December 3, 2023

If you wanted to see a map of the world in the fourteenth century, you could hardly pull up Google Earth. But you could, assuming 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 know today as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a large-scale (64″ x 52″) depiction of the entire world — or. at least the whole world as it was conceived in the pious English mind of the Middle Ages, which today appears almost unrecognizable at first sight.

Created around 1300, the Hereford Mappa Mundi “serves as a kind of visual encyclopedia of the period, with drawings inspired from biblical times to the Middle Ages,” write BBC Travel’s Chris Griffiths and Thomas Buttery.

“In addition to illustrating events marking human history and 420 cities and geographic features, the map shows plants, animals, birds, and strange or unknown creatures and people.” These include one ‘Blemmye’ – a warlike creature without a head but with facial features on the chest, two “Sciapodi,” “men with one great foot,” and “four cave-dwelling troglodytes,” one of whom feasts on a serpent.

Amidst a geography that we would now consider severely restricted and also greatly disrupted—Europe is labeled as Asia and vice versa, to name just the most glaring error—the map also contains “supernatural scenes from classical Greek and Roman mythology, biblical stories, and a collection of popular legends and stories .” As such, it reflects less about the world itself than about humanity’s worldview in an era that drew fewer lines between fact and legend. You can learn more about what he tells us in the Modern History TV video below, as well as below by Youtuber ShūBa̱ck asking “Why are medieval maps so weird?”

The intention of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, says ShūBa̱ck, is to show that “the Bible is right”. To this end, “the east is at the top, because from there they said that Jesus will come on the day of judgment. Jerusalem is of course the center. Other highlights include the site of the Crucifixion, the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden – not to mention the location of the Golden Fleece and Mount Olympus. You can explore all of these up close on the Hereford Cathedral website, which offers a detailed 3D scan of the map, viewable from all angles, with explanations of all its main features: in other words, a kind of medieval Google Earth.

through Aeon

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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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