THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

12 posts categorized "Medieval history"

20 August 2020

Human maps

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This mountain bears a striking likeness to a sleeping female figure. Isn’t nature wonderful?

https://jmbihorel.myportfolio.com/winter-sleep
Jean-Michel Bihorel, Winter Sleep

It’s actually an artwork called ‘Winter Sleep’ by the digital artist Jean-Michel Bihorel. But so good is the artist’s rendering that this realistic and authentic image provides the suggestion in the viewer’s mind that the image may be an actual aerial view.

Maps_k_top_1_88 detail
Carte de la Lune. De J.D. Cassini, c. 1730. Maps K.Top 1.88.

Bihorel’s work sits in a long tradition of human figures in maps. Most obviously, there are parallels with the hidden female profile contained in the lunar map of the French astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini in 1680. The face is supposed to be Cassini’s wife.

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/caricature-map-of-scotland
Lilian Lancaster, Caricature map of Scotland, c. 1869. Maps CC5 a 227

There is a quirkiness to the practice, which we also see in ‘metamorphic’ maps (for which there is a long tradition) in which geographical shapes are metamorphosed into human figures – Lilian Lancaster’s stock-in-trade.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Montgomery_Flagg_The_World_As_Seen_By_Him_1905_Cornell_CUL_PJM_1148_01_(cropped).jpg
James Montgomery Flagg, A map of the world as seen by him, 1907.

A similar double-take to Bihorel's work is present in the romantic postcard by James Montgomery Flagg, reflecting upon how the ardent sees the face of their loved one everywhere, even in the map.

There's a deeper tradition behind Bihorel's work as well, which is what makes it such a robust piece of work. ‘Petrification’, or the turning of humans into stone, is a relatively common end to many mythological tales, and commonly used in medieval legends to explain away human-looking rocks and hills. 

Referencing human characteristics in maps was an entirely appropriate way of reflecting upon the intuitive, emotional and spiritual synergy between people and places.

Maps_k_top_16_24_11_tab_end detail
Christopher Packe, A new philosophico chorographical chart of East-Kent..., 1743.Maps K.Top 16.24.11.tab.end.

Christopher Packe’s geological and topographical map of eastern Kent of 1743 makes the analogy between streams, rivers and valleys, and the circulatory system of the human body.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebstorf_Map#/media/File:Ebstorfer_Weltkarte_2.jpg
The Ebstorf world map, c. 1300.

Finally, the lost Ebstorf world map presents the Christian doctrine that God is one with the world (with additional reference to the act of transubstantiation) by showing God/Christ's head, hands and feet as part of the map. 

21 July 2020

World Map World Cup: what happened and five things we've learnt

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We held our just-for-fun World Map World Cup during the week of 6 July. 16 carefully selected world maps (drawn from a considerably longer long list) produced from between the 11th and 20th centuries, taken from the British Library map collection, voted for by you in a series of Twitter polls. You can look back on the selection in previous blog posts here

World map world cup montage 1World map world cup montage 1

A montage of the sixteen historical maps involved the the British Library's world map world cup competition 

For those of you not on Twitter, here’s how the voting panned out.

Group stages (top two maps from each group qualified)

Group 3Group 3

Group 3Group 3

Quarter finals

Quarter final CQuarter final C

Quarter final CQuarter final C

Semi finals

Wmwc semi final 2Wmwc semi final 2

Final

Final Winner

The British Library’s ‘favourite’ world map is the mid-11th century ‘Anglo-Saxon or Cottonian World map. The British Library shop will be creating a ‘Print-on-demand’ edition of the map to celebrate (using brilliant new photography of the map taken as part of the Library’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition (thank you to Alison Hudson for mentioning this to me).

What did our mini map tournament tell us? Well, apart from “don’t even attempt to do an online Twitter tournament unless you are really organised and ever so slightly unhinged,” here are five key points that stood out:

1. You know what you like….. some of the time.

The voting was remarkably even, with all maps receiving at least 17% of every vote. This is really interesting for what it says about your broad appreciation for a wide range of historical mapping - even the comparatively abstract Ptolemaic maps.  

2. You’re particularly interested in non-European maps

I was keen to bring in as many non-western maps as possible to the table. Whilst this did tilt the balance (there are overwhelmingly more European than non-European maps in the British Library collection, and Islamic cartography is very poorly represented), where these went head-to-head with non-European maps, the Japanese, Chinese and Korean maps won almost every time. The Korean Cheon’hado's victory over Blaeu’s great Dutch 'Golden Age' map stood out particularly strongly.

