glossary of terms in map history



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.

mental map

This term — also appearing as “imagination map” (Vorstellungskarte) in German (Azócar and Buchroithner 2014, xii) — has three common usages that must be disambiguated, in English (CIH, 66). ¶mental map1 is especially to be avoided as an important support of the individualist preconception of the ideal of cartography.

¶ mental map (1) – see cognitive map

¶ mental map (2) – see sketch map

mental map (3)

[map type]
An analytical map that purports to show a communal conception of spatial arrangement. Academically, such works are generally constructed from multiple sketch maps and/or social surveys submitted by individuals. In popular culture, mental maps include works such as Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue” (New Yorker cover, March 1976)




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.