A detailed image of Pietro Vesconte’s world map

Why Early Cartography Doesn’t Work Well for Fantasy Maps

I got message in my inbox the other daaaaay…

“I’d love to see something from the Late Medieval or even Crusades period. Does the dearth of material from those eras prevent or make such a project more difficult? Are you simply uninterested?”

It’s a great question and one I’ve received several times in the last few years. The answer is longer and more complicated than it should be. We’re dealing with history and history is always messier than we’d like. Plus, I think it’s interesting enough that everyone will appreciate why I seem to ignore the Middle Ages’ maps in favor of later sources.

Also I blame Tolkien.

Strap in, cowpokes—I’m going history nerd on y’all.

Technology, Cartography, and Fan Expectations

We need to begin with technology. The proliferation of maps didn’t commence until after the printing press became ubiquitous. That’s why we have such an explosion of content after the 15th century. Before then, maps were all hand-made. Reproduction was difficult. You don’t find as many maps from those early eras, and often the maps you do find are reproductions done in a later style. That’s not to say they don’t exist, they’re just much different than the maps that came later, and they don’t correlate with what we think of as a map.

Then there’s the fan experience and the modern fan’s expectation. Fantasy maps serve a story, after all, and most fans want certain things from the map. Locations, distance, landforms, perhaps even enough to understand the climate. But the era of your typical fantasy novel is often set much earlier than the era of the printing press. (Yeah. Sure. It’s fantasy. And yeah, sure, you can fudge it.) But this is where it gets complicated.

In many ways, Tolkien is the one who set the expectation for fantasy fans. His famous map of Middle Earth, the one we all know and love, is more akin to cartography from the 16th, 17th, or 18th century than one from the Middle Ages. While it’s easy to point fingers, the reality is there is a good reason for his decision.

The art from the Middle Ages was weird.

Have you ever spent time looking at Western art from the Middle Ages at a museum? Notice how it’s always a little goofy? A bit off? Strange angles. Weird faces. There’s a flatness to everything. Eyes are looking in different directions. The artist had no idea what a cat looked like. The baby Jesus on Mary’s lap looks like a 34-year-old man. Camels look like horses and horses like goats. Trees are rendered oddly, and buildings are even odder. Art at this time was in its infancy and it’s like that with the cartography as well.

Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean.


10th Century – Ende’s Map of the World – 975 A.D.

Most Western cartographers from the Middle Ages were monks, or in Ende’s case, a nun. The maps they made were often crafted alongside, or as a part of, “illumination” for religious manuscripts. Religious zeal tended to dominate many of those early Western works, making them almost useless as maps.

This “map of the world” is an excellent example of that fervor. It’s sparse, with more effort spent on the Garden of Eden cartouche than detailing the geography. It’s far different from the detailed maps we expect from our modern fantasy novels. Yet, the era it was created, the late 10th-century, is more often than not closer in era to our crafted fantasy worlds.


12th Century – Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana – 1154 A.D.

During the 10th century, most of the progression in the science of geography and cartography was coming from the Middle East. Most of our modern understanding of mathematics and science is rooted in discoveries from the early Muslim world. Cartography is no different.

Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana is one of my favorite pieces from those times and is largely considered the height of early Muslim cartography. While this work is rendered upside down, with North being at the bottom (not uncommon for Middle Ages work), the map itself is incredibly accurate—while scale is still being sussed out, it’s easy to spot recognizable landforms.

It’s also stunning.

Colorful mountain ranges dance across beige landforms, green lakes and seas drain into rivers, which in turn empty into the deep blue swaths of open ocean. It makes for a beautiful piece of history. While you can see the roots for the hill-profile style that would become the norm in later centuries, it’s quite different from maps we find in the opening pages of a novel. Everything here is a bit flashy, more like a painting—whereas, with later maps, engravers began using the symbols we expect. The map itself shifted in later years to become a tool for the commoner, not a piece of art for a fancy king named Roger.


13th Century – Matthew Paris’s Britain – 1259-ish A.D.

The other approach we find in the Middle Ages was more typographical. Take this 13th-century map of the British Isles from the Benedictine Monk Matthew Paris. It’s not bogged down in religious fervor the way Ende’s map was—but it’s also not as detailed as one would expect.

There are only a few signs and symbols, and much of the heavy lifting is done with text. Beyond the coastline, there is very little in the way of landforms. No flora is present. No mountains—well, maybe one mountain. Few rivers. And this is the 13th Century! We’re nearly three hundred years after Ende crafted her map, and still two hundred years before duel-beard wielding Johannes Gutenberg would invent his printing press. And etching—the process that rendered many of the maps that influence fantasy cartography today—wouldn’t show up on the scene until seventy-five years after that.

But you can see the origins of what was to come. You can see symbols begin to creep into the idea of a map. You can see where cartography is going.


I once read an article that compared these early maps to “storytelling” rather than representations of geography. This was undoubtedly the case in Western cartography during the Middle Ages. These maps serve to enforce a narrative. But beyond that narrative, most are unusable. They’re paintings. Piece of art. They’re not tools. We see more cartouches and illustrations than useful signs and representational symbols. This is why I avoid using these as a base. There aren’t enough signs to make a robust set, and the signs and symbols that exist are very limited. This is why early cartography and Middle Ages’ sources won’t make practical brush sets.

