Review: A History of the World in Twelve Maps

If somebody who was vaguely interested in maps wanted a book to get them started, I think I might point them toward A History of the World in Twelve Maps, written by Renaissance Studies professor Jerry Brotton. This book first appeared in September 2012 in Great Britain, where it’s now out in paperback. The U.S. edition came out last month in hardcover.

It’s a history of cartography that takes a rather unique approach: instead of providing a straight narrative history, Brotton focuses on twelve maps (or, more precisely, mapmaking endeavours), ranging from Ptolemy’s Geography to Google Earth. But Brotton does a lot more than talk about just twelve maps.

Familiar maps like the Waldseemüller map and even the Peters projection share the spotlight with maps that are perhaps less well-known: the maps of al-Idrisi and Diogo Ribeiro, the Kangnido map, the geopolitical maps of Halford Mackinder. Brotton didn’t choose these maps for their intrisic qualities, but for their historical siginificance: for example, both the Hereford Mappa Mundi and Mercator’s world map reflect the religious imperatives of their times; Blaue’s Atlas Maior is placed in the context of a fiercely competitive 17th-century Dutch mapmaking industry; Cassini map of France demonstrates the shift to institutional mapping and modern surveying methods.

It’s accessible and engaging, but fiercely erudite. To a certain extent the maps themselves are sidelined by Brotton’s examination of their makers and their historical context, but that context is precisely the sort of thing I’m interested in. If nothing else, that context demonstrates that none of these maps were isolated productions: the products of trade, exploration, diplomacy and religious tradition. Not to know that is not to understand the maps.

Because this book is not lost in its own arcana despite being a serious and scholarly work, I suspect that it might well serve as a university-level introduction to the history of cartography. I’m quite impressed with A History of the World in Twelve Maps: I’ve been mucking about with maps for more than a decade, and this book still showed me that I had significant gaps in my understanding. I wish that this book existed a decade ago.

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