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The Psalter World Map

One of the most remarkable and important survivors of medieval European maps is The Psalter World Map, the only known example of a mappa mundi having been included in a book of prayers known as a psalter. Psalters are liturgical tomes or manuscripts composed for use in both formal religious ceremonies and in private contexts as an aid to facilitating understanding of the Psalms themselves, and for the edification of laity in their devotional practices. 

The psalter containing this extraordinary map appears was written primarily in Latin and was modified before the end of the 13th century, altering the order of its texts and illustrations. In its current form there are six folios illuminated with full page scenes chronicling events from the New Testament. Research indicates that the manuscript in its original form and order opened with the map, and its verso which lists key cities, towns and religious sites. The map was followed by a calendar listing regular activities for each month, some prayers and canticles, verses praising the Virgin, additional prayers written in Anglo-Norman, the Office of the Dead, and finally more prayers.  

Most maps can be said to codify and reflect the perspectives of their makers while at the same time revealing the philosophies and world views of the times and places in which they are drawn. The marvelous Psalter World Map created in the mid-thirteenth century is no exception.  Drawing inspiration from similar maps crafted during the reign of Henry III of England, it not only reflects the geographic knowledge of erudite Europeans but also clearly  encapsulates the religious and spiritual ideals of its makers. In the Psalter Map, Christ holds a red orb representing the entire world in his left hand, with winged angels on either side. Jerusalem is at the map's centre, expressing a western European world view dominated by the Christian Church, a highly developed example of European Medieval religious philosophy applied to cosmography.

The verso, shown below on the right, depicts Christ embracing the world. While of the map genre, it is basically a list containing place names and geographic descriptions, most of which are related to the psalm in the psalter. 

The map is a spectacular production of its time. Though small in size, measuring only 17 x 12.5 cm, it contains an enormous amount of information. Oriented east as was cartographic tradition of the era, the map features images of sacred historical places and edifices such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Tower of Babel, the Ark atop Mount Ararat, the River Jordan, the Garden of Eden, and a great wall thought to hold back the evil forces of Gog and Magog is depicted. Other major rivers include the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Ganges and the Danube. Seas are denoted such as the Sea of Galilee with a large fish swimming in it, with both the Caspian and Red Seas in their approximate geographic locations. Other toponyms include the cities of Jerusalem, Jericho, Tiberius, Rome, Paris, Nineveh, Persepolis, Elam, Chalcedon and Antioch along with several important Christian pilgrimage centres. 

More than ninety place names are included in the map, with the great number of biblical references depicted in biblical lands resulting in the area containing them occupying more than thirty percent of all Asia. Images labeled the Barns of Joseph near Egypt and Babylon suggest that the artist had heard of the Egyptian pyramids. Four faces on the map represent the winds that blow on the face of the earth, and the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar are depicted. 

At the time of the map’s conception, Medieval Europeans’ belief in the existence of monstrous humanoid creatures was widespread and the author of the map included fourteen such fantastical creatures along the southern edge of Africa. The positioning of these mythical creatures at the ends of the earth supports the idea of a superior Christian populace living in various centres of the known world,  while reinforcing stereotypes by encouraging fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.  It also affirms power structures including domination of yet to be found lands, while also acting as an imperialist tool devised to maintain local societal control.

 Humanoids from Psalter World Map

The Psalter World Map, thought to be a copy of a map which adorned the Westminster Palace bedchamber of Henry III in the mid thirteenth century, is a magnificent survivor of the Medieval period, providing us a rare glimpse of the world as perceived by its Western European makers.









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