The Silver Lining

I don’t think all hope is lost. While it’s theorized to be a bit earlier than the Middle Ages, I think there’s potential for some sort of set to come from the Tabula Peutingeriana, an early map of the Roman Empire.

I’m not sure how effective it’d be from a landform-perspective, but there are so many variances in the Roman settlements that I could see it working for the right project. The trick will be finding a decent source, it’s been reproduced so many times and every time there are slight variations. Plus, I’ll need to dust off my High-School Latin before I tackle it.

There’s also an opportunity with some of Sebastian Münster’s or Girolamo Ruscelli’s work. It’s early as far as the hill-profile style goes, but it somehow feels older even though both are from the 16th century. The downside is most of the individual maps are fairly light in the number of symbols present, so I’ll need to pull from multiple sources. Unfortunately, neither did an outstanding job maintaining a uniform size with their signs or keeping line strokes consistent. Not impossible to overcome, but it is time-consuming.

In Conclusion

There are going to projects that will benefit from the earlier styles of cartography. The maps I shared are stunning and fantastic pieces of history. Creating in-era ephemera can add a level of authenticity to a story, and any of the pieces I shared would be great to replicate for the right project. But for those, I think proper illustration goes a lot further than trying to shoehorn brush sets into cartographic development. In those cases, one would be better off hiring an illustrator.

I design my brushes to help non-designers create period-authentic maps. For the vast majority of fantasy projects, I think mimicking the hill-profile style will satisfy fans. Tolkien chose it for a reason. It’s easy to wrap your head around and still feels properly antiquated even if it doesn’t precisely match era to era. It’s become the defacto fantasy style, and for a fantastical world, and you know what? That’s more than acceptable.


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Watching History

Watching History

When I was a kid, I adored The History Channel (now rebranded as just History.) I could (and did) spend hours watching various documentaries on a whole smattering of historical times and events. But as time went on, things changed. Reality television rose in prominence and infected every channel. Scripted shows became more commonplace even on specialty stations. And while Vikings is fantastic, many of the time slots once devoted to actual history are now focused on conspiracy theory or propping up stereotypes. The beloved channel from my childhood has lost most of its luster.

Lately, I’ve discovered several sources that have filled the void left behind from The History Channel’s slow demise. In particular, a pair of unrelated YouTube channels that have rekindled some of that excitement I felt when watching history documentaries the mid-90s. I’ve been enjoying them a lot, and I’d love to share them with you as well.


🗝 Townsends

Townsends is a great many things. It’s primarily a cooking channel hosted by Jon Townsend focusing on 18th-century cooking using period appropriate methods, ingredients, and tools. But quite often it goes far beyond food and serves as an exploration into the daily life of the people who lived in early North America.

With over ten years of videos there a lot here and it’s all fantastic. Jon is a wonderful and engaging host who clearly cares about the subject matter. I’ve including a few of my favorite videos below, but I highly recommend subscribing to the channel and joining Jon as he “savors the flavors and aromas of the 18th century.” (Hope you like nutmeg.)


Food. As I said, Townsends is primarily a cooking channel and for a good reason. Eating is a constant in human life and an easy connection for writers to make when it comes to connecting a reader to a world. It’s fascinating to see the small nuances between 18th-century cooking and modern day.


Beyond the food, Townsends explores living in the colonies. There are videos about camping, marching, scurvy, map making, and eyeglasses… and there are series like this one about how canoes were made.


Ship’s biscuit or hard tack crops up all the time in history, but what is it exactly? How was it prepared? And, most importantly, how was it eaten? Thankfully the good folks at Townsends decided to answer those questions for us in this handy video.


Want More Townsends?

If you liked Townsends’ YouTube channel be sure to subscribe they’re always producing new content, and it’s the best way to be alerted anytime they release a new video.  Be sure to check out all the goods they offer on their website, follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.



⚔️ Modern History TV

Businessman Jason Kingsley is one of the co-founders of Rebellion Developments, by day he makes videos games by night he is a historical reenactor who focuses on the medieval knight. (It also helps that he was actually knighted and holds an OBE title.) Along the way, he creates some fantastic videos that go into the details of everyday life for a knight with a focus on historical accuracy. He’s a great presenter, and the videos are full of heart and well worth your time. Here are a few of my favorites, starting (unsurprisingly) with food…

So yeah, I am including a lot of food-related videos, and for a good reason. As I mentioned above, food and our connection to it is one of the constant experiences in human lives. I think it’s vital for storytellers and world builders as well, after all… “what did they eat?”


The accurate medieval wardrobe is often ignored by movies and video games, focusing instead on our modern sensibilities and often ignoring reality. Jason’s dedication to exploring the truth is a refreshing change—if you liked this be sure to check out Jason’s video where he debunks the sword on the back.


Like clothing, armor is often overlooked. Many people don’t understand the time and effort it takes to equip a knight, and they rarely portray it accurately. In this episode, Jason walks through the effort required and how varied duties used different armors.


Want More Modern History TV?

As always subscribing to a channel is the best way to stay connected, but be sure to visit Modern History TV’s website where you can find out more about the project. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook where they share more content about medieval life.


💭 What about you?

Is there a show or channel or blog you like that harkens back to the classic era of The History Channel. The sort of content that you walk away from feeling informed and inspired and itching for more knowledge? Let us know about it by either leaving a comment below or sending me an email. I’d love to find more sources like these.

Watching History


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →