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The Hereford Mappa Mundi

Updated on October 14, 2012
Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral
The Hereford Mappa Mundi
The Hereford Mappa Mundi

Hereford Mappa Mundi

Although graphical representations of parts of the world have been used in one form or another for the last 8,000 years, the term ‘map’ seems to stem from the Mappae Mundi (plural) of Medieval Europe. Derived from the Latin mappa – referring to the cloth it was drawn on – and mundi – meaning the world, the purpose of the Mappae Mundi was to represent principles such as climate zones and known land masses rather than as navigational tools. The largest mappa mundi still known to exist is currently housed in the cathedral at Hereford in the United Kingdom. I was recently there on business and, being a cartographer by trade, I couldn’t wait to get in and have a look.

The map is circular and centred on Jerusalem with the known world radiating outwards. As I have detailed in other hubs, the ancient Greeks were well aware of the spherical shape of the Earth and this knowledge was never totally lost. The map is an example of a T O map. Such maps showed only what was believed to be the inhabitable parts of the world; Asia in the top half, Europe to the bottom left and Africa to the bottom right. The O refers to the shape of the map and the T is provided by the Mediterranean Sea,

The Hereford Mappa Mundi dates back to around 1300 AD, however the photograph shown here is actually of a lithographic reproduction made in 1869. It is housed outside the room where the original is stored and while I was able to view the original, I was not allowed to photograph it.

While maps such as these appear (and are) wildly inaccurate their importance lies in what they represent and how they were made. They borrowed heavily on the work of map makers before them and the anecdotal experiences of travellers, traders and soldiers. The drive to map our domain was born thousands of years before we were and while they are primitive to us, the theodolite and chain techniques in use when I first started no doubt appear equally archaic to the Global Positioning System brigade of today.

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