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Mapping Early Modern Worlds
Plotting a Course at Sea

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Portolans and Waggoners

Plotting a Course at Sea

Even when most European cartography was based on legend and scripture, sailors were making charts of the coasts they sailed along. They used compasses and winds for determining direction but also recorded notable landmarks on portolan charts, pictorial counterparts to the portolani or pilot books of written sailing directions. To the navigator, details of harbors, river mouths, rocks, currents, and other coastal features were far more important than information on inland terrain.


The earliest surviving portolans date from the thirteenth century, but they were probably used earlier and continued to be made even after printed charts became available. In 1584-85, Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer published his Spieghel der Zeevaerdt (The Mariners Mirrour ), summarizing all contemporary knowledge necessary to position-finding along with traditional sailing directions. It and subsequent "waggoners," as they came to be known, standardized the methods men sailed by.




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Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer. Spieghel der Zeevaerdt. English. London, 1588?

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