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The medieval mappaemundi: Toward an archaeology of sacred cartography

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Scholars have long been fascinated by the curious world portrayed in the circular world maps (mappaemundi) that were drawn by medieval monks and other learned individuals during the European Middle Ages. For students of the history of cartography, however, the mappaemundi represent the nadir of the science of map-making, bearing witness to the thousand-year period which saw the abandonment of carefully-calculated spatial representation and the emergence in its place of religious cosmography. To cartographers, these maps, bearing no resemblance to objective reality, are of little or no scientific value, but merely a reminder of a truly Dark Age. Yet, though the medieval mappaemundi possess no scientific value for modern geographers, they do provide scholars of religion and culture a glimpse into a world-a sacred world-far removed from our own. In these maps we see not a testament to an age of scientific ignorance but, more importantly, an artifact of its common thought-world-its sacred discourse. The world these maps portray is a world ordered by sacred events and imbued with sacred meaning, a world that saw itself participating in sacred time, located by divine redemption in sacred space. This paper considers the organization, abstraction and representation by medieval cartographers of the world as sacred space. By outlining the development of the mappaemundi, this paper also seeks to explain the evolution of the dominant sacred worldview of the European Middle Ages that took shape and helped maintain social and religious order through its common symbol system as portrayed in its sacred cartography. © 1993 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

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