I present to you ‘the World’

I present to you ‘the World’

I present to you: ‘the World’.
Abraham Ortelius’ first world atlas; a 16th century view on the world in
‘Theatrum orbis terrarium’.
Canterbury Cathedral Library W/S-16-1

There has been a long-standing fascination with maps throughout the ages which probably comes, in part, from the political and human nuances that are present in topographical representations of the world. Canterbury Cathedral Library owns a 1595 edition of a large atlas which was printed in Antwerp and created by Abraham Ortelius. It is a later version of Ortelius’ book that was first printed in 1570 and which is generally considered to be the first ever world atlas. It describes, rather accurately, all the parts of the globe that were then known; regular expansions followed in newer editions. Ortelius was a contemporary and friend of the famous cartographer Gerard Mercator whose model of the world map is still used today.

Of course, an atlas is more than just a collection of maps; it is valuable in what it tells us about the culture in which it was made and that culture’s worldview and identity. This particular book is remarkable in many respects; one of the most interesting aspects of it is the observance of the world, obviously from a European point of view. Although his parents were of Augsburg origin, the editor lived in Antwerp for most of his life; Antwerp was an important economic centre at that time, with a flourishing book trade and this edition was printed in the renowned printing office of Plantijn. Ortelius did not draw the maps himself but collected and attributed them to their cartographer. In this way, he brought maps and names of contemporary cartographers to us that would otherwise have remained unknown.

This month’s image is a map of Germania, but before focusing on this map and what it has to tell, let us consider the book in broader terms. The atlas itself starts off by showing the world in more than 70 maps. The regions depicted in the maps are introduced by descriptions written by Ortelius himself, which provide more information about the region, its borders and customs. In the pages following these maps, Ortelius tries to put a historical section into the book by adding older maps depicting some regions in Roman times. He even adds legendary maps that portray the life of Abraham and the wanderings of Aeneas, not to mention a map with a drawing of Greece portraying Mount Olympus. Next to that, those with a penchant for sea monsters will not be able to hide their joy when flicking through this book. The highlight of this ‘sea monster experience’ is to be found on the map of Iceland in which numerous monsters are depicted and described. But not only sea monsters are to be stared at in awe, the portrayal of the ‘other’, or exotic, human races draws the attention of readers; inhabitants of Arabic regions riding camels, or burial rituals involving people hanging from trees, all decorate the maps.

The maps of exotic countries are eye-catching. However this image of the ‘other’ is certainly as important as the question of identity within Europe. An interesting map in this respect is the map of Germania. This map shows a region which contemporaries culturally perceived as being a depiction of Germany. The borders of Germania portrayed in this work were not the political borders that divided the regions at the time of the later, or even the first edition; nor were the borders where one would expect to see them today. Part of Germania in this map identifies, amongst others, Austria, Hungaria, and Moravia, but also, remarkably, Artesia, Hanonia, Flandria, Brabantia, Zeelandia, Hollandia and the rest of the Low Country provinces. The first four Low Country provinces named here were ruled by Philip II of Spain in the second half of the sixteenth century and consequently did not belong to the Holy Roman Empire (Philip did not inherit the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from his father Charles V). Consequently, this region was under Spanish rule. For the portrayal of Germania, Ortelius used an older map edited in 1548, but this must still have been perceived as accurate in 1570 and 1595. Germania thus depicts a cultural identity rather than a political reality. This northern European land mass was often described as ‘Germania’, even though politically this was not correct. The Dutch language was often perceived as a kind of German. Ortelius continues this sentiment in the following map by describing the region of the ‘Low Countries’ by its alternative name, ‘Germania inferior’. After this map, maps of the individual provinces are shown.

Another detail on the map is a depiction of a part of England on the upper left side of the map. Here the cities and towns of Dover, Canterbury, Rochester, Rye, London, Colchester, and Norwich are identified. These cities were very important for their connections with the Low Countries in the sixteenth-century. They had strong trade links with the Low Countries, and were also known as towns that offered a safe haven to refugees from the Dutch Revolt. A large part of Abraham Ortelius’ family was among these refugees at various times; his nephew, Emmanuel van Meteren, was a member of the Dutch Church in London. Ortelius himself resided in London around 1576. One wonders whether Ortelius favoured this map because of its depiction of England. Although probably not intentionally chosen for this, the map serves as a beautiful symbolic dedication to Ortelius himself, depicting his parents’ German origin, his beloved Low Countries, and his family connections with England.

Silke Muylaert: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent
Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading:

  • Cornelis Koeman, The History of Abraham Ortelius and his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Lausanne: 1964).
  • Paul Bingin, Imagined Corners: Exploring the world’s first atlas (London: 2003).
  • Dirk Imhof, De wereld in kaart: Abraham Ortelius en de eerste atlas (Antwerp: 1998).