Preview: The Middle Ages in Infographics (June 2019)


My new book with art & design publisher TASCHEN looks at the incredibly rich history of infographics and data visualisation, tracing their evolution from the Middle Ages right through to today’s computer-based visualisation.

Four experts of the history of information graphics each contributed a selection of historical infographics: David Rumsey, Michael Friendly, Michael Stoll, and Scott Klein. Furthermore, the book contains four chronological chapters.

This post is a preview of the Middle Ages. What were the main forces shaping the field of information visualization throughout the period from 800 AD to 1489?

The Middle Ages in Europe were long considered a science-averse epoch marked by barbaric clashes among rulers and widespread illiteracy, apart from a few monks who could read and write. With the advance of digitalization, the many Middle Age manuscripts preserved in libraries and archives have now become increasingly available to the public. The intellectual and aesthetic wealth that they offer is staggering. It was mainly in monasteries where the acquisition and transmission of knowledge took place and only in small part in the context of royal courts, as knowledge and scholarship were closely entangled with the cultivation of the Christian faith.

In the Middle Ages both knowledge and the way it was communicated were shaped by the culture of production and dissemination of manuscripts. The collection presented here begins in the heyday of the Frankish Empire in western Europe around 800 AD. Since this time, a continuous corpus of manuscripts has been handed down, making it possible to follow the evolution of the information graphic over the course of centuries. The end point of this chapter comes with the invention of printing in Europe in the middle of the 15th century, which brought about a fundamental transformation of the conditions surrounding the production of knowledge. In the history of information visualization the only records from before this epoch that have been preserved are lone maps etched into stone; but from this point forward a systematic practice of information visualization can be observed, as shown by the numerous examples that have been handed down.

A central aspect of manuscript culture was its focus on the preservation of knowledge. Myriad technical revolutions later, it is today hardly imaginable how precious a manuscript must have been for scholars, or how easily it could disappear and with it the information recorded within. Scholarship in the Middle Ages meant, above all, collecting, commenting on, and disseminating knowledge. The knowledge and commentary of religious or scientific authorities played a greater role than the observations of individuals. At the same time the transmission of knowledge in manuscripts was subject to diverse editorial interventions. Middle Age manuscripts were “made to order,” fit to individual purposes. Each time a manuscript was copied adjustments to the original text were made; scribes edited down parts of the texts, combined them with other writings, or placed them in new layouts.

Visualizations played an interesting role in this “on-demand” production of books. Often diagrams and maps were stand-alone additions inserted at relevant places in the manuscript. Like the text, they were also often modified, newly embellished, or otherwise customized in the process of copying them. Even when overall Middle Age manuscripts are largely made up of text, it is still imperative to recognize the abundantly visual universe they embody. Scientific content was often integrated into complex arrangements of text and image. Diagrams served as additional levels of communication. They offered an alternative visual approach that placed the essential parts of a scientific topic into a spatial context, thus conveying it with clarity.

The information visualization of the Middle Ages covered, in particular, the topics of theology, astronomy, and the so-called computus manualis for mathematical time and calendar calculation. Later there were progressively more anatomical, geographical, and historical works as well as technical handbooks. Among the most important recurring diagram types were genealogical chronologies, circular diagrams depicting cosmological concepts of the world, computistical tables, and kinship charts that came out of Roman law. In terms of maps from the Middle Ages, we are familiar in particular with the mappae mundi, which are replete with religious references, as well as the simple T-O maps.

This text was translated to English from my German original by Thea Miklowski. The HISTORY OF INFORMATION GRAPHICS is scheduled for worldwide release in June 2019. Get it from TASCHEN.