Several times I had idea for a medieval-like world where the people living on the planet did not discover all the world yet.

I know the first two steps:

  1. Create a map of whole world, for worldbuilder's own purposes
  2. Create a map with white spaces (here be the dragons) from point of view of the people living on the world

Although the step 2 sounds easy, It always gave me headaches in where exactly should the line of Terra Incognita go. So I would like to get some answers:

  1. How far from a village should I plot the "we do not know what is there" line? (again, reminder: Classic medieval world with no magic involved, fastest means of transportation is a horse)
  2. Should I use geographical landmarks as "border of unknown"? E.g.: No one crossed that big river yet, so behind the river are woods and dragons live there
  3. And ultimately: What are common reasons to stop discovering? Why would medieval person stop at a river/mountain and not go any further?

Edit: My basic intention is to let the reader look through eyes of the medieval person (so the reader will know only second map, with white spaces). The only person "to know it all" is the worldbuilder, alas me

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    $\begingroup$ One minor point: Old maps were NOT accurate. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ I am using "accurate" in meaning - that map has white space plausibly away $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ Cartesian coordinates are developet at sec XVII so forget about modern maps. At medieval times a most common "world map" can be a circle with a "T". The center of "T" being Jerusalem and each part of circle being Europe, Africa and Middle East, also North is not always UP $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ The map is not the territory. Some people may know, or might have know, some lands official cartographers do not. And do you want the reader to know all the map (i.e : is the POV omniscient ?). $\endgroup$
    – Kii
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ T-O-maps are one kind of medieval maps, but not the only one. And of course most were not designed for classical map purposes but for theological (or artistic) reasons. $\endgroup$
    – his
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 8:42

7 Answers 7


I think your headaches come from misunderstanding why the blank spaces exist. The Terra Incognita is simply an area the cartographer has no good information on. Most such areas had people living on them and trading with their neighbours. The Americas had advanced civilizations and were presumably visited by several groups before Columbus, but that didn't really help cartographers that much. Phoenicians presumably circumnavigated Africa. Neolithic trade networks were very extensive. Romans had contact with the Chinese long before Marco Polo. The borders of the Empires were briefly close enough that a war was a theoretical possibility.

The point being that Terra Incognita do not arise from lands being unvisited, they arise from the information being unknown to the cartographer. Just like the name says. It is important to note that what is unknown to one cartographer can be well known to another as long as the first cartographer has no access to the maps made by the second. And that if a map says a country has people with dog faces or bat wings that gets copied just as well as any other data. Most maps were based on second hand information and had reliability to match.

So what you need to do is understand the flows of information.

Start with primary sources.

Nomads, hunters, fishermen and few other professions can range over large areas. Unfortunately these groups tend to be insular and especially suspicious of strangers asking questions about their pastures, water holes, fishing or hunting grounds. They'll pass on rumours of people they come into contact into and can guide travellers passing thru, but they are not very good sources for maps.

Traders follow those rumours and constantly look for new trade routes. They'll travel far if they are following something valuable, like silk, porcelain or tea. Gold, silver, and precious stones are also good attractors. Unfortunately while traders are good with dealing with strangers, even curious ones, they are competitive. They will not divulge valuable information about their trade routes where a competitor could hear it. So unless a far travelling trader gets somehow stuck with a lots of time where he can't actually use the information himself, say a prison, he is not going to be a good source for cartographers.

Official follow armies or conduct diplomatic missions to foreign realms. They generally make good observations as it is usually part of their job. Unfortunately their social status generally makes them unavailable to cartographers. And their actual reports are limited to other government officials. So it is basically up to their individual literary ambition. And even when they write they are usually more interested in the people than geography. So not very good source for maps either.

Pilgrims and missionaries also range far and missionaries sometimes intentionally go into the unknown areas to spread the word. Unfortunately if they come back to the known lands where a cartographer can talk to them they generally have a reason for doing so. Their health might be failing with their recollections being vague and fragmentary. They might have come to get funding to their mission, which colours their stories. And in all cases they are even more focussed on people over geography than officials are. They probably travelled with a guide who took care of all the navigation and might have totally wrong idea of directions and distances.

