Early maps of the world were religious icons, just like those icons on the carpet page of the Book of Kells.

This 12th Century map of the world is called a “T and O” map because of the shape of the image. The world it portrays is a circle, divided by a T-shaped cross, the centre of which is in Jerusalem. The circle represents perfection. The world as the object of God’s affection. The world is is divided into three continents, named after the sons of Noah. This map represented the Church’s truth. It conveyed everything important to know for those who lived in a world where nature was unfolding according to God’s plan.

t-o map

As maps, these may have represented the veneration of God, but neither was useful as a tool for travel. Even though this second image is from the 15th century, it retains the same, iconic and religious qualities of the early manuscript books. The world is still three continents, named for the sons of Noah. While the later version of the “T and O” map shows a more naturalistic view, the continents are represented by representations of real people, there is still no sense of perspective in the image.

The ideological content of the map remains the same as the 12th century version, with a view of the Ark at the top of the map.

Alongside the development of manuscript books with a focus on the outside, secular world, maps begin to evince similar concerns. Although this map predates the last the 15th century map, it shows a rising secular concern in its representation of the world. For instance, it shows India, just below the Garden of Eden. It also has real rivers and real, named places, in geographical relations to each other, all existing along side the religious icons.

The information on early manuscript maps that try to represent the world is drawn from traveller’s reports of their journeys. Representations of Europe tend to be accurate but outside Europe, where the world was less well-known, the map gets less accurate. In the case of this image, from the Catalan Atlas of 1375, Europe is fairly well laid out, while China and the East, known primarily at the time from the travels of Marco Polo (whom this map shows), is less well defined.

Here is a later map, by Ptolemy. The impulse in this kind of map making is toward an accurate representation of the world, an impulse toward creating information that can be used to navigate in the world.

Ptolemy’s map was represented the state of understanding of the world until Columbus’s journey in 1492.

Ptolemy's classic map of the world

As mentioned above, the earliest secular texts to be printed were the works of Greek and Roman antiquity. This is a modern reproduction of a map of Ptolemy, a 2nd century geographer and astronomer. The reproduction of this map was part of an emerging humanist tradition, an attempt to reproduce classical manuscripts, not to spread useful information. On this map, Africa is represented as part of the “Southern Continent”. This was inconsistent with the state of geographic knowledge at this time. Far more was known about the west coast of Africa because Henry of Portugal (Henry the Navigator) had begun sending ships down the coast of Africa in the early 15th century. This was not intended to be an instrument for navigation.

Other manuscript maps contained real geographical information, albeit not necessarily to geophysical scale. On this map, India, the Cantino World Map created in about 1502, the centre of the spice trade, is enlarged in proportion to its economic importance to the world at the time.

These maps show another kind of distortion as well. In the early 1500s, the Pope divided the known world into Spanish territory and Portuguese territory. Depending on the politics of the map makers, different areas of the world might be shifted one way or another, placing them in either Spanish or Portuguese territory.

In the early years of the exploration of the New Worlds, all geographic information was collected by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. The information they gathered was tightly controlled by their governments because control of accurate geographical information meant control of important political, economic resources and the world.

By controlling this information, the Iberians managed to keep the British and the French out of the expansion of the early 16th century because they didn’t have the necessary information.

When the Dutch managed to pull away from Spanish control, they became a centre for the reproduction of geographical information. They learned cartography under the Spaniards and had collected that information in Holland. This is a world map printed in 1570 by Abraham Ortelius , 1527-1598, entitled, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

Once freed from Spanish control, the publication of maps engendered the same kind of comparison between texts (maps) as that for scientific texts. Once the Dutch provided these maps to the British and French, their further exploration of the world produced more information against which current maps could be compared and updated, ruining Iberian control of the New World territories.

This exploration, exchange and comparison of information, both in maps and in printed books, changed Europe’s view of the world. The world was once a place once largely unknown represented by the Greek mythological image of Atlas carrying a huge globe on his shoulders Now, in the most famous atlas of the period, Mercator’s Atlas of 1595, Atlas plays with the earth like a basketball. The globe has become manageable, controllable, a resource to be exploited, no longer the realm of the unknown.

Modern maps, showing the world in ways that allowed a reader to leave home and return, also allowed for European expansion into the new world, and the creation of a European-centred world economy.

The new world economy was characterized by a system of nation states in economic competition with each other. The critical aspect of the period was that no one of these states was strong enough to dominate the others. Together, these states produced a world economy. However, unlike earlier empires like the Hapsburg empire, where the fate of the economy was dependent on the stability of the empire, in this new world system, the economic system would continue when a state or government died. It no longer mattered which states were involved in that competition, the economic activity would be sustained because there was no one dominant political group.

What arose was an economic system of unparalleled stability that lasted well into the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Hudson’s Bay Company is still in business in Canada and there are probably still vestiges of the East India Company, founders of the British Empire, in corners of the globe.

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Maps through the ages – in pictures

In his new book, On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does (Profile Books), Simon Garfield charts the history of maps, from the early sketches of philosophers to the infographics of the digital age, and what they tell us about the way we see the world