The Oxford Map Companion: One Hundred Sources in World History, by Patricia Seed

Robert Mayhew is delighted to follow a determinedly non-Eurocentric cartographic collection through the ages

February 27, 2014

Too often, the word “companion” signals the academic publishing equivalent of a potboiler, and when it comes linked to the word “map”, one would be forgiven for anticipating something trite and destined for the coffee table. Fortunately, such doleful anticipations are scotched by the combined efforts of Oxford University Press and Patricia Seed in The Oxford Map Companion. The book offers visualisations of 100 maps (101 if you count the appendix on Google Earth) that span prehistory to the present, intelligently arrayed around nine key themes that will be of interest to specialist and generalist alike, covering everything from celestial cartography and culture contact to colonisation and climate change.

Attending first to the maps themselves, many are the usual suspects in cartographic terms; that is, they are maps we are all visually aware of, including the c.300AD Peutinger Table of Roman roads, the 14th-century Hereford Mappa Mundi and, from the 16th century, Abraham Ortelius’ pioneering atlas and Gerardus Mercator’s famous projection. And yet Seed’s deployment of justly familiar works is not only fitting, but is also finely balanced with at least as many maps that will be new to most readers and will enrich their sense of the interactions between cartographic history and broader historical trends. Even within the European tradition, the inclusion here of maps inscribed on powder horns in the American War of Independence and printed on silk for fighter pilots shot down over enemy lines in the Second World War will prompt such reassessments. Seed also ensures that other cartographic cultures from across the globe receive generous representation in what is a determinedly non-Eurocentric vision, with Buddhist maps, Jain maps, the mapping conventions of the Marshall Islands and native towns of post-conquest Mexico all engaging our attention.

The decision to organise this plethora of maps and traditions around nine thematic categories prevents them from becoming a mere potpourri. Some categories are clear-cut in their coherence, as with the opening section addressing celestial cartography. Others, however, may leave the reader rather less convinced by the rationale for their inclusion: Seed has made important contributions to the study of culture contact, for example, but her section on its cartographic representation, “Worlds colliding”, includes Charles Minard’s important 1869 map of the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow. The place of this map in the history of thematic cartography is beyond debate, as is its interest to readers, and yet it seems a rather different variant of culture contact from that embodied in Japanese maps of Nagasaki showing a Dutch trading post, or Ottoman reworkings of 18th-century print maps from England. The section on maps of empires, wars and colonies can likewise seem stretched in its logic of inclusion, while at the same time it might have been a better home for Minard’s map.

There are, then, more issues around the structuring of The Oxford Map Companion than around the maps selected, and faulty proofreading throughout the text does not help. And yet, panning out from the detail to the overall achievement, Seed has produced a fascinating, diverse and thoughtful book, ideal as a teaching resource and an introduction to the breadth and chronological span of the globe’s many cartographic traditions. Where Jerry Brotton’s 2012 work A History of the World in Twelve Maps offered detailed biographies, Seed furnishes us instead with 100 briefer “who’s who” sketches. Taken in tandem, the two books will provide a stylish, informed and accessible introduction to the fascination of maps for a new generation of readers.

The Oxford Map Companion: One Hundred Sources in World History

By Patricia Seed
Oxford University Press, 2pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780199765638
Published 9 January 2014

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