“Mapping Information Landscapes”: an extract from a new book by Drew Whitworth (MA: DTCE)

In 2020 MA: DTCE lecturer Drew Whitworth published “Mapping Information Landscapes”, a book that explores the history of mapping as a means by which we learn how to make good judgments about information, and communicate these understandings to others. 

One of the book’s intentions is to push back the history of “information literacy”, showing how it predates the digital era: indeed, how the motivations to educate people in the effective handling of information goes back as far as classical and medieval times. This extract (from pages 33-39) discusses what can be learned from the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the world’s largest surviving medieval map.

You (or your library) can purchase a paper or electronic copy of the book here or here.

Apply for this year’s distance learning version of the MA: DTCE: we are taking applications until mid-October 2020.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi

The largest remaining medieval world map, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (hereafter, HMM), is a map of Europe, Asia and Africa created around 1300 CE. It is the most detailed map of its kind to survive into the modern era, now exhibited in a purpose- built annex of Hereford Cathedral, which I visited on 12 March 2019. I will describe first my impressions of the map as a material object and then, with the help of other scholars’ work, its significance as a representation of an information landscape and, therefore, a product of discourse, created in line with specific discursive and knowledge frameworks and promulgated for particular purposes.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi
The Hereford Mappa Mundi

Many photographs of the HMM exist, the earliest extant one taken in 1868 (see Harvey, 2010, 26), but neither these nor textual descriptions (even the substantial Westrem, 2001) can fully evoke its qualities as a material object. It is of great beauty and inspires deep fascination; like all the best works of art, to experience it is to truly become lost in it. Almost everything that could be said about the world at the time of its creation is on it somewhere, scale allowing. It is as much a visual encyclopedia as a map. On the other hand, it is bounded, material, social, representational and relational: a map in every sense of the definition used in this book and an utterance that still remains relevant today, as this discussion, one response to it, indicates.

Originally, the HMM was mounted on an oak frame at the centre of a triptych, the outer wings of which could be folded back over it to protect it from the light. The vellum (calfskin) on which it was written has warped a little over the centuries and been the subject of some preservation work but the art itself has never been retouched or reworked. Apart from at a very few points, the drawings and inscriptions remain sharp and readable. For something around 720 years old, it is in extremely good condition. There is evidence of the embodied and material practice of the map’s creators. For example, there is a tiny hole in the vellum, in the very middle of Jerusalem, where the compass point was inserted to draw the large circle that bounds the whole map. Jerusalem is therefore not just the symbolic but the real and absolute centre of the world depicted. Another compass point has left a hole at the centre of the labyrinth on Knossos, where 12 concentric circles form the maze.

Labyrinth of knossos
The labyrinth of Knossos, with the compass point’s hole clearly visible.

The HMM intermingles geographical fact and myth. The largest building drawn on the map is the Tower of Babel, annotated with a substantial block of text that recounts the story of the Tower. Noah’s Ark is shown resting atop Mount Ararat. The walled Garden of Eden is at the top, just below the figure of Christ sat in judgement outside the circle, in the map’s apex. Bible story and geography interweave completely with the depiction of the book of Exodus as a geographical pathway on the map, like a modern GPS track. A line depicts the Jews being led by Moses out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. They pause at Mount Sinai, wander in the wilderness for 40 years (a series of loops and squiggles), then reach Jericho. Largely in Asia and Africa, fantastic creatures such as mandrake roots and manticores are depicted. Then there is the ‘bonnacon’ with accompanying inscription that reads:

Native to Phrygia is an animal called bonnacon, with the head of a bull, the mane of a horse, horns intricately twisted. With vehement voiding of its bowels, it sprays excrement the length of three acres, the heat of which is such that it burns everything it hits.

Look closely at the bonnacon on the map and see that the artist depicts this ‘vehement voiding’ in gleeful detail.

