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Map Psalter

Image from the Psalter World Map

The World Map from the ‘Map Psalter’
British Library Add. MS 28681, f.9
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This page in an illuminated manuscript is one of the most important surviving examples of 13th-century map-making. It tells us much about 13th-century English men and women’s knowledge of the world around them, and about their understanding of their place within it.

What is a Psalter?

The Psalms consist of 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms. The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, often preceded by a calendar of the Church’s feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers; such a book is known as a Psalter.

What is special about the ‘Map Psalter’?

The most luxurious medieval Psalters contain full-page illuminations before the text, and a series of illuminated initials within it; this Psalter has both. In addition, its map is a unique representation of the world, in an age when foreign travel was difficult and hazardous, and the art of map-making - in the modern sense - in its infancy. In fact medieval people knew that the world was not flat: a 13th-century encyclopaedia compares the way in which humans can walk around the surface of the globe to the way in which a fly can walk around an apple without falling off when it is upside-down at the bottom. Despite this, the world was conventionally represented as a flat circle, oriented with the East at the top (‘to orient’ something literally means to make it face east). The upper part of the circle is occupied by Asia, and the lower half divided into two quarters for Europe and Africa.

The fact that Jerusalem is in the centre of the map, and the whole world is presided over at the top by Christ attended by angels, clearly shows that medieval people saw geography in terms of the biblical world, and Earth’s creation by God. But within this overall structure, the map demonstrates an interest in more local places: the countries of the British Isles are discernable in the lower left quadrant, and despite the very limited space available one can make out rivers such as the Thames and Severn, and London is marked with a gold dot.

It would be easy to assume, looking at a map like this, that medieval map-makers were ignorant or incapable of making maps that are ‘accurate’ in the modern sense, but this would be to overlook their purpose. A map such as this was not intended, like a modern atlas, to guide someone in their travels from one place to another, but to show important places in an overall scheme. The distortion of ‘real’ geography can be compared to the way in which modern maps of city subway systems - such as Harry Beck’s London Underground map - radically re-arrange distances and placements to make a more comprehensible diagram.

When and where was it produced?

The Psalter can be dated to 1262 or later: the year in which Richard of Chichester was made a saint. He appears as such in the calendar. Other saints in the calendar (such as the relatively obscure St Erkenwald, a seventh-century bishop of London) indicate that the book was probably made in London, and this is supported by the style of the illumination. It has also been proposed that the map is a miniature version of one that is known to have been painted on the wall of the King’s bed-chamber in the Palace of Westminster.

How can I find out more about the ‘Map Psalter’?

Further images and descriptions of the ‘Map Psalter’ appear in other British Library resources:

A very detailed description and art-historical study, with a bibliography running to nearly 50 separate items, may be found in Nigel Morgan, Early Gothic Manuscripts (II) 1250-1285, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 4 (London: Harvey Miller, 1988), pp.82-85, no.114.

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