Mapping the Past

This week I’ve been thinking about why old maps hold such a fascination for me. Any time I see one aged 50 years or more, I have to stop in my tracks and stare at it for at least a few moments. This inevitably results in an annoyed husband looking at his watch, but there’s magic in these maps and I’ll tell you why.

Think about how our perception of the world has changed over time. First the Earth was flat (map), then it was round (globe), and now, in 2013, it’s beginning to look more like a web (internet) of people and places that are connected by shared interests, trade and even war. But those flat maps, especially those really old ones from around the 16th Century with intricately drawn photos of animals and spirits in the corners, reveal a way of looking at the world that’s full of wonder and imagination.

Hereford World Map c. 1300. Antique Maps. Phaidon Press, 1983.

Hereford World Map c. 1300. Antique Maps. Phaidon Press, 1983.

The early cartographers like Martin Waldseemüller (Germany) or even Richard of Haldingham (England) used their imagination to fill in the gaps that society at that time had not yet uncovered. It wasn’t unreasonable during medieval times to believe that those undiscovered areas on the map could contain mythical creatures like dragons or griffins. Maps today are largely produced by satellite photos, leaving little room for imagination. Perhaps this is where science fiction enters. Once the four corners of our world were nailed down, our wonderful sense of imagination moved largely from looking at our Earth to gazing at the sky. It’s delightful to think that in some senses, early cartographers were also early creators of science fiction.


But more than the imaginative quality inherent in old maps, it’s the fixing of a specific location at a certain time that enchants me. I like to see what a city used to look like before x, y or z happened. And that’s precisely why I surround myself with old maps I happen to stumble upon; in a way, they keep the past alive for me. I’ll be writing about various maps via my blog, but for this introductory map entry I’m going to direct you to this map:


Map of London. Brockhaus' Konversations-Lexikon, January 1908.

Map of London. Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lexikon, January 1908.

I found this at the Mauerpark flea market in Berlin a couple years ago. It’s a map of London for a German audience, which I found quite appealing. From my point of view, it’s normal to see a map of Germany in German or a map of Germany in English, given that I come from an anglicised background. But to find a map of London from another time and another perspective was a treat for me. Reading the small print at the bottom, I discovered that this particular map is from January 1908. Although the street names read “Street” and not “Straße”, the key at the bottom is in German. The name in the bottom right corner – F.A. Brockhaus – was unfamiliar to me, but a quick google search tells me it stands for Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, a German publisher and editor who created what is known in English as the Brockhaus encyclopedia. In fact, the German name for his encyclopedia – Brockhaus’ Konversations – Lexikon – is in the bottom left corner.

Though this map is over a hundred years old, it doesn’t look much different from the London of today. In fact, the postcodes on the map (the big blue letters dotted across the page) and their territories are nearly identical to those of the present. I suppose to my guests who pass by this map as they walk up the stairs in my house, it’s just another modern map of London. But upon closer inspection, they will see that this map has a richer history in its creases and in the yellowing of its borders. It’s lived a whole life I will never discover, and it has been on a journey it can never convey. And this is where my imagination enters, filling the gaps of those undiscovered areas my map will never tell me: that it made it through a war, staying tucked inside a hidden book or that it travelled around the world before making it back to that flea market in Berlin. Or maybe it was reprinted 20 years ago and its birth is a lot more recent than I allow myself to believe. I will never know the truth, but I don’t have to. All I know is that I have a traveller from the past hanging on my wall, and that’s good enough for me.

*From time to time I’ll recommend some books related to my blog posts. This week I highly recommend Antique Maps by Carl Moreland and David Bannister, as well as The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton.

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