12 February 2021
While dealing with an enquiry I came across this beautifully coloured copy of Münster’s Cosmographia. This monumental publication is one of the most important works of the Reformation era and considered one of the earliest modern descriptions of the world. The first edition was published in Basel in 1544 containing twenty four double-page maps with numerous woodcut views and illustrations. The work proved to be so popular that it was followed by a further 35 complete editions and reprints in five different languages.
General Tafel Begreifend der Gantzen Undern Weldt Beschreibun from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6.
Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a true versatile scholar described as a cosmographer, geographer, linguist, historian, Hebrew scholar, theologian, mathematician, you name it! His Cosmographia is a compendium of historical and geographical knowledge compiled from information gathered as part of Münster’s personal research, international collaborations and editions of the classical authors. The work was based on up-to-date knowledge and provided the geographical and historical overview of the world, natural history, topographical features, boundaries and administrative division of the described lands, their inhabitants, flora and fauna. Divided into six books it contains a series of maps which advanced the cartographical knowledge of the time.
Neuw India, mit vilen anstossenden laendern, besunder Scythia, Parchia, Arabia, Persia etc. from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6.
Münster not only was the first to introduce separate maps of four known continents, he also produced regional maps many of which were the first printed depictions of a given region. His vision and surprisingly modern thinking embraced many concepts familiar to an average 21st century person. He recognised that in order for his ambitious project to be successful it required reliable information which he as much as he wanted to was unable to collate all by himself. He realised that collaboration is the key and in his correspondence invited fellow scholars to send in information about their lands. His appeal had an enthusiastic response and Münster received contributions from all over Europe, in fact Cosmographia is a product of what we would nowadays consider a crowdsourcing project.
Schlesia nach aller gelegenheit in Wässern Stetten Bergen und anstossende Lenderen. Map of Silesia published in Cosmographia also included in later editions of Münster's Geographiae Claudii Ptolemæi... BL 1297.m.6.
Not only a great scholar Münster was also a good businessmen – for example instead of commissioning new woodblocks he re-used some of the blocks (a number of which were created by artist such as Hans Holbein the Younger) from his earlier published works including his edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (first issued in 1540). He then borrowed some of the woodblocks cut for Cosmographia and used them in his later editions of Geographia (for example the map of Silesia). Now, that’s what I call recycling!
He also recognised the potential of publishing in common languages including the rare Czech edition of Cosmographia issued in 1554 thus making knowledge more accessible by reaching wider audiences.
Depiction of German cities from Cosmographia by S. Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6.
This incredibly influential work had a huge impact on the contemporary scholars, it was used as a geographical source by famous cartographers like Mercator or Ortelius and inspired publications such as Civitates Orbis Terrarum the popular city atlas published by Braun and Hogenberg a few decades later.
29 January 2021
When a new volcanic island emerged from the waters south of Sicily in 1831, its strategic location at the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean aroused more than a scientific interest. Geopolitical forces descended upon this tiny isle, and though its brief existence above the waves lasted just six months, four separate nations claimed it as their own.
A short volume held at the BL, ‘Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily’ (held at BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10. – digital version here) provides a summary of events.
Chart Shewing the Position of the New Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, . BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.
The first report of volcanic activity came on 10 July from Captain Corrao, of the schooner Theresina, who approached to within two miles of...
‘a column of water rising perpendicularly from the sea, to the height of fifty or sixty feet, having a circumference of four hundred fathoms: smoke issued from it, which strongly impregnated the atmosphere of its vicinity with a sulphurous odour: dead fish were observed within the circle of agitated waters, and a violent thunder, proceeding from the same spot, added to the grandeur and the novelty of the scene!’
The Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, . BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.
Commander C.H. Swinburne of the Royal Navy arrived in the area a few days later –
‘I saw flashes of brilliant light mingled with the smoke, which was still distinctly visible by the light of the moon. In a few minutes, the whole column became black, and larger; almost immediately afterwards several successive eruptions of fire rose up among the smoke... At five am, when the smoke had for a moment cleared away at the base, I saw a small hillock of dark colour a few feet above the sea.’
Views of the New Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, . BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.
