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The British Library in London is home to a staggering four and a half million maps.
Mysterious and beautiful, these rarely seen treasures
are much more than just physical depictions of the world.
A map is definitely by far the best synthesis of topography,
the geography of a place, together with its history, and of course art as well,
so you've got great themes all combining in one
to produce something of huge beauty.
Our love affair with maps is as old as civilisation itself.
Each map tells its own story and hides its own secrets.
Maps delight, they unsettle,
they reveal deep truths, not just about where we come from,
but about who we are.
A map is a thing of beauty.
It's a place where perhaps you express the cosmos, you try and
bring together the whole view of the world so you can understand it.
The medieval masterpiece known as the Hereford Mappa Mundi is the world's oldest surviving wall map.
It still resides where it was made over 700 years ago,
a unique insight into a vanished world.
It's probably the best way into the medieval mind
because in it are drawn together so many aspects of medieval thinking.
I think the point of the map
was to make you say, "Wow, that's extraordinary!"
The Hereford Mappa Mundi has inspired wonder and caused confusion for centuries.
It seems to defy logic.
It's a map and a medieval encyclopaedia
that charts both the known world of the physical
and the unknown world of belief.
The Mappa Mundi has spent almost all of its life in one of Britain's
oldest ecclesiastical buildings, Hereford Cathedral.
There were many Mappa Mundi in medieval times.
But the Hereford map is the largest to have survived intact.
When it was made in 1300, Europe stood on the verge of the Renaissance.
The poet Dante was about to embark on his epic work, the Divine Comedy,
while the Venetian Explorer, Marco Polo,
was on his pioneering travels in Asia.
Painted on a single sheet of calf skin, the Mappa Mundi -
the name means 'cloth of the world' -
is five feet high and four feet across.
It's a map of a teeming world, rendered in dizzying detail.
One of the greatest surviving art works of the middle ages,
it rarely leaves its glass case.
The ravages of time and past neglect have taken their toll,
leaving parts of it dark and damaged.
But it still exerts an extraordinary power over those who come into contact with it.
I remember seeing it when I was eight years old.
To me, it was really intriguing
and fascinating, like seeing a medical specimen squeezed into a jar.
Something that captured my imagination as a child.
Dominic Harbour came to Hereford as a student to help prepare a new exhibition for the map.
20 years later, he's still here, as the Cathedral's Commercial director,
and has seen thousands of visitors encounter the map for the first time.
I think, actually, it completely disarms anybody who stands in front of it.
It's really a total cacophony of too much going on at the same time,
which, if you think of the culture that produced it,
it's a pretty good description, really.
It's kind of unfathomable
and you have to sort of immerse yourself into it.
CRIES OF BATTLE
The map was the work of a highly skilled team of scribes and artists.
Its original creator left behind his mark.
'Pray for Richard of Lafford who had it made',
reads a caption in Norman French.
At the heart of the map
And at its centre, a tantalising clue to what was probably the first act of the map makers,
a tiny pin prick made 700 years ago
where a compass was used to trace the circular tower.
From that tiny, ragged hole at its centre, spreads a map of amazing complexity.
1,000 written legends,
500 drawings of the cities and towns of the known world,
and the monstrous races of the unknown world.
Among them, the Essedones, eating the corpses of their parents.
And the Sciapods, using one huge foot as a sun shade.
Small wonder, you might think,
that the Victorian scholar, Sir Charles Raymond Beasley, called it 'a monstrosity'.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, like other works of its genre, are very confusing.
There are no country boundaries.
Everything seems out of place.
However, it requires learning about the medieval world view
and trying to come to terms with the internal
structure of the map.
The medieval world map has its own internal principles of organisation.
You just have to learn it.
And where better to start to unravel the mysteries of this map
than at the heart of cartographic learning, London's British Library?
Its four million maps are under the care of a curator who is both
a world expert on cartography and a trustee of the Mappa Mundi.
Like other scholars of the map, he has had a life-long fascination
with the Mappa Mundi, and knows how tricky it can be to decipher.
The first-time viewer would be completely lost by the map.
You've got none of the familiar cities or landmarks.
All you have is this
collection of weird-looking animals
and lots and lots and lots of text which, being in Latin, you can't read.
This is totally incomprehensible to most people.
At first glance, it's the geography of the Hereford map that is immediately confusing.
We're used to maps that face North,
but the Mappa Mundi follows an older convention and faces East.
The map as geography is obviously distorted
because it's got East at the top.
But if you turn it round,...
all of a sudden
it does become slightly more familiar.
You can recognise immediately Sicily, which is a triangle.
That's actually quite accurate. You see Italy. You see Greece.
You see most notably the Mediterranean.
You have Britain at the top left-hand corner.
You have the west coast of Europe.
Most importantly, down here you have Africa, or at least North Africa,
and to the right you have Asia.
And actually, it's certainly recognisable, even if distorted.
It's also full of mysteries.
You can't begin to unravel everything and nobody has yet.
So you can come back to it again and again with new questions
and see new things.
And, um... It is endlessly absorbing.
