The world maps

In times when the stories created the base for knowing and naming the world, the world maps acted as visual compendium of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, the particular genre was distinguished: mappa mundi – world maps.

Mappa mundi

O-T map
Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, detail, last quarter of 11. cent., British Library,
Royal 6 C I,  f. 108v 

The earliest version of it was the O-T (orbis terrarum) map. It was based on the ancient conviction about the image of the world, that was surrounded by okeanos. Initially, it adopted a strictly graphic form, with the markings of three known land masses (Europe, Asia and Africa). It was spreaded through schematic illustrations placed by the scribes in the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. It was a medieval encyclopedia from the 7th century, in which Bishop Isidore gathered all the knowledge available to him. He used mainly ancient sources and created a “manual of knowledge about the world”, used by many later generations.

World map in Liber de proprietatibus rerum  by Bartholomeus Anglicus, 1482

Over time, world maps gain more and more developed form. However, they invariably appeared as a disk divided into three parts, of with Asia (on the east) was placed on the top and occupied half of the space. The masses of land were separated by the water: the Mediterranean, the Nile and Tanais (aka Don). Their contours were strictly conventional and following the layout developed by ancient map makers.

Simon Marmion, World’s division between sons of Noah
Jean Mansel, La Fleur des Histoires, ca. 1459-1463
Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Brussels

The contribution of the bishop of Seville was not only the dissemination of this ancient vision of the world, but also the inclusion of a biblical narrative in it. According to that, the peoples of three continents were descended from the sons of Noah – Japheth in Europe, Sem in Asia and Ham in Africa. In the farthest East, Isidore “placed” an earthly paradise: it lies [in the East]. The name translated from Greek into Latin means garden. In Hebrew it is called Eden, which means joy in our language. […] There is no entrance to this place after the fall of the human race, because it is surrounded by a fence of burning swords, which means that it is fortified with a wall of fire, and the flames reach almost the sky. And yet the cherubs, meaning the angelic troops, arranged over the burning swords, defend the evil spirits of access.

Simon Marmion, World’s division between sons of Noah – detail

Biblical references with time became more complex, enriching the scenery of the maps. There were appearances of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat or a group of three kings going to Bethlehem. They were accompanied by descriptions of the territories and peoples inhabiting them. Those were based on medieval encyclopedias and travel accounts of the wonders of the world (more about mirabilia here).

Map Psalter

One of the earliest, richly illustrated maps of the world, is the map from around 1260 contained in a Psalter. It was probably based on an earlier, large wall map made for the English King, Henry III Plantagenet. It would hang in the Westminster palace, placed behind the back of the monarch, who would thus manifest his power over the world. It is assumed that the psalter map map is one of the copies made by the monk Matthew of Paris.

World map in the so-called The Map Psalter, ca. 1260, British Library

The earth disk is inscribed in the rectangle of the psalter’s sheet. It is divided into three parts by the water reservoirs. The world is watched over by the Christ in his majesty, guarantee of order and peace. He is adored by two angels. In the center of the earthly world was placed Jerusalem, and at the farthest end of the East was shown the paradise surrounded by a wall.

World map in the so-called The Map Psalter, ca. 1260, British Library – detail

The other images combine Christian tradition with geographical knowledge. The Holy Land and the East are places of biblical events, i.e. the parting of the Red Sea. They are also places of events known from legends – like the imprisonment by Alexander the Great the peoples of Gog and Magog behind the iron gate in the mountains. In the thirteenth century, these peoples were considered the ancestors of Tatar hordes, which at that time invaded Europe. These performances were imposed on a network of known cities, conventionally marked on the map using a triangular marker and name.

The southern end of this world is filled with the figures of the monstrous human races, already known to us. Their idea have been borrowed, among others from De mirabilibus mundi by Solinus. We recognize among them headless blemiae, with faces placed on the torsos. They inhabit the margins of reality, inaccessible to direct cognition. They illustrate the fantasy of Europeans / Christians about what is hiding in the distant.

World map in the so-called The Map Psalter, ca. 1260, British Library – detail

Medieval maps of the world were to a large extent theological, informative and narrative. Their function was not the orientation in space during the journey, but rather the creation of an imaginary image of the world. It was only with time that practical considerations led to the development of nautical charts, so-called portolans.

Further reading:

  • Thomas Reinertsen Berg, Teatr Świata. Mapy, które tworzą historię, Kraków 2018
  • Katarzyna Zalewska-Lorkiewicz, Ilustrowane mappae mundi jako obraz świata, Warszawa 2005

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