The opportunity to claim the island was too good to miss. On 3 August, in a lull between eruptions, Royal Navy Captain Senhouse landed there to plant the British flag, and named it Graham Island after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. This act prompted representatives from Sicily, ‘highly excited by this achievement within sight of their shores’, to embark from the nearby port of Sciacca and plant their own flag, that of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies. They named the island Ferdinandea, shortened to Fernandea on the chart above.
Over the following weeks French and Spanish claims were added to the list, but all such attempts to gain geopolitical advantage proved futile. Eruptions ceased from the middle of August, and by the end of the year the island, whose maximum extent was a mere two miles in diameter and 160 feet high, had slipped back beneath the waves. From that point it appeared on British charts as Graham’s Shoal, a bank lying eight meters beneath the surface.
More recently, in 2002, volcanic activity was recorded there again, and it was thought the island might re-emerge. In a bid to avoid being beaten to the mark a second time, Italian divers planted their national flag on the seamount beneath the surface. However, activity soon ceased and the shoal remained where it was.
Modern-day volcanologists agree that the descriptions of volcanic activity at Graham Island conform to what is known as ‘surtseyan’ activity – named after a more recent undersea eruption, which produced the island of Surtsey (from Surtr, the Norse God of Fire) off the southern coast of Iceland.
This eruption is thought to have begun in early November 1963 at a depth of 130 meters, but by 15 November a crater had become visible above the waves. The event caught the imagination of the televisual age – a number of clips on YouTube show footage made at the time.
Image of the eruption of Surtsey, courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Wikipedia.
The BL holds a map of the island made by the National Survey of Iceland using aerial photographs taken in October 1964 (BL Maps X.12169.). Eruptions continued until 1967, by which time the island no longer conformed to the map, but the sheet provides a fascinating snapshot of the island’s formation a year after it first emerged.
Surtsey, Landmælingar Íslands [National Survey of Iceland], 1964. BL Maps X.12169.
A block of text in Icelandic and English provides a summary of the different phases of eruption, and the map itself gives significant detail of the island’s contours and constituents.
Detail of Surtsey, Landmælingar Íslands [National Survey of Iceland], 1964. BL Maps X.12169.
Unlike Graham Island, and most others of their type, this example has persisted above the waves. It is estimated that roughly a quarter of the island has now been lost to erosion, and its maximum height has reduced to 155 meters, but it is likely to survive above the sea for another hundred years.
In this case there were no diplomatic squabbles over ownership, and its affiliation to Iceland is undisputed. But its persistence has made it especially valuable to science - 69 species of plant have been found there, 12 species of birds, and numerous other animals, including earthworms and slugs. In recognition of its value as a centre for the study of biocolonisation UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site in 2008.
23 December 2020
Only a few hours to go until Father Christmas sets off on his magical round, delivering presents to all the good children of the world. He is said by some to live in the forests of Lapland, high in the Arctic north of Finland, with his merry band of elves and trusty reindeer...
Attempting to find the location of his grotto, I turned to the first edition of the Atlas de Finlande (BL Maps 31.c.19.), a work published in French in 1899, and now considered by many to be the first of a new genre of mapmaking that would proliferate over the following century - the national atlas.
Atlas de Finlande, Société de Géographie de Finlande, 1899. BL Maps 31.c.19.
In thirty-two plates the atlas provides a comprehensive description of Finland and its people, and employs diverse and innovative thematic maps to articulate the results of scientific, economic and statistical research.
[Exports of sawn wood], Atlas de Finlande
[Average seasonal and annual wind directions], Atlas de Finlande
[Rural schools], Atlas de Finlande
[Population density], Atlas de Finlande
The atlas also makes a clear political assertion of Finnish cultural identity and nationality at a time before Finland was an independent country, whilst still an autonomous region within the Russian Empire. With political relations deteriorating, the publication makes a case for and anticipates Finland's declaration of independence, which followed in 1917.
In particular, the depiction of Finland’s border throughout the atlas was seen as a provocation, as the same line symbols represented both Finland’s internal boundary with the rest of Russia, and her international boundaries with Sweden and Norway. This formed the subject of an official Russian protest.
[Map of Finland, showing the frontier], Atlas de Finlande
At the International Geographical Congress of 1899 in Berlin, and at the Paris World Exhibition of the following year, the atlas was hailed as an outstanding cartographic and scientific achievement.
