Hereford Mappa Mundi: Legendary Cities, Monstrous Races, and Curious Medieval Beasts
A large calfskin canvas was secreted away beneath the floor of an English cathedral, featuring what, at first glance, appeared to be a map of the world. Once recovered and repaired, the map which is now known as the Hereford Mappa Mundi was found to date to 1285. While a myriad of cities and towns are depicted on the medieval Mappa Mundi, more than 500 ink drawings illustrate biblical events, exotic plants and animals, wild and strange creatures, and classical myths. More than just a map, the “Cloth of the World” remains one of the greatest surviving artworks of the Middle Ages.
Recent reporting hints that this piece could even hold clues to the whereabouts of lost locations from the Bible, such as the resting place for Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden - which are both represented. But this seems like a bit of a stretch of both hope and hide.
The medieval artwork showcasing history, religion, and mythology is depicted in intricate detail on a single sheet of vellum, or preserved calfskin. The skin stretches five feet high by four feet across, and is attached to an oak frame. The remarkable artifact remains the largest known medieval map which still exists.
The tangled ink illustrations of black, gold, green and blue reflect a medieval European understanding of the known world at the time—and also the unknown world of the supernatural— highlighting not just the human world of men, cities, and seas, but entire bestiaries of horrifying mythical creatures and the strange cultures of distant lands. It was not for use as a navigational tool, but instead an artistic compendium of people, parables, and places.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi. (Public Domain)
The Hereford Mappa Mundi’s Towns and Cities
Most obvious is the cartography of the Mappa Mundi. East is found at the top of the map, as this orientation represented the rising of the sun and the second coming of Christ. The world is laid out in a circle, and because of its Christian framework, Jerusalem sits at its center, a common theme in medieval mapmaking. At the very middle of the map a small hole has been pierced where a compass-like instrument was used to create a perfect circle, which became an image of a fortified wall with eight towers.
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Continents included are Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Approximately 420 towns and cities of the day are represented on the map, such as Rome and Paris (and Hereford), as well as oceans and important landmarks.
Detail showing Africa south of the Nile River. A Troglodyte rides a goat-beast, and headless Blemmyes. (Public Domain)
Detailing Classical Myths and Legends
Eight classical legends are also included on the elaborate map.
The Golden Fleece as quested for by Jason and the Argonauts is found drawn on the coast of the Black Sea.
The Cretan Labyrinth which bound the mythical Minotaur is depicted on the vellum. It was a recognizable symbol in the Middle Ages, as labyrinths were laid out on floor paving of cathedrals. These winding pathways acted as spiritual pilgrimages for the faithful.
In classical myth, the Columns of Hercules represented the western edge of the known inhabited world. This is marked on the Mappa Mundi at the Strait of Gibraltar.
Even the camp of Alexander the Great is illustrated on the map. Legends of the deeds and successes of the heroic leader were popular with scholars at the time. Alexander’s camp is shown as many tall tents, and a strong wall runs along his camp, which Alexander was thought to have built to repel and imprison the “destructive evil of the Sons of Cain.” The area below this is attributed to the “Scythian races”, and as knowledge of this region was limited, the area is decorated with dramatic and wild images.
Bible Stories Made it on the Map Too
Jesus is found at the very top of the map, highlighting his significance and importance in the Christian faith. Along his right, people travel from death into heaven, and on his left, the damned are chained and dragged off to Hell, represented by a beast’s gaping maw, including sharp teeth and glaring eyes.
15 bible stories are illustrated on the Mappa Mundi. The Garden of Eden, including Adam, a serpent, and Eve, is found near the top. Eden is surrounded by a ring of fire, signifying that it is off limits to humanity. Another image shows the boat filled with creatures and a bearded man, representing the tale of Noah’s Ark.
The largest building on the map is the five-story city of Babylon. The topmost structure is labelled the “Tower of Babel.” The sheer size of the elaborate drawing, as well as the details of the text on the map, emphasize the arrogance and pride of the people who were said to build a tower so high that it might challenge god. In the biblical legend, God’s punishment ultimately caused humanity to speak in different languages.
