By Scott Westrem
Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the History of Discoveries, Vol 34 (2002)
Introduction: Produced some seven hundred years ago, a large map of the world that is housed today in the cathedral at Hereford, on the English border with Wales, is a great encyclopedia of knowledge imprinted and illustrated on a single page, but a page that measures over five feet long running vertically down the middle and almost four-and-one-half feet horizontally. On it the terrestrial landmass of the earth—what we today would call Asia, Africa, Europe, and adjacent islands—is depicted as having a round format; the great Ocean Sea believed to separate east Asia from western Europe was both enormous and unknown to the medieval world, and cartographers found no cause to devote much attention to this great void. The map is literally oriented: thus east is at the top and north to the left. In conformity with biblical passages describing Jerusalem being set “in the midst of the nations,” the Holy City is found at the map’s exact center (where, in fact, an image of the crucified Jesus appears). The surface of the map is replete with inscriptions—or map “legends,” numbering nearly 1,100 by my count — most of which are simple names of towns, rivers, mountains, and islands, but some of which contain detailed cosmological, ethnographical, historical, theological, and zoological information (or at least lore). Many hundreds of these legends have an adjacent depiction. The single sheet of vellum — or fine parchment — on which this round earth is drawn is itself pentagonal, conforming to the shape of the calf that gave its skin to the history of cartography, and in the corner spaces between the pentagonal frame and the circular earth are scenes of the Last Judgment (at the top), of Caesar’s commissioning of geographers to assemble a complete account of the world (at lower left), and of a huntsman calling out in French to a rider on a horse in a rather puzzling illustration that probably has a connection to an important juridical proceeding in the diocese of Hereford in the late 1280s (at lower right). Each of these scenes might be—and has been—the subject of focused scholarly study in its own right. Although such marginal designs of religious and historical significance are relatively uncommon in known examples of medieval cartography, the image of the earth in Hereford Cathedral is the largest traditional world map—or mappamundi—that survives from the Middle Ages.