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Europe in Retrospect

A Study of Medieval World Maps by Margaret Johnson

Comparing Medieval Maps from Around the Globe

Perhaps the best known map of the known medieval world is the famous 'Hereford Mappa Mundi" on permanent display in the Cathedral of that Western British City. It is fascinating to contrast the Hereford map with the other extant medieval world maps from around the Globe, many of which originated in Britain. Through these intriguing objects the development of the mapmaker's art throughout the medieval period can be easily traced.

Click for Cottonian World Map c.1030 from Canterbury (Kent)Until relatively recently maps such as these were often considered amusing relics of dark-age ignorance and held up to ridicule, without any deeper consideration of their cultural significance. They are now, rightly, seen as an essential element in a proper understanding of the medieval world-view, important to anyone with an interest in the art, literature, philosophy and social structure of that time.

There are two very distinct groups of maps surviving: those of Anglo-Norman/French origin and those originating in Spain. The earliest maps, such as the Albi Map and the Vatican Library World Map appear to have drawn strongly on Roman models. The Anglo-Saxon or Cottonian World Map from Canterbury ca. 1025 - 1050 shows the superior mapping ability of the Romans and gives considerable detail, with a very recognisable coastline to the British Isles.

Click for Beatus World Map 1106 from SpainThe Beatus World Map of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, dated 1106, closely resembles the Albi Map, with the Mediterranean at the centre and the Adriatic, Aegean and other seas branching from it. Adam and Eve are one of many common biblical references in such maps.

The Beatus de Osma World Map is more reminiscent of the Anglo-French tradition. It has charming depictions of the apostles, each assigned to the part of the world which they had evangelised. It also has an extraordinary picture of a creature thought to live in Ethiopia, with a vast foot to shield himself from the sun. Themes such as these, with increasingly monstrous creatures appearing towards the edge of the known world were to become a common feature of the later world maps.

With the Munich 'Isidore' Map and the Sawley Map of the early and late 12th century respectively, it is possible to watch the outlines becoming less distinct and the decoration becoming more dramatic, with angels and fantastic creatures appearing.

Click for Psalter Map c.1265 from LondonThe outstandingly beautiful Psalter Map, thought by some to have been a copy of the great mappa mundi at Westminster Palace, shows all the features we would expect from the later great Hugh of St Victor maps such as the Ebstorf Map, the Duchy of Cornwall Map and the Hereford Map itself. These include angels and fantastic creatures decorating the map, with the terrestrial paradise placed at the top of the map, closest to God, and Jerusalem at the very centre. The outlines of the continents have by now become rather vague, and possibly even unimportant. It is a beautifully decorated work of art and would scarcely have been used for navigational purposes.

Bonacon Detail on the 'Mappa Mundi' c.1290 from Hereford (Herefs)The larger maps of the Hugh of St Victor group are populated with mythical creatures such as the Unicorn and Bonacon, both of which were created from a combination of people's observation, imagination and exaggeration. They also include a huge array of mis-shapen human beings - such as the Blemmyae, giants with eyes in their chests.

Click for Gerald of Wales' Map of Europe c.1200 from Lincoln (Lincs)The Ramsey Abbey and Evesham maps follow in the same tradition and closely resemble one another in structure as well as colouring.

Click for Gough Map c.1360 from Oxford (Oxon)In later times, the age of sea-faring was of necessity to bring with it great advances in charting and, while maps such as the Borgia, Pietro Vesconte and Aslake maps were still influenced by the Hugh of St Victor school, they were to be greatly affected by the growing geographical knowledge of the time.

On a local scale, the comparison between Gerald of Wales' Map of Europe from around 1200 and the Gough Map of Great Britain ca. 1360, clearly illustrates the advances in map-making. Gerald's map is historically very exciting and focuses on the possible routes from England or Ireland to Rome by either land or river. It is, however, very simple and the coastlines are largely described by long straight lines. The Gough Map, in contrast, has significant detail, especially towards the south of the country and may represent an improvement on an original Roman model.

Click for Fra Mauro World Map 1459 from ItalyBy the fifteenth century, map-making had become much more of a science than an art. Maps such as the Fra Mauro World Map closely mirror the contemporary charts and are relatively unadorned. Although still very fine, decoration is not allowed to outweigh practicality. There is no terrestrial paradise amongst the other continents and the magical creatures are lost forever.

All these Medieval World Maps may currently (1999) be examined at a major exhibition being staged at Hereford Cathedral:

Mappae Mundi 1999: The Medieval World Maps Exhibition
at Hereford Cathedral
is open 7 days a week 29th June - 1st October 1999

Monday - Saturday 10 am - 4.15 pm
Sunday 11 am - 3.15 pm

Adults 4.00
Concessionary (Senior, UB40, Child) 3.00

Special prices are available for family groups and school parties are always welcome. Poster packs are available on request.

Ring the Exhibition Office on 01432 359880 for Party Bookings and exclusive evening visits.


All photographs reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral and the Mappa Mundi Trustees, the British Library (Cottonian, Beatus, Psalter and Fra Mauro), the National Library of Ireland (Gerald of Wales) and the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Gough).

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