Slide #224

TITLE: Ebstorf Mappamundi
ca. 1234
Gervase of Tilbury

This map of the world, like its English counterpart, the Hereford mappamundi produced later in the same century (Slide #226 ), sums up a medieval European-Christian cartographic tradition that began with the illustrations by Cosmas Indiopleutes in the 6th century A.D. (Slide #202 ). Its name stems from the fact that it was preserved in a Benedictine monastery in Ebstorf, near Illzen on the Lüneburg Heath, until its discovery in 1830. Fifteen years later it became a possession of the Historisches Verein für Niedersachsen [Museum of the Historical Society of Lower Saxony] in Hanover, Germany where it remained until 1888. It was then removed to Berlin for restoration, at which point it was separated into thirty vellum sheets and photographed in black and white (the only remaining full- sized photographic reproduction). Originally, the map consisted of 30 sheets of vellum that had an overall measurement of 3.58 X 3.56 meters (or a map area of about 12 feet in diameter), the largest mappamundi to have been recorded. As can be seen, a few sheets were already missing, therefore, in order to facilitate the map's preservation, it was redivided into its separate sheets. Unfortunately, this original Ebstorf map became a casualty of the bombing in 1943 over Hanover Germany during World War II, but not before facsimiles and photographs had reproduced the essential features of this important historical document.

From external contemporary sources it has been deduced that the author of this map was probably Gervase of Tilbury, an English teacher of canon law in Bologna, who was later (1223-1234) in the service of the Guelphs as a provost in Ebstorf. He is also known as the author of a historical-geographical-mythological work, the Otia Imperiala, written in 1211 and still extant; however, the geographical map which this manuscript should have contained is now absent. It is probable, though unconfirmed, that the map now known as the Ebstorf map is the missing one from this earlier text. The date that the Ebstorf map bears is not quite clear: 12-4, thus rendering its time of production subject to much speculation, although most authorities agree at placing the date before mid-13th century.

Although its main intended use was to demonstrate the historical events in the Christian life - for example, the burial places of Mark, Bartholomew, Philip, and Thomas are shown - the author also had some more directly practical use in mind, as he himself made clear. In the upper right-hand corner of the map, he writes: "it can be seen that [this work] is of no small utility to its readers, giving directions for travellers, and the things on the way that most pleasantly delight the eye". We also find an allusion to the traditional cartographic proclamation of Julius Caesar: "How Julius Caesar first constructed [a mappamundi], for the breadth of the whole earth, legates having been sent, collecting the regions, provinces, islands, cities, quicksands, marshes, plains, mountains, and rivers as if to be seen on one page".

The sources drawn upon by the cartographer are varied and cover a considerable span of time. Among the ancients Gervase relied more upon popular, highly-colored source material such as the Alexander Romance and the writings of Mela and the elder Pliny than on more dependable authorities such as Herodotus. Also inherited from the classical writers were the division of the earth into three parts, and the twelve circles traced in the cosmic ocean - the homes of the twelve winds. Ancient Roman technique has influenced the structure of the map. Like the Roman road-plans, it puts things and places in the approximate order in which a traveller would come across them, regardless of the exact measurements. The map also draws most lavishly of all upon Christian sources. The Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the holy legends, and all the other elements of this magnificent synopsis of early medieval cosmography are made to fit into the Christian horizon.
In addition to the classical and religious sources, the author also shows familiarity with some writings current in his time, such as Johannes of Wurzburg (ca. 1165) for Palestine and Adam of Bremen (ca. 1072) in Northwest Europe. Other near contemporary sources include the maps and legends from the Imago Mundi of Honorius Augustodunensis (ca. 1129) and various tales of the 11th and 12th centuries such as that of the island discovered by St. Brendan of Ireland. These latter sources resulted in a certain degree of accurate detail in the areas of Palestine and Europe; and the continent of Africa could no longer be accommodated in the quadrant traditionally allocated to it and extends eastward, displacing part of Asia. But these contemporary influences are minimal and the dominate religious medieval imagination wove its fantasies around facts. Therefore, as will be seen in the following description of the map, we find places and names reflecting the cartographer's attempt to interpret, pictorially, reports of far away places and strangely misshapen peoples.
The major design feature upon which the Ebstorf map is based is the classic T-O scheme, but with elaborate additions of both a fabulist and religious nature. It may possibly have been used as an altar piece at one time, "no doubt intended both for instruction and for pious meditation upon the endless miracles wrought by God". The world-picture is superimposed on a background of the figure of Christ crucified; with His head at the top (East), His feet at the bottom (West) and His hands pointing North and South, an orientation that dominated medieval European cartography.

ASIA: Prominently displayed at the very heart of the map is Jerusalem, the place of man's redemption, showing Christ rising from the tomb; and from that point there stretches in an upward direction - that is to say eastward, towards the rising sun and the Savior's head - the continent of Asia with all its marvels. Here, inaccessible behind a towering range of mountains, lies the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life,the four rivers of Paradise, and the Tree of Knowledge. Below this the Ganges, fed by eleven tributaries, flows through a tropical landscape. To the left of Eden, and at a lower level, is the land of the Seres [the Chinese], also hemmed in with mountains, though outside their circling ring two Chinese are seen gathering silkworms for their most sought-after article of trade. In the upper Ganges valley India displays one of its innumerable curiosities: a member of the peaceable tribe of Apple Smellers who subsist entirely by inhaling the fragrance of that fruit. To the right, close beside the head of Christ, stand two Trees of Prophecy beneath which Alexander the Great, explorer of India, is consulting the Oracle of the Sun and Moon. Below him is to be seen a member of the Gymnosophists [a sun-gazer], whose eyes are fixed, unblinking, on the radiant. Higher up, to the right, is the land of the Prasii, whose number is as the poppies of the field which serve as their emblem.

An extensive area of northern Asia is cut off by the sweeping curve of the Caucasus. Its principal feature is a territory that projects as a rectangle into the cosmic ocean. This is the home of the dreaded man-eaters Gog and Magog, symbols of all the hordes of oppressors that might at any time overwhelm peaceful humanity. The castellated lines indicate the walls that Alexander the Great was reputed to have built here for extra protection. Slightly lower down and to the west the map-maker has placed the country of the Amazons, guarded by two doughtily armed queens; and still further westwards, under Christ's right hand, stand the flaming altars of Alexander which mark the northern extremity of the world as it was known to the ancients. Looking due south - that is, to the right - from the land of the Amazons, we come first to the city of Colchis on the Black Sea; the golden fleece, which Jason sailed to seek, still hangs from its tower. Above, and to the right, is Ararat, identified by Noah's stranded ark; and this brings us back to the revered regions of the Bible, with which the designer of the map appears to be well acquainted. On the right is the mighty Tower of Babel, in Mesopotamia, and below it, near Jerusalem, are a number of places mentioned in the Scriptures and described by homecoming pilgrims and Crusaders. In fact the Ebstorf cartographer had to enlarge Palestine a good deal, so as to fit in all of the 'indispensable features': Bethlehem with the star, the ox and the ass; above that the accursed cities Sodom and Gomorrah, with the waves of the Dead Sea curving over them; higher still, on the Arabian Gulf, Mount Sinai with the phoenix rising from the flames.

Wilma George describes, in what she labels the Oriental Region, the array of zoological information to be found on this pictorial encyclopedia. There are snakes, a parrot, an antelopes with long serrated horns, very difficult to approach, probably the blackbuck Antilope ceruicapra, with long corkscrew horns, noted for its speed and still occurring abundantly in Asia, obvious to travellers and hunters because of its diurnal habits. The ant-dog, saiga and chameleon also come into this region, marginally. The saiga, Saiga tatarica, once swarmed over central Asia and its horns were much prized by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. It has the required proboscis-like upper lip: alce mulo similis superius habens labrum tam prominens ut pasci nequeat si non post terga recedat as the Ebstorf map states. An inscription also announces the presence of snakes, tortoises, unicorns, Indian Bulls, ibexes and the manticora but there are no pictures of them. Finally, there is an animal with one horn pointing forward and one backward. This is the eale or yale. The yale which, according to the Ebstorf map itself, comes from India, has a body like that of a horse, the jaws of a goat, the tail of an elephant, horns of a cubit in length, one of which can be reflected backwards as the other is presented forwards in attack, and which can move equally on water or on land. This description on the map follows closely the original description of a yale by Pliny which was then copied by Solinus, about 250 A.D., through to the near contemporaries of the Ebstorf and Hereford mapmakers: for example, the author of Semeianca del Mundo about 1223 and the authors of 12th and 13th century bestiaries.

AFRICA: This continent is depicted as little more than a segment of a circle, its north and west coasts extending in an almost straight line from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, while its south and east coasts describe a shallow curve. Its principal feature is the Nile River, bordered by famous ancient cities, strange beasts and even stranger men. The Nile flows out of a lake, in the vicinity of Morocco and near the spot where lies the Garden of the Hesperides - included as a heathen anti-thesis to the Christian Paradise - within the protecting coils of the feathered serpent, its guardian. The river's course runs at first from west to east, through regions inhabited by panthers, ostriches, giant reptiles and so forth; in all, the artist has generously scattered about sixty different animals over his map. Other animals identified by Ms. George include an elephant, leopard, hyena, mirmicaleon, monkeys, camelopardalis, scarp, deer and tarandrius the reindeer with many types of snake, crocodiles, lizard and flying lizard, ibis and other birds which inhabit what she calls the Ethiopian Region for zoological analysis.

Approaching the eastern tip of the continent, the Nile disappears into the sand; but it emerges to flow in the opposite direction through Egypt, first skirting the region of Meroë (inhabited by dwarfs who ride on crocodiles). At its mouth stands the cities such as Berenice, Leptis Magna and Ocea lie here and there along the northern and Atlantic coasts of the continent. Off the west coast the cartographer has placed an empty rectangle to mark the position of the insula perdita [lost island] where the seafaring St. Brandan discovered what he called Paradise. But rubbing shoulders, as it were, in the southern portion of Africa we find the most weird and wonderful assortment of creatures: the race that does not know the use of fire; the race that has neither nose nor mouth and can converse only by gestures; giants; people with four eyes; people whose upper lips are so huge that they can pull them up over their heads to serve as sunshades; troglodytes riding like the wind on stags (these are level with Christ's hand); Artobatites who constantly fall on their faces as they walk along; four-footed men; snake-charmers on whom poison has no effect; dog-headed men; the centaur Chiron; cave-dwelling giants; and so forth. The illustrations thus described as occurring on the Ebstorf map also appear in very similar form and content on both the Hereford and Psalter (Slides #226 and #223 ).

EUROPE: On this more familiar continent, there are none of the mythical and monstrous figures that are seen in the more remote regions of Africa and Asia. However, this area receives the same stylized and generalized treatment with regards to any attempt to display real coastlines or detail. The countries that border the Mediterranean with its sprinkling of islands, while still over stylized, are nonetheless identifiable. The western-most country displayed is Spain; then come the Pyrenees, turning off at right angles to the Rhone and stretching straight towards the Atlantic. North of these is Gaul [France] land of many rivers and towns, including Parisius, off whose northern coast lie the islands of Albion [Britain] and Hibernia-Scotia [Ireland-Scotland]. In Italy, to north and west of which the Alps curve in a semicircle, we are shown the city of Rome, where seven churches stand within a surrounding wall that has sixteen towers, and Venice, jutting out into the Adriatic. The heart-shaped island lying not far off is Sicily, so the land round which the Mediterranean sweeps northwards must be the Greek peninsula. What is now Switzerland was also known to our author by hearsay; in the northern foothills of the Alps, due north of Rome, he has painted a tower and written Curia against it, this is the town of Chur. Below, on a great bend of the Rhine, are Oberzell, Mittelzell and Niederzell, places on the island of Reichenau. To the north of these the Danbue is formed by the confluence of five streams and flows on its way past Urbs Salis [Salzburg], Pattavia [Passau] and Wena [Vienna]. One piece of the map is missing, to the left of the Danbue, where Lubeck and Hamburg should be. To the northeast, in what George calls the Palearctic Region, elk and ures or aurocks, the wild ox of Europe, denote the confines of Russia. Other fauna identified with this region include the bonacus, probably the European bison, the horse, possibly the saiga antelope, two humped camel, lion, tiger, and other large cats, bear, ant-dog, some snakes, a chameleon and the gryphe, probably the golden eagle and other birds (again, the ant-dog, saiga and chameleon are marginally in the Oriental Region also).

Some scholars, such as Beazley, dismiss this map as merely a gross exaggeration of the already unscientific medieval cartography. True, the Ebstorf map does not present any breakthroughs of either a cartographic or geographic nature. Like most of the other surviving medieval European maps, its content is entirely lacking a genuine scientific attitude, its coastlines are over generalized; contemporary discoveries or geographical knowledge represent only a small part of the whole; and the profusion of illustrations are used, to some extent, merely to substitute for factual knowledge of relatively unknown, unfamiliar, far distant regions. However, its real historical value lies in other areas and, viewed in terms of the cartographer's intent, this map does demonstrates genuine historical value. To begin with, the Ebstorf map is like a geographical romance in pictures; it is comprehensive in design, admirable in execution, all of which supports its fundamental concern, to establish a relationship between this world and the hereafter. As mentioned earlier, the Ebstorf map built upon a tradition that begins with works like Cosmas Indicopleustes' sketches and is carried on in the maps of St. Isidore, Beatus, Henry of Mainz, in the Psalter map, and is continued later by the Hereford map, a tradition that sought the propagation of the Christian Faith. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is well documented and supported by this map. The Ebstorf cartographer accomplishes here what early medieval writers like St. Isidore of Seville attempted to do with mere words, to describe the sum total of accumulated knowledge about man's habitat, the world, resulting in a comprehensive pictorial encyclopedia, albeit through the rather narrow focus of a religious context. In many ways it does portray the world as it was seen by a great many medieval Europeans. "In no other work of this period, perhaps, either in the graphic arts or in literature, was so comprehensive a picture of the entire medieval world presented, in such a narrow space, as in this map of ours. So it is well worth while studying it closely and repeatedly and trying to discover new items, hitherto unnoticed, among the immense variety of its features", writes Walter Rosien, one of the leading authorities on the Ebstorf map.

Curiously enough, one must consider that, like many of the other significant maps and texts of the so-called Dark Ages, the Ebstorf map serves also as an aid to our understanding of the period of great discoveries which began some two centuries after its completion. For the outlook of the early Portuguese navigators, and that of Columbus too, was conditioned by what they had imbibed of both the ancient and medieval concepts of the world, as represented in the available maps. Sailing to find the sea route round the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese were amazed to discover that the coast of Africa, which looked so short on the existing maps, went on and on without curving eastwards; as late as 1505 the bold seafarer Duarte Pacheco, though a perfectly reliable observer of facts on his own behalf, took for granted the existence of mile-long serpents; and Columbus, coming to the mouth of the Orinoco, thought that he had discovered one of the four rivers that watered the Garden of Eden in Asia. The impressions of the world, therefore, recorded by the scientific attitude of Ptolemy and those in the Ebstorf map, both lie, though at different depths, in the twilight zone between experience and dream. Each of them bears noble witness, in its own great cultural epoch, to a great historical process with many ups and downs, to man's growing awareness of the world around him.

LOCATION: (original destroyed during World War II)


*Bagrow, L., The History of Cartography, pp. 49-50, Plate E (color).
*Bettex, A., The Discovery of the World, pp. 28-32.
*George, W., Animals and Maps, pp. 29-31, 51, 104.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 307, 309-10, 351, Figures 18.2, 18.3, 18.19.
*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, pp. 19, 28, 30, Plates 13, 20, 23 (color).
*Rosien, W., Die Ebstorfer Weltkarte (Hanover, 1952).

* illustrated

Index of Early Medieval Maps