On the map there is also a long, curving line cutting a path through a red-ink Red Sea, depicting the travel route of the Israelites in the story of Exodus.
Detail showing the British Isles on the Hereford Mappa Mundi. (Public Domain)
Bizarre Besties Dot the Vellum
Many natural and unnatural creatures abound on the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Animals less well-known to medieval Europeans, such as camels or elephants, were drawn with some success on the map. For example, a camel with two humps is located south of the Memarnau Mountains. Bestiaries (books of beasts) of the time described camels as living for one hundred years, and only being able to drink muddy water.
Elephants are drawn wearing constructed wooden towers, as the large animals were fitted with these fighting platforms for use in warfare by Indian and Persian soldiers. It was even believed then that elephants fear mice.
A winged salamander seems to fly its way across the Hereford Mappa Mundi. (Gianni D'Anna/CC BY ND 2.0)
The legendary unicorn is depicted on the map too, with its iconic single, long horn. Named Monoceros, the unicorn was often linked to Jesus. It was reputed to be strong enough to battle elephants, but could be tamed by innocent and virtuous young maidens.
Altogether, 33 different animals, exotic plants, and birds are described or depicted in ink on the Mappa Mundi.
A lynx depicted on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, with sharp teeth and claws. (Gianni D'Anna/CC BY ND 2.0)
Monstrous Strangers of the Mappa Mundi
Various strange and wonderful people are represented on the map, both real and unreal. Likely due to exaggerated traveler tales of dangerous foreign cultures, 32 images include outrageous people, such as the Blemmye: a war-like race of people who were believed to have no heads, but facial features in their chests.
A Blemmye from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. (Public Domain)
Sciapods, or Monoculi, are found on the map as well. Tales of these scary beings with a giant, single foot included theories on how they were able to move quickly on their one leg. They were also believed to use their large foot as a shield from the hot sun.
A Monoculi, as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. (Public Domain)
Mysterious and dangerous cave dwellers, or Troglodytes, are drawn in Africa on the map. Three of these men are depicted in caves, and one rides a strange goat beast. They appear to eat snakes and run around naked. The map text describes Troglodytes as very swift men who catch wild animals by jumping onto their backs.
Troglodytae were an ancient group of people from the African Red Sea coast as described by Greek and Roman historians, including Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny. These anecdotes eventually turned into mythical feats and wild characteristics.
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Have Pity on Richard!
Created in the late 13th century by a team of scholars, but attributed to a man named “Richard of Haldingham and Lafford,” the large map hung for years on the wall of a cathedral in Hereford, England. Unusual for a medieval map, reference to the mapmaker, Richard, was noted in the bottom left corner. Translated, the passage reads:
Let all who have this history,
Or shall hear or read or see it,
Pray to Jesus in His Divinity,
To have pity on Richard of Haldingham and Lafford,
Who has made and planned it,
To whom joy in heaven be granted.
The map was hidden away during times of political uncertainty and war, languishing under floorboards and forgotten in secret locations, until 1855 when it was cleaned and repaired at the British Museum. It now sits in a glass case on display at a new library in Hereford.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi has survived 700 years, preserving and illustrating the fascinating and bizarre beliefs, knowledge and traditions of medieval Europe. It remains one of the most significant historical maps in the world.
The Mappa Mundi Hereford Cathedral website has an interactive map available here , illuminating some of the countless images found in the medieval artwork.
Top image: Detail, the medieval Hereford Mappa Mundi, “Cloth of the World” in Hereford, England. Circa 1300. Source: Public Domain
By Liz Leafloor
Updated on October 8, 2020.
Hereford Cathedral, 2014. The Mappa Mundi [Online] Available at: http://www.herefordcathedral.org/visit-us/mappa-mundi-1
CartographicImages.net. The Hereford Mappamundi [Online] Available here.
BBC Four , 2011. Medieval Maps - Mapping the Medieval Mind [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s3v0t
Black, A. 2013. Hereford Mappa Mundi - The largest known medieval map of the world
[Online] Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/hereford-mappa-mundi
Westrem, S. 2002. Making a Mappamundi: The Hereford Map [Online] Available at: http://www.sochistdisc.org/2002_articles/westrem.htm