Maps and views blog

27 June 2013

On the River

Around this time of year, Dr Adam Smyth provides me with the theme for the annual Birkbeck College medieval and early modern history summer school.

The British Library's excellent map collection (still relatively unplumbed by students of early modern history) is usually able to yield a few appropriate maps to discuss.  Last year’s topic In the City wasn’t too taxing (we've one or two urban maps lying around), and this year too the theme On the River was generous.

Rivers are some of the most prominent features on maps of all ages. In fact in some cases, rivers are the only features. From this we must infer that rivers are important.

A river – the River Don – forms the division between Europe and Asia in schematic T-in-O world diagram maps from the 7th century:

[TO diagram from Etymologies] Augsburg: Gunther Zainer, 1472. woodblock. British Library IB.5441 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi

A collection of rivers traditionally run from the Garden of Eden at the top of more embellished medieval world maps:

The Ramsey Abbey map, around 1350. From 'Polychronicon.' British Library Royal MS 14.C.IX, ff. 1v-2. 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi

More down-to-earth water descriptions are very rare. This  diagram describes – or rather commemorates, the construction of a 3 mile water course transporting water from springs (the circles) in Hertfordshire to Waltham Abbey. In around 1350.


[A plan of springs in Wormley, Hertfordshire], MS, around 1350. British Library, Harley MS 391, ff. 5v-6.

Over the course of the early modern period, as the world gets bigger and maps become a more common method of communicating, rivers seem to become less of a barrier (physical and mental) and more a means to expansion.

The river leading to the vulnerable heart of Britain.This defensive plan for the Thames was compiled under threat of invasion from Spain in 1588:

River4Robert Adams, Thamesis Descriptio. 1588. British Library Maps K.Top 6.17 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi

This map of the River Trent was apparently produced to show that the artificial diversion of the river away from Newark’s mills (by a certain sneaky Mr Sutton) did not compromise their productivity:

River3a[A [Map of mills on the River Trent], MS, c. 1558. British Library Cotton MS Augustus I.i.65 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi

Diplomatic missions to the east (this by the Holstein court in the 1630s) produced fantastical travel accounts:

Adam Olearius, La cours de la riviere de Wolga, from The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy… Copper engraving. London : T. Dring & J. Starkey, 1662. British Library 983.f.1.

In Michael Drayton’s... how can I put it... 'inventive' topographical poem ‘Poly Olbion,’ the rivers of England and Wales have a singing match. The prize? The Isle of Lundy. Great!

River5William Hole, [A map of the river Severn] from Michael Drayton, Poly Olbion / A chorographicall description… copper engraving. London: Printed for J. Marriott, J. Grismond, and T. Dewe, 1622. British Library 838.m.1

It's all about the rivers, obviously. Lyon, at the confluence of the rivers Saône and Rhone, was a powerful mercantile town, financial centre and meeting point from at least the Middle Ages:

River6Francois Demasso, Description au naturel de la Ville de Lyon…(detail). Lyons, 1659. Copper engraving. British Library Maps K.Top.68.5.2 TAB 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi

These are all highly vaunted visions of the river, but of course we should remember that most people would have had direct experience of rivers, and wouldn’t really have needed or used maps of them. Rarely do maps show the view from the river. 

But occasionally there's a cheeky glimpse of the sort of everyday experience of the river which comes close enough. How big?

Claesz Jansz. Visscher, Brabantia...(detail), from Belgium sive Germania Inferior, continens Provincias singulares Septemdecim… Amsterdam, 1635. British Library Maps C.28.d.8 6a00d8341c464853ef0191037094fe970c-800wi