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Map as encylopaedic feast

17 September 2021

Hereford’s Mappa Mundi reveals more than physical features and geographical boundaries, observes Victoria Leonard

Volgi archive/Alamy

The Hereford Mappa Mundi

The Hereford Mappa Mundi

ABOUT 700 years ago, a map was drawn on an enormous piece of carefully prepared animal skin. Measuring five feet by four, the map represented the inhabited world as it was imagined in 13th-century England. It showed the earth as a sphere with three continents — Africa, Asia, and Europe — surrounded by sea, and the four compass points edging the circle.

Although the colouring has faded and the parchment has browned over the centuries, the writing and pictures that cover the land are still visible. Above the map, Christ sits in majestic judgement, sending saved souls (on the right) to the perpetual bliss of paradise, and dooming others (on the left) to the fires of hell. Below Christ, the Virgin Mary, with her chest uncovered, intercedes.

This is the Hereford Mappa Mundi: a spectacular object that asks all who hear, read, or see the map to pray for the author, Richard of Holdingham or Sleaford. Including a named author was highly unusual for medieval maps, but Richard’s is not the only name we find inscribed — most notably, the map self-describes as Orosius’s account of the world.

Orosius, or Paulus Orosius, was a priest who lived in the early fifth century. A contemporary of St Augustine of Hippo, Orosius wrote A History Against the Pagans at the request of Augustine, who at the time was writing his own magnum opus, The City of God. Orosius’s History was a response to allegations that Christianity — at the expense of traditional pagan worship — had brought about the fall of Rome in 410, when invading Visigoths had sacked the city.

Orosius developed a practical rather than theological philosophy of history. He moved on from the Classical past by establishing a new brand of historiography which showed how the Christian God was ever present in the stories of the past, and had been all along. His aim was to demonstrate that, from the Creation, human sin and wilful ignorance of the scriptures were responsible for disaster — just punishments from God.

Roughly the same time distance separates Orosius’s History from the map as the creation of the map from our own time. So why did Orosius feel so relevant to people living and dying in medieval England? What was Orosius’s name doing on the Hereford Mappa Mundi?

The map is a remnant from an unfamiliar epistemology. It shows the disproportionate influence that Orosius and his History exerted in medieval times — a reception that could hardly be more different now, when he has been memorably described as an embarrassment to the profession of historian, and his work has been labelled as the first — and worst — attempt at universal history.

But, in earlier periods, the work was never short of readers. It became the standard text on antiquity in medieval libraries; even now, at least 275 manuscripts survive, the oldest dating to the sixth century. With the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, it was among the earliest works to be transformed into a recognisably modern book.

Orosius’s History influenced some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, including Bede, Paul the Deacon, Otto of Freising, and Peter Abelard, to name but a few. Orosius was especially significant for Dante, who gave him a starring part in the tenth canto of Paradiso.

So was the appearance of Orosius’s name on the Hereford Mappa Mundi a simple name-drop, a fast way to establish authority by association? Some modern historians have seen the inclusion as unexplained, while others have explained it away as a mistake. Such dismissals misunderstand the fundamental purpose of the map, underestimate its creators, and fail to recognise the map as a valuable indicator of how influential Orosius was on the medieval mind-set.


OROSIUS developed a totalising discourse, seeking to explain all past events in time and space by centralising God and humanity’s relationship with the divine, especially sin, punishment, and redemption. He had everything worked out: the providence of the Christian God determined all events. Warfare and disasters were punishment for sin — a quid pro quo established after the sin of the first man.

The resulting work was an extremely partial, radically innovative, and staunchly conservative reinterpretation of secular history through the spectrum of Christianity; a janglingly inconsistent mismatch of traditions, shaped into a new Christian historiography. Orosius offered an eschatological vision of human existence that was highly translatable — much more so than Augustine’s theology of the two cities. We can see it reflected back at us in the Mappa Mundi’s image of the world, which follows Orosius in having everything worked out: each city, river, every fantastical creature even, is labelled and catalogued, providing an encyclopaedic feast for the eyes which far surpasses the mind’s ability to hold it in its frame.

The map reveals Orosius’s influence on the developing medieval conception of sin and salvation, with which we are familiar from medieval wall-paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and works of art, where the final judgement occurs at the end of time, sorting souls into the eternally saved and the eternally damned.

The failure to recognise Orosius’s theology in medieval ontologies is a legacy of the turn against Orosius in the Renaissance. In the 14th century, Orosius was reconceived as astonishingly ignorant, and his History was condemned as disgraceful and illegitimate, perceived (once again) as an assault on the profession of historian. Our perspective on antiquity is largely a Renaissance view, to the extent that alternative visions of the past are difficult to grasp. Orosius certainly provided that alternative vision, and it dominated historiographical approaches throughout the Middle Ages.

But the turn away from Orosian conceptions of the past from the Renaissance, held in continuity to the present, has engendered a sort of collective amnesia — a misremembering — that disconnects human understanding of itself across the centuries. Consequently, evidence such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi that shows the significance of Orosius’s conception of the history of humanity and its relationship with the divine seems like a square peg in a round hole, and can only be discounted.

Orosius’s History has been judged harshly against an ideology of historicism: that texts from antiquity are useful only as far as they allow us accurately to reconstruct a narrative of the past. If we can understand that these were not Orosius’s objectives in writing the History, if we can hesitate before imposing these standards on the text, we will come not only to appreciate fully the swirling, fantastical world represented by the Hereford Mappa Mundi, but also to understand more fully the medieval sense of time and eternity.

Victoria Leonard is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts, Memory, and Communities at Coventry University, and at the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London. Her book,
In Defiance of History: Orosius and the unimproved past, will be published by Routledge in February 2022.

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