3. Medievalists continue to rule HistoryTwitter

Not only did a medieval map win, but it was an all-medieval final. And, with the exception of the 1506 Contarini map, an all-medieval semi final draw. For two medieval maps not to make it through the group stages was something of a world cup upset (think France, football World Cup 2010). Perhaps medieval maps were comparatively over-represented, but it’s difficult to argue against this given their astonishing rarity and capacity for insight. Do not mess with Medieval Twitter!

4. You value historical significance over beauty

In the final head-to-head you had the choice of the delicate beauty of the Psalter map over the rugged historical weight of the Anglo-Saxon map, The latter won through.

5. And finally…. accuracy nowhere in sight

The map you voted the British Library’s favourite is one of our least ‘accurate’ maps in the modern conventional western sense. Despite the seeming obsession with mathematical accuracy in maps (and its particular value to the digital humanities), it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. You said it. 

Thank you again for participating, as always it couldn't have happened without you.

08 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 4

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We have come to the fourth and final qualifying group of our British Library world map world cup, and in it we have four extraordinary and breathtaking examples of cartography from between the 11th and 20th centuries. I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to make your difficult choice.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals tomorrow, Friday July 10th. 

1.Beatus of Liébana world map. Drawn in Burgos, Spain, between 1091 and 1109 (Add.MS 11695)

Blog add ms 11695

The 15 surviving 'Beatus' maps are included in textual commentaries on the Apocalypse of St John (from the New Testament Book of Revelation) written by the Spanish theologian Beatus of Liébana (fl.776–86). The British Library’s example, arguably more powerful and brooding than the others, is a diagrammatic image with powerful pictorial elements. These include fishes swimming in the sea encircling the world, the‘molehill’ mountains and the unforgettable image of the Garden of Eden at the top of the map, in the east. It was produced in northern Spain (in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos) in around 1109, and as a result reflects Islamic pictorial influences that had spread from northern Africa.

Link to digitised example: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beatus-world-map

Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).

David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987).

 

2. The Contarini-Rosselli world map. Engraving, published in Florence in 1506 (Maps C.2.cc.4).

Blog maps c.2.cc.4

This is the earliest surviving printed map to show any part of the Americas. It was published in Florence in 1506, only a decade or so after Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492. The map, which is by the Venetian Giovanni Matteo Contarini and Florentine Francesco Rosselli, has been celebrated for its American content ever since this only known copy was purchased by the British Museum in 1922. But it is an extremely early and partial glimpse of eastern America: Newfoundland and Labrador are shown cemented on to Kamchatka, Cuba and Hispaniola are floating next to Japan, and South America is joined to the vast Southern Continent.

Link to digital copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-known-printed-world-map-showing-america

Further reading: Patrick Gautier Dalché, 'The Reception of Ptolemy’s Geography (End of the Fourteenth to Beginning of the Sixteenth Century)' in The history of cartography volume three: cartography in the European Renaissance part one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).

3. Aḍhāīdvīpa. Painted in Rajasthan in 1830 (Add.Or. 1814).

Add.Or 1814 blog with title

This is a map showing the structure of the world of Jainism, a religious system founded in northern India in the sixth or seventh century BCE. The map, which is in Sanskrit, was painted onto cloth in Rajasthan in 1830, and like many of the European medieval mappamundi, it illustrates a fusion of human and sacred geography. At the centre is the recognisable, terrestrial world of people (Mount Meru is at the centre, as it is in the Korean Ch’ ōnhado  maps). Surrounding it is the spiritual world: green concentric-ringed continents illustrated by lunar symbols and separated by fish-filled oceans, beyond which is the outer land of the jinas or prophets.

Link to digital copy: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_Or_1814

Further reading: Joseph E. Schwartzburg, 'Cosmological mapping' in The history of cartography volume two, book one: cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

 

4. Self determination world map, by F. Klimesch. Published in Berlin in around 1919 (Maps CC.5.b.29).

Blog maps CC.5.b.29

The only 20th century world map to make it into our World Map World Cup competition (not that there aren't many great 20th century world maps, just a mere 16 places to fill), is a German map produced in the wake of the peace treaties following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. It shows the victorious allies Britain, France, Russia and the USA as soldier figures, holding leashes attached to their respective national beasts. These beasts have been placed over the colonies they controlled. 

