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Pre-modern Cartography: Worldview and Territoriality


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


During the medieval and early modern period geographical space was understood, experienced, and represented in ways that differ significantly from present-day perspectives. Medieval cartography was a sophisticated art form that offers historians fascinating insights into contemporary conceptions of sacred space and time. At the same time, medieval travellers did not use maps to navigate, using instead lists of place names (itineraries) that testify to a linear understanding of geographical space. A bird's eye perspective on topography, more similar to modern representations, became increasingly common from the late medieval and early modern period onward. This mode of representation was used by secular and religious potentates alike to solidify their hold on the territories they aspired to control.

In this course we explore these various conceptions and social, political, and religious geographical space in both visual representations and textual witnesses: how did these evolve over time? To what extent are modern theorizations of social space and territoriality helpful when thinking about pre-modern cartography and its historical significance? What was social function and meaning of these geographical projections: the intended message and audience, and their reception? Traditionally, the history of pre-modern cartography has been situated in a positivistic narrative of evermore scientific and 'better' maps. We will reconsider whether this narrative is a productive perspective for historians, and develop a fresh take on the social functions of representations of geographical space in the pre-modern world.

Students are required to select a topic for their individual research essay, which will consist of a case study based on examination of primary source material (maps, charts, geographical descriptions etc.) as well as secondary literature.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the specialisation or subspecialisation as well as of the historiography of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the broader processes of political, social and cultural identity formation between about 1000-1800; awareness of problems of periodisation and impact of ‘national’ historiographical traditions on the field.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the ability to analyse and evaluate primary sources from the period, if necessary with the aid of modern translations; ability to make use of relevant methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis to interpret sources in their textual and historical context.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) has acquired broad knowledge and understanding of the main characteristics of-, and developments in European cartography during the medieval and early modern period, including the main contemporary sources, and the relevant historiography.

  • 14) has gained insight into the various theoretical approaches that have traditionally and more recently shaped the study of pre-modern cartography, and interpretative problems and opportunities these may potentially create.

  • 15) has the ability to analyse pre-modern cartographic material as a source for historical research, paying attention to visual content and to social and cultural context, and thereby reconstructing the historical significance of these geographical representations.

  • 16) (ResMA only): has achieved advanced understanding of the current debates on approaches to the study of historical cartography, and the ability to problematize these perspectives with respect to the individual research, and to propose possible solutions, thereby contributing to the broader paradigms govern the study of pre-modern representations of geography.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Lectures: 12 x 2 = 24 hrs.

  • Preparation oral presentation: 7,5 hrs

  • Study of compulsory literature: 26 hrs

  • Assignments: 22,5 hrs.

  • Independent research and writing of the essay: 200 (time spent on reading, preparation, and writing will differ per student)

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-15, ResMA only: 10 & 16

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9, 13-16, ResMA only: 10 & 16

  • Assignment 1 (preliminary proposal for a case study of primary source material, plus indication of preferred methodological approach and selected bibliography of secondary literature)
    measured learning objectives: 1-4, 7-8, 13-14 (ResMA only: 10 & 16)

  • Assignment 2 (outline for the paper, including research question, sub-questions, and a 1000 to 1500 word writing sample elaborating these,i.e. a first draft of the introduction)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-15, (ResMA only: 10 & 16)

  • Assignment 3 (writing sample of ca. 2500 words, elaborating a major section of the paper, i.e. one sub-question/chapter)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-15, (ResMA only: 10 & 16)


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 7,5 %

  • Assignment 1: 7,5 %

  • Assignment 2: 7,5 %

  • Assignment 3: 7,5 %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Blackboard.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • publication course outline

  • communication of deadlines

  • all other announcements

  • submission of assignments and essays

  • feedback on assignments and essays

Reading list

Selected readings from volumes 1 and 3 of the History of Cartography series (University of Chicago Press. ©1987–2007 The University of Chicago. ) will form the backbone of the course reading. These volumes are available online, via free open access at

Additional literature will be listed on Blackboard and will mostly be available via Leiden University Library's digital resources.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M.P. Ritsema van Eck