Sunday, January 31, 2016

Great Maps by Jerry Brotton.

In this modern era, we have learned to see maps as directional guides accurately depicting locations of, and distances between, point A and point B. But throughout history, this use has not always been the norm. Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at London’s Queen Mary University. He discusses maps as “a graphic representation that presents a spatial understanding of things, concepts or events in the human world.” When one looks at Brotton’s chosen maps, one quickly sees his point. A medieval European map, circa 1300 AD, shows Jerusalem at its center, Central Asia as populated by cannibals, and Africa as a significantly smaller continent populated by mythical animals and people. It even provides a physical location for the Garden of Eden, at northernmost point in the world. Christ is represented “At the top of the map, outside terrestrial time and space.” (Brotton, pp. 58-9). This representation reveals a medieval culture where Christianity was central and understanding of other peoples or places outside Europe was limited. Brotton presents a wide array of designs from Europe to China; from Paleolithic petroglyphs knapped onto outcroppings to Google Earth. In each, he examines what the cartographer is trying to say about the world, given her social, political or cultural perspective.

While insights are important, this is a book of visual displays. It is an opportunity for the eye as well as the mind. Both author and publisher reveal an understanding of this in their selected layout. Great Maps is a colorful, high gloss, large format (10 inch by 12 inch) presentation of attractive images. Its sixty-four maps represent the aesthetic values of numerous cultures. There is even a map that hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (Brotton, p. 232). Individual examples are given a two-page canvas, permitting the widest possible view of the topic. This view is followed by another two-page “visual tour” where Professor Brotton highlights interesting portions on the map and what they reveal. This variety and format encourages a reader to set aside time for the quiet enjoyment of a slow, relaxed perusal.

Brotton’s analysis is socio-politically progressive, as represented by some of his selections. Henry Schenck Tanner’s 1839 “Indian Territory” map was “consulted by the US Congress as they planned the various stages of Native American removal.” Today it is a useful chronicle of stolen land. (Brotton, p. 190). Edwin Hergesheimer, an abolitionist, created a US slave population map, showing the distribution of the United States’ 4 million slaves in 1861. (Brotton, p. 194). Charles Booth’s 1898 cartogram of London contains color-coding which shows income levels in the city’s neighborhoods, designed to reveal the extent of poverty. (Brotton, p. 204). David Livingstone’s 1873 Map of Africa is presented in context of the “Scramble for Africa” by European powers. (Brotton, p. 201). Many exploration maps were commissioned by businesses or governments, intending to exploit the land and resources of others. As beautiful as the maps are, they often represent less-than-beautiful aspects of human behavior.

There are some notable scholarly lapses contained in this volume.  In his discussion of Portolan Charts (illustrations for sailing that show shorelines and ports), Brotton states that it is “almost as though the technique for producing this kind of chart emerged out of nowhere.” (Brotton, p. 53). History is a discipline dedicated to uncovering the trajectory of human development. Saying that a technology appears to have emerged out of nowhere, does not substitute for the responsibility of presenting what we do know about its origins. Later, the author describes surgeon and cartographer John Snow as “pioneering the use of surgical anesthesia.” (Brotton, p. 193). This is a careless statement that leads one to believe that Snow introduced this innovation. Anesthesia has a history that pre-dates Snow by 300 years. Paracelsus first experimented with Ether on animals in 1525. Regarding Snow’s chosen substance, Chloroform, Francis Brodie Imlach was using it on patients six years before our cartographer used it with Queen Victoria. In both the example of Portolan Charts and that of John Snow, more patient research should have been employed.

The area where Brotton excels is as a tour guide for these maps. He has spent a great deal of time examining them quadrant by quadrant. His “visual tour” sections help make sense of complex designs, revealing what is important. Many of the maps do not conform to the style of a modern atlas. These can be disorienting to the novice. Brotton’s expert navigation is useful in such circumstances.


Brotton, Jerry. Great Maps. New York: DK Publishing, 2014.