The title explains why: 'What would be left of the entente if it made serious the right of self-determination of their own people and let go of the reins!' The map calls out the Allies' decision to confiscate German colonies under the principle of 'self determination,' but to retain theirs regardless. Given the century-long process of decolonisation that ensued, and ensues, the map is profoundly and powerfully prescient. 

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/was-von-der-entente

Further reading: Judith Tyner, 'Persuasive cartography' in The history of cartography volume six: cartography in the twentieth century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 1087-1094. 

 

07 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 3

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Welcome to Group three of the British Library's world map world cup competition, where you get to select our favourite historic world map for us. 

This group contains some astonishing artefacts from the last one thousand years, and I'm happy to provide further information on them  to help you make up your mind.

When you have done so, vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The two maps with the most votes will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

1. The Anglo-Saxon World Map. Drawn in Canterbury between 1025 and 1050 (Cotton MS Tiberius B.V.).

Blog cotton ms tiberius bv

For a world map containing such a quantity of information, the Anglo-Saxon world map is extraordinarily early. Much of this information relates to the Roman world: key walled towns such as Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, the Pillars of Hercules at the bottom edge marking the limit of the world as known to Europeans, and lines marking the division of Roman provinces. Its genesis is possibly the first century map ordered by Julius Caesar. At any rate, the people who made the map would have felt themselves still to be living in the great Roman era.

Link to digitised copy: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Tiberius_B_V/1

Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).

David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987).

 

2. The Martellus world map. Drawn by Henricus Martellus Germanus in Florence, around 1490 (Add. MS 15760).  

Blog add ms 15760

Henricus Martellus, or to give him his proper name Heinrich Hammer's world map is very similar to the 2nd century geographical picture presented by Claudius Ptolemy (see group one). But there are some updates. For example, Scandinavia appears, as do features taken from an account of the journey of Marco Polo. But the most momentous update is the one that shows the Indian Ocean not as an inland sea, but open, with the southern tip of South Africa navigable. Martellus knew this, because Bartholomeu Dias had sailed around it in 1488. The effect was to contest the hallowed ancient perception of the world, literally cutting part of the map's border away in the process.  

Link to digital copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/world-map-by-henricus-martellus

Further reading: Nathalie Bouloux, ‘L’ Insularium illustratum d’Henricus Martellus’ in The Historical Review 9 (2012).

 

3. Chinese globe, by Manuel Dias and Niccolo Longobardo. Made in Beijing in 1623 (Maps G.35.)

Blog maps g.35

This earliest surviving Chinese globe was constructed in Beijing by Italian Jesuits, most probably for a scholarly audience, in order to demonstrate geodetic principles such as longitude, latitude, meridians and parallels. Much of the globe, including large passages of text, derives from the giant world map by Matteo Ricci of 1602. But if you want to show things relating to the spherical nature of the earth, you really need a sphere in order to do it properly, hence the globe.

Geodesy had been known in China well before Europe, and we know that globes were also constructed before his one (though they have not survived), but such things were not part of Chinese culture at this time. The 'gift' of scientific enlightenment was used as a Trojan horse by the Jesuits to impose their religion upon China.

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/chinese-terrestrial-globe

Further reading: Wallis, Helen and E.D. Grinstead, ‘A Chinese Terrestrial Globe A.D.1623’ in British Museum Quarterly, XXV (1962).

 

4. World map by Antonio Sanches, drawn in Lisbon in 1623 (Add. MS 22874)

Blog add ms 22874

This is an extraordinarily beautiful, large world map, emphasising coasts and navigational features. Delicate and elegant, blues and golds, painted and coloured with consummate skill. This indicates that it was not intended to go on board a ship. It presents the Portuguese view of the word, celebrating Portuguese influence well beyond Iberia with the Quinas (Portuguese arms) stamped upon areas as far afield as South America and China. The map also contains a significant (to say the least) quantity of religious imagery, the spread of Catholicism being a pillar of this world view, and violently enforced. Ironically, given the confidence this map oozes, by 1623 Portuguese dominance in world affairs was being increasingly contested by that European upstart, the Dutch.

