Six Maps

Here is the syllabus and links to the readings for my “History of Cartography: Six Maps” class, taught for the Wagner Free Institute of Science. After each class I will also post my notes from that class as well as anything else that came up during the discussion.

If you have any questions or difficulty downloading these readings, please contact me.


Maps are as much about imagined worlds as they are about real. Rarely are they a means of getting from one place to another. Instead, they transform our thoughts and uncertainties into something we can see and therefore control. In this course we will concentrate on six important maps stretching from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. By putting them into their specific social and cartographic contexts, we can see how they reflect the concerns, values, and anxieties of a particular moment.


Week 1: Hereford Mappa Mundi — Perhaps the most famous medieval map is the enormous mappaemundi in Hereford Cathedral. We struggle to find our way on this map, noting some familiar names buried amongst fantastic and mythical cartographic features. We will try to see the Hereford map not as a representation of the geography of the world, but rather as a graphical attempt to depict what people then knew about that world. The map will become less a depiction of space and more a visual representation of time, lore, myth and religion, and knowledge, all mapped onto an imagined space.

Week 2: Peutinger Map — Known as the “Peutinger Map” after the wealthy German lawyer who inherited it in 1508, this map seems to reflect mapping practices of the late Roman Empire. One way to see the Peutinger Map is as a depiction of the Roman system of roads, a particularly useful tool as Roman armies had to move about the empire. But it also seems to try to project a sense of power and unity at a time when the empire was anything but powerful or unified. In this way, it’s as much a map of an imagined empire as it is a map of the real one.

Week 3: Waldseemüller Map — The earliest world map that appears to depict North America as a distinct continent is the Martin Waldseemüller’s map from 1507. Waldseemüller even labels this new continent “America”. Waldseemüller’s map, then, seems to reflect the discovery of the New World as well as conferring on that New World the name of its discoverer, but that conclusion is aided by hindsight.

Week 4: Johannes Hevelius’s Lunar Map — Not long after Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the moon and noticed that its surface seem to resemble the earth’s, scholars started trying to map the moon. Perhaps the most successful early attempt was Johannes Hevelius’s lunar maps in his Selenographia. For Hevelius as for people like Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and the mathematician John Wilkins, the author Francis Godwin the moon was simultaneously a place of fancy, inhabited by various extraterrestrials, and an object of scientific study.

Week 5: John Snow’s Cholera Map — Maps make phenomena real in particular ways. John Snow’s cholera map represents an important development in how people construct and use maps. By mapping instances of cholera Snow was not only creating the tools to understand and combat the disease, he was in important ways creating the disease. Snow’s efforts to map cholera have become commonplace in our efforts to understand not only diseases but also other cultural phenomena, e.g., poverty, hunger.

Week 6: London Underground Map — Harry Beck’s London Underground map represents a radical change in how transit maps were made. Beck gave up geographic/spatial fidelity in order to make the logic of the Underground’s system clear to riders. Beck’s map reflects a new understanding of the spatial relationships between the built and natural environments.