Spatial Identification & the Oxford Outremer Map

By Tobias Hrynick

Matthew Paris’s Oxford Map contains, by our breakdown, just under one hundred thirty entries, all but a few of which designate particular geographic places, among them towns, castles, rivers, and other regions which could be expressed in latitude and longitude. Though Matthew Paris did not use anything like modern contour lines, he nevertheless showed the third dimension by drawing mountains, sometimes pointing out multiple peaks of varying heights, and, as Evelyn Edson noted, drawing the road east of Jerusalem to portray its changing elevation.[1] Unlike most modern maps, however, Matthew Paris also clearly situated many sites in time as well as in space. A few seem to be eternal[2]  – the division between Syria and Palestine, for instance, is given as the stream east of Acre, shifting political boundaries notwithstanding – but many other sites only made sense with a tighter chronological focus. In addition to the towns and fortresses that were there at the time of the map’s composition, there are sites from the distant biblical past (hic cecidet Saul, Gloria ad Pastor…) and from a more recent political past (morte marescalli). A few entries plot the future. Corozain, for instance, is where the anti-Christ will be born. One label demonstrates both the importance of time and of a fifth dimension of cultural context, forming a kind of optative subjunctive sense: the Land of the Sultan in Egypt is drawn well south of Damietta, which cannot have been held by Christians when the Oxford map was drawn,[3] and Paris’ placement of the boundary must have expressed, as Edson has argued, a hope for the reversal of this setback.[4] Equally, however, toponyms have an existence outside of place, as words with cultural and etymological contexts. Matthew Paris’s map may therefore be seen as a valiant effort to plot five variables on two axes. Our project is an attempt to peel apart some of these dimensional juxtapositions, and to make the richness of the text more easily accessible.

The Oxford Outremer Map and Modern Mapping Norms

Not all five dimensions are plotted in all parts of the map. Hints at elevation are given only occasionally, when particularly relevant, and while longitude and latitude (or perhaps more accurately space in from and space along the coast, given the warping of the coast-line) are affected by the constraints of the page. Nor is the juxtaposition of physical and cultural information consistent: there are both places without names, and names without places.

The most obvious places without names on the Oxford Outremer Map (excluding the sections of the map which appear blank through our exclusion of Matthew of Paris’s separate notes on grievances of the English Church, broader geographic notes, and what appears to financial memoranda) is the paucity of place-names in the Sinai desert, perhaps indicative of a desolate frontier. More generally, the notion of meaningfully empty space is key to modern concepts of cartographic scale. Whether the Oxford Outremer Map has such a scale is disputed. Evelyn Edson and Daniel K. Connolly regarded the inclusion of days traveled between cities in the north-west as a form of scale (changes in the forth dimension standing in for changes in the first and second),[5] while P. D. A. Harvey pointed out the disparity between the numbers given and the actual distances on the map, to argue that scale was absent.[6] It is probably truest to say that Matthew Paris did have a general sense of scale, but that he did not give it a particularly high priority. On one version of his map of Britain states that he would have showed Britain as longer “had the page had allowed.”[7] Matthew Paris’s commentary on the Oxford Map that Damascus should be further east relative to the Jordan, and his efforts to work around the list of grievances in the upper right-hand corner suggest a similar set of priorities here.[8]

More difficult to reconcile with modern norms of mapping are the wide range of sites which might be called “Names without places.” Some (like the death of the marshal, or Tisin) probably corresponded to real places, but not to real places which we have been able to identify. In other cases, it is clear enough what Matthew Paris was talking about, but the things he described are not ones which we would imagine being able to place precisely. In some cases, it is possible that Matthew Paris simply had a more concrete view of some events than is now usual, as with the Annunciation to the Shepherds which he places particularly to the south-east of Bethlehem, when biblical accounts and most modern portrayals remain more general. In a few cases it is difficult to believe that Matthew Paris actually thought what he described could be labeled precisely, such as his placement of Crocodiles or Land of the Camel, and it is more likely that the positioning on a particular point on the map was intended to reflect only much more approximate real position.