Link to digital copy: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/detail/93fd9675-b190-4dd2-a485-6bc1c78f8276.aspx

Further reading: Maria Fernanda Alegria, Suzanne Daveau, João Carlos Garcia, Francesc Relaño,,  Portuguese Cartography in the Renaissance in The history of cartography volume three: cartography in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).
 

06 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 2

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Hello and welcome to Group two of our British Library world map world cup. 

In every world cup there tends to be a group of death. This group is the football equivalent of Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain all together. So I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to choose between them.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

1. Vesconte-Sanudo Mappamundi.

Drawn in Venice or Genoa in around 1325 (Add. MS 27376*).

Blog add ms 27376

This map is an extraordinary hybrid between a traditional 'mappamundi' and a portolan or sea chart. It was drawn by the Genoses chartmaker Pietro Vesconte to illustrate Marino Sanudo's mysteriously-titled book 'Secret book of the Faith of the Cross.' The book was presented to Pope John XX in order to persuade him to give his blessing to a Christian Crusade to invade the Holy Land. Other maps in the book illustrated the route to the Holy Land and the goal of the proposed mission: Acre and Jerusalem.

The world map is particularly clever because, most unusually, it consciously played down Christian iconography in order to present the Pope with an image of Christianity in crisis.

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/liber-secretorum-fidelium-crucis-by-marino-sanudo

Further reading: David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987). 

2. World map by Pierre Desceliers, 1550.

Drawn in Dieppe, 1550 (Add.MS 24065).

Blog Add Ms 24065

Descelier's map is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Dieppe School of French chartmakers; a large planisphere focused upon navigational information (it has dual orientation indicating that it was to be viewed upon a table) but also corresponding to the idea of a visual encyclopedia of everything occurring in the world. The map contains the arms of Henri II of France and the Duc de Montmorency and could have been owned by either. Of particular interest is its depiction of areas of North America then only recently encountered by Jacques Cartier and the unusual arrangement of South East Asia and Australasia entitled Java La Grande that would flummox Europeans up to and beyond the journeys of James Cook two centuries later,

Link to digitised copy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Desceliers#/media/File:Map_of_the_world_-_Pierre_Desceliers,_1550_-_BL_Add_MS_24065.jpg

Further reading: Sarah Toulouse, 'Marine cartography and navigation in Renaissance France' in The history of cartography volume three, part two: cartogrpahy in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).

 

3. Joan Blaeu world map, 1648.

Engraving on 21 sheets, printed in Amsterdam, 1648 (Maps KAR.(1-2.).). 

Blog Maps KAR 1-2

Blaeu's gargantuan map is regarded as the high water mark of Dutch cartography, and that's saying something given the quality of 17th century Netherlands cartography. There are two main reasons for this high regard. Firstly, the technical skill and artistry involved in creating such a high-quality printed map over 3 metres wide. The second is the range and quantity of first-hand geographical information it shows. Blaeu was chief cartographer of the Verenig Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), charged with compiling charts from the latest information gathered from company ships. Instead of secreting this commercially sensitive information like the Portuguese and Spanish did, Blaeu stuck it on a publicly available map. For the Dutch, nothing was more important than business.

The map was used as the model for the giant floor mural of Amsterdam Town Hall. There are a small number of copies still in existence, this one was owned by Charles II. 

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/klencke-atlas

Further reading: Cornelis Koeman, Günter Schilder, Marco van Egmond, and Peter van der Krogt, Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries, 1500–ca. 1672 in The history of cartography volume three: cartograpy in the European Renaissance (part two).

 

4. Ch’ ōnhado (Map of All Under Heaven), c. 1800.

Woodcut, printed in Seoul (Maps C.27.f.14.)

Blog Maps C.27.f.14

This incredible map, which is part of a set of maps showing the world and regions of Korea, is one of select group of Korean world maps produced during the late 18th and 19th centuries. They show the world oriented to the east and centred upon East Asia. Look carefully and you can make out the eastern coast of China, Beiing a large red symbol, with the yellow river and Great Wall nearby. The rest of the world are scattered islands on the periphery. These maps were far more basic than earlier Korean-produced maps, and it has been suggested that one of their intended audiences was tourists.

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/cheonhado-world-map

Further reading: Gari Ledyard, 'Cartography in Korea' in The history of cartography volume two book two: cartography in the traditional east and East Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

05 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 1

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Welcome to the British Library’s world map world cup, and this the first of four qualifying groups. Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps) . The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

Here's more information on the maps if you need help deciding!