Delving deeper into the map, beyond its physical geography, another layer of meaning appears.
The Mappa Mundi is also a complete history of the world.
Among the cities and towns, the rivers and seas,
the map also depicts events from the past,
events separated sometimes by thousands of years.
CLAP OF THUNDER
We see Noah's Ark and the Crucifixion of Christ,
but we are also shown Caesar sending out surveyors to map the world
before Christ was even born.
Across its extraordinary surface, geography, time and history mingle.
The present collides with the distant past.
But the Mappa Mundi's real beauty is that it is much more than just a map.
The Hereford Map was not used the way we use a map for getting from point A to point Z.
It was not a route-finding map.
It was an imago mundi, a picture of the world,
a kind of display of all creation
laid out, extended, before the viewer.
It was a marvel, a mirabilia mundi.
What the map is for
is to plot, if you like, human history.
That's why it's orientated with East at the top,
because human history starts - this is Christian human history -
and human history starts in the East, in the Garden of Eden with the creation of Adam and Eve.
The geography you want to think of as a background.
So it's history, from the beginning of time to the expected, anticipated end of time.
And where did the map makers source the knowledge,
the history, the geography, that is pictured on the map?
From writers of the distant past.
Some, like the scholar Orosius, pupil of the great St Augustine,
were writing hundreds of years before the map was made.
Others, like the Roman Pliny, had been dead for well over 1,000 years.
I think that's a river of gold, isn't it?
Peter Barber and Mappa Mundi scholar Paul Harvey
have spent their professional lives deciphering the complex secrets of the map's many sources.
I like to think of the Hereford map as a patchwork quilt.
There's lots of little bits and if you know something about the sources,
you can identify...this little patch came from here.
You couldn't create something like the Hereford Map
without relying on a great many different sources,
and we think the map certainly drew on seven, eight, ten sources fairly directly,
but possibly rather more.
And this would have been the sort of illustrative source a map maker might have used.
One can discern a vast number of sources,
but it is very difficult since all of the sources tended to repeat what the other sources had said.
For instance, though in the Hereford world map, you get a specific reference to Orosius,
Orosius included a lot of information that came from Pliny.
Pliny's enormous text on natural history,
which is really a history of the world and everything in the world,
and the miniature expresses it beautifully.
On the left you can see Pliny writing his text and outside, through the window,
you can see all the animals of the world, all the natural features,
that image really does express the encyclopaedic vision of the classical writers
which is carried through to medieval Mappa Mundi.
The map's next layer of content, and by far its most bewildering,
owes much to Pliny.
His encyclopaedia lists all the animals and peoples of the world.
So too does the map.
At first, we see creatures we would recognise.
Here's a giant lizard basking in the sun.
There's an elephant.
But the further we move out from Jerusalem at the centre,
the wilder the world gets.
The Mappa Mundi, of course, is one of the finest examples of a medieval bestiary.
What I find interesting about the beasties on the Mappa
is what you've got and where you've got them.
You've got the worst one, the scariest ones,
the really bizarre ones with big feet over their heads as umbrellas,
and the ones cannibalising their own parents, these kind of things,
they're all in Africa, Asia,
they're in the far north of Russia and the Arctic and the Baltic.
And that very much reflects the prejudice of the time
against these unknown parts of the world.
Here's the Griste in Scandinavia, who make handy blankets from the skins of their enemies.
Next to them live the Cynocephali, recognisably human but with the heads of dogs.
Then there's the Hermaphrodites, with male and female genitals.
And the headless Blemyes, with eyes in their chests.
These monstrous races from the classical past are partly on the map
to entertain, and partly to preserve classical knowledge.
But their presence also serves a larger purpose,
that goes to the heart of the map's deeper religious meaning.
These are the fabulous races, the so-called monstrous races,
from Classical Antiquity.
Augustine talked about these fabulous peoples
as testifying to the power of God,
that if God could create these fabulous peoples,
then he could make bodies suffer eternally in the torments of hell.
For him, this was proof of the Resurrection with eternal damnation.
So this was again using mirabilia, a marvel, to prove a theological point.
So theology is the Mappa Mundi's final layer of meaning.
And the map's very complexity serves, it turns out, a very specific purpose.
Well, I think the fact that the map is a picture of extraordinary
confusion is actually extremely important for understanding it.
The tremendous visual disarray of the map is a sign of man's fallen vision of the world.
In a way, it directs attention away from the world, away from trying to understand the world,
towards trying to achieve an understanding of, and a vision of,
things outside the world, of heavenly things.
The French philosopher Hugh of St Victor,
writing when the map was made, wrote, "The whole world is like a book written by the finger of God".
And there he is, God in the form of Christ in Majesty,
above the circle of the world.
To his left, the blessed enter heaven.
To his right, the damned are ushered into the jaws of hell.
This is judgement day, the end of time,
the moment that explains the map and gives it its deeper meaning.
You see a marvellous recreation of the classical and Christian world,
and of a world that was dominated by faith.
A world too which in a way put the world in its possibly proper place.