Other labels are so tied to the cultural and etymological world that their link to a particular geographic place is largely artificial. The best example is the Jor, a river which was imagined to exist, as a logical extrapolation from the existence of a river Dan which also flowed into the Jordan. It is obvious what the Jor means, and it might even be possible to link the name to one of the most important other sources for the Jordan (as, indeed, we have done here) but doing so really misses the point. The Jor is an etymological construct, not a place, and Matthew Paris’ other maps of the region show that he was willing to change the relative position of the two rivers so that the Jor label would always be in front of the Dan label in the right-left, top-bottom order of French and Latin, emphasizing the linguistic relation over the geographical position.[9]

The French of Outremer Team: Plotting Space in the Digital Age

During this project, we have used digitally enhanced images of the map to clarify the labels and to refocus attention from some of the visually striking features of the manuscript page (such as the heavy green border which has bled through from the images on the inverse of the parchment, the list of church grievances in the upper right, and the memoranda on the bottom right) to the map itself. In digitally displaying the map, we were able to use the format to compensate to some extent for the inadequacies of a two-dimensional display, through contextual annotations. Our reworking of the text, however, also raised questions about how best to identify sites, and what contextual information it was right to highlight.

In identifying particular sites on the map, we have attempted to exploit the geographic placement and naming of sites in parallel. We regarded identifications as solid if a modern place associated with the label was located in approximately the same position as it was on Matthew Paris’s map relative to other nearby places. We prioritized relative direction over apparent distance, and regarded positions on the Mediterranean coast (which had the advantage of being listed in itinerary format along the fixed line of the coast) as more reliable benchmarks than inland sites. Generally, if no site existed which fit both spatial and linguistic criteria to within a reasonable degree, we have noted the site as unidentified. A few exceptions were made for cities like Sebaste and Neopolis where the geographic errors are slight and the etymological links strong, or for places like the Turris where the position of the site in the east branch of the Nile, the relatively limited set of contexts in which the region around Damietta was likely to be encountered in Medieval European literature, and the site type suggested by Turris all suggested the tower which resisted the assault of the Fifth Crusade, even though we did not have a specific place-name to work with. Notes on these more interpretive entries are included with the annotations found by clicking on the place names.

In general, both when identifying sites and when framing the brief discussions of them, preference was given to the kinds of information Matthew of Paris might have had access to, and the time in which he was writing. For instance, when more than one place had been identified with a biblical site, like Cana Galilee, the one listed is the most common identification in the thirteenth century. Or, when discussing Damietta, which had a vibrant history outside the European context, we restricted the discussion mostly to the occasions when Damietta was the subject of European trade or military contact which might have drawn the attention of Paris or his sources.

Individual sites have also been identified in terms of some modern political divisions; this has been done only to make it easier to locate relevant literature and to assess archaeological opportunities. It is not intended to convey any political or ideological agenda.

We hope that this project will allow the many dimensions of the Oxford Outremer Map, both physical and cultural, to be more easily accessed and interpreted, and that it will encourage further discussion on this unique manuscript. In addition to facilitating the display of historical alongside geographic context, the digital format also facilitates collaboration on a hitherto unimaginable scale. If you notice errors, or have insight into the identification of unidentified sites, or relevant contextual information which is not here, please let us know.


1. Evelyn Edson, “Matthew Paris’ ‘Other,’ Map of Palestine,” The Map Collector 66 (1994): 19.

2. Ibid, 20.

3. The region was held from 1219-1221. P. D. A. Harvey thought the exemplar for the map described the situation of  around 1230 (P. D. A. Harvey “Matthew Paris’s Maps of Palestine,” in Thirteenth Century England VIII; Proceedings of the Durham Conference 1999 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001), 168). Edson favored some time between 1235 and 1242 (Edson 21).

4. Edson, 20.

5. Ibid, 19, 21; Daniel K. Connolly, The Maps of Matthew Paris (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009), 151.

6. Harvey, “Matthew Paris’s Maps of Palestine,” 165.

7. P. D. A. Harvey “Matthew Paris’s Maps of Britain,” Thirteenth Century IV: Proceedings of Newcastle Upon Tyne, ed. P. R. Cross and S. D. Lloyd (Woodbridge: Boydell Press), 114.

8. Harvey, “Matthew Paris’s Maps of Palestine,” 168.

9. See the facsimile Acre maps in: P. D. A. Harvey, Medieval Maps of the Holy Land (London: The British Library, 2012) 77, 79, 81.

Back to the top