A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Professor Jerry Brotton

Today’s guest post is by Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. His book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps was published by Allen Lane in September. His article featured in our recent OS Insider newsletter.  You could win a signed copy of the book in our competition too.

Being taught ‘O’ level Geography at a Leeds comprehensive school in the early 1980s wasn’t much fun. I remember being fascinated by Ordnance Survey maps, but having the interest beaten out of them by teachers who were only interested in teaching us trig points and contour lines. I opted for English Literature instead, but never lost my fascination with the stories that surely lay behind those points and contours. Thirty years later, with a PhD on Renaissance cartography behind me, I’ve returned to maps again with the publication of A History of the World in Twelve Maps

The book is an attempt to make those trig points interesting, and to explain the stories of the people who drew them. It is also a response to those people who, when they heard I worked on the history of cartography, would always want to know how the mapping of the world evolved over time. It begins with the Greeks, exploring Ptolemy’s Geography, and ends with Google® and its controversial geospatial applications. Along the way, it offers a global perspective on how various cultures chose to map the world the world in different ways. After looking at how Ptolemy’s projections set the stage for over a thousand years of mapmaking, I examine Islamic, Christian, Chinese and Korean methods of world mapping, explaining why early Muslim mapmakers put south at the top, Christians chose east, and the Chinese used north, hundreds of years before it was universally adopted on European world maps. 

The Renaissance of course transformed mapmaking, and I tell the extraordinary story of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, the first to name America as a separate continent, and which was subsequently lost, rediscovered in a German castle and finally bought by the US Library of Congress in 2003 for $10 million. As the world expands and mapmakers like Mercator try to project the globe onto a plane surface, others like Diogo

Ribeiro manipulate the location of commercially sensitive islands to support the imperial claims of the Portuguese and Spanish seaborne empires. Nearer to home, I show how the epic Cassini surveys in eighteenth-century France, and the birth of the Ordnance Survey in nineteenth-century England both construct ideas of nationhood as much as they represent them, enabling people to ‘see’ their nations for the very first time. 

Bringing the story up to date, I revisit the controversy over Arno Peters’s challenge to Mercator’s projection in the 1970s, which only highlights the point that any projection of the earth is inevitably partial and subject to omissions and distortions. Throughout the book I argue that maps should no longer be seen as repressive, conspiratorial tools of political ideology. Even when it comes trig points and contour lines – that is just one chapter in the extraordinary history of mapmaking. 

We have a signed copy of Professor Jerry Brotton’s latest book to give away. Simply email blog@ordnancesurvey.co.uk and tell us in which year was our first map published (pictured below)? Entries must be in by 5.00 pm on Friday 12 October. We’ll draw a name at random from all correct entries and notify the winner after Monday 15 October.

Update 18/10/12 – thank you to everyone who entered the competition and gave us the correct answer of 1801. Our lucky winner has now been notified and the signed copy of Professor Jerry Brotton’s book will be in the post shortly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name* :

Email* :