Glossary of Map History

My work has required me to rethink many terms in map history, revealed the ambiguity of more, and has suggested that some are not sufficiently well known, especially to incomers. I therefore offer the following as a guide to usage; I have flagged inappropriate usages with ¶.

The terms are organized mostly alphabetically, so it is best to use the browser’s search function in case a term cannot be found. Each entry is also flagged by a broad category of terminology:

form – physical elements of maps
historiography — the practice of the study of early maps
idealization — concepts stemming from the ideal of cartography
map type — categories, genres, etc., of maps
mode — broad categories of mapping

¶ card

[map type]
The French carte was adopted into early modern English as “card,” used throughout the Renaissance as a fairly generic term for spatial images. It was in particular used as a variant of chart for marine maps, in which sense “card” continued in use into the first half of the eighteenth century. It seems to have been used by less well-educated mathematical practitioners, mariners, and land surveyors. Now obsolete.

¶ cartobibliography

A bibliographical listing of maps, by region, period, style, maker, etc. Coined ca. 1900 by H. G. Fordham, the term has largely replaced the older ¶cartography4 (MHT). The insistence on using carto- manifests the insistence under the ideal of cartography that maps are properly distinct from other kinds of inscriptive texts (books, etc.). But they are not (CIH; Tanselle 1982) and it is more appropriate to use just bibliography.

¶ cartograph

[map type]
A back-formation from ¶cartography in U.S. English. It was initially used in the early twentieth century for a variety of innovative instrumentation related to map making, from alidades for plane tables to photogrammetric stereoscopes. By 1930 “cartograph” was in use in the U.S. for pictorial maps, i.e., images that were plainly maps yet not maps showing locations and landscapes. After 1980, “cartograph” has been similarly used by academics to refer to indigenous maps, statistical maps, and other images maps that lack consistent scale (CIH, 219). Usage of “cartograph” necessarily construes a distinction between real maps and map-like images that continues to sustain the ideal of cartography.

¶ Cartography

“Cartography” is a modern hybrid of the French carte and the Greek –graphy (description, writing), modeled on the truly ancient word, “geography,” giving cartographie (CIH, 114–20). Early variants in English and German incorporated the respective terms derived from the French carte (chart, charte), giving “chartography” or “chartographie.” After its acceptance in the 1820s, “cartography” sustained a variety of meanings according to both interpretation of “–graphy” and parallels drawn with “geography.” These meanings continue to influence modern usage:

¶ cartography 1

The singular and universal endeavor of map making, i.e., “writing [making] maps.”

¶ cartography 2

Expressing concepts through maps, i.e., “writing with maps.” Generally used in the phrase ¶historical cartography2.

¶ cartography 3

The study of maps, i.e., “writing about maps.” The common name for the modern academic subdiscipline, akin to “geography.” Note that German scholarship used other terms for the organized study of maps, notably Kartenkunde, until the 1960s.

¶ cartography 4

The product of the study of maps: “a cartography,” being akin to “a geography.” Generally replaced since ca. 1900 with cartobibliography.

¶ cartography 5

The world/archive of spatial knowledge: “the cartography,” being akin to “the geography.”



cerography (a.k.a., wax engraving)

A relief printing process, effectively the inverse of etching: a wax film on the matrix is scratched through; the exposed areas are then built up through an electrolytic process. A common technique for commercial mapping in the USA in the late nineteenth and in much of the twentieth century (Woodward 1977).


The intaglio technique of cutting lines directly into a copper plate to be printed; in nineteenth century, extended to steel plates as well. Also referred to as “line engraving.” The primary technique in the preparation of copper plates for the printing of maps.


The intaglio technique of covering a copper plate in a ground (a layer of acid-resistant substance), scratching through the ground to define the image, and then using an acid bath to etch the plate where exposed. In early modern mapping, often used for decorative highlights, especially in cartouches, but not for entire maps.


“Geodesy” (from the Greek: lit., “earth division”) was coined by learnèd Renaissance mathematical practitioners for all applications of geometry to the observation and measurement of land, esp. property mapping and other forms of place mapping. The sense that geodesy was a universal (Platonic) practice of reducing the earth led it to also be used after ca. 1670 for the more complex forms of surveying used to measure the size and shape of the earth. Regional practice then split. In central and eastern Europe, “geodesy” has retained its universality, so that modern commentators have had to draw pragmatic distinctions between “higher” geodesy (newer, complex surveying) and “lower”/“lesser” geodesy (older, simpler). French and then British practice in the eighteenth century largely restricted “geodesy” to the measurement of the earth, discarding the original meaning. “Geodesy” is thus ambiguous:

¶ geodesy (1)

The measurement and observation of land, i.e., the original, early modern meaning of “geodesy,” which has come to be called “lower geodesy.” It is nonetheless an idealization that embraces several different modes of mapping.

