Cartography and Maps

Maps help us to orient ourselves in the world or in a specific region and find the place we’re looking for, just like our WashU campus maps help many students and visitors to find their way. In general, maps are an important tool in our everyday lives and have been so for hundreds of years. A map is usually a culmination of extensive work done by a lot of people, and many older ones are intricate, delicate drawings or printings at the intersection between art and science, being not only the essence of a wide variety of knowledge that had to be acquired, but being amazingly beautiful as well.

But cartography also has a downside, when it’s used for colonization, military invasion, and assertion of cultural and political dominance over other people. Including a specific region in the map of a country, state, or empire can be a form of conquest, as is assigning new names in the language of said empire to the places that already had proper names before. Naming is claiming.

Today, smartphone apps based on satellite technology have revolutionized cartography. What was it like before then? The Julian Edison Department of Special Collections at Olin Library holds a number of cartographic and/or geographic works from a couple of centuries, many of which contain maps to situate and visualize their accounts. Here’s a selection of some of the highlights.


Register des Buchs der Croniken vnd Geschichten by Hartmann Schedel, 1493, 46cm

The Three Continents of the World

Many of the older maps originating from Europe, especially the Roman and medieval world maps, had a circular shape and looked like the letter T inside the letter O. In the center of these maps was Jerusalem, East was at the top, filling the upper half of the circle with a map of the known parts of Asia, Europe was in the lower left and Africa in the lower right corner. These maps were ‘oriented,’ meaning they were facing east, and their shape was due to the common belief that the Earth was flat, and sort of a round disc. Many maps tell us much more about their makers and their beliefs and world views than they tell us about the geographic region they actually depict. The world map in the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel already faces north and shows all parts of the known world in a more realistic way. Although we know today that this map isn’t very accurate, especially concerning the actual size of the continents, it is a fair depiction of what European scholars in the late fifteenth century were able to know.

What’s missing on the world map in Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, obviously, is a representation of the Americas. This is simply due to the fact that news of the ‘discovery’ of these continents had not made it back to Europe yet, and even after Christopher Columbus’s return, it would take the Europeans another 15 years to realize that Columbus hadn’t landed on the west coast of India, but rather on a different continent that just so happened to be in the way. In 1493, when the Nuremberg Chronicle was being printed, no one in Europe new that the Americas even existed.


Summario de la generale historia de l’Indie Occidentali, 1534, 22cm

“Not by land to the East, but by a Westerly route”

During their journey through territory they considered uncharted, many European ‘explorers’ were relying heavily on the knowledge of people who had already been living there for a couple thousand years, while at the same time dismissing them as ‘cultureless’ or ‘uncivilized.’ This applies to many regions in the world, occupied and subdued by imperial Europeans.

By going to a country they had no business being in, not acknowledging the culture of the indigenous population, and ‘giving’ European names to people and places, these cartographers committed the first acts of violence in a long series of invasion, exploitation, torture, rape, abduction, and genocide that often lasts—in one form or another—until today.


Here Be Dragons

Many older maps are richly illustrated. The cartographers included ships and mythical creatures at sea, cities and animals on the land. (On the map by Arnoldus Montanus as shown above, do you notice the bunnies right where Connecticut and Rhode Island would be today, or the tiny turkey in Massachusetts?) These illustrations would serve varying purposes. They could be indicating either unknown (i.e., uncharted) territory, or—in the case of the sea monsters—dangerous waters. In this spirit, the phrase “hic sunt dracones,” ‘Here be Dragons,’ is considered to be one of the first indicators of unknown and potentially dangerous territory. Additional illustrations, as to be seen in the lower right corner of Montanus’s map, were supposed to give the map some ‘local flavor’ and to inform the reader about ‘local customs and culture.’ Needless to say, this type of illustration is merely the representation of one particular scene as viewed through the eyes of one individual artist—if at all. Often they were drawn up by armchair explorers who just followed up on and fortified the existing clichés of a certain region.

For centuries, the topography on maps was also represented in the form of illustrations. Mountains and woods were drawn as actual tiny hills and tree groups. In the 1830s, Theodor von Liechtenstern and Emil von Sydow founded a new way of portraying topographical features: the physical map. Leaving out any political borders, these maps reflected the actual altitude of the terrain and the nature of the relief by using hachures of varying thickness and density. The convention of representing hills and mountains in shades of brown, valleys and planes in green, and bodies of water in blue is also still used today.


A new, royal, authentic and complete system of universal geography by Thomas Bankes, volume 1, ca. 1787-1810, 41cm

The Problem of Orientation

We’ve known for a while now that our planet is a round and three-dimensional sphere rather than a flat disc. (To be precise, it’s not a perfect sphere, but a so-called “geoid”—meaning an ‘earth-like,’ uneven shape that somewhat resembles a large potato.) On this sphere an exact orientation can prove challenging, because unlike the rather fixed terms “North” and “South,” “East” and “West” are relative terms. Everything can be in the East or in the West, depending on a person’s point of view. That’s what coordinates are for. And everyone who has touched a globe in their life will know that you only have to keep turning it until it shows you the region you want to look at. But since a map is usually flat and two-dimensional, choosing its orientation can be a difficult decision. What do you put in the center, what do you remove to the periphery? As we have seen, even the common practice of putting the North ‘up’ and the South ‘down’ is nothing but an arbitrary decision that was somehow made into a convention.