After that the next issue is with dissemination of information. Accurate maps and navigation data have been considered strategic and restricted information throughout history. Making copies of maps or navigation data was also relatively slow and expensive. These factors limit the availability of mapping information. More importantly for your question it means that information about distant lands will be rare enough that it can be lost. It is entirely possible that the Phoenicians, the Romans, or the Chinese found North America and we just do not know about it. (Although the case for Chinese has become more solid lately?) There might even have been trade for some time without us knowing.

I hope this answer that does not actually answer your questions still helps by pointing you in the right direction. That causes less headaches.


I think geographical landmarks make more sense than a simple distance metric. Covering, say, 500 km on horseback, or by horse and wagon, is very different if the terrain is wide open plains as opposed to mountainous areas, thick forests, huge swamps, or something similar. This can be amplified by making those areas crawling with animals who will readily attack you, either rhino-style plain aggressive, cobra-style poisonous, or tiger-style outright predation; or mythical creatures like dragons guarding the Great Treasure that nobody knows about because nobody has survived the encounter. Look to Kipling's Jungle Books for an example of this; people living in villages more or less surrounded by jungle, but largely avoiding the jungle for all its dangers.

It's easy to design your world such that there are large mountain ranges, large forests, an ocean, or something else, forming a formidable (but not impassable) natural border. Particularly in the absence of a clear incentive to cross it, in a world that is basically at a subsistence level, that alone will put lots of people off. There simply won't be any benefit that outweighs the difficulty and risk. Sure, life in the village might be harsh, but you have the protection of the village structures, the help of the other people around you, and so on. If you set out into the wide unknown, you risk losing all that.

On top of this, you can have whatever leaders have the most clout in your world (whether political, royal or religious) make it very clear that bad things happen to those who seek to cross these boundaries. It works even better if some people tried and didn't return, even if the reason for their non-return in reality is much more mundane. (This gives such leaders obvious examples to point at; the son of the smith of the next village tried to get through the Deep Woods of the East and nobody has heard from or seen him in two years.) Maps are likely to also reflect this in some manner; remember that medieval maps were not the detailed works we think of today, even in their areas where they were filled in.

Also, it's worth keeping in mind that different groups of people are likely to have different white areas on their maps, simply because their starting points are different. This can lead to interesting encounters for those brave intrepids who do venture into the unknown.

None of this will stop everyone, obviously, but it can maintain white areas on a map for a long period of time, especially in a medieval setting where communications and travel take a long time.


Try to get inside the mind of a medieval cartographer, and figure out where he would stop looking, and why.

Perhaps anyone who traveled past a certain point never returned, as they were eaten by the dragons. Therefore they would not really want to venture into the area of no return. And anyone who had managed to travel there wouldn't have come back with their newly plotted maps.

However, the cartographer would try to chart as much land as he possibly could in order to be able to sell his more accurate maps. Therefore, he would likely try to go to as far as he physically could, or to higher ground, so that he could see as far as possible.

This would mean that he could at least do an approximate map further than he had actually traveled, but it would generally be less accurate as he has not been able to survey the land up close.

If he was able to scale a mountain and see beyond, then there could be some semblance of landmarks such as towns/villages and rivers, as well as the type of land that is there, for a fair distance, but maybe just "penciled in" until it could be verified on any successive trips (the ones from which they would possibly not return).

However if there was a hard barrier (such as mountains) that he could not cross, then the map would be plotted up to that point with nothing further. However, if he had gone up to a river without crossing it, he could at least plot that beyond it there was "grassland" or "desert", for as accurately as he could (and maybe even embellish a little, if no one was around to verify it).

There was a cartographer who entirely made up the Mountains of Kong in Africa, because no one had been there to verify his find for many years afterwards.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the Mountains of Kong. Brings more ideas to the cartography of my world :) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 9:46

Originally maps were linear in nature, so that along the length it would detail the next place in the journey.

Imagine that they followed a series of directions. i.e head from our village to the one just over that hill; then take the road to the big village with the blacksmith (nice picture of a forge); then take the road past the oak tree to a smaller village; now cross the river and head up the mountain road to the village at the head of the valley; that's where we buy our axe, son!

