ptolemy influences him as well, he does not hold back his idea of ​​the closed Indian Ocean.

However, the most glaring example of the world view in the 15th century, the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, is certainly Behaim's globe. Also inspired by Ptolemy, he incorporates into his performance information from the voyages of Marco Polo and Jean de Mandeville, two travelers whose stories will guide Christopher Columbus himself. Behaïm's globe thus represents a narrowed Atlantic Ocean which, if crossed, leads directly to Cipango (Japan) and to Asia. In the middle, all that was missing was the New World, "discovered" a few months later by the Genoese navigator ...


- P. Boucheron (dir), History of the world in the 15th century, Fayard, 2009.

- C. Grataloup, The invention of continents, Larousse, 2009.

- "The golden age of nautical charts. When Europe discovered the world ", BNF, Seuil, 2012.

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