Explore the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the Largest Medieval Map Still in Existence (Circa 1300)

If you want­ed to see a map of the world in the four­teenth cen­tu­ry, you could hard­ly just pull up Google Earth. But you could, pro­vid­ed you lived some­where in or near the British Isles, make a pil­grim­age to Here­ford Cathe­dral. There you would find the shrine of St. Thomas Can­tilupe, the main attrac­tion for the true believ­er, but also what we now know as the Here­ford Map­pa Mun­di, a large-scale (64″ x 52″) depic­tion of the entire world — or at least entire world as con­ceived in the pious Eng­lish mind of the Mid­dle Ages, which turns out to be almost unrec­og­niz­able at first glance today.

Cre­at­ed around 1300, the Here­ford Map­pa Mun­di “serves as a sort of visu­al ency­clo­pe­dia of the peri­od, with draw­ings inspired by Bib­li­cal times through the Mid­dle Ages,” write Chris Grif­fiths and Thomas But­tery at BBC Trav­el.

“In addi­tion to illus­trat­ing events mark­ing the his­to­ry of humankind and 420 cities and geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures, the map shows plants, ani­mals, birds and strange or unknown crea­tures, and peo­ple.” These include one “ ‘Blem­mye’ — a war-like crea­ture with no head, but with facial fea­tures in its chest,” two “Sci­apods,” “men with one large foot,” and “four cave-dwelling Troglodites,” one of whom feasts on a snake.

Amid geog­ra­phy we would now con­sid­er severe­ly lim­it­ed as well as fair­ly man­gled — Europe is labeled as Asia, and vice ver­sa, to name only the most obvi­ous mis­take — the map also includes “super­nat­ur­al scenes from clas­si­cal Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy, Bib­li­cal tales and a col­lec­tion of pop­u­lar leg­ends and sto­ries.” As such, this reflects less about the world itself than about human­i­ty’s world­view in an era that drew few­er lines of demar­ca­tion between fact and leg­end. You can learn more about what it has to tell us in the Mod­ern His­to­ry TV video below, as well as in the video fur­ther down from Youtu­ber ShūBa̱ck, which asks, “Why are Medieval Maps so Weird?”

The intent of the Here­ford Map­pa Mun­di, ShūBa̱ck says, is to show that “the Bible is right.” To that end, “east is on top, as that’s where they said Jesus would come from on the day of judg­ment. Jerusalem is, of course, at the cen­ter.” Oth­er points of inter­est include the site of the cru­ci­fix­ion, the Tow­er of Babel, and the Gar­den of Eden — not to men­tion the loca­tions of the Gold­en Fleece and Mount Olym­pus. You can exam­ine all of these up close at the Here­ford Cathe­dral’s site, which offers a detailed 3D scan of the map, view­able from every angle, embed­ded with expla­na­tions of all its major fea­tures: in oth­er words, a kind of Google Medieval Earth.

via Aeon

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of the World Map: An Inven­tive Info­graph­ic Shows How Our Pic­ture of the World Changed Over 1,800 Years

The Largest Ear­ly Map of the World Gets Assem­bled for the First Time: See the Huge, Detailed & Fan­tas­ti­cal World Map from 1587

40,000 Ear­ly Mod­ern Maps Are Now Freely Avail­able Online (Cour­tesy of the British Library)

The First Tran­sit Map: a Close Look at the Sub­way-Style Tab­u­la Peutin­ge­ri­ana of the 5th-Cen­tu­ry Roman Empire

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

The Biggest Mis­takes in Map­mak­ing His­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Rupert says:

    For non-British vis­it­ing tourists, I would urge you to vis­it Here­ford, which IMO pos­si­bly remains the only coun­try, Coun­ty cap­i­tal in Eng­land, with a medieval lay­out.

    Look out for the chained library when vis­it­ing the Cathe­dral.

    At the end of the Lon­don Padding­ton-Here­ford rail­way line, which also pass­es through Oxford, so a day-trip is pos­si­ble, but if you are going to linger, Hay-On-Wye is lit­er­al­ly a neigh­bour, and with numer­ous book shops, plus a world-renowned lit­er­ary fes­ti­val, well worth a day vis­it.

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