Sometimes I head for a destination to see just one thing but, of course, find other attractions to enjoy. This happened on our trip to England. Fairly remote Hereford was on our itinerary because of the Mappa Mundi in its cathedral, but we found lots more to do there. The circular Mappa Mundi is the largest surviving medieval map in the world. It was created around the year 1300. I first heard about it through Atlas Obscura. Because its staff tends to focus on something weird about their subjects, they said the Mappa Mundi’s “Geography is laughably backwards”. Of course it is. It was created about the year 1300 AD!
The creator or creators of the Mappa Mundi claimed all knowledge is there. It’s like a medieval encyclopedia of the world. It’s not known who drew it, but scholars speculate about its exact age and use known castles of the time to try to determine its year of creation. The makers clear intent was to illustrate all that was was known about the world, and at the time people were tending to become urban rather than rural and more aware of the world so London is on this map as are rivers like the Jordan and the Danube, a puffing Mount Etna, cities like Athens, trade routes, the Black Sea, etc. Its creators adapted it to a Christian point of view so tended to focus on biblical characters, places of learning like recently started European universities, or sites of pilgrimage because people were starting to travel. Biblical places like Sodom and Gomorrah and the Tower of Babel below abound. The Alps are there, but Ireland looks like a 2-part eel. I was surprised at the number of animals shown on Mappa Mundi, which was available for close scrutiny. Some animals are fanciful but many, like the rhino below, are realistically portrayed. Many, an Indian elephant for example, are depicted in a straightforward, recognizable style.
A lot of what is depicted is wrong due to lack of knowledge. Scotland, for example, is an island, and Asia is at the top of the circle just under the seated figure of Christ presiding over his creation. Below Asia are Europe on the left and Africa on the right. Antarctica and North and South America were not known. The city of Jerusalem is in the very center. There’s lots of writing on this map in both Latin and Norman French. All was depicted on a single piece of calfskin that has been repeatedly cleaned.
The aristocracy of this era tended to own wall maps, and I was told that the reason the Mappa Mundi has survived is because it was hung on the wall of a cathedral for centuries and forgotten about. It started to be noticed again in 1820. Some of its original colors like red and gold are still seen, but they have faded. Seeing it was worth the effort, but Ruth was more taken by the cathedral’s chained library.