In 1830, a monk from the Benedictine monastery of Elbstorf, Germany made an incredible discovery. Deep in a dusty storage room, he found a large map on goatskin vellum. When unrolled, the mappa mundi (map of the world) measured 3.5 meters square (12 by 12 feet). Scholars eventually determined the map had been executed in the mid-thirteenth century, likely by students of Gervase of Tilbury, an English scholar and traveler.
Gervase was a man of diverse interests. Among his published works was the Otia Imperialia, a strange book elucidating the world’s wonders (among them magical caves, water spirits, blood-sucking beasts, and ships that descended from the sky). He spent time in Bologna, Venice, and Arles until he became entangled in a dispute with Pope Alexander III, and was forced to flee to the village of Elbstorf.
Whether Gervase or someone else created this incredible map is uncertain, but it is packed with wonders, its author noting proudly that
“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”
The map is a tour of the medieval mind. Executed in the traditional T-and-O design, the Elbstorf chart features east at the top (where Christ’s head is found). Asia occupies the top half, while Europe and Africa share the bottom half. Jerusalem is near the center. Europe is detailed (but not geographically accurate in the slightest) and bursting with castles, rivers, and mountains. Albion (England) and Ireland and Scotland (Hibernia-Scotia) can be found in the lower left corner.
Africa, as might be expected, is mostly unknown and illustrated with strange (mostly fictional) beasts and people, including dwarves who ride crocodiles, men without mouths, centaurs, and giants. Asia, found beyond the traditional Biblical lands (which are crammed full of Christian sites) is another undiscovered country populated with weird people and mythical beasts, including the yale, a deer-like creature with one horn pointing forward and one backward. The Garden of Eden and the Tree of Paradise can be found not far from the Ganges River.
In northern Asia, out beyond the Caucasus, one finds a rectangular fort, the feared residence of Gog and Magog, a terrible beast-like people that early Christians believed would eventually will end their peaceful civilization and bring about the terrible events predicted in of the Apocalypse.
The map offers a limited, but richly mythical view of the world. It is a land where Christian doctrine infuses every detail. The lands beyond the known world are populated by hostile people and monsters to be feared.
Remarkably, this landscape is still resonant among among certain religious conservatives in 21st century America. In a well-documented and disturbingly bizarre moment prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 President George W. Bush had a phone conversation with French President Jacques Chirac. After the call, Chirac’s befuddled staff made inquiries to Thomas Römer, an Old Testament expert at the university of Lausanne. They wanted to know what on earth Bush was talking about when he made a passing reference to the Middle East being under threat from the forces of “Gog and Magog.”
Professor Romer informed Chirac’s staff that the phrase comes from the Book of Ezekiel:
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him,
And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal:
And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords:
Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet:
Gomer, and all his bands; the house of Togarmah of the north quarters, and all his bands: and many people with thee.
As for the Elbstorf map, it no longer exists. Researchers in the late 19th century took series of photographs of it, and today’s color images are all artistic re-creations based on those photos.
The map was destroyed in 1943 by the Allied bombing raids on Hannover.