By Medieval times they had evolved into what we might think of as a traditional map, but there was no specific way of drawing them, and a lot of them were designed not specifically for navigation. The idea that people would have access to a map to plan a route is unlikely as they were valuable both intrinsically and for the knowledge that they contained. Also the "blank spaces" were filled in with fancy: if you were a Lord commissioning a map, would you be happy with a large parchment that was mainly blank?

1) This means that anything that can't be seen from the route would be Terra incognito (as far as this map is concerned). It also means that even if you had two maps that started and ended in the same place you would be hard pressed to construct an accurate 2D representation of the intermediary villages etc... the type of mapping we think of with triangulation etc... didn't really take place until much later for example the Ordnance Survey of the UK in 1745, and the Cassini maps of France in the 18th Century. I don't imagine that each village would have a map of the locale, which as Worldbuilders we find useful, but would rather have a body of knowledge about the area.

2) Rather than general features you should use impassable terrain as limits, or terrain with no discernible change. people might go to the woods for, well, wood. Or use a river for trade/food. but they might not go all the way through the giant wood, or scale a large mountain range.

3) It depends on your "Medieval" people: if they are subsistence living they won't have time to go further, if they are even able to go at all. Is there enough food supply to keep them going and can they return to tell the tale. If they go somewhere good, why would they return to tell others about it let along map it? If they were an explorer looking for riches you probably wouldn't take a long a lot of expensive and delicate supplies to record your journey.

Following the information about your intention it would also be worth bearing in mind that as knowledge about areas was gained there wouldn't be a physical map to update, but rather the knowledge held collectively would be refreshed. This also means that the mental map would have a time element involved, many things far away might have significantly changed, but the message has only just propagated to the village...

To help the reader understand you might consider having Elders tell tales, or returning Woodsmen/Hunters explain what they'd seen etc...


This will depend on who is making the map, and why, in-universe.

Maps aren't accurate during most of this time period. Wildly so. Until the Age of Exploration began, accuracy simply wasn't a thing. You've already got some great answers here, going to add my spin on it.

Here are some points to consider

  • Most villages would not bother with a map. Important cities, yes. Tiny towns, not so much.
  • Many maps were commissioned for important people--Kings, Lords, that sort of thing. They weren't really to help navigate, but for display. To learn what was in the world approximately.
  • While the map might have everything known on it, it may not be accurate in the least.

You ask:

How far from a village should I plot the "we do not know what is there" line? (again, reminder: Classic medieval world with no magic involved, fastest means of transportation is a horse)

The answer is it depends on who is making the map, what they know and what the person that commissioned it is asking for. Does the Lord want accuracy? A focus on the town? A map of THE KNOWN WORLD? Is this a map specifically sold to pilgrims of the pilgrim route? If so, then mapping the known world would not be the goal.

Paper is rare, so they'd have to have some level of education to be allowed to try making it.

Most people in England know about London, even if they are far, far away. So let's take that example. If your village is 300 miles away from London, the people there would have still heard of it. Some few people in the village may have even travelled there.

So a somewhat educated fellow brought up in the church with a gift for drawing might be commissioned by the local lord. In this case they might detail their own town more than anything, and then set major cities where they know them to be. So York, London, any town above 3,000 they may have heard of, they would place on the map.

Of course, do not assume that the in-universe map is going to be accurate. It's pretty unlikely that it will be. Your map-maker might know that France is across the channel and where Ireland is, in theory, but it's unlikely that they've actually been.

Should I use geographical landmarks as "border of unknown"? E.g.: No one crossed that big river yet, so behind the river are woods and dragons live there

They would not necessarily place HERE THERE BE DRAGONS on a map like this. It's actually not as common as you might think. Instead, they would just assume land that they know, or vague mountains to fill in the space, placing cities where they believe them to be. (They might know that London is North of York, and that it's on the Thames, but they might not know the accurate shape of the coastline of England).

See, your map maker knows that there are places beyond. It's quite possible vaguely know of France, Italy, and Spain. How much they know about the distances between, where they actually are, will be based on descriptions in books they may have read (which will not be all that detailed, or could be interpreted a number of ways). They might not include all these on the map, but could have arrows pointing the way. The dragons and such that you see on some maps actually came later/at the end of Medieval period--and sometimes they were just decorative.

