If looking at a map seems a bore, it is perhaps because we only ever do so when we’re lost. Pulled up at the edge of a country road, we grow red trying to match the scene through the windscreen with the arrangement of shapes on the map – and more often than not, fail completely to locate where on earth we might be. The map comes to seem an instrument of humiliation, in command of a landscape which we cannot comprehend through our senses.
What can therefore be most charming about looking at old maps is the way they get everything wrong. For most of human history, maps have been in a spectacular muddle about geographical reality. If you were trying to get from England to the Continent following the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi’s map of the 12th century Map 1, you would have been surprised to find that there was a channel of water between the two. Only by 1490 could you have learnt that the bottom of Africa was not in fact joined to Southeast Asia, another decade had to pass before the Indian peninsula assumed its recognisable shape, and navigating according to a map by Giovanni Contarini in 1506Map 2, you would have been at the mercy of Columbus’s belief that Cuba was an island off the coast of East Asia. It was not until the end of the 17th century that most landmasses found their correct locations.
Looking at old maps, we are reminded of the extraordinary obstacles in the way of an accurate representation of the world. They evoke the tenacity and bravado of the great adventurer-sailors who left Europe in search of new lands, the epic journeys of Columbus, Magellan and Vespucci. We have grown too aware of Europe’s atrocities in newly colonised continents to feel any easy pride on seeing the first well-drawn map of America, but nor does it seem fair to resist all sense of awe at the work and danger such a map represents.
Yet if there is something exciting in the gradual discovery of new lands, it is also rather sad when everything has been found. To have something “all mapped out” can be both a positive and a negative achievement, the former because the unknown can be a terrifying spectre, the latter because the unknown also gives us room for our fantasies of improvement. Once the world has been circumnavigated, the search for an idyllic new land has to be given up, or else projected onto other planets. There is something romantic about coming across anold map with “terra incognita” written on a section of the American continent: we can forget that this is where Detroit now stands, and slip back into the mindset of the cartographer a few centuries back who could dream of this as an entrance to the promised land.
The development of maps might seem one of unambiguous progress from ignorance to essential truth, as the continents were eventually put in their correct place. But any picture of the world is based on historical and relative assumptions about what should be depicted, and so it would be hasty to call certain maps “false” simply because they don’t look like the world we recognise. Throughout the Middle Ages, mapmakers had no time to show the distance from London to Paris, but sought instead to illustrate the dimensions of the religious world. They placed Jerusalem at its centre, they mixed locations of religious events such as the Fall, the Incarnation, the Judgement, with real countries and towns. In the Hereford Mappa Mundi [c.1300], if one travels far enough north, one eventually hits the Garden of Eden. As more and more of the world was discovered, religious map makers were involved in the comic task of having to shift the location of Paradise. By the time we reach the Catalan world map of 1450, Paradise has moved over to where East Africa might be, having had to give up its previous location in Asia, because Marco Polo had gone there and found no such thing.
Maps have also provided scope for political point scoring. Looking at the Mappa Mundi of Evesham [c.1390], we see that England, in a mood of national self-importance, depicts itself as unnaturally fat, is separated from Scotland and Wales by a sea, and has as its neighbour a curiously tiny France. Prejudice assumed more subtle forms as geographical knowledge increased, but in the heyday of Empire, British maps were still happy to provide their viewers with a colour-coded guide, dividing the planet and its peoples into admirably self-confident categories of savage, barbarous, half-civilised, civilised and enlightened.
The pleasure of contemplating the world on a map might be likened to that of reading certain novels. In both cases, we are placed in a privileged position vis a vis a reality which we usually only glimpse from a limited perspective. With a world map, we rise above the constraints of our segment of land so as to hold the globe in our gaze, much as with novels, we may be granted intimate access to minds beyond our own.
But of course, like a novel, a map can only ever be a model and reduction of reality. The journeys we make through the landscape look precariously unlike the lines we trace on a map – and it is here that the lost motorist moans. However, it seems we cannot do without abbreviations of complexity in order to make sense of our world, in order to get to our destination. No one expects the London Underground system to be like its map, and yet, like all the best maps, it can excel at helping us