¶ geodesy (2)

The universal practice of measuring the earth—of surveying broadly construed—from simple property mapping to the measurement of the earth’s size and shape, regardless of technical or conceptual variations. Its continued use is a major support of the ideal of cartography.

geodesy (3)

The mode of measuring the size and shape of the earth. This restricted usage has dominated in both French and English since the eighteenth century, and has been dominant too among the modern natural sciences (CIH, 179; MHT, ch.2). Geodesy has developed along two distinct but interrelated lines of practice:

  • mathematical or geometrical geodesy, entailing the measurement of the earth’s dimensions in conjunction with both astronomy and official territorial mapping projects;

  • dynamic or physical geodesy is the study of the earth’s constitution and gravitational field and so aligns with the fields that coalesced as geophysics in the nineteenth century.

History + Cartography

¶ historical cartography (1)

• type of study

¶ historical cartography (2)

• making maps of the past

¶ history of cartography (1)

impression (1)

In printing, the product of a single pull from a printing press, and by extension the quality of that product (as in “good impression”). More specifically, one instance of a single-sheet image printed on one side, generally from copper plate but also from wood block and lithography. It is possible to refer to one instance of a multi-sheet map as an “impression,” but this is borderline inappropriate.

Reference to instances of printed images as “impressions” is preferred over “copy” (which has connotations of manuscript reproduction). Note that bibliographers have a quite different meaning: ¶impression2.

¶ impression (2)

A set of printed materials produced in an act of printing, such as the original print run of a book. Although it forms one rung in the formal bibliographical hierarchy of edition/impression/issue/state, cartobibliographers have tended in the past to be quite loose in its application. To avoid confusion with impression1, Tanselle (1982, 9–10) suggested that impression2 be replaced by printing.

intaglio (printing)

The printing of images from incised surfaces: the ink rests within the incisions. Historically, relief printing has been accomplished through copper plates and perhaps, in the nineteenth century, steel plates. Several techniques are used to incise lines within the matrix: engraving, etching, acquatint, and mezzotint.


The evolution of this term for a specific type of spatial image into an idealized category of all spatial images cannot be completely reversed—see map history—without replacing the term altogether (with “spatial image” or some other clunky phrase).

“Map” derives from the Latin mappa, meaning a tablecloth, napkin, or signal flag. The supposition is that as larger cloths were used as the support for paintings and drawings, mappa was used as early as the twelfth century for graphic works, perhaps with the sense of display, made on any support. As such, mappa became one word among many that were applied to spatial images, and not just only world maps (mappamundi). Mappa was also used figuratively in the later medieval era for a written geographical description.

map (1)

[map type]
“Map” is found in early-sixteenth century English as an abbreviation or contraction of mappa (Woodward 1987, 287; Van der Krogt 2015, 125). Use of “map” in English competed during the early modern era with a variety of other terms, until stabilizing by the eighteenth century. In all this period, “map” was specifically a work describing the world or large regions, especially one defined by lines of latitude and longitude. Stabilization of “map” entailed stabilization of terms for other, distinct categories of spatial image: both sea chart and plan. The three broad categories have persisted in modern colloquial usage.

In recognition of the confusions produced by the idealization of ¶map2 and the utter generalization of map3, it is good practice to always further identify the particular kind of map, as cosmographical map, world map, geographical map.

¶ map (2)

Any spatial image made in accordance with the ideal’s preconceptions, regardless of mode; a purely generic and unambiguous category of images. Except that this is a myth (CIH).

Working within this idealized, generic meaning, Frixa (2018, 51) offered an alternative etymological derivation. She set aside the history of the medieval adoption of mappa (see map1) and the alternative etymologies of carta/carte/Karte/chart that dominate other English languages, and insisted on the derivation of “map” directly from the classical Latin:

It was used by Quintilian to mean the tablecloth or napkin used by guests to wrap up left-overs to be taken with them. It is on these linen cloths—more resistant than paper—that for centuries terrestrial space was represented. Though the material used for maps has subsequently changed, the word has remained the same to this day.

The original meaning of the term—a piece of cloth used to take things away—is important, because it is precisely this kind of action that defines the representation of places of origin.

