How 16th-Century European Mapmakers Described the World’s Oceans (Atlas Obscura)

For some, they were an obstacle. For others, they were an opportunity.


OCTOBER 30, 2017

ACCORDING TO MEDIEVAL MAPMAKERS, THE world was made up of three continents ringed by narrow bodies of water. When the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Ferdinand Magellan uncovered continents previously unknown to Europeans, this posed a major problem for those cartographers. But these explorers did not just stumble upon uncharted land—they also became aware of expansive stretches of ocean around the world.

For the first time, Europeans were confronted with the realization that they lived on a blue planet, with 71 percent of the Earth’s surface covered by water. The narrow strips of blue on medieval mappae mundi—also known as T-O maps, which showed the earth as a T centered on Jerusalem—were suddenly dwarfed by unimaginably vast oceans. Stories about the European discovery of the New World are ubiquitous, but stories about the discovery of so much new water are much more rare.

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