The Challenge of a New World

I’m sure you have all seen an old map and chuckled to yourself about their obvious inaccuracies. You wondered how they could be so wrong. Maybe the map looked something like the one below? Today we are going to see have a look at some maps from the early modern period and see what they can tell us!


Figure 1 – Atlas of 153 charts – mainly by C.J. Coogt, end of 17th century, Amsterdam

Many historians disagree with this perception. They believe that older maps (like the one below) can be analysed in more ways than just geographical accuracy. Medieval maps were largely symbolic, illustrating significance such as religious or historical locations, climate zones or religious differences. Acknowledging this allows maps to be analyzed in a similar fashion to art, where the composition, symbolism, and design can provide a deeper insight into the creator’s intentions and beliefs.


Figure 2 – Turin Mappamundi – 8th Century, Unknown location

But first, a little bit of context on the period. The improved geographical understanding in this period, challenged the infallibility of the Bible and classical antiquity that had been the basis of European identity. The Bible had been the reference point for Europeans for many years. However, no mention of the Americas or other contemporary discoveries, led to a questioning of the infallibility of this source. This break with classical antiquity allowed Europeans to use independent reasoning for the first time to re-evaluate their perception of the world around them and how they would interact with it.


Figure 3 – Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula by Ioannes van Keulen, 1621-24, Amsterdam

Now let’s look at Nova totius terrarium orbis geographica ac hydrographical tabula by Ioannes van Keulen the decoration surrounding the map, the large amount of green and representations of prosperity, indicate the wealth of resources that had been discovered. In many maps of this time, the different countries were also colour coded to identify which colony belonged to each country such as in Figure 4. This visual division of the continents, is a tangible example of the imperialistic mindset that Europeans adopted in their interaction with the New World.


Figure 4 – Planisphaerium terrestre, sive terrarum orbis : planisphaerice constructi repraesentatio quintuplex: adjunctis aliquibus astronomicae geographicae tyrociniis by Carolo Allard and Amstelo­Batavo, 1696, Amsterdam


Figure 5 – Novissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula by Ioanned De Ram, 1683, Amsterdam

Another great map to look at is the world map Novissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula Auctore was finished by Ioanned De Ram in 1683. Below the chart is a depiction of the continents of the Americas and African. The headdress and clothes of the characters on the left are indicative of the Americas, while the colour of the skin of the characters on the right, the technology and depicted animals appear to be African. In between the two continents is an image of the Greek God Poseidon who looks very European in his skin colour and appearance. Given that Poseidon is standing with a trident and a throne behind him, and the natives are sitting looking at him, it suggests the superior attitude of the Europeans who thought themselves to be both at the centre of the world and above the other races.


Figure 6 -Orbis Terrarum Nova et Accuratissima Tabula by Nicolao Visscher, 1658, Amsterdam

Looking again at Novissima totius terrarium orbis tabula by Ioannes de Ram (Figure 5) and Orbis Terrarum Nova et Accuratissima Tabula by Nicolao Visscher (Figure 6), it can be seen that the challenge to the authority of classical antiquity was not far-reaching. On the top half of Figure 5, God is looking over the world surrounded by angels in the cloud, indicating his supremacy over his creation. Despite doubts of infallibility, religion was still a key pillar of society. Also in Figure 5 the decoration surrounding the map from the same time period depicts scenes from Greek mythology suggesting their longevity. The way that the Europeans treated the native population in terms of religion was in response to the view they held of the native people and as a consequence of the religious situation in Europe. However, due to the omission of the continents of the Americas in the Bible, many people began to question the infallibility of the church.

An analysis of maps from the early modern period clearly shows that throughout this period an adoption of a supremacist viewpoint changed the way that Europeans perceived themselves and others in the world. From the maps we have considered today, we can see that the interaction with resources and territory, race and religion were all effected by improved geographical knowledge. However, this analysis would need to be supported with other sources both primary and secondary to hold any historical weight. There is a lot more to this topic, if you would like more information on my sources. Please contact me if you would like any directions to such material.

But the next time you see an older inaccurate map, try taking a second look and consider all maps can tell you!

Note: All maps are available online in the Dixson Map Collection – NSW State Library


4 comments on “The Challenge of a New World

  1. libbyadams29 says:

    I love maps! What a fascinating topic to consider.

    I recall an episode of The West Wing where the organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality lobbied the Whitehouse to enact legislation to change the world map used in American schools to teach Geography. They argued the map promoted social inequality due to its relative dimensions and positioning of countries. World maps, they claimed, “displayed European imperialist attitudes” and a bias against the developing world.

    The cartographer’s conclusions that “nothing is where you think it is” provided comic relief in the programme, yet we all know The West Wing is where most Americans received a significant proportion of their understanding of the American political process. Your blog reminded me of this fundamental questioning of the role of maps in our world and their significance in political and social conditioning. I always look at how maps are presented and your article has inspired me to look further.

  2. kartiazappavigna says:

    Hey Ben
    This is quite an fascinating topic. I’d never considered that maps were used for anything other than for guiding explores and had assumed geographical accuracy was their main virtue. You’ve clearly done a lot of research into this topic, I was wondering who are the major historians in this area? Do their opinions largely support your argument? Also I like the way you write, it is easy to follow and makes this topic very comprehensible to someone who knows little about the topic. I would be genuinely interested in learning more about cartography and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to the topic, I’ll now have to explore the Dixon collection myself one day. Great post.

  3. kaylajacobs says:

    I really like this topic. It was one of the ones I was thinking about doing when selecting capstone projects!

    I think what makes it interesting is a point you’ve already brought up about people’s perceptions about maps and their purposes. As you’ve said, particularly for medieval maps we can analyse them similarly to a piece of art. You can see this especially with the pictures you’ve provided in your post. There’s a whole lot more going on with these maps than just simply a representation of geographical space. For some, it looks almost as if the background images are more at the forefront than the map information itself.

    Thank you for the Dixon Library reference. I’ll be sure to have a closer look one day!

  4. marisab91 says:

    Nice work Ben your blog post was a really good break down of your project and was really easy to follow. I’m shamed to say I never considered the vast amount of information we can gather from maps! I think it shows that in order to continue developing our understanding of history we have to be more open to what we might consider non traditional forms of primary sources.

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