There are also scenes in the corners and they put everything
into context, because at the top, you have the last judgement.
Even more movingly, at the bottom right,
you have a scene of a huntsman, of a human being looking back wistfully at the world,
but being told to proceed.
And around the world, you have...
The disc containing the world is fastened to eternity,
by thongs which read MORS, or Latin for "death".
It is a very, very sober image or idea, which makes all of sudden,
the whole of this enormous world in the middle
seem somewhat less important.
Here is the world, says the map.
Enjoy it. But remember that you will soon leave it.
The huntsman, about to depart the world, takes one last look back.
But on the ground, his squire calls out, "Passe avant."
Pass on, without regret,
to the next world.
It's a memento mori,
that we may live in this world,
the world is full of good things, it's full of difficulties -
political relations between France and England, and so on.
It's full of history,...
but it's also temporal.
It comes to an end, as far as our lives come to an end.
So the map, whilst teeming with life, is actually about death.
And about how, for the medieval mind,
belief in the next world was the only certainty.
700 years on from its creation, that idea of belief and certainty
continues to fascinate and inspire artists, like Turner Prize winner, Grayson Perry.
I was asked to give a lecture in Hereford.
I got there bit early and thought I'd go and see the Mappa Mundi.
I hadn't thought about it before.
I was just blown away by it, because I got there and I had it all to myself.
There was me and the guide, and she took me through it and I was just entranced by this thing.
Grayson's Map Of Nowhere, made in 2008,
borrows much from the Hereford Map -
its circular scheme, its wild mixture of image and text.
His picture is a very personal take on the idea of mapping belief.
Like all my works, I didn't start with a super-clear plan.
That would be boring, to do that.
I just worked my way across. I started in the top left hand corner
and then three months later, I get to the bottom right hand corner.
And in between something has happened, and that's how it works for me.
The idea, to a certain extent, I'm parodying the idea of the intellectual constructs of religion.
The bottom scene is all these people.
I sort of imagine them on a kind of Ruritanian pilgrimage,
and they're all making their way up this mountain, to this holy shrine site at the top,
which is illuminated by a shaft of heavenly light.
But if you follow the shaft up, it's coming out of my bum hole,
so it sort of...
That's what I was saying about that.
This map is like the Mappa Mundi in that it's a kind of world view,
but it's very much a personal, individualistic world view.
I don't presume to be the voice of anybody else but myself,
but obviously I've shared values with other people,
being a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes.
Grayson's picture and the Mappa Mundi have much in common.
Both are visual encyclopaedias of a complex world.
Both have at their heart questions of faith and belief.
But there's one crucial difference - age.
Time and past neglect have taken their toll on the Hereford map.
The crucial scene of Christ in Majesty is dark and damaged.
The rivers and seas, once vividly coloured, have faded to a murky brown.
But now, using the latest scholarly research, the map is being restored to something like its former glory.
The Folio Society is preparing the first authentic reproduction of the Mappa Mundi,
digitally cleaning up the faded original, and restoring its colour.
The rivers are returning to a vivid blue.
The long-faded green of the sea is being restored.
Christ shines out once more.
Even the ivy around the map, invisible for perhaps hundreds of years, grows again.
At the British Library, Mappa Mundi scholars are gathering
to see the finished results for the first time.
The Hereford map has never been digitally photographed in its entirety before.
Will the wonders of 21st century technology restore the glories of 700 years ago?
It's strange seeing the original background colour with these fresh colours.
It's very much brighter than the original.
It's visually much more interesting.
I'm really pleased with it. I've been involved in giving advice on various aspects of it.
But when you look at it as it is, in its final state,
you can see the birds and the animals quite, quite clearly.
This is going to be a tremendous aid to people who are
studying it, not only in detail but also from the wider perspective,
as an ensemble of information.
It's striking now, the contrast between the rivers and the sea as well.
I love it, I absolutely love it.
I have to keep on telling myself I'm not looking at the original, this is not what it was.
But as a vision of the original, it's absolutely superb, I think.
It gets across what an extraordinary spectacle
the original must have been, it really helps us envision what this
would have been like to come across in the cathedral as you walked up the aisle, and came across this
absolutely astonishing object.
This authentic reproduction of the map opens up new opportunities for
the future appreciation of the Mappa Mundi.
It brings the past right into the present,
marking the latest chapter in its extraordinary ability to fascinate us and draw us in.
The Hereford map is crucially important,
because it is the only surviving example
of a large, almost monumental medieval Mappa Mundi.
When I look at the medieval past, it makes me think about what is
going to be left of our civilisation 1,000 years from now.
What will be around 1,000 years from now?
Maybe just pieces of art.
Hereford's Mappa Mundi is many things.
An encyclopaedia of all the world's knowledge,
a memento mori,
a remarkable piece of medieval art.
It remains a unique testament to a vanished world,
and a vivid illustration of the depth, complexity and artistic genius of maps themselves.
To find out more about the maps in this series, and to explore the new world of digital mapping,
go to bbc.co.uk/beautyofmaps
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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