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PART I: The History behind the Gough Map

What was it like to be a medieval cartographer? And how did I come to be interested in “The Gough Map”? The R. I. T. (Rochester Institute of Technology) Center for Imaging Science hosted a lecture on January 23, 2019 given by Dr. David Messinger, PhD, Director of the Center and his PhD students: Di Bai and Morteza Maali Amiri. I attended this lecture which I discovered through volunteer activities at the R.I.T. and the University of Rochester with digitally archiving historical documents.

The Gough Map shown in Figure 1. is the first known surviving map of Great Britain and has been dated to approximately 1410 c.b.e. (completion date). Earlier maps exist such as Matthew Paris’ map held at the British Library and made in the early part of the 13th century. However, it is much less geographically correct than the Gough Map.

The lecture discussed recent work performed to learn more about the origins, materials and tools and uses of the map. It has been a collaboration between the R.I.T. team and David Howell of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University where the map is housed, Andy Beebe of the University of Durham and Catherine Delano-Smith and Damien Bove of the University of London among others – a group composed of physicists/image scientists, a chemist, a material scientist and two map historians respectively. “This unique collaboration includes researchers from the fields of Imaging Science, Conservation Science, Chemistry, Materials Science, Geography, and History.”

Here, the Gough Map is shown alongside a current map of Great Britain for orientation purposes (BritainProject Britain). I have also displayed a poster produced for the Bodleain Library that is nearly the same size as the Gough Map (the poster is 17.5” by 35.5”) for reference as well in the A&S competition display site. This lecture led to my additional research on the Gough Map and ultimately the desire to reproduce part of the map, The London Vignette, in an authentic manner. Since the map is roughly 4 feet by 2 feet, bankrolling enough parchment to reproduce the entire map was not feasible.

The Gough map shows all of England and Scotland and part of Ireland. It was bequeathed in 1809 to Oxford Bodleian Library by the antiquarian, Robert Gough (pronounced “guff”). He first encountered it in 1774 and acquired it from the estate of Thomas “Honest Tom” Martin for two shillings and six pence. It measures about 115 x 56 cm or about 45 x 22 inches. This is very large for a manuscript of this era. The parchment is about two thirds sheepskin and one third lambskin. The needlework seam joining the two can be seen running across Scotland. The large size also made the map awkward to work on for the scribes.

The map was extensively revised after about 100 years of use. This was determined from the modern study of the map spearheaded by Catherine Delano-Smith who is also editor of the premier cartography magazine Imago Mundi, starting in 2011. Phase 1 of the modern study of the map was the initial analysis of the material and physical composition of the map. Phase 2 focused on the compilation of the map where three distinct map-making episodes were determined:

Layer 1 – showing the whole of Britain from the English Channel to Scotland
Layer 2 – a reworking of the map south of Hadrian’s Wall
Layer 3 – re-inking of place-names in the southeastern/central quadrant of England

Phase 3 of study will be aimed at in-depth topographical analysis. Currently Phase 1 is continuing with determining what materials appear to be different due to aging of the original materials or because they were added during later revisions and/or are indeed different pigments or inks. The R.I.T. team introduced new scientific tools including hyperspectral analysis to further the Phase 1 study starting in 2016.

During the 1600’s, there was some damage to the map. The owner was told the text would be restored if he applied a mixture of oak gall and red Madeira wine on a sponge to those areas. This approach worked for a few weeks and then due to chemical reactions – resulted in complete destruction of the text and images on those area of the map. This hyperspectral analysis technique was used to reveal the text and illumination that has been chemically removed from the map manuscript.1

King Henry IV was reigning when the map was put into use. It includes 654 place names shown as text alone or in boxes or cartouches and 200 rivers. Other physical features are identified by symbols, with trees locating Sherwood Forest and other wooded areas. What originally appeared to be roads on the map has been suggested to be distances between these places. However, this theory is in dispute and the reason for gathering this data and how it was used remains a mystery. There are red Roman numerals next to these red lines but again the complete reason for these remains unknown.

