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Charting the World

History of Cartography

by Leo Bagrow, Translated from the German by D.L. Paisey, revised and enlarged by R.A. Skelton
Harvard, 312, and 138 plates pp., $19.95

This handsome volume is high, wide, and two inches thick. If the text were printed continuously without lists and illustrations, it would account for only 120 of these spacious pages. The two inches are due partly to heavy paper and generous half-titles, partly to extensive lists, and mainly to the wealth of illustration. For this is primarily a book of reproductions of old maps. Each of the 138 plates is page size or double, and many are in splendid color. In addition there are seventy-six figures in the text, and many of these fill a page apiece.

The most exotic things depicted are a Sumerian clay map of 3800 B. C., various Aztec, Egyptian, and Roman maps or near-maps, an intricately carved wooden chart from Greenland, and an abstract Micronesian sailing diagram of coconut fibre. Except perhaps for these latter two, the most recent map shown is a Manchurian one of 1760.

The oldest map shown that has a fairly mappish sort of look is a Roman road map of 500 A. D. Maps thenceforward into the thirteenth century, Arab and European, continue to reflect the darkness of the age. Study brightens them a little, as it doubtless does the age. There is a central mass which, with study, becomes recognizable from map to map as the Mediterranean. Sometimes the clue to it is the curve of Asia Minor. Sometimes this clue is lacking but there is instead the telltale give and take of Italy and the Adriatic, or a dead giveaway at Gibraltar. Lines are stylized, there having been little geographical information to constrain the draftsman’s hand.

Where information left off, what guided the line? Not only taste. There was a quest for the rational essence. A so-called T-O view of the world was long in vogue in Italy, representing the world as a disk divided by a transverse band into an upper or eastern part, Asia, and a lower or western part. This lower part was in turn divided by a vertical band into a right-hand quadrant. Africa, and a left-hand one, Europe. The two bands formed a T whose stem was the Mediterranean and whose bar was a fanciful rectification of the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Nile. In its pure form this diagram was of course a departure even from known details, in the interest of schematism. In this form it was still turning up as late as 1495. But it is also detectable, softened and modified, as the underlying principle of several thirteenth-century efforts in England and Germany to map the known world with some richness of factual detail. The resulting maps were very much at odds with their subject matter.

But at Byzantium, in that same century, maps were suddenly forthcoming that were essentially right. One is shown of western Europe which, despite a strange promontory extending east from northern Scotland into Scandinavian waters, is recognizable at a glance. One is shown of the known world, by Agathodaemon, that is laudable in its Mediterranean portions. Its world extends from the Atlantic to the Far East, and there is a businesslike look to the projection.

The Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaeus, ca. 130 A. D., was an Alexandrine work of indeterminate but considerable stature, to judge from the shadow it cast. The book was still going into revised editions as recently as 1545. Conservatism was not the trend of Ptolemy’s editors down the centuries. Thus the Strassburg edition of 1513 includes a map of Lorraine, bordered with arms of Saarbrücken, Saarwerden, and Zweibrücken. The map of the British Isles in that edition is less venturesome, but it also embroiders on Ptolemy. It names Limerick, and a hundred miles off the Limerick coast it shows the fabulous isle of Brazil. It shows it as about equal in size to Lough Neagh a lake which, however, is itself misplaced or omitted. Or again take the next Strassburg edition, 1522, with its map of Malabar, Ceylon, Java Major, Java Minor, and the like. The representation of these land masses, though naive, is post-Ptolemaic.

The two sophisticated thirteenth-century Byzantine maps lately mentioned were from manuscript editions of Ptolemy. Yet a map of Germany, likewise from a thirteenth-century Byzantine edition of Ptolemy, retains all the unmaplike primitivism of the darkest ages. And we go on finding good maps and bad, sophisticated and primitive, in editions of Ptolemy for the next three centuries. It is an open question whether the precocity of those two thirteenth-century Byzantine maps was a latter-day breakthrough or a relic of ancient wisdom. Conversely it is perhaps an open question whether that odd excrescence on northern Scotland, shown in some of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Ptolemies and not in others, was a latter-day breakdown or a relic of ancient confusion. Whether such a peninsula may actually have existed in 130 A. D. is a question too, but not an open one.

Whether because of new access to Alexandrine sources or because of new voyages, there is by 1490 much faithfulness in the rendering of north and west Africa and of Europe up to the Baltic. Fifteen years later we find the whole of Africa well formed, and Arabia with it. Farther Asia remained more conjectural, and America was a shambles. North America tended to turn out partly archipelago and partly Siberia. By 1527 the east coast of America achieves its definitive form, except in the far north and far south, and space begins to accrue for a Pacific Ocean.

Thus the time is ripening for Mercator. In 1569 we find him on the job, turning out a world map in Mercator projection. Here suddenly all of Europe is in good shape, including Scandinavia; also all of southern Asia, including much of Malaysia. A Pacific coast of America is ventured, and from Peru to California it has visible links with reality.

We are shown a 1570 map of north-eastern Asia, trimly drawn to a polar projection. It looks authoritative at first glance, but its coastlines are wildly conjectural. Something called Japan is placed about where you might look for St. Lawrence Island. Even so, there is no mistaking the Bering Strait, nor the glory of the name it bears: the Strait of Anian. After all the talk and all the groping for a Northwest Passage, the fabled Strait of Anian had turned out to be real. Why must we now call it the Bering Strait, in memory of a Dane who sailed for Peter the Great a century and a half after this map was drawn? By way of memorial for Vitus Bering the Bering Sea could have sufficed.

In the sixteenth century, editions of Ptolemy sprouted modern maps to the point where they became the tail that wagged the Ptolemaic dog. The dog was sloughed off, and lo! there was an atlas. Atlases came to be produced hand over fist, largely by Mercator and other Dutchmen and by the Swiss. We admire the maps that come out of Switzerland today, unaware that the Swiss have been at it since 1528 and earlier. By that year Sebastian Münster, a German editor of Ptolemy at Basel, had conceived a taste for local geography and was doing much to develop the local end of the atlas trade. It was a taste that was mature in England fifty years later, when Christopher Saxton brought out an atlas of that country. The general map that we are shown from it is startlingly good, its proportions perfect and its detail minute.

In the next century atlases became enormous, and often were custom-built to the buyer’s specifications from maps in stock. The atlas made for Prince Eugene of Savoy by the Blaeu firm in Holland ran to forty-six volumes.

The book under review is given primarily to maps, but it is given also to lists. There are a list of the fifteenth-century editions of Ptolemy, a list of fifteenth-century sheet maps, a list of sixteenth-century world maps, lists of sixteenth-century regional maps of Italy and of Germany, and a substantial bibliography. The greatest list is a biographical dictionary of cartographers to 1750, running to fifty-four pages.

The narrative text states some of the facts that seemed worth noting above and much else in the same vein. Attention is paid to the effect of maps on exploration and vice versa. There is also another vein, that of the collector’s manual. In this vein various fine points of design are taken up as aids to identification. In this vein also a quantity of material comes in whose only point is fullness of coverage.

Some remarks give pause. A 1528 woodcut of “Terra de Lauatore” is reproduced and said to depict Greenland; surely the reasons, if any, for not seeing it as Labrador are not too obvious to mention. Of the Matthew Paris map of Britain, 1250, we are told (p. 143) that the pilgrim road from Newcastle to Dover is the central feature: but you can see from the excellent color plate that Newcastle to Chelmsford is more to the point.

There is faulty coordination. Peter Apian is introduced on page 130 but mentioned on page 127. Henricus Glareanus is introduced on page 155 but mentioned on page 151. Mount Meru is introduced on page 207 but mentioned on page 198. A sketch map by Columbus is dated on page 107 once as December 1492 and once as December 1493. Color plates are designated by letters, A to U, and black-and-white plates are designated by Roman numerals, I to CXVI, with the consequence that the references to Plates C, I, and L are ambiguous. The notes are exasperating; to look one up you have first to observe your page number, then consult the table of contents to see what chapter that page was in, and finally consult the notes in the back of the book, where they are numbered by chapters.

While we are on the subject of mechanics I would protest the Continental fad of unindented paragraphs. The start of a paragraph is marked only by the running short of the preceding line. The plan becomes annoying when a paragraph begins a page; you have then to look back, if you care about the paragraphing.

The fact that it was printed in Germany, where its English was foreign, helps account for there being more misprints than are expected in so fancy a book. I note seventeen routine misprints, one of them in the caption of a fine color plate. Further there are two misprints that obscure sense: “master” for “manner,” perhaps, and “contrast” for I don’t know what (pp. 217f). Descending a further grade, there is the following passage (p. 53), which sets a certain tone.

…it contains works by Persians, Syrians, and men of other nationalties [sic], but, as all its cartographers wrote in Arabic, the whole complex has been called Islamic cartography in default of any other comprehensive and opposite [sic] term.

In this passage, I must say, there is an intellectual limp that the two misprints do not wholly account for. And conversely, for that matter, the book contains dazzling misprints that transcend all language barriers. In the course of six lines on page 209 we find Mohammed referred to once as such, once as Mahommed, and once as Mahommmed. On page 58 a line is printed twice, and on page 197 the second half of a line is printed upside down.

But the two-hundred-odd maps in this book are the main thing, and they bring the reader varied rewards. They bring him form and color to revel in, quaintness to delight in, ignorance to chuckle over, progress to applaud. They are a graphic chronicle, however enjoyable, of man’s growing knowledge of his way around.

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