Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet – Nicholas Crane

10 Dec

536213This week is Cartography week, a series of posts loosely linked together, a bit like I was, to that gang who stole all those plastic bananas, which I don’t want to talk about….

On a map riddled with riddles, it was the omissions that were most instructive

Life is hard, it’s a proven fact.  hard lives sometimes create exceptional people, Gerardus Mercator is just one such example.

Living through plagues, famines, insurrections and a brush with the Inquisition, Mercator’s life had its fair share of seismic changes

Humans never learn, it is frightening to know that the education system is still as blinkered now as it was in the 1500’s.  Ideas have changed but …some things have not.

Mercator chose to do his own learning at home and journeyed where his interests took him and that is the way it should be.

So anyway to the book…

Make no mistake this book is much more than a potted biography of a beardy cartographer, there is a ton of overview concerning the circumstances he found himself living through. We’re talking of the prodigious religious and scientific collisions, not to mention seismic inter-christian theological clashings of the (known) world changing variety.  Mixed in and layered over with the geopolitical machinations of leaders and the delicate balances of power in a volatile mish-mash of kingdoms and provinces.

This book has maps, which may sound stupid, but as a lot of the places focussed on, are perhaps not the most recognisable, i.e places in Belgium.  There is a lot of name checking and a scholarly feel to this work which does have a tiny touch of the epics about it.

So born into those cauldron of chaos just after (five or so years) the New World has been discovered is Mercator, a man who is proof that anything can be achieved, although like most geniuses, he was such a perfectionist that he wasn’t really appreciated in his life time for what he acheived…it seems people prefered the jazzed up maps with pictures of mythological beasties on, to accuracy!

As well as the above, the evolution in map making, the art and the need for an overview of our world is gone into thoroughly as is the immense difficulty in getting any sort of reliable and accurate information, not to mention the longitude problem…the North East and West passages also get a mention as well to round out the work.

There are a big cast of people and sources featured here and it is a slow building book, but one blessed with richness and depth.  It’s worth the effort to get through the initial barrage of unfamiliar names in order to get to the beauty and noble efforts of Mercator and his fellow map makers, who not only made stylish and elegant maps but also propaganda tools which in those unsettled time with so many fickle personalities could get you an appointment with the Inquisition…


Posted by on 10/12/2013 in History


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7 responses to “Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet – Nicholas Crane

  1. Al

    10/12/2013 at 12:12

    How does one map a planet in the 1500s? Surely not from a space station. Getting the info from other people would make it difficult and out of scale all over the place. Although he would have difficulty now after a new island was created a couple of weeks ago.


    • Ste J

      10/12/2013 at 12:19

      Sailors charts were the most reliable but then there was always the paranoia of spying and invasion but over all it really was word of mouth and drawings by the accurately minded. Some of the maps are crazy, there is a book, which I should have reviewed…and perhaps will called Phantom Islands of the Atlantic which has some mythical islands that persisted for years and fortuitously in this month’s National Geographic they reported about Sandy Island, an island that has been on maps for 130 years but has never existed, that was only discovered last year! Makes you wonder how many more there are out there…


      • Al

        10/12/2013 at 12:27

        It does make you wonder.


  2. nancyrae4

    11/12/2013 at 09:23

    May I recommend a book? Along exploration and mapping, lines, sort of. Christopher Columbus, Conquest of Paradise, by Kirkpatrick Sale. Good old Chris was NOT the man Americans learned about in grade school, to say the least. (Native Americans were right about him!) I was fascinated by the times he lived in and the things that influenced him – political, religious, greed – gosh, sounds like present day.

    Thanks for your great review:)


    • Ste J

      13/12/2013 at 11:38

      Always excited to get a book recommendation, in fact always recommend good stuff, feed my habit…I DEMAND it…please. I hadn’t previously heard of this one, but love a work that I can get my teeth into. The more I learn the more I realise that school doesn’t teach us the accuracies of life.


  3. anna amundsen

    11/12/2013 at 10:41

    If for nothing else, I would buy it for its beautiful cover.. Gosh darnit, Steve, when am I to read all these appealing books!? 🙂
    Have you read The Island of the Day Before?


    • Ste J

      13/12/2013 at 11:33

      I have a bunch more reviews waiting to be finished off as well, I am guessing there will be a good few that may interest you…I have read The Island of the Day Before, that was my first introduction to Eco. It’s a clever book, it almost had me believing all those scientific theories proposed lol.



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