THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

10 posts categorized "Medieval history"

08 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 4

Add comment

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

Add comment

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

Add comment

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

Add comment

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

Add comment

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

Add comment

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.

27 September 2017

Maps in GCSE resource cupboards

Add comment

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?

Cotton aug 1.ii.21

[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

Add comment

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.

Tube drawing beck

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).

Portolano_(Egerton_MS_2855,_f.8r).jpeg

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

Portolano_(Egerton_MS_2855,_f.8r).jpeg (1) _65173581_1933_map_2_line

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.