But I have found one small omission. However hard I look, I cannot find that grotto...
[Forests], Atlas de Finlande
21 April 2020
During the current pandemic, the next best thing to heading outdoors is (of course) to lose yourself in the printed landscapes of maps instead. In our London flat last weekend, I couldn’t help reaching for my Ordnance Survey Explorer sheets of the English Lakes and tracing the routes of Easter walks in years gone by.
Although busy depicting roundabouts and service stations, road maps and atlases also give us armchair explorers a flavour of the landscapes, the countries and the times we move through in our mind’s eye.
This example from the United States comes from a time when the American highway map was at its peak, when the automobile was an icon of progress, and state departments and commercial oil companies handed out road maps in their millions, free of charge.
Front and back of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967. Held at State Archives of North Carolina
While useful to many, these maps were also the vehicles for carefully chosen images and text promoting industry, nature, social progress and Christian values. A Motorist’s Prayer on this sheet begins, ‘Our heavenly Father, we ask this day a particular blessing as we take the wheel of our car...’
Detail of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967
A similar agenda is found on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where a Soviet regional map from the same year focussed on places and monuments of revolutionary history, industrial mines (asbestos, brown coal, gypsum...), pine forests and swan nesting sites.
Details from map of Orenburg Oblast, GUGK, 1967. BL Maps 35885.(63.)
Industrial prowess is emphasised again in the strong design on the cover of this regional atlas.
Atlas of Orenburg Oblast, 1969. BL Maps 54.e.48.
But unlike in Britain or America, the Soviet general public had no large scale Ordnance Survey or US Geological Survey maps to turn to for raw topographical detail. These were restricted to the military. Even generalised maps were deliberately distorted during the 1970s to make them harder to use for navigational and targeting purposes, should they fall into the wrong hands.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, restrictions on sophisticated military mapping were relaxed, and elements of larger scale maps made their way into practical road atlases, amongst other products, for the general public. The evolution of these maps from military specification to a hybrid form more closely resembling the typical road map can be traced over the following years.
Left: Detail from Topographic map of the world at scale 1:200 000 produced by the Soviet Army General Staff, Sheet NM 40-2, 1987. BL Maps Y.1575.
Right: Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast, one of the Road Atlases of Russia series published by Roskartografia, 2003
In the road atlas on the right new colouring distinguishes road types and routes, and makes them more prominent while rivers fade away, and symbols are added to indicate petrol stations, medical facilities, museums and places of interest.
Detail of Sheet NM 40-2, Soviet Army General Staff, 1987
Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003
Precise bridge dimensions and maximum loads have been removed, though contours and direction of river flow remain, and the close mesh of the military grid has been replaced by a broad system of squares that correlates with the place name index at the back.
Cover of Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003
At last the landscape was revealed, and civilians could take to the open road better equipped.
And who knows, perhaps even now fingers are tracing imaginary routes from armchairs throughout Russia...
Denis Wood and John Fels, Designs on Signs/Myth and Meaning in Maps, in Cartographica vol 23 no 3, 1986, pp 54–103.
Zsolt G. Török, Russia and the Soviet Union, Fragmentation of, in The History of Cartography, vol 6, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp 1376-1379.
Alexey V. Postnikov, Soviet Cartography, 1917-1991, in Cartography and Geographic Information Science vol 29(3), 2002, pp 243-260.
21 April 2019
Today’s commercial pilots are well equipped to detect and fly over or around meteorological obstacles such as thunderstorms that lie in their path, so that as passengers behind we are rarely troubled by them. But imagine if you were flying in an airship of the 1920s instead. We recently added to the BL Collection a map designed for just that – Map showing the frequency of thunderstorms during the month of June on the England-Egypt section of the England-India airship route.
The map was made at the British War Office in 1926 and is a product of the Imperial Airship Scheme, a Government initiative of the 1920s to create a commercial airship route between Britain and the furthest parts of the Empire. The sheet shows three alternative routes for comparison, concluding that the most western and southerly of the three is the least likely to encounter difficulty.
The thought of negotiating thunderstorms at all in an England-India airship is frankly terrifying, and despite the careful planning evidenced by this sheet, the initiative came to a tragic end when one of the airships designed to fly the route crashed in France on its maiden voyage overseas in 1930.
