The Changing Face of the World

“And yet it moves.”

Although Galileo’s words refer to the literal movement of the Earth around the sun, the sentiment is equally true of the fluidity and shifting of our descriptions of the world.

Working across the 6th and 7th centuries AD, Isidore, Archbishop of Seville (a copy of whose works exist in a large 17th century copy within Worcester Cathedral Library), wrote that the Earth was a circle with a tripartite division of the continents. The known world comprised Europe, Asia and Libya (northern Africa), all surrounded by a world ocean. This, to early medieval Europe, was Earth: no America, no Australia, and only sketchy knowledge of geographical extremities.

Fast forward into the middle of the second millennium AD, and many of Worcester Cathedral’s early-modern maps demonstrate the explosion of Europe’s understanding of the form of the earth. These are not only physical manifestations of human accomplishment and knowledge, but are also beautiful documents, often richly coloured and illustrated. Detailed below are a handful of the maps found in Worcester Cathedral Library which demonstrate the evolution of early-modern cartography in content and style.

Roughly sixty years after Columbus brought knowledge of the Americas to Europe, the German scholar Sebastian Munster’s 1554 Cosmographie Universalis offers a basic portrayal of the known world. There is little detail to the landmasses beyond brief labels; no Australasia or Indonesia; and America, to a modern viewer, is warped almost to the point of being unrecognisable, but the world as we know it, with the Americas plotted –however odd they look now- and a circumnavigated Africa, is nevertheless coming into shape. Particularly of interest are the land bridge joining Iceland to Scandinavia, and the Pacific Ocean. Where others may have conjectured land, Munster elected to fill the space with far more interesting sea monsters.

Worcester Cathedral Library

World map in Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographie Universalis, 1554. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The same gaps in knowledge –a missing continent and a misdrawn one- appear in a later map, one of 1630 appearing in Pierre Davity’s 1637 Le Monde encyclopaedia. There is the merest hint of an Australasian landmass, but the cartographer has resigned himself to writing ‘terra australis incognita’- southern land unknown. This is perhaps more academic than Munster’s sea creatures, but certainly less interesting. Gaps aside, there is progression from Munster’s map, with a staggering level of detail in Europe (albeit, with the Caspian Sea appearing to us to lie on its side) and Africa, and a fleshing out of the New World. The labelling of the southern Atlantic, to the west of Africa, as the ‘Ethiopian Sea’, despite Ethiopia being in the north-east, demonstrates an older use of the term, when it was used to denote the continent as a whole.

Worcester Cathedral Library

World map in Pierre Davity’s Le Monde, 1637. Figures of note in cartography and exploration appear around the edge Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

By 1696, Australia has emerged (labelled here as ‘New Holland’) and, despite some uncertainty in one corner, has a clearly recognisable shape. Likewise, the north-east of North America is still very much terra incognita, and as in the Le Monde map California is believed to be an island, but the huge continent with its daunting landscape has been laudably mapped and depicted. Europe and Asia appear very accurately, and the spice islands of south-east Asia are highly detailed: not surprising given the wealth to be found there! The use of colour, ostensibly to depict borders, demonstrates what objects of beauties maps can be (thereby showing the prestige that must have been associated with owning one), but the black and white ones are still striking documents.

Worcester Cathedral Library

World map in 1696 French Atlas. Most impressive of all is this map’s size, coming from a huge book well over a metre long when opened. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Some are also striking for another reason. Although by the early-modern period the style of the medieval mappaemundi was largely absent, the world no longer physically modelled according to religious belief, some styles and habits persisted. A closer study of a part of the world demonstrates how fact and belief continued to mingle. A map of the Holy Land from Walter Raleigh’s 1603 History of the World depicts contemporary geography and Biblical sites side-by-side, so contemporary geographical features are overlooked by the Tower of Babel and Achad, the Biblical (and still undiscovered) city of Akkad.

This may seem incongruous; it may even seem to be bad cartography. But it must be remembered that maps are documents which depict people’s worlds, and this was most definitely Raleigh’s world. Similarly, the three continents in a disc surrounded by water represented Isidore’s world. The incomplete and sometimes absent landmasses of Munster, Davity and the 1696 Atlas were wholly typical of their world as it teetered on the brink of being fully mapped. Our own world, in the technology-driven, increasingly interconnected information age is represented and defined by rigorous satellite mapping and innovative new ways of choosing and displaying information.

Worcester Cathedral Library

A representation by Sebastian Munster of the world as Ptolemy (a scholar working in the second century AD) knew it. The map demonstrates our changing perception of the world. Unfortunately, Munster’s habit of putting slightly repellent faces around his maps stayed the same. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Are they more ‘accurate’, more precise? Yes, almost certainly. But we must never pretend that we have reached the stage of perfect, ‘objective’ cartography. For we are every bit as bound by the constraints and nature of technology, politics and philosophy as Isidore and these early-modern map makers were. Our worldviews and our views of the world are inextricably linked, as our sensibilities influence and are mirrored by the maps we produce.

Nothing is static: neither the world nor our perceptions and representations of it. The world will continue to move.

Chris Rouse


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