Bodleain Library Fig 2

Image: The Bodleian Library, Oxford, Duke Humfrey’s Library reading room (DeHamel).

What do we currently know about the Gough Map?

The Scribes
The text on the Gough map was executed by at least two scribes: the original 14th-century scribe and a second 15th-century scribe who was a reviser. The text by the original scribe is best observed undisturbed in Scotland section and north of Hadrian’s Wall. The text calligraphed by the reviser is located in south-eastern and central England. The majority of Wales and portions of the Midlands and Cornwall are damaged and faded extensively. Due to this, it is often impossible to be certain currently which scribe is responsible for this text.

Uses of the map
The movements or interests of the unknown map’s owner may well be represented by the selection of lines on the map. The lines between places were originally thought to represent distances with an unknown unit of measure, but that is not now believed to be true. Theories for the meaning of the lines include tax collection. The uses of the map are still simply not fully understood.

Materials and techniques
Town names are in black ink (oak gall ink was a common ink used during this period; carbon black ink came into use at a later time) and red ink. Districts, areas and lines between places are in vermilion red ink. Districts such as “Essex” are in cartouches or boxes. However, none of these districts are included within the London Vignette Plus. There are various characters on the map including fish, sea monsters, boats, and ships and the text such as “where King Arthur landed”. These objects and text can be seen in detail at the website. Places again can be searched for on this interactive map using modern or medieval names or partial names among many other features.

All the churches and buildings on the map are identical and are illuminated over four pin holes as the example shown in Figure 3. It is surmised that a template as was common in monastic illumination was used to draw them and held in place by the holes or perhaps a poncing technique using pricked holes with a template was used. An example would be the identical churches and a single building near London drawn most likely using a poncing template by one of two scribes, the 15th C. revisor (image from http://www.goughmap.com). gough map vignette

The quote below from “Leather, Vellum, Parchment, Drawing and Copying Maps and Charts” gives further detail regarding the use of templates in cartography:

“Exactly how were coastal outlines transferred from the model to new work in the 14th century and what traces can be seen of that (or those) process(es)? Answer; with a template laid on the basic forma of the wind rose. There would then be no trace of the work except the pin holes to hold the template in place (as has been noted).” (citation)

The map was created in three phases starting in 1360 c.: first, the outline of Great Britain and Scotland, second – the other towns, and lastly London.

For more on how Máirghréad deconstructed the materials and constructed a vignette simile keep tuned for the next installment of Behind the Scenes – Kingdom A&S Championship: The Gough Map Decoded Part II!


THL Máirghréad proudly presents the Gough Map Decoded – and won the privilege of becoming the Queen’s Champion for her extraordinary efforts. She is a member of the Parchment Guild.

Interactive Website
The Gough Map Project developed a wonderful interactive website where users can explore physical aspects of the map itself as well as access papers, presentations, articles and links to other research material about the map.

This article is an abbreviated version. The full documentation, including the full bibliography, can be downloaded from here

Abbreviated Bibliography

• De Hamel, Christopher, Scribes and Illuminators (Medieval Craftsmen), British Library Press
• Delano-Smith, Catherine, Understanding the Gough Map: an application of physics, chemistry and history, accessed 9/24/19
• ‘in, or close to, the reign of Henry V (1399-1413)’, Smallwood, T. M., ‘The Date of the Gough Map’, Imago Mundi 62 (2010), pp. 3-29, at p. 23.
• Smallwood, T.M. “The Date of the Gough Map”, Imago Mundi, May 2009, accessed 11/4/19
• Messinger, David, Hyperspectral Image Analysis of the Gough Map of Britain (1410): Who? What? Where/ When? Why? And How?, Chester Carl Center for Imaging Science Lecture, R.I.T., 1/23/2019
• Millea, Nick, The Gough Map: The Earliest Road Map of Great Britain, 2007 by Oxford University Press
• “The Future of the Past” Rochester Review March–April 2017 Vol. 79, No. 4
• Wilcox, Margaret, “Lecture on the Gough Map”, Aethelmearc Gazette, 2/2019 online publication