Mapmakers would often just talk to people, and they might know someone who knew someone who said there were dragons past the mountains up North. There's no real way to check on it, it's known though, so best put it on the map. Plus it creates visual interest, and mapmakers were as much artists as they were cartographers.

What are common reasons to stop discovering? Why would medieval person stop at a river/mountain and not go any further?

Is there anyone past the mountains that might buy what you're selling before it goes bad? No? Well, it's not worth the journey then.

Plenty of Medieval people never travelled more than 30 miles from their home. But there were also folks who made regular trips to large cities for trade and fairs. Also there were religious pilgrims, merchants, and some nobles who just liked to travel.

There were also jobs, like fishing, where you could get to know the coast intimately over a wide range. But good luck finding someone who is both educated enough to draw an accurate map and has that knowledge base or is willing to give up the secrets of their trade.

Sometimes a lord or king would even ask for someone to travel in order to make a map, if they were interested in exact distances of their kingdom.

The question you are asking is so...individual you're asking "why would a person" when people are very different. Why haven't you been to Indonesia? (well, mayhap you have) How do you KNOW it exists for certain?

Maps are largely made in this time, based not on personal experience, but on those who came before. The more detailed and accurate a map is, the more likely it is to be specific to a purpose (navigating the coast, the pilgrim road, a trading route with directions).


I'm quite fond of medieval maps and have researched them as a way to see how people think of their world. Most have more in common with a modern subway map. It gives you just the information you need in a graphic format. The border isn't dragons but unnecessary for task at hand.

Do people in the European middle ages stop discovering? It segues into the Age of Discovery. :) What keeps people going is money. Trying find more valuable commodities and better ways to get there completely drove discovery.

Trade and religious pilgrimages routinely cross mountains and rivers these them the time. I have a couple of friends who just completed a pilgrimage on foot to Santiego de Compestella in Spain. (A popular pilgrim site for a millena.) They have GPS and modern maps but what was very useful on their journey were mile markers, just like the Romans used.

There is a concept I've read about in regard to map history, omphalos (latin for belly button). People tend to put what is most important to them in the center of their map. There are many medieval world maps with Jersualem at the center. Growing up the in the US my world map was a Mercator projection with the USA front and center. My mental map of the town I live in has areas of density around the three houses I've lived in with the major connecting roads.


Most people in a medieval setting travel a day or less from home in their lives, on horseback here's some rough miles per day figures:

On Roads / trails: Level or rolling terrain: 40, Hilly terrain: 30, Mountainous terrain: 20.

Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc): Level/rolling grasslands: 30, Hilly grasslands: 25, Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20, Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15, Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10, Marshland: 10.

Now a mapmaker/explorer (or even just hunters, foresters and other locals who don't work farms) is going to get further off the beaten track or from the river or whatever the main transport routes are in the area than peasant farmers so 20-30 miles is probably a fair point at which to start blurring the reliability of maps (and certainly this is the point at which local farmers' descriptions become unreliable), with MMBA or HBD being everything past the 50, or maybe 100, mile mark from villages and the roads connecting them. That's my thoughts on it anyway, obviously it's going to be much less in harsh trackless terrains (swamps and mountains) or where there are deserts that no-one has ever tried to explore, although the edges of such areas may be well explored and defined. Desert and mountain maps probably have HBD on everything out of sight of the trade roads that pass through. You're likely also to get a Northern or Southern edge where climate becomes a deciding factor in habitation and no-one goes any further because it's just too hard.

One other note; there are good socio-geographic reasons for maps to close in as well as the physical geography mentioned above, on a border with unfriendly neighbours there may be a lot of military cartography, or not depending on whether there's active conflict on the border, but civilian mapping is going to be curtailed. Unfriendly neighbours need not be militarily antagonistic they may simply discourage visitors or closely monitor or restrict the movements of foreigners. Information flow across a border may be strictly controlled meaning that one country may have much better maps of their neighbours than any neighbour has of their territory. Where you have differences of habitat, such as forest dwelling Elves sharing a border with farming communities that have little use for the tight growing gnarled old growth trees neither will know terribly much about the layout of each others holdings.


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