A History of the World in Twelve Maps

A History of the World in Twelve Maps
Jerry Brotton
Allen Lane   532pp   £30

Buy this book

It is half a century since readers were offered a ‘big’ scholarly book about maps aimed at a general audience, Leo Bagrow’s 1964 History of Cartography. Now Jerry Brotton’s monumental History of the World in Twelve Maps, traversing a panorama from ancient Greece to Google Earth, offers an all-new approach tailored for the new millennium. Or does it? More accurately Brotton’s achievement is to create what Joseph Hall, the 17th-century Bishop of Exeter, called another world and yet the same.

Brotton’s book incorporates the academic trends of recent decades, moving toward a ‘critical’ history of cartography. This means that Brotton is acutely sensitive to the social, political and religious contexts which unravel why maps were made, for whom and with what axes to grind. Maps in the age of discovery were used by Spain and Portugal to haggle over colonial interests, those in 18th-century France to aggrandise an absolutist monarch and so forth. Consequently each of Brotton’s maps is simply the focal point on a far broader historical canvas. If this sounds ‘academic’ in the sense of dry if worthy, readers can rest assured that Brotton is anything but dull, his prose bringing to life the maps he addresses. The discussion of the materiality of the Hereford mappa mundi, for example, its contours still revealing the animal hide on which it was inscribed, is marvellous historical writing that captivates the reader and reveals the aura by which artefacts from the past entrance us.

And yet two caveats should be entered. First, the title of Brotton’s book is rather misleading: this is not global history, a comparative history of societies across the globe through time, on the model of Neil MacGregor’s splendid History of the World in 100 Objects (the parallel with whose title Brotton himself notes), but is instead a history of 12 global maps. Brotton’s temporal scope is vast, opening in 700 BC with a Babylonian clay map and closing with the fear that Google may come to monopolise mapping in ways unprecedented over the past 3,000 years, but his geographical scope is more limited. While one chapter is dedicated to the 12th-century cartography of al-Idrisi, which fused Islamic and Western geographical traditions, and another analyses the Korean Kangnido map of 1470, fully ten of the 12 chapters focus on the European (and American) tradition of cartography. We are dealing, then, with global maps but not with global history. Brotton is transparent about this fact, but one rather wishes his publisher had shown a little more titular modesty.

The second caveat follows on from adopting a more critical perspective on the scope and ambition of Brotton’s book. For all its virtues it is not clear that A History of the World in Twelve Maps has a radically new perspective on its subject matter. Brotton constructs an image where the ancients built a scientific cartography that culminated in Ptolemy, where the medieval era fused theology and cartography in mappae mundi and where the transition to modern cartography is effected in the ‘Age of Discovery’, from which era fully three of Brotton’s 12 chosen maps emerge. That the 17th and 18th centuries are then represented by the efforts of Blaeu in Holland and the Cassini family in France adds to the sense that we are reading about the usual cartographic suspects. Jerry Brotton offers us, then, a wonderfully written and wholly reliable narrative that incorporates advances in our understanding of maps and their history. If the result is a book that echoes many of the contours Bagrow offered half a century ago, that is to the credit of both Brotton and his distinguished predecessor.

Robert J. Mayhew is Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History at the University of Bristol.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5