Hand-painted on calfskin vellum, the Hereford Mappa Mundi is the world’s largest medieval map. Created in the very late 1200s the map has spent its entire life in Hereford Cathedral surviving fire, flood, theft, various battles and world wars to present to today’s visitors a mesmerising detail of the world as it was understood at the time.
Measuring around 1.6 x 1.3 metres, the cloth of the world is not a map as we know them today. It would be impossible to get from one town to another using Mappa Mundi. And although seven hundred years have seen some significant wear and tear, it is in fair condition and remarkably legible for a document of its age.
However the highlight of the visit is the exquisite map. The map is split into three main parts (click on it to view it in more detail) – Asia is the top half of the map (maps in those days have east at the top and the Orient sees the sun first, Europe in the lower left and Africa in the lower right. In an embarrassing timeless gaffe, the author labels Europe as Africa and Africa as Europe. The very centre is reserved for Jerusalem with the Mediterranean just below it as the divider of the three known continents.
Each of the over 400 marked cities are identified by a castle or cathedral with the name of the city. Rivers and seas curl through the map like veins. A further hundred or so animals, people, biblical events and plants fill the gaps reinforcing prejudices and legends of the times. Mythical creatures like fire-breathing dragons and griffins are drawn into the Asian section as an area not understood, faraway and hence dangerous and frightening.
The Red Sea sit like a pair of lungs in the top right of the photo along with a curling path representing the path of the Israelites travels through Egypt. The Nile snakes up the right hand edge of the map. In such a detailed map more places become apparent as you study the fine detail. Constantinople (Istanbul today), Rome, Greece sit just below and left of Jerusalem as key places in the history of the world.
England is mapped in the bottom left corner mysteriously separated from Scotland by a river (again, click the reproduced map for more detail). Various towns can be made out even though they are recorded in Norman French though other displays in the cathedral help decode the map.
The fact that the map lives in a cathedral is appropriate as the map is more attuned to representing the eternal glory of Christianity and God and the relative unimportance of humans. As a work of geography it fail completely but rather focuses on the highlights and marvels of the known world, its extraordinary creatures and overwhelming scale. Remembering that the vast majority of people were illiterate, the map enforces the comforting and dependable arms of Christianity and Christ to reassure among the bewildering complexity of the world. Indeed, Jesus Christ sits upon the top of the map arms outstretched to aid as a reminder to the readers of the time.
An excellent excerpt from the BBC captures the mystery of Mappa Mundi well.
Remarkably this isn’t the only literary treasure in Hereford Cathedral. The world’s largest existing chained library where books are shackled to their shelf (via a rod that runs at the bottom of each shelf) to prevent theft. The books are stored the wrong way around with the pages outwards to prevent the chain tangling when removing it to read from the desk below.
Such was the value of books in medieval times when books were painstakingly hand-scribed and a library of 100 books was considered impressive. Today over 200 chained books sit in the Hereford bookcases alongside a larger collection of books acquired over the centuries. The collection includes the Hereford Gospels from the 8th century (sadly not on display when I visited) and one of only four copies of the 1217 Magna Carta in remarkably fine condition.
More unusually, the Magna Carta is virtually unmentioned through the cathedral and a remarkable surprise given that some of the freedom in statutes encoded in the early 1200s continue to form a basis of English law (and the US constitution) today.
Hereford Cathedral is an exceptional place to visit as an architecturally elegant building with a fine exhibition wrapped around its treasured chain library, Magna Carta and the complex intriguing Mappa Mundi where viewers can immerse themselves for a long period in the incredible confused detail of a map drawn for the glory of Christianity rather than as an atlas of the world.
What would have the people of the 1300s made of this medieval map?
Note: A 360 degree visual tour of the cathedral and chained library are available here.
Maps are in the public domain.