The bonnacon vehemently voiding

But there is much information of practical use as well. A huge number of cities and islands are depicted (Westrem, 2001, catalogues over 1,100 separate locations or items on the HMM), more or less in their correct geographical relation to each other, once one absorbs the Jerusalem-centric projection of north to the left, east at the top. China is shown, and India, too, including a picture of a war elephant – perhaps, to many in 14th century England, considered a fantastical beast like the bonnacon, but clearly based on an eye-witness account recorded somewhere in the nexus of information and practice that generated the HMM. In Europe, cities cluster around rivers, with major basins like the Danube’s depicted in detail. Cities like Regensburg and Salzburg are shown in their correct relation to tributaries (here, the Salzach and Inn) that join the Danube (although Crone notes mistakes in France in this regard: 1965, 455). Straight lines through north Africa represent trade routes. Crone (1965, 452) suggests that proximity to major trade routes and the itineraries of pilgrims governed the selection of towns plotted on the map. The map can be dated quite accurately due to the appearance, in Wales, of Conwy Castle, not built until 1289: the mapping of that and nearby Caernarfon Castle was a form of commentary on current political affairs (Harvey, 2010, 19).

Thus, the representation of the world on the HMM is not just bound by the past, but is sensitive to the chronotope in which it was created and to the expertise and authorial intent, and thus authority, of those who compiled it. Moreland and Bannister (1986, 20) attribute the HMM to one man, Richard of Haldingham, largely while he was at Lincoln Cathedral (he moved to Hereford later). As they note, ‘[t]he creation of such a map in the late thirteenth century must have called for a quite remarkable and exceptional study of classical manuscripts’.

But the story is more complicated than that, in terms of how we can understand the HMM as an information landscape and as a product of discourse. In the first place it is unclear whether Richard was one man, or two, probably relatives of one another (Denholm-Young, 1957). Richard – if there were two, the younger man – may have been one of the scribes who actually drew the map. Up to three may have done so, probably one doing the basic shapes and cities, one the creatures and a third the lettering, which has been shown to all be by the same hand (Roger Hillman, personal communication). These scribes were working from instructions, hence there are some mistakes, particularly the immense one (Flint says, ‘a mistake whose dimensions inspire a certain awe’ (1998, 23)) of getting the labels for Europe and Africa on the wrong continents.

Sandy Island
Sandy Island — here, “Sable” — depicted in the Times 1950 world atlas, despite its non-existence

(Gross errors are not confined to medieval maps. Bonnett (2015, 11–16) tells the story of ‘Sandy Island’, purportedly located near New Caledonia in the south Pacific Ocean. Despite appearing on maps and charts since around 1908, in 2012 the island was found not only to not exist, but, with the seabed at that point being 1400m below the surface, it could never have existed. Yet the fiction was durable enough for Sandy Island to appear on early versions of Google Earth. Bonnett concludes: ‘The sudden deletion of Sandy Island forces us to realise that our view of the world still occasionally relies on unverified reports from far away’ (ibid., 13).)

The authority of the mapmakers, however, depends very much on the architecture from which the HMM emerged. The HMM is not, per se, valuable because it is unique or original. Other extant maps (for example, one known as the Cotton Map, drawn in England in the 11th century, and one drawn in France in the 12th century and now in Munich) predate it, and are clearly based on the same basic configuration. This is the so-called ‘T-O’ (Denholm-Young, 1957), which Wogan-Browne (1991, 123) calls ‘a well-known and long-established tradition of representation’. Apparent from Figure 2.1, its way of configuring the three known continents, with Asia (and east) at the top, Europe bottom left and Africa bottom right, would have been as familiar to scholars at the time as the Mercator projection is today.


The British Isles
The (distorted) British Isles, as depicted on the HMM

The basis for this ‘intellectual schema’ was the aforementioned survey prompted by Caesar Augustus, depicted in the bottom left of the HMM, where is also placed a quotation from Luke 2:1; A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be described. This survey contributed to the world map of Vipsanius Agrippa, displayed in Rome at the time of the Caesars (Crone, 1965, 448). This, the HMM, Cotton Map, Ebstorf Map and others are all based on this original survey, which is why they look broadly similar. The identity of other texts that have contributed to this schema can also be determined. For example, some descriptions of fantastic creatures on the HMM are drawn from De imagine mundi of the 12th century, attributed to either Henry of Mainz or Honorius of Autun (Crone, 1965, 453). These textual descriptions are reproduced then illustrated on the HMM, for example the manticore.

