Documents in Medieval Latin states that (page 18)

Large numbers of maps, from small areas such as the English counties to world maps, were published from the early 16th century onwards. Many contain descriptions of considerable length in Latin, often in good literary style (they were, of course, published documents, aimed at the educated and wealthy).

I understand that Medieval Latin and New Latin were in use during the early part of this period, especially for scholarly applications, but it seems odd that maps would be annotated in Latin. If made for practical use, surely they would be made in the common native tongue of the user(s), so those not fluent in Latin could understand it.

So why were many maps annotated in Latin - or am I making a false assumption somewhere?

  • 1
    Would this be better suited to history.SE?
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:00
  • 3
    @C.M.Weimer I don't know. More importantly, is it okay here?
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:03
  • 1
    Possibly. This sort of thing seems like it requires a Medievalist, though. I'm not entirely sure what the answer is, but I'd guess it'd have something to do with the socio-economic levels of Medieval England, and therefore is more about history than the language properly. I'm not voting down, but I'd like others to chime in on whether it's an appropriate question for this stack.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:12
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    I like the question, though it does seem like an edge case. It is more history than the language itself, but it's also the usage of the language, which inclines me toward keeping it open. Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 23:59
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    Wasn't it just because Latin was still the language of science/knowledge at the time?
    – Rafael
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 18:21

2 Answers 2


Modern people often underestimate how fractured the linguistic landscape of Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Europe were. Outside of Langue d'Oïl, very few people spoke each particular language you find in Europe. Even in England, until around the 17th Century, regional differences in spelling and vocabulary might not guarantee that a man from Manchester might read what a man from Bath might write.

In this situation, it makes perfect sense to write a map in Latin, which was widely understood by the sort of person who might have enough money to buy a map, and in any event might allow the mapmaker to sell his maps to a Frenchman or a Spaniard or a Pole, if they should have the opportunity to buy one from him, not only to fellow Englishmen.


Latin was typically the language of the educated (those who could read and write). It wasn't until after the Middle Ages, that textbooks, such as those about medicine and maps, were written in the language of the common people.

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