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Book review

‘A History of the World in 12 Maps’ by Jerry Brotton

-01twelvemaps World map from Atl

The first known world map was inscribed into clay tablets in ancient Babylonia. ONE OF the most newfangled is SURELY the Google Earth app, which quite literally, puts the world at your fingertips. Traditional maps are dissolving into bits and bytes — when is the last time you used a paper map? — but they have a rich material history. Maps have been printed on papyrus, silk, and animal skin in a rich array of colors, shapes — not all maps are square — and festooned with lush imagery.

In his new book, Jerry Brotton looks at a dozen examples of mapmaking from the past 2,000 years. Beginning with Ptolemy and his landmark 150 AD treatise, “Guide to Geography,” Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, marches through time, surveying ancient Greek, Muslim, Chinese, and Christian mapmaking traditions, and the emergence of modern cartography. He looks at the great achievements of Gerard Mercator, whose 1569 projection of the world “may be the most influential map in the history of geography,” and those of Martin Waldseemüller, who was the first mapmaker to name and portray America as a separate continent. Fittingly, he concludes with Google’s ambitions to digitize the globe.


Brotton shows how these maps not only showed the world, but reflected the values — and politics — of their makers. Maps, Brotton suggests, are inherently subjective. “Maps,” he writes, “offer a proposal about the world, rather than just a reflection of it, and every proposal emerges from a particular culture’s prevailing assumptions.”

In each of his 12 densely researched chapters, Brotton states and restates the point, going about his business with the utmost academic solemnity. Reader, be warned: no humor here. Given that the author asks you to grapple with such terms as “transverse equirectangular projection,” is it too much to ask that he throw in a few jokes?

Still, the glories of the maps themselves remain intact. (The color reproductions are first-rate.) One of the most fascinating is the Hereford mappamundi, named after the English cathedral where it hangs. Five feet high and fashioned from animal skin, it is “an encyclopedic vision of what the world looked like to a thirteenth-century Christian.”

The dictates of theology determined the outlines of the mappamundi. Jerusalem occupies the map’s center space. The Asian sections show scenes from the Old Testament. Mythical creatures roam the margins. The upper portion depicts the Garden of Eden; outside the rounded border, Christ is shown on the Day of Judgment. Such haunting imagery conveys the full force of medieval Christian belief.


The Hereford map is oriented with east at the top. Interestingly, there is no particular reason why north became the standard orientation in Western mapmaking. But by the 15th and 16th centuries, European world maps tended to a north-south orientation as navigational protocols stressed compass bearings fixed on north. (Brotton notes that south could have been adapted as the cardinal point of orientation.) Maps became political tools as the Spanish and Portuguese empires divvied up the globe into separate halves “in one of the earliest and most hubristic acts of European global imperial geography.”

Indeed, mapmaking has been inextricably linked to European views of the globe, which, critics complain, distort and lessen other continents, Africa in particular. Even the great Mercator, one of the most enlightened of mapmakers, hasn’t evaded the charge. Brotton details the controversy that erupted in the early 1970s, when German historian Arno Peters came out with a map that sought to redress the Eurocentric bias of Mercator’s maps. Africa became larger, but cartographers denounced the project as technically inept and derivative. However, aid organizations and NGOs embraced the Peters projection, endorsing his ideological aims.

“World maps are in a perpetual state of becoming,” Brotton writes, “ongoing processes that navigate between the competing interests of patrons, makers, consumers and the worlds from which they arise.”


And what of Google Earth, the latest wonder in cartography? Using it is both scary and exhilarating. For his part, Brotton is skeptical. Google is its own powerful empire, and data is its currency. Brotton fears that the new geography is being propelled by “a single imperative: the accumulation of financial profit through the monopolization of quantifiable information.” It is a chilling vision, one that is quickly becoming reality.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.