03 November 2014

When Your Worldview is Literally Figurative: The Hereford Map and the Last Days of Mythical Living

The Hereford Mappa Mundi illustrates how inextricably linked was religion and myth to the Medieval worldview. The map is - literally - a map of the world and hence it clearly depicts their worldview. And while it is literally a map, it is full of the figurative.

Not only does this map miss entire continents like the Americas and Australia, but it adds to the world stories that are known to make sense of land that is unknown. East is at the top and anyone trying to map this map to known maps will be lost. This map is anchored in myth, not experience.

Cannibals detail from Hereford Mappa Mundi
The known world contains such creatures as a lynx in Asia Minor that sees through walls and urinates a black stone. Beyond the very limits of the known world the legend warns, "Here are all kinds of horrors, more than can be imagined: intolerable cold ... savage people who eat human flesh and drink blood, the accursed son of Cain."

Noah's Ark from Hereford Mappa Mundi
About this map and others like it, Jerry Brotton writes, "Hardly any of these maps provided new geographical material on the world based on travel or exploration. Instead, they fused classical and biblical places to project a history of Christian creation, salvation and judgment onto the surface of a map. On most of these mappaemuni, viewers could trace the passage of biblical time vertically, from its beginning at the top of the map in the Garden of Eden in the east, to its conclusion in the west, with the end of time taking place outside its frame in an eternal present of the Final Judgment. ... The essence of the Hereford mappamundi is contiguity, the proximity of one place to one another, each place charged by a specific Christian event.. It is a map shaped by its religious history connected to specific places, rather than geographical space. The map offers the faithful a depiction of scenes from the Creation, the Fall, the life of Christ and the Apocalypse in an image of the vertical progression of Christian history from top to bottom in which they could grasp the possibility of their own salvation."

This map was made about 1280 and captures the world before the age of exploration. The limit to progress in the first market economy - which emerged about this time and transformed the West from about 1300 to 1700 - was land. And as it odd as it sounds, this limit couldn't be properly addressed until it was properly seen. It wasn't what they knew that changed the world but instead what they discovered.

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