In the ancient Saxon capital of Hereford lies a medieval cathedral. Within its walls are housed many treasures. They include the world's largest working Chained Library, an eighth century set of gospels, a thirteenth century bible written in English, and, perhaps most famously, a beautifully preserved Mappa Mundi; a medieval map of the world. Even though it is not unique – such maps although not commonplace, exist elsewhere – it is a poignant link to the past and beautiful in its naïvety and complexity.
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,
for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing."
- Oscar Wilde
When the Mappa Mundi of Hereford was created, cartography was in its infancy. Although charts of some accuracy could be produced, maps were usually unreliable and distrusted by travellers, this meant that by and large navigation was by memory, landmarks, and in-situ techniques. However, with the rediscovery of the Ancient Greek philosophers at the close of the dark ages, and the adoption of much Arabic learning amongst academics and clerics, there began a time of great learning that ultimately led to the renaissance. Of course the men who dwelt in the universities and other such places had no need of accurate maps for journeys, but had a great desire to know more about the world which they inhabited. For this reason, they commissioned Mappae Mundi.
The layout of the Mappae was usually on the Roman or T-and-O maps model. The world was represented as a disk (the O), split into three sections, (by the T), Europe the bottom left, Africa, the same size, on the bottom right and Asia, shown as twice the size of the other continents, covering the top half. Interestingly, there had previously been maps with four "continents", each peopled by a different race, but they sat uncomfortably with scholars at the time who religiously believed that the Earth was inhabited by three races, each descended from one of Noah's sons. Nevertheless, the orientation placing the East at the top was pleasing to medieval scholars since they could show God in the East with the rising sun, and indeed the Hereford Mappa places Eden at the apex of the circle, (where Japan would be) since it was believed to be "to the east." This orientation also positioned Jerusalem at the centre of the Earth, perfectly aligning with the cosmology of the day that placed it at the centre of the universe.
The Hereford Mappa contains a strange mistake; although the towns, cities, and rudimentary geography of Europe are very clearly represented in the bottom left, they are labelled as AFRICA, and the known lands of what is now North Africa, represented in the bottom right, are labelled as EUROPA. This is perhaps rather embarrassing an error to have preserved for the better part of
seven hundred years. Nevertheless, geographically, the map is not so horribly inaccurate. Although clearly not to scale (Europe being far too large) or representing coastlines recognisably, rivers do flow between the correct towns and as an illustration of the contents of the world, the Mappa serves its purpose well. It should probably be noted that it was well known in medieval times that the world was round (although it was believed that the hemisphere could not be crossed) and the fact that the T-and-O model was used does not imply a belief in a flat Earth any more than our projected maps do today.
Mappae were created by monks working in a studio under a master. They would be extremely practised at their art and the work of an individual may be recognised across several different pieces. It seems however, that relatively few people were responsible for the Hereford Mappa; upon analysis it is apparent that the writing was all by the same hand. It is signed "Richard of Haldingham or Lafford" and presumably he was its principal creator. But this method raises a question: Mappae were often drawn in considerable detail, indeed, the Hereford Mappa is the largest surviving mappa known, and it is covered in wrting and images of the lands not just beyond England but beyond Europe. So how did monks, not known for their wide travels, and artists who could never have visited all the exotic locales depicted, know what to draw?
The answer is that they fell back on those two great academic resources; research and an active imagination. Yes, mappae and their kin are the very source of here be dragons! All across the Hereford Mappa are fanciful depictions of foreign animals and people; basilisks roam the plains, dragons haunt the mountains, camels stalk the deserts, and elephants parade in India. All of these were drawn from the descriptions made by travellers and recorded by folklore. Some, like the elephant were realistically drawn – there had been one in the menagerie at the Tower of London – others, such as the camel, are recognisable, but only just; the artist had clearly been unable to imagine that the humps could be so large, and the face looks like that of a wolf. More strange still though are the people. Around the edge of the Mappa are drawings, supposedly depicting the inhabitants of distant lands. These include inhabitants of Russia who had great cloak-like ears to protect them from the cold, of Africa who had no heads, eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their chests, and even some Asian people with only one leg and a huge foot that they raised above them as a sunshade.* Placed at the outside of the Mappa they sometimes mistaken for Antipodeans – mythical people that existed beyond the equator on the other side of the globe.
In medieval England there was little separation between religion and education. The study of the world was the study of God's creation. Mappae Mundi illustrated this, often being decorated with biblical verse and imagery, indeed at least one Mappa presents the world as being the body of Christ – his head legs and feet protruding. The Hereford Mappa is illustrated by Jesus sitting in judgement at the apex, souls being sent to heaven on the left and hell on the right (hell is represented by cartoon-like demons ushering the dambed into the mouth of a great monster). A bare-breasted Mary makes a plea for mankind, reminding Christ of his own humanity. But it is not just in the decoration that the bible is referenced. The dead sea is shown as containing the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, complete with Lot's wife as a pillar of salt, the red sea – no doubt familiar to those who had studied exodus – is actually painted red, and the Tower of Babel rises behind Jerusalem. These were landmarks with which even the public would be familiar and would provide some familiarity in an otherwise vast and confusing world.
Mappae Mundi are incredible creations. Although to modern eyes they appear primitive, even ridiculous, when one takes into account the effort that went into creating them but in fact, the sheer knowledge that must have been assembled – it is no easy feat to depict the rivers of Europe without a reliable reference, nor draw a Rhinoceros having never seen one – they appear impressively accurate. Relics from a time before wide-travel was commonplace, before every major city had a zoo, before television, or even books, could bring the outside world to life, they stand as an impressive testament to the learning of the Middle Age.
*C S Lewis borrowed this idea for the inhabitants of an island discovered by King Caspian X of Narnia.
Hereford Cathedral Museum
C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader