THE MAPMAKERS’ WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen

  • Written by  Nicholas Crane
  • Published in Books
THE MAPMAKERS’ WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen
01 Feb
2016
A few decades before the Battle of Hastings, a scribe in Canterbury began compiling a new world map

His world was square, with fat, red rivers and green mountains and an inland sea scattered with so many islands that it looked like a broken mosaic. Drawing on authorities such as ancient Rome, the Bible, Viking voyagers and Byzantine conquerors, the mapmaker filled-in the blanks with detail.

Half the world was subdivided into a rectilinear grid of Roman provinces dotted with walled cities, among them Constantinople, Carthage and Alexandria. Beyond the Taurus Mountains, a maned beast carried the caption ‘here lions abound’. Not far away, Noah’s Ark perched between the twin peaks of Ararat. The mapmaker’s own land appeared as a contorted, peripheral archipelago with two named cities: London and Winchester. Of the mapmaker himself, nothing is certain, but he knew enough of the world to have expressed its wonders in a picture of geographical beauty.

The Anglo-Saxon World Map features near the beginning of Marjo Nurminen’s thousand-year journey from the seventh to 17th centuries, an epic cartographic odyssey during which she explores how Europeans used maps to extend and re­ine their view of the world. It’s a story that includes painters, mathematicians and seafarers, as well as cartographers, and one that leads the reader from simple, early-Medieval ‘T and O’ maps in which a circular world was divided into three continents by a T-shaped ocean, towards the climactic 1600s when cartographers in Amsterdam began to reveal the beginnings of a new continent – Hollandia Nova – emerging from the mare oceanum beyond Asia.

This magnificent book is a monument to the effort and ingenuity that Europeans have devoted to understanding the wider world, a quest continuing to this day, and one that still relies on maps.

Europeans’ grasp of world geography evolved in ­its and starts and Nurminen is excellent in her coverage of the two main transitional episodes, both related to seafaring. The ­irst occurred in the Middle Ages, when Mediterranean traders began depending on sailing charts compiled from compass bearings. Portolan charts were the fruits of the ­irst systematic marine surveys. Drawn to scale, their meticulous measuring of coastlines made it possible to describe accurately the peripheries of landmasses. The oldest surviving portolan chart was prepared in the late 13th century and includes more than 1,000 place-names around the Mediterranean Sea. By the 1400s, portolans showed coasts as far north as Iceland and south to Canary Islands.

The second great transitional episode came with the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient texts and geographical coordinates were accompanied by a surge of technological breakthroughs. The conversion from printing on wood-block to copper-plate allowed vast amounts of geographical data to be compressed onto maps and globes because line-work and lettering could be miniaturised. A copper-plate was also relatively easy to edit, which gave mapmakers the opportunity to update their work as new discoveries became available. Meanwhile, advances in surveying made it possible to map entire territories in unprecedented detail.

Europeans’ grasp of world geography evolved in fits and starts and Nurminen gives back-room boys like the brilliant German mathematician and astronomer Petrus Apianus and the cosmographer Gemma Frisius several pages of well-deserved acclaim for pioneering work that opened the way for the Flemish cobbler’s son Gerard Mercator, who went on to ‘invent’ the atlas and to devise a world projection that is still in use today.

The last few years have produced a rich harvest of map books, so newcomers have to stand tall to win notice. The Mapmakers’ World delivers an ambitious thesis with style. Paper and printing are superb, and the enormous number of colour illustrations make this a many-layered work that includes rarely seen portraits of leading mapmakers, exquisite enlargements of map detail and expositions on the evolution of map-making techniques. I enjoyed being able to compare a medieval cosmography showing a pair of angels rotating the machina mundi using hand-cranks with the complex armillary sphere some 200 pages later by Apianus. This magnificent book is a monument to the effort and ingenuity that Europeans have devoted to understanding the wider world, a quest continuing to this day, and one that still relies on maps.

THE MAPMAKERS' WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen, Pool of London Press; £50; hardback

This review was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical.

Click here to purchase The Mapmakers’ World by Marjo T Nurminen

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Books

The dreadful pandemic of 1918, writes Laura Spinney, ‘engulfed the…

Books

Those of us who enjoy good travel writing know that…

Books

‘I look around me and I see a world populated…

Books

Convergence has long been a talking point within evolutionary science.…

Books

At its core, Thomas’ book is about a big hole…

Books

I’m not sure how much of a market there is…

Books

Watling Street connects Dover to Anglesey. Once a meandering track,…

Films

An epic journey alongside the nomadic crew of the Infinity…

Films

Vice President and climate action advocate Al Gore returns with…

Films

A new Netflix documentary investigates the dire state of the…

Books

After two years, you’d probably think it nigh on impossible…

Books

Not for intrepid travel writer Norman Lewis the melancholy tea…

Books

Twenty-year-old Nigel Halleck – Kief Hillsbery’s many-times removed uncle –…

Books

Jason Hickel’s bold book is full of stark facts and…

Books

Bridges are more than just a means of connection, writes…

Exhibitions

A wildlife exhibition in central London is displaying huge artworks…

Reviews

Exploring ancient Japan in a serene game of tactical beauty

Exhibitions

With a blue whale skeleton due to be unveiled in…