1. The Psalter world map, c. 1265. Add.MS 28681 

The Psalter map was probably drawn in Westminster in around 1265 and is almost certainly a miniature (15 cm high) copy of Henry III of England's large mappamundi that adorned his palace in Westminster. Although it is included in a prayer book (psalter) it is now believed that it  was added to the book later. There is a second map on the verso of the leaf, which shows the world in T-O form, with Christ trampling underfoot the dragons shown at the bottom of this map.  

Link to digitised version https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/psalter-world-map

Further reading: David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987). 

Add.MS 28681
Psalter world map

2. Ptolemaic world map, drawn in Greece, c. 1300. Add.MS 19391

The first printed maps made according to 2nd century Claudius Ptolemy's geographical tables were produced in Italy in 1477. But the earliest surviving 'Ptolemaic' maps were hand-drawn in Constantinople and Greece, where Ptolemy's information arrived via the Islamic world at the end of the 13th century. The earliest known copy is in the Vatican Library (Urbinas Graecus 82). The British Library has 3 manuscript copies of Ptolemy's Geographia illustrated with maps. This is a portion of the codex drawn in the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. 

Link to digitised version: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_19391

Further reading: O.A.W. Dilke, 'The culmination of Greek cartography in Ptolemy' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987).

Add.MS 19391
Ptolemaic world map

3.  Bankoku sōzu, by Hyashi Jizaemon. Woodcut, printed in Nagasaki, 1645. Maps *920.(485).

The Bankoku sōzu maps are an elite group of Japanese world maps from the 17th century . These maps show a variety of influences including Chinese and European (which is significant given Japan's insular policy at this time). The maps were designed to be displayed on walls with east at the top, next to an accompanying print of 40 ethnographic portraits known as a Jimbutsuzi.

Further reading: Elke Papelitzky, 'A Description and Analysis of the Japanese World Map Bankoku sōzu in Its Version of 1671 and Some Thoughts on the Sources of the Original Bankoku sōzu' in Journal of Asian History (48:1, 2014)

Maps *920.(485).
Bankoku Sozu world map, 1645

4. World map by Thomas Jefferys. Engraving, published in London, c.1750. Maps Screen 2.

Thomas Jefferys large multi-sheet copper-engraved double hemisphere map is one of a number of such maps produced by English mapmakers during the 18th century. Everything about its content is focused upon trade, and features of the world such as magnetic variation and trade winds that made trade possible (though there is no mention of the more deplorable aspects of British 18th century imperialism). The map is the centrepiece of a large pine screen, a piece of furniture that would have populated the home of a merchant. 20 other maps are pasted onto the screen, which would likely have served an educational, as well as a cultural purpose. 

Link to digitised version: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/screen-with-engraved-maps-c-1750

Further reading: Geoff Armitage with Ashley Baynton-Williams, The world at their fingertips : eighteenth-century British two-sheet double-hemisphere world maps (London: British Library, 2012). 

Maps screen 2
Wooden map screen with 21 printed maps, c. 1750

Tom Harper

04 July 2020

Help us choose the British Library's favourite world map

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World maps are amazing things for their ability to conceptualise the earth and capture it in miniature. Of course, this comes at a price. World maps, perhaps more than any other 'image,' are powerful and subjective. Each one contains a particular world view, and throughout history they, or rather their makers, have tended use them to impose their views upon others. Who is at the world's centre? Who is relegated to the margins? Who is shrunken in size, and who is removed from the map all together? 

So it's a strange quirk of history that  during the 20th century, that most antagonistic of eras, the world map came to be seen as a symbol of co-operation, togetherness, shared heritage and environmental awareness (thanks in no small part to NASA's famous 1968 Earthrise photograph of our vulnerable planet hanging in the void). As a result, a world map is now capable of saying “we’re all in it together”. It’s World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, so let's attempt to reclaim some of that spirit.

I'd like to invite you to help us choose the British Library’s favourite world map.  Over the next week I’m going to introduce sixteen of the most extraordinary and groundbreaking world maps from between the 11th and 20th centuries, carefully selected from the British Library’s collection of over 4 million maps

The maps will be arranged into 4 groups, with one Twitter poll per day (Monday to Thursday) deciding which two maps from each group will go through to the quarter finals on Friday. The semi finals and final poll will happen on Saturday,  and we’ll think up something special for the winner. Follow us @BLMaps, hashtag #BLWorldMapWorldCup.

