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A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton


This is the first time I’ve written about a non-fiction book in this newsletter, although there are plenty on my shelf. Non-fiction dates faster than fiction, but this book hasn’t dated too much yet. It was first published in 2012/2013 depending on which part of the world you’re considering. Some of the later chapters that refer to current events that are no longer current sit a little oddly, but that’s all.

It's a book for people who find maps and mapmaking intensely interesting, as the author does. He is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University, London, an expert in the history of maps and a television and radio presenter. His style is easy going and anecdotal but he doesn’t dumb down the material. If you read this book you are going to find yourself thinking about what exactly a projection is and what does it mean to fix a point on the earth’s surface.

This book isn’t just the story of maps and the people who made them, fascinating as that is. The author has selected particular maps to show the way people imagined the world and what they thought was important about mapping it. For example, the great map of France (Carte de France) was initially financed by Louis 14th, because his finance minister, Colbert, wanted to assess the resources of the kingdom. However, the man he hired to manage the project, the astronomer Giovanni Cassini, was more interested in determining the exact circumference of the earth, and its shape, so any point on a map could be a pinpoint on the globe with the distance from any other point correct. The resulting new map of France reduced the size of the nation by 120,000 square kilometres. Louis 14th reportedly said that he had lost more territory to his astronomers than to his enemies. Although this quote is not in Jerry Brotton’s book. So maybe it is, like so many others, a later witticism.

Surveying in the 17th century was a matter of carrying four-metre long wooden rods around and laying them out in a straight line for two hundred metres. (So where do you get a straight line unimpeded by rocks, water and trees?) Then the surveyor climbed a vantage point, like a church tower, and used the latest astronomical instruments to measure the angles between the ends of the line and where he was standing. Next he needed trigonometrical tables to calculate the distance of the sides of this imaginary triangle. This information was mapped into notebooks. France was turned into a network of triangles. The surveyors did this over and over again, carrying all that bulky equipment around by horse transport. And they terrified the local inhabitants with their strange instruments and secretive encampments. One surveyor was even hacked to death by villagers who suspected he was bewitching their crops.

By the end of the 18th century the maps had made France into a nation that could be visualized, with coastlines and borders that were fixed in relation to each other. Citizens could form an emotional attachment and political loyalty to a nation, just in time for the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars to demand repeated acts of nationalistically inspired self-sacrifice.

The Cassini maps are one example. The other maps considered range from Ptolemy’s Geography in 150 CE to Google Earth in 2012. Some will probably be familiar, such as the Peter’s Projection of 1973, others may be a surprise, such as the Korean Kangnido map of 1402. Everyone is a step along the road of history.

The edition I have is the hardback and I think it is essential to read this book in hardback to get the full value of the illustrations and the colour plates. E-Books have many advantages but they are not good for illustrations. The book is still in print, Viking Press, and there are many used copies available online.

So, if you love maps and want to know more about them this is a book for you.

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