Maps and views blog

3 posts categorized "Mappamundi"

14 March 2014

Good news for fans of medieval maps!

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A new British Library collaboration called the Virtual Mappa project is well under way, using digital images of a selection of medieval world maps - mappaemundi - and some excellent new annotation software (more on that at a later date). High-resolution images of these maps will be available online for public use, with transcribed and translated text, notes, links to outside resources and other tools for understanding these marvellous mappaemundi. I'm the intern charged with annotating the maps and organising all this extra data. I've been up to my ears in Latin text, incredible images and software glitches for a few months now, so it is about time we started spreading the news about the upcoming Virtual Mappa project.


Psalter Map, (London, British Library, Add. MS 28681, f.9)

At first glance, you may not be able to recognise a medieval mappamundi as depicting the same earth we see in maps today, so some basics need addressing. Generally speaking, medieval world maps only show the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, seen somewhat as synonymous with the Roman Empire. Australasia, the Americas and the polar regions don't tend to feature, as they were either unknown or considered to be uninhabited, or populated by 'savages', and therefore of little interest to the 'civilised' Christian populace creating and viewing these documents. And contrary to popular opinion, these maps don't depict a flat earth - it had already been known for centuries that the earth was a globe, and these maps simply attempt to model this spherical shape on the flat surface of a page, similar to the way a modern world map bends and stretches the continents to fit an image of the earth's surface into a neat rectangle. 


The Anglo-Saxon World Map, aka the Cotton Map. (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v)

It must also be noted that even though we call these documents 'maps', they contain a greater range of information than what we are used to with modern maps. Medieval mappaemundi were often more like encyclopedias in geographic form, containing a significant amount of history - especially events from the Bible - and even zoological and ethnographic information. Sometimes the whole of known history from Creation to the End of the World is depicted; monstrous races and mythical creatures abound on the more extravagant maps; and complex Christian connections and levels of meaning which we may never get close to decrypting flow through the map images and text.


Peterborough Diagrammatic Map (London, British Library, Harley MS 3667, f.8v)

The nine medieval maps we have been working with so far come from a timeframe covering several centuries, but have certain common characteristics: firstly, they're all world maps depicting a similar area of the globe (as discussed above). Secondly, they are orientated with East at the top, where modern maps have North at the top. This was standard practice for centuries, and when you learn that 'Oriens' means 'East' in Latin, it is easy to see where we get the English word 'orientation'. Finally, each of these maps was made in Britain, so unsurprisingly each one depicts the British Isles and Ireland, although the varying styles means Britain can look very different in each image.

Britain on the Anglo-Saxon World Map  Britain on the Peterborough Diagrammatic Map

Starkly different details of the British Isles and Ireland from the Cotton (left) and Peterborough (right) maps. (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v ; Harley MS 3667, f.8v)

There are some similarities shared between these medieval maps, beyond the basics we've mentioned. Some of the maps clearly go together, for example the Peterborough (above) and Thorney (St John's Oxford MS 17, f. 6r) diagrammatic maps are effectively copies of each other. The two 'Higden Maps' (CCCC MS 21, f.9r and Royal MS 14 C IX, ff.1v-2, below) have the same colour scheme of turquoise and red, and probably both illustrated copies of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon. Also, Sawley (CCCC MS 66, p.2) and the Hereford Mappa Mundi have some very similar elements which suggest they were both copied from a common ancestor. But there are far more differences that stand out...


The Royal Higden map - England is shown in red in the bottom left corner, with Wales and Scotland depicted as nearby islands. See the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry here for further images and information. (London, British Library, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff.1v-2)

The size of these maps varies enormously, for example the Psalter map is a miniscule 10cm square whereas the Hereford map stands at over 5 feet high. From this we know that one was a personal image for private viewing, and the other designed to be displayed and seen by a large audience. Style differs drastically, from the seemingly accurate 'wiggly' coastlines of the Anglo-Saxon map to the stark diagrammatic outlines of Peterborough. Even between similar sized maps, content can differ - the simpler Higden map shows placenames only, whereas Sawley fits in lots of biblical and ethnographic information in between its cities, rivers and mountains.

Psalter Map Monstrous Races

Detail of Monstrous Races from the Psalter Map (London, British Library, Add. MS 28681, f.9)

Lots of Lost Lions

One of many lions apparently lost in Eastern Russia... (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B.V, f.56v)

The selected mappaemundi, then, vary greatly in size, style, content and purpose, can contain levels of meaning wholly lost on modern readers, and are written in the dead language of Latin. Good job that the Virtual Mappa Project will help us to make sense of them all! There really is much more to say about these magnificent medieval maps, so check back here for further images, updates and information.