Illustrations of the manners, customs and condition of the North American Indians by George Catlin, 1866, 26cm

Maps Without Maps

And then there’s the aspect of oral ‘cartography.’ Not all maps, or rather: mapping techniques rely on physical maps drawn or printed on a piece of paper. Mapping is about marking the space we live in as much as it is about visualization it, and this organizing can be fixated in many ways. Just think of the “song lines” or “dreaming tracks” of the indigenous people of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For thousands of years they have mapped the Australian outback with stories and songs using distinctive landmarks as points of reference to weave an immaterial grid—until, again, European colonizers invaded the continent and started destroying landmarks and building borders between ‘their’ newly claimed territories, just like they did on many other continents. The way these colonizers looked down on the indigenous population is illustrated by the bleak efficiency of the choice of words in George Caitlin’s Illustrations of the manners, customs and condition of the North American Indians. Shown above is an “Outline Map of Indian Localities in 1833” from the first volume. In the lower left corner you can find the legend, prompting you to also consult the map in the second volume, “since all the tribes have been removed from the States W.[est] of the Mississippi.”


Hand Atlas über alle Theile der Erde und über das Weltgebäude by Adolf Stieler, 1875, 40cm

The Atlas—As Weighty as it Sounds

According to Greek mythology, the titan Atlas is the one who has to hold up the celestial heavens at the western end of the world for eternity. He is also known for his expertise in Philosophy, Mathematics, and especially Astronomy. It was in his honor that the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator called his first bound collection of maps an “Atlas.” For centuries, before the invention of the internet anyway, this type of collection was the best and most important way of presenting detailed and fairly accurate geographical information from many different regions of the world. The famous Atlas Maior ( ) compiled by John Blaeu around 1662-65 is one of the richest of its time and it’s currently on display in the Newman Exploration Center in Olin library.

One of the most accurate and detailed atlases between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century was the Hand Atlas über alle Theile der Erde und über das Weltgebäude by Adolf Stieler, called “Stielers Handatlas” for short. What started out as a compendium of not even 50 loose-leaf maps in the early nineteenth century turned into the leading German world atlas with the sixth edition published 1871-75 by August Petermann, Hermann Berghaus, and Carl Vogel. Petermann, one of the leading cartographers at Justus Perthes Publishers in Gotha, Thuringia (Germany) from the 1860s until his death in 1878, sat in the center of a global network of geographers who traveled all around the world and collected enormous amounts of geographical data. The high level of scientific accuracy and especially the detailed relief representations remained unmatched for decades. Well, at least until technologies like aircrafts, computers, and satellites changed the game of cartography forever.

This is only a short glimpse into the world of cartography. Most of the geographic works and maps in Special Collections originate from Europe or the United States. Let’s not forget that the traditions of ancient Chinese and Islamic cartography are older than the European one, and that they were also more advanced and more accurate for over a thousand years—especially during the European middle ages, when the Catholic church gained enough influence over all aspects of society to force its limited world view on many scientific and scholarly disciplines. But as we have seen, there is so much more to learn from maps than just about the regions they depict. The maps and cartographic or geographic books in Special Collections are a rich fund of knowledge about the world views, beliefs, endeavors, and aspirations of the people who produced them—where they came from, what they were missing, and how they planned to find it.


Further reading:

Barrows, Adam, Time, literature, and cartography after the spatial turn : the chronometric imaginary. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2016.

Boatcă, Manuela, “Forgotten Europes. Rethinking regional entanglements from the Caribbean.” Critical Geopolitics and Regional (Re)Configurations : Interregionalism and Transnationalism Between Latin America and Europe. Edited by Heriberto Cairo and Breno Bringel. London and New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 96-116.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix, A thousand plateaus : capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Engberg-Pedersen, Anders (editor), Literature and cartography : theories, histories, genres. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Field, Kenneth, Cartography : a compendium of design thinking for mapmakers. Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2018.

Kraak, Menno-Jan, Cartography : visualization of spatial data. Third Edition. New York: Guilford Press, 2011.

Monmonier, Mark, How to Lie with Maps. Third edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Skelton, Raleigh Ashlin, Maps: a historical survey of their study and collecting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Stevens, Henry Newton, Comparative cartography. London: Map Collectors’ Circle, 1967.

Tooley, Ronald Vere, Maps and map-makers. Fourth Edition. London: Batsford, 1970.


(Photo credit: Cecily Hawksworth, © 2019)

Tobias Feldmann is a PhD student in German and Comparative Literature, Track for International Writers at Washington University in St. Louis. He avidly reads and writes realistic and speculative fiction as well as poetry and enjoys archival work.

About the author