The World Through Their Eyes; Medieval World Maps

25 August 2017

Cultural Studies

When tasked with finding a suitable name for a c13th English illuminated psalter containing, amongst other things, a beautiful miniature world map, the historians and prestigious manuscript experts of the last century settled on the disappointing sobriquet “The Psalter Map”. Despite its lacklustre nickname however, Ms 2861, which is held in the British Library and featured in Adam Matthew’s Medieval Travel Writing, is a rare example of medieval cartographic art.

Thought to have been created in London in the c13th, the Psalter Map’s earliest possible date is 1262, the year of the canonisation of Richard of Chichester, who is referenced in his saintly form in the Psalter’s calendar. This date places the map within 50 years of another famous medieval world map, the Mappa Mundi, that has been kept in Hereford Cathedral for over 700 years since its creation around 1300. Each of these maps represent unique but closely related examples of Medieval ‘Mappae Mundi’ or World Charts.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi and the Psalter Map are closely related examples of Medieval ‘Mappae Mundi’ or World Charts. Image © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

One would be forgiven for assuming that the Psalter Map depicts not Earth but some other, distant planet. The sprawling land formations and strangely narrow seas seem far removed from the familiar layout of a modern-day atlas. The first trick to decoding a medieval mappa mundi is to rotate it 90 degrees clockwise. Medieval maps were orientated to the East rather than the North (the verb to orientate literally means to point something towards the East) and once we make this adjustment, the familiar continents of Europe, Africa and Asia become clearer. With these geographical reference points established, we can work out the locations of Rome, Paris and even London, tucked away in the bottom left corner of the world.

The British Isles, tucked away in the lower left corner of the map. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Even the most cursory glance can reveal that the Psalter Map is religiously themed. As with its larger Herefordian cousin, the Psalter Map plots Jerusalem at the centre of the known world and places Christ regally atop the crest of the Earth. Christ is set against a backdrop of the stars and is ceremonially flanked by two rather reckless angels, whose swinging censers are arcing dangerously close to the Saviour’s haloed head. These extremities of the map, past the physical border of the Earth’s disc, represent the spiritual domain.

The spiritual realm, the red orb symbolises Christ holding the world in his hands. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Christian divinity is not limited to the stars however, as the spiritual realm also seems to have permeated the earth below them too. We find across the expanse of the Earth some startlingly literal representations of biblical locations and events. We see to the east, just below Christ, the faces of Adam and Eve safely ensconced behind the mountain wall of the Garden of Eden. In the top left, Gog and Magog await the apocalypse in the land of the unclean, and by closely observing the Red Sea (which has been depicted quite literally as red) one can make out the partition enacted by Moses during the Jews’ flight from Egypt. A close investigation of the more conventionally coloured sea will yield the outline of the whale that temporarily consumed Jonah, whilst the more eagle-eyed viewers might even spot Noah’s Ark deposited atop Mount Ararat by the flood.

The Psalter Map contains actual geographical locations for many biblical stories. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Not all of these supernatural depictions are strictly biblical; the map also features a line of 12 peculiar beings that are representatives of monstrous races. These grotesque humanoid figures count amongst their number; a human with the head of a dog, a man with no neck (whose face instead adorns his chest) and two greedy cannibals fervently consuming body parts. This collection of bizarre peoples represents the mysterious and unknown inhabitants of central Africa, where the mythical King Prester John was thought to rule.

These monstrous humanoids were believed to inhabit distant lands in central Africa. © British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The presence of these supernatural events, beings, and locations means that we cannot view the Psalter Map as a purely navigational tool. Nor should we, as it was never intended to be such, but was rather designed to serve a greater spiritual purpose than mere geography. The creators of the map were reconciling their Christian belief with the immediate physical world they saw around them. For the inhabitants of Christendom in the c13th, the existence of the Garden of Eden was as important as the geographical location of London. By examining maps like the Psalter Map and the Hereford Mappa Mundi we can glean a sense of how the medieval person saw their place in the world around them both geographically and spiritually, and just how intertwined they believed those two realms to be.

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About the Author

Joseph Gilling

Joseph Gilling

I joined the editorial team at Adam Matthew in August 2016 and have subsequently had the opportunity to work on several fascinating projects including 'Colonial America Module Three: The American Revolution' and ‘Medical Services in Warfare’. My academic background lies in medieval history, specifically the crusades, chivalry and the apocalypse.