A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton


A History of the World in Twelve Maps is a difficult book to review. It is meant for the cartographers to understand the roots of their vocation. Mainly through 12 critical maps that defined the evolution of cartography. Jerry Brotton taught me so much through this book History of the World in Twelve Maps. But I know my review will not do justice to it, for I am but an enthusiastic user of maps, not its student. It was not an easy book to read too. It took me more than 6 months to finish reading it and I read a couple of other books in between each of the chapters of this book. I needed that time to digest one chapter.

A History of the World in Twelve Maps traverses many spaces on a timeline of 2000 years or so. Today we associate maps with geography to plot the known earth on a comprehensible scale. But the fact is they were driven as much by religion, money, science, nationalism and many other things while evolving. Maps began with the mapping of the skies as part of astronomical studies, when Ptolemy made an attempt to draw a map of the earth. Maps went on to become a representation of earth and the other world. Or the map of faith and of course an aid for the navigation of the seas for the overseas trade.

If you are unable to read History of the World in Twelve Maps whole book, do read the introduction and the conclusion. It beautifully sums up the history of maps. The Introduction puts in perspective, what a map is and how a map is bound to carry biases of its creators and their sponsors and more often than not it places the mapmaker or his patron on par with gods. You call it egocentric mapping. Even today, when we see Google Maps and think the map making has been perfected, the final chapter of the 12 maps will tell you that – not really.

It is still a map that is too focused on giving you as much information as possible. The focal point of any map is a function of what it depicts e.g. a map of Babylonia depicts Babylonia at the center of the universe. A map is an instrument where a viewer is positioned simultaneously inside and outside it. Like a 17th CE, the painter said – How valuable a good map is wherein one views the world as from another world.

Jerry Brotton says ‘Mapmakers do not just reproduce the world, they construct’. He goes on to say that the book examines the creative process through which mapmakers tried to resolve the problems faced by their makers from perception and abstraction to scale, perspective, orientation & projection. Throughout the book, he raises questions like – Is mapping a science or an art? Is it primarily spatial or temporal? Is it a visual or a written act? How important is it to have the written world accompany the image?

Jerry Brotton traces the use of geometry and other projection techniques as map-making evolved through the ages till it became a geospatial application fed by the images from the satellites rotating the earth. Earliest maps depicted South on top and East went on top. It was the Chinese who started putting North on top that later became a convention. Different shapes in which the spherical earth was represented by various map-makers is enlightening. The T-shaped maps with Jerusalem at its center look like a breakthrough innovation till they make way for other forms.

How to represent the sphere on a plain rectangular piece of paper, wood or bronze sheet is a challenge that is yet to be solved. Though on the scales that we use the maps – it becomes irrelevant. The known lands took the major spot in most maps and unknown lands were either depicted at infinity or were as insignificant places with irregular shapes in a distance. There is a history of material used to make the maps – from animal skins or wooden blocks to metal engraving to of course paper and now pixels.

Map making was driven by an urge to see the whole of the Earth. Or at least the whole of known parts of it in a single snapshot. Sometimes the faith drove it and other times the power and money. Temporal depictions can be seen when creation is depicted in the east, passing on the dominion to the Greeks and then to Romans in maps like Mappamundi. It also depicts the pilgrim routes taken by saints. As you read the book you realize how the new knowledge gets developed on top of the old one. All the effort to depict the latitudes and longitudes with precision over centuries is humbling.

The book does have a European bias. As Jerry Brotton mentions that Chinese probably has something like maps in 4th BCE. But there is not much exploration of that. I tried to find if ancient India had maps as we definitely have star positions mentioned in our scriptures. But it looks nothing that resembles the modern day maps. It seems the Portuguese made the first map of India.  And a map of 1635 CE shows the whole of Asia as India. There is a lot of other trivia like Korea was unique in a pre-modern world for using a unit of monetary exchange in the shape of country’s peninsula. All the old maps seem to have a good awareness of Sri Lanka – indicating its historical importance.

Political maps or thematic maps as we know them today took shape very recently. And the credit for these goes to France. The Nazis manipulation of cartography is legendary. We can still see it in practice. British did not add much value to map making but managed to have the center of modern maps at Greenwich. In a final analysis, attempts to create an equal map where every place gets an equal importance have been futile.

Finally, the maps throughout the book can keep you engrossed for a long time. Each map carries the hard work of its maker. His vision and his intent along with the knowledge of all the previous mapmakers. The last sentence of the book sums it up as – The paradox is that we can never know the world without a map, nor definitely represent it with one.

If you like maps, a highly recommended book to read by Jerry Brotton.

You may buy this book – A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton at Amazon.

Book Review - A History of the world in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton
A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton
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  1. Sounds like a very interesting book indeed.
    About maps in ancient India, there are some detailed verbal geographical descriptions in the Mahabharata, and as I understand, also in the Vedas– although of course one can’t call these “maps”.


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