On the Map

I am in the middle of On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does by Simon Garfield, (Profile Books), who also wrote Just My Type – A Book About Fonts.  It is really good, Garfield is a map fanatic and he writes about them so engagingly that you feel yourself becoming one too, no matter how useful the app on your phone is for getting you from A to B.

He starts with some of the very first maps (or rather, early CE copies of BC maps) which were suprisingly technically advanced in geographical terms, showing knowledge of complicated mathematical theorems for working out the circumference of the earth. Then that knowledge seems to be lost or  basically becomes unimportant as maps become not so much geographical as cultural, showcasing what the medieval and Dark Ages Western world thought was important – maps of the world are centrered on Jerusalem and the top, which we are used to seeing as North, is actually East (this is why you get oriented using a map, why you orient yourself or have an orientation, placing yourself in relation to other things/places/people – I didn’t know why we used that word…). These maps are stuffed full of fantastical creatures, travel notes, religious instructions and saints, and although cities and rivers are named their placement bears little relation to geographical reality – you coudn’t really use them to get from A to B but you could use them to sit in A and consider B, and perhaps P, H, T and Z, and your place in the world.

One of the most well known examples is the famous Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi created in 1300 CE. Garfield tells the story of how its financial worth was rediscovered in the 1980s and the Cathedral tried to sell it to raise money to restore the building. Private donations allowed them to keep it and restore both the map and the Cathedral. In 2010, they took advantage of the new digital printing techniques and 1000 facsimile copies were made – and there is one at the University of Otago! It is well worth a

The Hereford Mappa Mundi

visit, I went for a planned 20 minutes and stayed an hour, trying to figure out the pictures and the geography – Britain is in the bottom left, France is across the channel and then it kind of goes to custard for eyes used to Mercator and Google Earth. It is held in Special Collections at the University of Otago Library. You can go into the library between 8.30am and 5.00pm and ask to see it or give them some warning by calling Special Collections on 479-8330. In its way, what with the unicorn, the ordure-firing Bonacon, the sea monsters and the angels, it is perhaps a 12th century version of those shock-reality TV programmes of mad people, and the mad things they do, who live in other countries.

I also liked the map of the world created by the facebook employee who logged the GPS co-ordinates of 10 million members and their contacts. Look what appeared ( and look what is missing):

To see how he did it have a look here.

Maps both relate and realign our history, and make us look at the world with new eyes – who doesn’t love that world-famous-in-NZ inverted map, with Antarctica at the top and us in the middle? I am looking forward to the next chapter: the Vinland map – is it real or a v. good fake? does it matter?


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