What selection criteria might you use? Well, did the map capture some signal shift in civilisation? Is it unique, beautiful, technically accomplished or cleverly made? Or do you just like it because you like it? That’s valid too.

Hopefully through this just-for-fun competition it will be possible to appreciate the history of a world of multiple viewpoints; and, though it won't be easy, to begin to rediscover ones which have been erased. 

Tom Harper

16 June 2020

Runnymede - a history in maps

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Magna Carta, one of the world’s most significant legal documents, was 805 years old yesterday. The charter, which addressed the feud between the crown and rebel barons, was signed by King John on 15 June 1215 in the Thames meadow of Runnymede near Windsor.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ABA-wyrdlight-815935.jpg
American Bar Association tribute to Magna Carta at Runnymede

Today this meadow is known as the ‘birthplace of modern democracy’ and steeped in history and significance. Yet the historic site of Runnymede makes only a limited appearance in historic maps. The issue is partly, of course, one of scale; it's not easy to show something as small as a single field in a map of Britain, or even a county map. But even then, important sites will find their way onto maps if they are significant enough. 

So what happened to Runnymede? It doesn’t appear on the Matthew Paris itinerary map of Britain produced only 35 years after the event. It doesn’t appear in any 16th or early 17th century printed county maps, and it is particularly strange for Runnymede not to appear in John Speed’s 1611-12 county map of Berkshire. Speed wasn’t so much a mapmaker as a historian and antiquarian following in the footsteps of his mentor William Camden in unearthing Britain’s early history. Speed’s atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was stuffed full of historical images and references, but there is no mention of Runnymede on the map or in the text.  (Speed's sources included manuscripts in the Library of Robert Cotton, now part of the British Library, which would acquire two of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta shortly after Speed’s death in 1629).

John Speed, Barkshire detail
Detail of John Speed's map of Berkshire, 1611-12 (around 1690)

The absence of Runnymede from Speed's map certainly doesn’t mean that Magna Carta was not important in the 17th century. On the contrary, the charter was extremely prominent, used and interpreted in public life. This may be the key to why Speed didn’t mention it: because it was wielded by opponents of Speed’s patron, King James I, as proof against the divine right of monarchs. The issue of divine right would ultimately lead to the execution of James's son Charles I in 1649.

Bowen kitchin
Detail from Thomas Kitchin, Berkshire, from the best authorities... c. 1747.

The continuing significance of Magna Carta did not transfer to its place of signing, which continued to be absent from 18th century maps such as the compendious Berkshire map from Bowen and Kitchin’s Large English Atlas from the late 1740s.

However, the establishment of a minimum ideal scale for maps - one inch to the mile - as set by the Society of Arts and their competition aimed at encouraging high quality county maps from 1759, provided the necessary level of detail for Runnymede to appear. It appears on Lindley and Crossley's large map of Surrey of 1793. And in the 2 inch to the mile drawing of 1811 by one of the early Ordnance Surveyors, Runny Meade is marked, as is Magna Charter Island. They are described with typical OS dryness, in the same way as every other island and meadow. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ordnance_Survey_Drawings_-_Windsor_(OSD_153).jpg
Detail from an Ordnance Surveyor Drawing of part of Surrey, 1811 (Maps OSD 153)

It was only in the early 20th century that Runnymede acquired a distinct identity, when the requirement for a site-specific memorial to Magna Carta emerged. The National Trust acquired it in 1929, and from around that time it began to appear on maps which explicitly referenced its significance. It appeared particularly in pictorial maps and tourist maps, following the rise of mass tourism in Britain and from the United States. Runnymede became, like the surviving copies of the original charter, emblematic of keenly held 20th century principles of democracy and liberty.

MacDonald Gill
Detail from MacDonald Gill, Country bus services map - London and vicinity. London, 1928.
Bullock 1961
Detail from J.G. Bullock, Historical map of England and Wales, 1961.

There is certainly nothing unusual in Runnymede only acquiring significance many centuries after the event that made it significant occurred, just as there is nothing unusual in the principles contained in Magna Carta being modified to provide historical reassurance for successive eras. History is constantly being rewritten in order to fit the circumstances of the present. Objects such as charters, maps, even buildings and statues, are focal points for this shifting sea of history that doesn’t flow around them, but carries them along with it.