Mappae Mundi

The British Isles from an 1869 facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, made around 1300.Click on the image to see a larger picture of the whole map.

The map on the left is from a Victorian copy of a medieval world map that was made around the year 1300. It is called the Hereford Mappa Mundi because the medieval original is in Hereford Cathedral.

Mappa Mundi (plural: Mappae Mundi) comes from the Latin words mappa meaning towel, and mundus meaning world. Maps like the one in Hereford were originally painted on cloth, and later drawn onto animal skin or paper. This is where the English word map comes from.

Mappae mundi...
  • were made during the Middle Ages (400-1450)
  • were shaped by Christianity
  • were often drawn with Jerusalem at the centre
  • were orientated with east rather than north at the top
  • were probably church decorations celebrating how far Christianity had spread

Makers of mappae mundi tried to include all their geographic knowledge, but they also used myths and religious dogma. They included the Garden of Eden and Paradise as well as real cities such as Paris and Antioch. They filled unknown regions with monsters, imaginary countries, legendary kings, and bizarre races of humans.

The city of Jerusalem at the centre of the Mappa Mundi

Cannibals from the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Click on the image for a larger version.

The cannibals in the picture on the left are called Essedones. They are located in Scythia, an area north and north-east of the Black Sea. The caption on the map says that they feast on the flesh of their dead parents.

Mappae mundi present a very Eurocentric view. Their makers implied that Europeans were the only civilized people by filling other parts of the world with monsters and savages. This influenced European attitudes to people from other countries. When Europeans went to Asia, Africa, and the Americas they were all too ready to dismiss the peoples and cultures they encountered as primitive or evil.

The scene in the bottom left-hand corner of the map shows the Emperor Augustus ordering a map of the Roman Empire to be made. The resulting map is said to have been carved into a marble wall near the Forum, the public square at the heart of ancient Rome. No such Roman maps survive, but medieval mappae mundi were probably based upon more accurate Roman originals.

Back to Medieval Geography

Emperor Augustus ordering the creation of a map of the Roman Empire, from the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Click on the image for a larger version.