March Talk: Sarah Arrowsmith on Hereford’s Curious Map – The Mappa Mundi

This month’s talk was very well attended, with an audience numbering around seventy. Sarah Arrowsmith, who works for Hereford Cathedral’s education outreach department, delivered a coherent, well-illustrated talk on the fascinating Mappa Mundi. I may say, she won us over immediately by praising our society’s website!

Sarah Arrowsmith began by explaining that the Mappa Mundi (which translates as “Cloth of the World”) looks “wrong” to modern eyes. It depicts the known world of 1300 AD when, give or take five or ten years, it was created, with Jerusalem at its centre, and does not follow the convention we are used to of having the north at the top of the map; Great Britain is down towards the bottom of its left side. It must have been a marvel to people of the time: on a creamy background, vibrant colours depicted not only remarkable places but also fantastic creatures. It was intended not merely as a geographical document, but a record of God’s creation.

Next, we heard how there is no actual record of the map’s origins, though it is possible to date it quite accurately. Written records do not mention it until in 1684 it is mentioned by the antiquarian Thomas Dingley. A man named John Carter made a sketch of it in 1780, showing it as the centrepiece of a triptych, the side panels of which have since been lost. Nor do we know exactly what its purpose was: people have speculated that it may have formed an altarpiece, though for various reasons this seems unlikely, that it may have been a teaching aid for monks, or that it may have been used to promote the pilgrimage industry. It is widely thought that the map may have been made in Lincoln rather than Hereford, but the speaker argued persuasively that its backboard suggests its origins do lie in our region as dendrochronology places the trees that were used to create the panel on which it is mounted firmly in Herefordshire.

Sarah Arrowsmith pointed out some of the map’s distinctive features. It is divided into three segments by a T shape, suggesting the three known continents and their Biblical explanation as the different lands of the three sons of Noah. The British Isles are disproportionally large – but this may be explained by its being made in England! Hereford itself is almost rubbed off the map – could this be caused by the reverent touch of pilgrims’ fingers? We then heard about the meaning of the various images on the map. Bible Stories are illustrated: Adam and Eve appear, outside the area totally inaccessible to mankind because of their sin. Noah’s Ark is there; Moses appears on Mount Sinai and the Exodus out of Egypt is shown, and Joseph’s barns (looking like medieval English ones!). The Classical world is also referred to:– the Pillars of Hercules (marking the end of the world), the Cretan labyrinth and the camp of Alexander the Great, a popular hero in medieval times. At the heart of the map one sees the New Testament taking the viewer to the heart of the Christian faith. We see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and of course the Crucifixion in Jerusalem, the heart of the cosmos to the medieval mind.

Round the edges of the map we see strange peoples, ideas gleaned from Greek and Roman travel writers, such as the dog-heads; medieval people were to draw moral instruction from their deformed exteriors. Similarly there are exotic beasts such as unicorns, familiar to people of the time from Bestiaries, popular books which used these strange animals to convey moral messages about human misbehaviour. Vegetable curiosities such as pepper and mandrakes also appear in the margins.

The Mappa Mundi also serves the more usual functions of a map; many of the places shown are mentioned in a twelfth century guide book for pilgrims, the Book of St. James. It shows places of cultural and theological significance, such as Paris and of course Rome; it shows popular pilgrimage destinations, such as the shrine of St. James de Compostella. Major trade routes are identified. However, one cannot escape the figurative meanings of this document. The letters M-O-R-S surround the map, together with Christ enthroned and the dead arising from their graves to be welcomed by Him or dispatched to Hell, in an image of Doomsday.

The appreciative audience asked a range of questions following the talk, and from Sarah Arrowsmith’s responses we learned that not only is Mount Snowdon depicted on the map but also Clee Hill; that not all the writing is in Latin, as some of it is in Norman French, the language of the educated and of royalty; and that a number of early maps, many of them English, have also survived. Perhaps the most intriguing question related to the analysis of the inks. Recent advances in spectroscopy should help identify what the inks were made of, allowing scholars to explore whether the most precious colours were used for the most important features on maps of the time, and such an analysis is scheduled to be carried out on the Mappa Mundi. Clearly, the Mappa Mundi is a topic for us to revisit once this has happened!

For those who missed the talk but would like to learn more – or for those who were there but did not bring cash with them! – the book “Mappa Mundi: Hereford’s Curious Map” by Sarah Arrowsmith is available to buy from Hereford Cathedral; you can visit the gift shop or phone the Cathedral’s library on 01432 374226 to order a copy. It costs £10.00.

PK 23.3.16



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