Mappa mundi

Missing image
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England.

A mappa mundi is a world map, with the additional restrictions that it dates to the Middle Ages, and was produced as part of the European map-making tradition (e.g., Chinese maps from that time period are not counted as mappa mundi). The latter restriction is somewhat porous with regards to Islamic maps, on the grounds that those maps stemmed from the same earlier Ptolemaic tradition. The cut-off point for the end of the Middle Ages is also somewhat hazy

Mappæ mundi are important cultural artifacts for two reasons. First is the obvious fact that they represent the knowledge of the world known to the creator of the map at that time. As such, they represent critical evidence for when determining certain places first became known to Europeans. In the present day, the most notable mappa mundi is the Vinland map. It is still a matter of academic debate as to whether or not that map is a later forgery, a question that is of considerable importance to the history of European exploration: if authentic, it represents the earliest known European map of any portion of the New World, and even pre-dates Christopher Columbus.

Secondly, they are important as artifacts of how people perceived the world around them. Certain questions have to be answered before a map can be drawn ("What way is up?" or "What is important enough to be included on the map?"), and the answers supplied by the creators of mappæ mundi provide insight into their thought. A famous example of this principle is the tripartite or T and O map style of medieval world map, which considered the geographic shapes of Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East to be unimportant -- all that mattered was their spatial relationship to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was usually placed at the exact center of the map. This attitude produced what are superficially primitive maps, but instead reflected different priorities.

Other interesting or famous mappa mundi include the Hereford Mappa Mundi (which is sufficiently famous that it is often referred to as simply "The Mappa Mundi"), the Catalan Atlas of Abraham Cresques, and the "mappa mundi" included in Ptolemy's Geographia, which predates the correct period but was reprinted so often at later times that it is usually included in the Mundi


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