At the same time, there is much variation between the members of this family of maps and not only with regard to the accuracy of coastlines. Information changes depending on time and place, or chronotope. Towns and cities which were non- existent in Roman times but important in 1300, like Venice and Dublin, are depicted in their correct location on the HMM. Local knowledge is also displayed, such as the prominence given to Clee Hill, an insignificant summit that happens to be near to Hereford. Thus, the HMM is a product of both its past and present: ‘the world map was not simply copied repeatedly, with differences mainly due to mistakes or misinterpretations. Within the limits possible, the content of the map was expanded from time to time…’ (Crone, 1965, 455).

Nevertheless, the commonalities between these various world maps shows how there was a corpus or ‘fund’ of data that was (relatively) widely accessible in this era. Hence the development of this popular genre of communication. Harvey uses this term, as does Wogan-Browne (1991, 117) – mappa mundi provided an explicitly Christian reading of the world and one that did not have to embrace geographical accuracy:

The map had a more elevated purpose than merely copying geographical outlines; it sets before us the harmony of time and space, a statement of divine order in the world, to be sought in its physical form, its geography, as much as in its history, the sequence of events … Certainly we miss the whole point of the Hereford map and of other medieval world maps if we see them as offering no more than distorted geographical outlines. (Harvey, 2010, 48–9)

Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral, home of the Mappa Mundi

Knowing that the HMM is a Christian artefact is essential to a full reading of it. The map played several roles in the life of Hereford as a cathedral, a significant locus of power in the medieval world. It was not just a document but a status symbol, a tourist attraction that generated revenue for the diocese (Flint, 1998). Flint makes the case, at length, that the HMM was embroiled in the ecclesiastical politics of not just Hereford but Lincoln cathedral. Haldingham – creator Richard’s birthplace – is in the Lincoln diocese, so how did the map end up being the Hereford MM? Flint says, the ‘purpose and place’ of Richard’s map were ‘intimately connected’ with tensions around patronage, financing, taxation and struggles over the succession to bishoprics (Flint, 1998): she finds allegories to this in the decorations and inscriptions around the borders of the map.

Finally, the HMM was a teaching tool. Note how Richard signs his name to the map:

… all those who possess this work – or hear, read or see it – pray to Jesus in his godhead to have pity on Richard of Haldingham or Sleaford, who made it or set it out, that he may be granted bliss in heaven.

Users did not just read the textual annotations on the map, as so many were illiterate. They could see it, as an image, without having to understand the annotations (indeed, this sense of ‘reading a map’ is still the one largely employed). And they could also ‘hear’ it, by having it explained to them. Thus, the HMM had a ‘didactic purpose of some kind’ (Flint, 1998, 24). It defined the viewer’s ‘place in the world’, not just with reference to geographical location but as part of a broader discourse:

… we have become unfamiliar with how central geography once was to morality and religion. Heaven, Hell and all the other destinations and journeys of salvation and damnation were understood as permanent places and geographic realities. They offered a moral map that helped people situate themselves in an ethical landscape. It seems that people need morality to be tied down and rooted to particular places and specific journeys. If our moral categories float free from the earth they float away.

(Bonnett, 2015, 123)

Bibliography of works cited in this passage:

(Thanks also to Roger Hillman of Hereford Cathedral.)

Bonnett, A. (2015) Off the map, Aurum Press.

Crone, G. R. (1965) New light on the Hereford map, Speculum 131, 447–62.

Denholm-Young, N. (1957) The mappa mundi of Richard of Haldingham at Hereford, Speculum, 32, 307–14.

Flint, V. (1998) The Hereford map: its author(s), two scenes and a border, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series (8), 19–44.

Harvey, P. (2010) The Hereford world map: an introduction, Hereford Cathedral.

Westrem, S. D. (2001) The Hereford Map: a transcription and translation of the legends with commentary, Brepols.

Wogan-Browne, J. (1991) Reading the world: the Hereford mappa mundi, Paragon, 9 (1), 117–35.

Leave a comment

  • Archives

  • Twitter @MADTCE