Far more re-assuring is this recent donation to the BL. The Pilots’ Free Flight Atlas - Eastern Hemisphere, is a colourful collection of topographical mapping of Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East overlaid with aeronautical information – radio beacons, airspace reservations, waypoints, airfields and runway lengths…
A number of thematic pages include political maps, a star chart and a sheet entitled Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East showing the main wind directions and strengths in January and in July alongside bar charts giving precipitation and temperature data for selected locations throughout the year.
Detail of ‘Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East’ Maps 2019.a.24. page 8
Not being an aviation expert I don’t know the frequency with which commercial pilots might turn to this volume in-flight, but as a layman I am re-assured by the detailed information it provides, and the calm and efficient manner in which it is conveyed on backgrounds of natural greens and blues. Not to mention the section on Dos and Don’ts during Thunderstorm Avoidance – ‘Avoiding thunderstorms is the best policy’ remains as true as ever.
Project Manager, Modern Maps
22 September 2016
The British Library has recently acquired a most appropriate addition to its map collection: a map of ‘Bücherland’ (Bookland), designed and drawn in 1938 by the German painter and illustrator Alfons Woelfle (1884-1951).
Karte des Bücherlandes
Woelfle’s map was specifically inspired by Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf’s fantasy map of an Empire of Love, ‘Das Reich der Liebe’, issued in 1777 to advertise Breitkopf’s method of printing maps with moveable type. Woelfle used the more conventional form of lithography, but took Breitkopf’s model of creating a fantasy land where the geographical features have an allegorical significance.
Reich der Liebe. From Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf, Beschreibung des Reichs der Liebe, mit beygefügter Landcharte (Leipzig, 1777) 116.l.31]
Together with his publisher, Georg Heimeran, Woelfle clearly had a wonderful time creating Bücherland, which represents the writing, printing, publishing, selling and reading of books through its witty geography. He also added decorative flourishes typical of Baroque design, such as the draped female figure in the bottom left-hand corner holding an open book.
The capital of Bücherland is Officina (‘Printing-House’), in the Vereinigte Buchhandelsstaaten (‘United States of Bookselling’). A separate plan of Officina appears in the top right-hand corner of the map, highlighting such sights as the Boulevard of Mass Editions, the elegant Quarter of Publishers’ Villas and what is, perhaps surprisingly, the only Library in Bücherland. Outside the city the pirate publishers have their building plots.
To the south lie Recensentia, where book reviewers no doubt lurk in the Critical Woods, and Makulatura, the region of waste paper, with its Pyramids of Forgotten Books and where even the Dramatic Volcano is extinct. By contrast, the lyre-shaped southernmost province of Poesia, just below the Tropic of Literature, boasts Blooming Meadows of Fantasy and a Laurel Heath; some fortunate travellers may even scale the Foothills of the Classics to reach the Summit of Fame, although the less lucky could find themselves sinking in the Gulf of Disappointments to the west or wrecked on the Cape of Failed Hope to the east.
Bücherland Poesia detail
Straddling the border of Poesia and the neighbouring Leserrepublik (‘Republic of Readers’) are Castle Platitude and the Commonplaces. Having safely avoided them, travellers can wade through the Erotic Swamp to the Plantations of Bestsellers, and visit such features as the Lake of Popular Editions, the Tents of the Book Clubs and the Urban Literature Mines. However, presumably off-limits to visitors, in the middle of the Republic lies the Forbidden Province – perhaps an allusion to the fate of the many books and authors banned under the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
Bücherland Verbotene Provinz
In the hills on the northern border of the Leserrepublik are the Caves of Bookworms; the map shows a giant worm emerging from one of them. Beyond is the northernmost region of Bücherland, where the Paper River rises at the Fount of Knowledge and travels through the Cellulose Woods, and the Lake of Ink, past the dangerous Ravine of Misprints, eventually reaching Officina and flowing out past Fort Censorship and the Lighthouse of the Publishers’ Association into the Sea of New Publications.
Finally, those wishing to visit Bücherland’s islands can choose between Treasure Island of Adventure Stories and the little archipelago comprising the islands of Unica (with its Bay of Ephemera), Rara and Curiosa.
Although the world of books has changed in may ways since 1938, travellers in the Booklands of today will still find much to guide and entertain them in Woelfle’s map.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies