Generally, a map is a visual illustration of an area, a means to symbolically represent spatial relationships between objects, regions, and even ideas. I bet for many of us we most commonly use maps to find the quickest bike path to the train station or the easiest route to drive to Ikea. Looked at less practically, however, maps can reveal much about how we view the world around us.
While we tend to use maps to show distance, medieval maps are more focused on relationships. Probably the most common type of medieval mappa mundi, or world map, was the O-T map (so called because it looks like an O with a T in it) which clearly depicted the continents as the settling places of Noah’s sons Shem (Asia), Japeth (Europe) and Cham (Africa). It was based on Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century description of the physical world.
Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est [...] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.
The world is said [to be] round like a circle, because it resembles a wheel [...] Indeed the Ocean, flowing around it on all sides, encompasses its furthest reaches in a circle. It is divided in three parts: one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa. (Etymologiae, 14)
Copies of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, often known for their incredible illustrations, use a variation of the OT map to illustrate the exodus of the Apostles.
While most surviving maps are found in books, they were also created to stand alone, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created c. 1300 and now hanging in Hereford Cathedral. As the largest surviving medieval map, it stands on a single piece of vellum at 158 cm by 133 cm (62” by 52”). It illustrates at least 420 towns, 33 plants and animals, 32 people, 15 Biblical events, and 5 scenes drawn from classical mythology. (Note an unsurprising theme in these maps: the Bible is a central iconographical topic, and Jerusalem is often depicted right at the centre.)
There are also strange people depicted, such as the ‘sciapods’ shown in what would be present day India, at the extreme south of the (incompletely) known world. (You can also see a sciapod on the left in the Osma Beatus above.)
As suggested, besides just known lands, mappa mundi sometimes depict the unknown or legendary. They’re not navigational tools to be carted along on your journey, but display items intended to tell stories and teach lessons about the outside world. The largest known medieval map, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, was made sometime during the 13th century out of 30 goatskins, measuring 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12’ by 12’). While it was very shamefully destroyed in the bombing of Hanover in 1943, several good facsimiles and photographs were made before its demise.
Around the outer reaches of the map, which rests on the body of Christ, are a variety of strange beings.
Some of the most interesting figures (and yet, probably the most disturbing) are Gog and Magog, found on the eastern edge of the world. Gog and Magog (in Revelation 20:7-8; or Gog from Magog in Ezekiel 38-39) were prevalent in both biblical commentary and popular imagination through to the Early Modern period. There are many stories, but essentially, at the apocalypse, Gog and Magog would be released from their prison (some said they were put there by Alexander the Great) to wreak havoc on the world. Here they are munching on some poor sinner’s hands and feet (naturally).
There are so many fantastic medieval maps – from the west and the east, of the whole world, regions, and towns – that I could only dream of sharing them here. If you’re interested in medieval maps, start with the great Cartographic Images site, or Early Medieval Maps. But be prepared to spend some time – medieval maps will lead you right into the path of an internet vortex!