THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

4 posts categorized "Medieval history"

27 September 2017

Maps in GCSE resource cupboards

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Yesterday I gave a keynote presentation at the RGS-IBG Schools event 'Looking ahead at GCSE geography and history: getting the best results' with the Historical Association.

If you did a Venn diagram of history and geography you’d get a historic map, and the purpose of my presentation was to convince geography and history teachers of the value of historic maps for their resource cupboards.

My general argument was that maps have always had an important role in education, pre-dating the modern subject of geography by a good few centuries. During the 19th century, when geography acquired its modern identity, maps were there as geography's  handmaiden, supporting it and pushing its agenda.

Today, maps are perhaps less central to geography education than they were a century ago. Other sources are as heavily used, and maps may not be perceived as the pure scientific communication models that 1960s geographers were trying to develop, or as versatile as GiS.

But maps can still be useful in enabling an appreciation of current trends in geography -  an awareness which is surely essential if you’re a geography teacher and student. In the later 19th century it was physical and commercial geography to equip British Geographer-in-chief Halford Mackinder’s ‘future inheritors of Empire.’ As to the increase in prominence of fieldwork in the new GCSE Geography syllabus, is there an echo of the 'Nature Study' trend emphasised over a century ago?

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[A hand-drawn map of Ireland, around 1540] British Library Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.21.

For history students, the Historical value of maps has always been obvious. This English-produced map of Ireland from around 1540 (south at the top, Dublin and the Shannon appearing mid-way up on the left) may be inaccurate because it exaggerates the size of area of the English Pale, and has some settlements larger than others. But doesn’t that enable us to see into the mind of the English crown, and get an insight into their strategies, their fears, their blind spots? As a historical source: solid gold.

There are thousands of freely available digital historical maps online as context for geogrpahical trends, and as historical sources. If you're a teacher, stick a few in your cupboard. Have a few more on us. 

26 February 2017

20th Century Maps: Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

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Maps improved in their technological power during the 20th century, and as a result became better able to meet the requirements of their time. Some of them even came to symbolise key themes of the age such as dynamism and modernity.

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Harry Beck, 'Sketch for the London Underground map], 1931. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.814-1979.

Probably the best map to capture this sense of speed, efficiency, new-ness, was the new London Underground map of 1933 by Harry Beck. Here was a map which broke dramatically with the conventions of the old, dispensing scale and representational accuracy in order to be useful to its users quickly in the new rapid bustling urban environment (there’s also more than a passing similarity between the underground map and Mondrian’s noisy, bustling ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ of 1943).

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Grazioso Benincasa, [Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe], 1473. Egerton MS 2855.

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Beck’s Underground map may the pin-up map for the brave new 20th century world, but in one crucial respect it drew on a trait of mapping which is as old as maps themselves: simplification. In straightening and regularising and de-cluttering the underground lines, the map is no different to early ‘portolan’ sea charts, sailing maps which possibly originated during the 13th century, and which use the same technique of simplifying, straightening and de-cluttering coastline features in order to be easier for their users to use.

And that’s one of the lessons we can take from maps: that history is a sequence of changes and continuities.

15 February 2017

How Maps Got Into the Movies

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This special guest blog post by the film historian Roland-François Lack looks at an entirely new cartographic genre which emerged during the 20th century - the cinema map or cine-map. 

'Maps first appeared in films as narrative props or background décor. Only rarely, in the early years, could any detail on the map be read, but in what I think is the earliest surviving film to show a map, Georges Méliès's 1898 La Lune à un mètre or The Astronomer's Dream, we can see the disproportionately large outline of France on the globe in the astronomer's study.

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La Lune à un mètre (Georges Méliès 1898)

The distortion foregrounds France as the source, and possibly setting, of Méliès's film. This is just the first of cinema's many cartographic manipulations to come, altering the pro-filmic reality for narrative effect.

The first map in a film I have seen on which a place name can be read is in Pathé's Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris, from 1906. A map is brought out in support of a recommendation that the Devil's sick son should travel to recover his spirits. London, Antwerp, Berlin, Berne and Rome are marked on the map, but it is to Paris, in the centre, that everyone points as the ideal destination:

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Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris (Pathé production 1906)

These maps are confections created for the films in which they figure. Where a map is merely part of the décor it is likely to be a found map, used to give realism to the setting, as in this 1908 Gaumont film showing a schoolroom:

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Les Chansons ont leur destin (Gaumont production 1908)

Cinema's interest in maps intensified when it discovered the close-up. Spectators could then read the map as they read the film, helped often by a finger pointing to the parts most relevant to the narrative, as here, in a 1910 Gaumont film about Christopher Columbus:

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Christophe Colomb (Gaumont production 1910)

This cartographic close-up is the earliest I have found, and also the first instance where the filmmakers have put effort into finding an historically appropriate prop. The map is based on a fifteenth-century Imago Mundi, or more exactly on the simplified versions of that map found in nineteenth-century accounts of medieval cartography.

Travel, including adventurous exploration,  is one of the four major narrative contexts in which films show maps. Of the others, I have already mentioned the schoolroom, where maps are generally background décor. Crime, whether in its preparation or investigation, also demands an attention to maps, but the narrative context that has most often put maps on screen is war. The cinematic representation of the 1914-1918 war brought with it an intensification of cartographic scrutiny. In war rooms and at the Front soldiers are shown studying maps:

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Une page de gloire (Léonce Perret 1915)

The need to explain military action to those at home initiated a different mode of cartographic representation, the animated map. Now a convention in narrative fictions, it has its origins in documentaries such as F. Percy Smith's Fight For the Dardanelles (1915):

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Fight For the Dardanelles (F. Percy Smith 1915)

Though manipulations of this kind have, in the twenty-first century, moved beyond the merely cinematic, the animated map remains the cinema's major contribution to cartography. The British Library's exhibition features two remarkable examples, McLaren and Biggar's Hell Unlimited (1936) and the opening sequence from Casablanca (1942), as testimony to that contribution.'

If you enjoyed this blog you'll enjoy the Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line articles contained in our exhibition webspace. Roland-François Lack's Cine-tourist site is fantastic, and very easy to lose oneself in. I'd like to say a big thank you to Roland-Francois for all the advice he has provided on maps in film over the past 18 months. 

21 December 2016

Festive Fairyland

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The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was published in London in 1918. It shows a vivid fantasy island inhabited by a riotous range of make-believe characters from Peter Pan and Puss-in-Boots to Hansel, Gretel and Three Blind Mice. You can see the original map in our current map exhibition, as well as viewing a larger online version here.

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But why does Santa Claus not appear on the map? The answer, of course, is that unlike these fantastical characters, Santa is emphatically REAL. 

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However, since every fantasy contains a hint of reality, and to honour Fairyland's mapmaker - the appropriately named Bernard Sleigh - here is Santa, instated on the map in the icy north where he belongs.

With festive greetings from everyone here at the British Library's Map Library.