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Cotton Mappa Mundi

 Cotton Mappa Mundi

The fascinating Cotton Mappa Mundi, one of the earliest surviving maps of the world known to have been made in England, dates to the tenth or eleventh century, England’s late Anglo-Saxon period. Although very few Anglo-Saxon maps have survived, the Cotton Map provides definitive evidence for the existence of academic knowledge of visual cartography in England at that time. It is part of a miscellany known to have been made in southern England in the late tenth or early eleventh century and is thought to have been based on a Roman map of the fifth century which was included in a manual of geography, which itself was based on an earlier treatise known as the Periegesis, written in the fifth century CE by the late Roman scholar Priscianus Caesariensis, often referred to as Priscian.

Also known as the Cottoniana, or simply as the Anglo-Saxon map, this map was made just before the Norman Conquest, and presents a world view fairly common to Western European scholars and churchmen. The map is small, measuring just 21 x 17 centimeters, and was bound in a folio of manuscripts gathered together by Sir Robert Cotton in 1598, for whom it was named. Though small in size, it is one of the more unique medieval representations of the world as known to Western Europeans. It is oriented east, as were many maps of the medieval period. The only continents known to cartographers of western Europe at the time were Africa, Asia and Europe, all three of which are depicted surrounded by the world ocean. Jerusalem, often depicted as the centre of the world, is near to but not precisely at the centre. 

Jerusalem from the Cotton Mappa Mundi 

Despite its small size, it is one of the most unique of all medieval cartographic representations of the world. The use of its right-angled design distinguishes it from contemporary works, as there is significant difference between the narrow perspective of uncompromising symmetry found in most maps of the period, and the fairly highly developed knowledge and scientific insight evidenced in the map, reflecting knowledge of both ancient sources and those from times closer to the date of its creation.

It portrays, with comparative fullness and accuracy, various places, regions, and natural features elsewhere omitted, or misunderstood in cartography until a much later date. Indeed, few maps from the Medieval Era can compare with the Cottoniana in its detailed delineation of various coastlines. 

The details included in it are remarkable for its day. For example, the Syrtes, those treacherous shoals and shallows off the Libyan coast are clearly defined, and the map extends eastward to include the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Separate mountain peaks and and mountain ranges are shown, primarily coloured green and a number of seas are depicted, usually in red. Borders and rivers are shown in brown, and cities are shown and named throughout much of the map.  Areas of the map such as Asia diverge significantly from earlier, more accurate representations as suggested by Ptolemy. Various architectural edifices are also included in the map. Noah's ark is shown perched atop Mount Ararat. 

Noah's Ark atop Ararat from Cotton Mappa Mundi

Below the Ark the legend Armenia can be seen, and farther down we see a range of mountains named Taurus, denoting the long range of mountains running parallel to the Mediterranean in modern day Turkey. Armenia’s neighboring provinces are Hyberia and Mesopotamia. To the left of the Ark, the intricately shaped bay with two islands is the Caspian Sea. Nearby is the region of containment of the tribes of Gog and Magog, situated near the northern ocean.

The importance of the British Isles to the mapmaker is evidenced by maps of various regions of the Isles, and by the proliferation of delineated cities. Attention is given even to Cornwall, as seen in this portion of the map.  

Cornwall from Cotton Mappa Mundi

In summarizing the map, Oxford scholar Helen Appleton of Baliol College states: “The map depicts a world of islands and multiple regional centres in which England appears as a continuation of the Roman Empire. The whole oecumene has been made to look like Britain, asserting the integration of Britain into the known, civilized world. It is a centre rather than a margin. The Anglo-Saxon Mapp Mundi presents an image of the world viewed with northern, insular eyes.”



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