Mappa mundi

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England

A mappa mundi (Latin [ˈmappa ˈmʊndiː]; plural = mappae mundi; French: "mappemonde"; English "mappemond") is any medieval European map of the world. Such maps range in size and complexity from simple schematic maps 25 millimetres (1 inch) or less across to elaborate wall maps, the largest of which was 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in) in diameter. The term derives from the Medieval Latin words mappa (cloth or chart) and mundi (of the world).

Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi are known to have survived from the Middle Ages. Of these some 900 are found illustrating manuscripts and the remainder exist as stand-alone documents.[1]

Types of mappae mundi

Diagram illustrating the major categories of mappae mundi.

Extant mappae mundi come in several distinct varieties, including:

  • Zonal or Macrobian maps
  • Tripartite or "T-O" maps
  • Quadripartite maps (including the Beatus maps)
  • complex maps

Medieval world maps which share some characteristics of traditional mappae mundi but contain elements from other sources, including Portolan charts and Ptolemy's Geography are sometimes considered a fifth type, called "transitional mappae mundi".

Zonal maps

Zonal maps are pictures of the East Hemisphere. Their purpose was to illustrate the concept that the world is a sphere with five climate zones:

  • The northern frigid zone
  • the northern temperate zone
  • the equatorial tropical zone
  • the southern temperate zone
  • the southern frigid zone

Of these, only the two temperate zones were believed to be inhabitable, and the known world was contained entirely within the northern temperate zone's Eastern Hemisphere. Because most surviving zonal maps are found illustrating Macrobius' Commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio (an excerpt of Cicero's De Re Publica), this type of map is sometimes called "Macrobian". In their simplest and most common form, Zonal mappae mundi are merely circles divided into five parallel zones, but several larger zonal maps with much more detail have survived.

Tripartite or T-O maps

T-O maps, unlike zonal maps, illustrate only the habitable portion of the world known in Roman and medieval times. The landmass was illustrated as a circle (an "O") divided into three portions by a "T". These three divisions were the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The vast majority of T-O maps place east at the top, hence the term "orienting" a map from the Latin word oriens for "east". The assertion that T-O maps depict a "flat earth", while common, is unwarranted. The "circle of the lands" in a T-O can just as easily be fit onto the sphere of the Earth as onto a flat, disk-shaped Earth[original research?]. The popularity of the Macrobian maps and the combination of T-O style continents on some of the larger Macrobian spheres illustrate that Earth's sphericity continued to be understood among scholars during the Middle Ages.

Quadripartite or Beatus maps

Quadripartite maps represent a sort of amalgam of the zonal and T-O maps by illustrating the three known continents separated by an equatorial ocean from a fourth unknown land, often called Antipodes. Fourteen large quadripartite maps are found illustrating different manuscripts of Beatus of Liébana's popular Commentary on the Apocalypse of St John. These "Beatus maps" are believed to derive from a single (now lost) original which was used to illustrate the missions of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ.[2]

Complex maps

The "complex" or "great" world maps are the most famous mappae mundi. Although most employ a modified T-O scheme, they are considerably more detailed than their smaller T-O cousins. These maps show coastal details, mountains, rivers, cities, towns and provinces. Some include figures and stories from history, the Bible and classical mythology. Also shown on some maps are exotic plants, beasts and races known to medieval scholars only through Roman and Greek texts. Prior to its destruction in World War II, the Ebstorf map at 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in) across was the largest surviving mappa mundi. Today that honour is held by the surviving centre portion of the Hereford map which is 147 cm across and 175 cm top to bottom. Other important maps in this group are the Cotton or Anglo-Saxon map, the Psalter map and the Henry of Mainz map. The somewhat later mappae mundi that accompany the popular Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden should probably be viewed as degenerate forms of the earlier complex maps.

Complex mappae mundi include:

Name Date MS locations Dimensions
The Albi or Merovingian map c. 730 Médiathèque Pierre-Amalric, Albi[3] 29 cm × 23 cm (11.4 in × 9.1 in)
The so-called Vatican map of Isidore of Seville 776 B.A. V. Lat. 6018, fol. 64 v.–65 r.
The Anglo-Saxon or Cotton map c. 1025–1050 British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 56v 21 cm × 17 cm (8.3 in × 6.7 in)
The map of Theodulf of Orleans 11th century B.A.V., Reg. Lat. 123, fol. 143 v.–144 r.
The Sawley map 1190-1210 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 66, pt. 1 29.5 cm × 20.5 cm (11.6 in × 8.1 in)
The Vercelli Map c. 1219 84 cm × 72 cm (2.76 ft × 2.36 ft)
The Ebstorf map c. 1235 3.56 m × 3.58 m (11.7 ft × 11.7 ft)
The Psalter map 13th century 14.2 cm × 9.5 cm (5.6 in × 3.7 in)
The Hereford map c. 1300 1.5 m (4.9 ft)
The Borgia Map early 15th century
The Fra Mauro map 1459–60
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