-  Cat Crossley


28 April 2010

The beginning is nigh!

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'Is this the end or the beginning?' I have been asking myself today, while the final pieces of our cartographic puzzle fall into place. A big question but unusually (as far as big questions go) one with a clear definite answer: we are most certainly about to begin. This past week has seen Magnificent Maps become fully formed, with maps arriving daily from the conservation studios and being placed on walls. Thanks to our team of conservators and, once again, to our expert exhibitions staff.

Of special excitement this week has been the arrival of the nine loan maps from the extremely generous lenders. I was especially pleased to see the colossal de' Barbari map of Venice from 1500, lent by our friends the British Museum, when I popped down to the gallery one morning. In fact, I liken the effect to running downstairs to the letterbox one morning back in the mid-1980s and seeing my first Beano lying on the doormat.  Other incredible objects are Middle Temple Library's Molyneux globes of 1592 - the first English, and at the time largest globes in existence, and the medieval Evesham World map. Today saw the installation of the earliest map in the exhibition, a fragment of the Forma Urbis Romae, part of a colossal map of Rome dating to 200 AD. I can say with absolute sincerity that no reproduction in any book can compare with the effect of seeing the original.

Dave has been diligently taking footage of these and other maps (such as the Klencke Atlas) being installed, and you'll be seeing some highlights here in due course.

Peter and I have been giving a number of interviews to press, radio and television reporters, which looks set to continue tomorrow with the official press view of the exhibition. A recent highlight is The Guardian's art correspondent Jonathan Jones's typically perceptive piece last Saturday, while the first exhibition review appears in today's Times Online. There has been similary good feedback from British Library colleagues who accompanied Peter and myself on a number of preliminary tours today. Now although they are all extremely polite people, I am sure that their complimentary comments were not borne purely out of politeness. It is nearly time for you to make up your own mind.

20 April 2010

The Beauty of Maps #1

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Last night saw the opening episode of 'The Beauty of Maps', a four-part TV series being shown on consecutive nights on BBC4. The series was filmed last February in the British Library and elsewhere, and features some great footage of our collections, the St Pancras building and basement areas, staff and scholars.

It was great to see the finished product, and to see all the hard work and hours of filming condensed into half-an-hour. 

... and if you look very closely, about 1 min 27 sec into the programme you can actually see my hand turning off a light switch. My Granny is very proud.

The programme has dove-tailed perfectly with the Magnificent Maps exhibition, especially since the themes being discussed tie-in with the specific spaces we have re-created in the gallery, and many of the exhibits contained therein.

Last night's programme focused upon the Hereford Mappa Mundi, in Hereford Cathedral. It brought out very strongly that  the idea that the map is a complete summary of the world, its history, and everything in it. I found the sound effects that accompanied close-up shots of some of the map's many monsters and sea-creatures rather amusing. It gave me the idea of producing some sort of kids' pop-up sound effect mappamundi facsimile (copyright Tom Harper, 2010). Just for the kids, mind.

The programme featured the new facsimile of the original (and rather worn and battered) Hereford Map, produced this year by the Folio Society, a copy of which we will be featuring in the exhibition. The facsimile has, as far as possible, reproduced the original bright colouring the map would have once had. The director of the programme was keen to capture the surprise of map scholars when they saw it for the first time, something which came across very well. 'Better than the original!' Quite.

The Hereford facsimile will hang in the 'bedchamber,' the space in the exhibition that contains maps reflecting a spiritual or other-worldy power, suitable for the intimate space inhabited by rulers. You see, medieval world maps like the Hereford Mappa Mundi were not always hung in churches. In fact we can document instances of maps being presented and displayed in bedchambers, which incidentally were often used for meetings between a king or queen and his or her most trusted advisors.

Other maps we will be showing in this space are Grayson Perry's brilliant 'Map of Nowhere' of 2008 (also featured last night) which itself draws heavily on the now lost Ebsdorf Mappa Mundi of c.1300, represented in the exhibition by a true-size copy. Prepare to be amazed in a 'I can't see the top of it' sort of way.

In addition, we are pleased to be able to show the 13th-century Psalter world map, believed to be a copy of a much larger map owned by Henry III of England (reigned 1207-1272), and also the Duchy of Cornwall fragment, the only surviving section of a much larger medieval map.

So medieval map heaven, with added monsters.

Tonight on BBC4, 'The Beauty of Maps' looks at the mapping of London. Don't miss it.