Approaches to the History of Cartography

For geographers, the relationsip between maps and history has taken several forms. The terms used to describe each form are not synonymous; the 'history of cartography' is not the same thing as 'historical cartography' or the 'history of mapping', although in practice the boundaries between the categories of activities noted below are neither precise nor impermeable. Many studies conducted under one heading might almost equally well be placed under another heading. By individualizing the different approaches, however, both the variety of work on early maps and mapping and the breadth of the subject as practiced may be more easily appreciated.

Maps in the 'Unrolling of the World'

For many British geography students in the mid twentieth century, a first encounter with early maps came through introductions to the history of discovery and exploration in their university curricula. As they learned about the progressive expansion over the centuries of the European's map of the world out from the Old World heartland, first eastward and southward, to the tip of Africa, then westward, and finally poleward, so they were introduced to contemporary maps recording the new geographies to inform those at home and to guide further exploration for trade and colonization. Likewise, as early medieval scholars wondered what lay on the 'other side' of the Earth's sphere, some of their maps depicted a hypothetical 'southern continent' (as on Beatus of Lie`bana's map of the world from the eighth century, for example). As later medieval traders worked their way back to Venice along the Silk Route bringing with them new information about the distant East, so the Ptolemaic world was extended in that direction; about 1450, Fra Mauro explained that he had omitted Ptolemy's parallels, meridians, and degrees from his circular map of the world because these were too constraining in the light of what was now known about the world, and he noted that the extension of the map eastward meant that it was difficult to keep Jerusalem in the center.

After 1492, and the European discovery of the New World, world geography could be described in terms of Eastern and Western hemispheres, instead of the largely inhabited Northern and largely uninhabited, and uninhabitable, Southern sphere of the ancients and medievals. In the Renaissance, fragmentary and uncertain outlines on the maps were slowly completed and adjusted as European explorers and traders inched their ways around the coasts, mapping and charting as they went. Many of these maps are now lost, perhaps a reflection of their strategic value to the government, but even before the sixteenth century was out, Richard Hakluyt was collecting written accounts, and such maps as he could acquire, of the voyages of discovery as part of his and his contemporaries' (among whom was John Dee) promotion of commercially viable colonization of the 'new' lands. Today, the Hakluyt Society exists to advance the modern study of the political, social, and commercial consequences of the exploration of the world through the editing or reediting of contemporary writings and the maps that accompanied them. One fruitful line of research into maps and charts connected with the exploration and navigation of the world focuses on the toponyms recorded on such maps. While such studies may be used in the marshalling of arguments for partisan 'discovery' debates, they can also provide a shaft of light into the mind of the original mapmaker.