BBC History Magazine

Medieval maps are often illustrate­d with strange sea creatures. What are they supposed to represent?

- Alixe Bovey, specialist in the art and culture of the Middle Ages and deputy director of the Courtauld Institute of Art

Medieval European maps differ from modern charts in several significan­t respects. They’re rarely orientated north–south – most have east at the top. Their descriptio­ns of landmasses and their sense of scale are also different yet, curiously, not entirely dissimilar to the northern hemisphere as seen on Google

Earth. And the oceans, too, look unfamiliar, often populated with extraordin­ary creatures.

On the world map in the 11th-century manuscript Saint-Sever Beatus, for example, the ocean that encircles Asia, Africa and Europe teems with giant fish. And on the 14th-century English Gough Map, fish as large as Orkney swim off the coast of Scotland. More than merely helping the viewer to distinguis­h between land and sea, these creatures signify the abundance of life (and food) in the oceans, while also acknowledg­ing the awesome scale of animals such as basking sharks and whales.

Sea creatures depicted on other maps tap into the classical monster repertoire. On the Hereford Map of the World, made c1300, a fish labelled “soldier of the sea” swims in the Mediterran­ean, alongside a siren with a mirror, combing her hair; elsewhere on the chart, Scylla’s roaring head and the whirlpool-monster Charybdis evoke the tale of Odysseus.

Medieval viewers might also have recognised the prophet Jonah, swallowed by a whale but delivered safely to shore, or perhaps a bestiary’s (an illustrate­d volume about animals and other natural phenomena) account of fish so large they are mistaken for islands by hapless sailors.

There is no single meaning of the sea creatures on medieval maps. Rather, they evoke a sense of wonder at the immensity of the oceans and their mysterious, mythically charged inhabitant­s.

 ??  ?? A page from a medieval bestiary shows sailors mistaking a huge fish Hor land 5ea creatWres were staRles oH OaRs in the /iddle #Ies
A page from a medieval bestiary shows sailors mistaking a huge fish Hor land 5ea creatWres were staRles oH OaRs in the /iddle #Ies

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