In short, maps are maps because of their manner in which, like Bruno Latour’s “immutable mobile,” they take knowledge and carry it away to somewhere else. Unfortunately, this whole argument smacks of confirmation bias, in that it only makes sense if one weds a particular usage to an idealized universal characteristic of all maps and ignores etymological history.

map (3)

Utterly generic meaning for any “text representing spatial complexity,” with no preconception of form or semiotic strategies (CIH, 41).

map history

The study of early maps, regardless of purpose and without any expectation that such study is (or should be) a single intellectual endeavor (CIH; MHT).

mappamundi (pl. mappaemundi)

In the most generic sense, this medieval Latin term refers to any world map1, and could also be used to refer figuratively to written accounts of the world (Woodward 1987, 287). It is most commonly used in English, however, to refer specifically to any of a wide variety of schematic or encyclopedic world maps produced within the medieval Latin West that lacked an overt mathematical structure (whether a cosmographical coordinate system (planisphere1), or a nautical mesh of rhumblines (¶planisphere2).

Mappamundi can also be written as two words: mappa(e) mundi. There seems no reason other than personal preference to use one or two words.


The process of making maps. From the utterly generic perspective of map3, it is “the representation of spatial complexity,” with no preconception of the forms and strategies to be taken in representation (CIH, 41).

matrix (pl. matrices)

In the print reproduction process, the surface that holds the ink to be transferred to paper or other support. Depending on the process, one or more matrices might be used to generate a map image. In early modern Europe, the matrix in map printing was either the wood-block or copper-plate; in modern Europe, lithographic and relief processes multiplied the materials and forms of printing matrices.




Relating to the period after ca. 1800, characterized by centralized states, global empires, mass literacy, industrial democracies, etc., which stands as a distinctive period in map history, being the era of the culturally hegemonic ideal of ¶cartography.

modern, early

Relating to the period from the middle ages to the fully modern era, characterized by shifting global, political, economic, and cultural relations, broadly speaking containing the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Precise starting dates are impossible, varying with location in Europe, but ending ca. 1800.

planisphere (1)

[map type]
A map of the observable celestial heavens on the stereographic projection, as per Ptolemy (see Sidoli and Berggren 2007).

  • With European incursions south of the Equator expanding the observed night sky, some commentators (and accordingly modern historians) distinguished between celestial hemispheres (each showing precisely one hemisphere) and celestial planispheres per se (each showing more than one hemisphere), but many other commentators did not.

  • By extension, in early modern usage, a terrestrial world map in hemispheres on the stereographic projection.

¶ planisphere (2)

[map type]
A common, modern term for a world map that has been consciously constructed according to the principles of transformation from a spherical to a flat surface, whose primary purpose is locational. This is a modern term that has been applied retrospectively both to early modern world maps made in the form of sea charts—i.e., world maps that are not schematic mappamundi (Woodward 1987, 287)—and to any world map on a projection (not just the stereographic).

relief (printing)

The printing of images from raised surfaces, atop which the ink rests. Historically, relief printing has been accomplished through wood blocks, typographic surfaces, stereotypes, cerographic surfaces, and other processes, as well as through letter-press. If the matrix is “type-high”—i.e, the same height as individual pieces of type—then it can be set within the type form, so that text and image are printed simultaneously.


• explain


The material on (or in) which a map image is created or reproduced. Historically, these materials include papyrus, vellum, paper, various films, walls, stone, digital monitors (CRT, LCD, etc.).

typographic map

A map printed in relief from individual pieces of type (HC4, •••–••).

wood block

A piece of wood used to hold an image and printed in relief to produce a woodcut or wood engraving. Woodcuts are generally produced from the plank, wood engravings from the end grain.


A positive (map) image created through relief-printing from a wood block, generally worked on the plank. It is positive in that the image is formed from ink transferred from the matrix, so appears blank on white. Also used as an adjective (as in the “woodcut technique”).

wood engraving

A negative (map) image created through relief-printing from a wood block, generally worked on the end grain. It is negative in that the image is formed from the ink not transferred from the matrix, so appears white on black.


CIH = Matthew H. Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019)

HC4 =

MHT = Matthew H. Edney, Mapping, History, Theory. In preparation.

Frixa, Emanuele. 2018. “The Representation of the Places of Origin: A Geographical Perspective.” In Visual and Linguistic Representations of Places of Origin: An Interdisciplinary Analysis, edited by Maria Pia Pozzato, 49–77. Cham, Switz.: Springer.

Sidoli, Nathan, and J. L. Berggren. 2007. “The Arabic version of Ptolemy’s Planisphere or Flattening the Surface of the Sphere: Text, Translation, Commentary.” SCIAMVS 8: 37–139.

Tanselle 1982

Van der Krogt, Peter. 2015. “The Origin of the Word ‘Cartography’.” e-Perimetron ( 10, no. 3: 124–42.

Woodward, David. 1977. The All-American Map: Wax-Engraving and Its Influence on Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1987. “Medieval Mappaemundi.” In Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, edited by J. B. Harley, and David Woodward, 286–370. Vol. 1 of The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.