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Mercator’s ‘Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio’: mapping the Northern lands.

Mercator’s ‘Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio’: mapping the Northern lands.

Another old friend for your consideration. Mercator’s depiction of the Arctic regions and North Pole (Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio) remains perennially popular with collectors and scholars alike. Perhaps I’m coming too late to the table for fresh analysis of the content, but few maps capture the problems faced by early cartographers quite so well. The basic configuration of the islands was not wholly original, but Mercator was the first to devote a separate copper-plate to a map of the Arctic; he had tough decisions to make when sifting evidence gathered thousands of miles from his home in Duisburg, some of which also reached back across several centuries (to the age of Arthur, if the sources were to be trusted). This is a map by one of the greatest cartographers of his own or any other age (variants of Mercator’s projection are still in use, even by the latest online street mapping services) and yet there’s a rich vein of myths and legend blended - seemingly without prejudice - among genuine discoveries. It’s so very wrong.
First issued in 1595 by Mercator’s son, Rumold, shortly after Mercator’s death; our example was printed from the second state of the plate in 1623, and it was hand-coloured at the time.
In reality there isn’t even a landmass at the Pole. But allowing for the fact that the region was largely unknown (Ross and Parry launched the modern era of Arctic exploration in the second decade of the nineteenth-century, and Peary - probably - reached it for the first time as recently as 1909) how did Mercator ever imagine it looked like this?
At the Pole itself he shows a naturally occurring magnetic (lodestone) mountain, the Rupes nigra or black rock - an ancient idea. Surrounding it is a powerful whirlpool, drawing off water from all the seas of the world and sucking it deep into the earth. The whirlpool is fed by four rivers with formidable currents (note the deltas which ought, I suppose, to be at the mouths of the rivers closest to the whirlpool, if the normal laws of geography are observed) and these rivers divide the surrounding landmass into four islands. Pygmies, four feet tall, are said to inhabit the island closest to Europe - possibly a folk memory of the people the Norse settlers of Greenland called Skraelings, the ancestors of the Inuit. Mercator is careful to cite his sources. Unfortunately all are lost to us, their contents known chiefly from Mercator’s own summary in a letter he sent to John Dee (and from later maps, including Mercator’s own). Mercator had read Jacobus Cnoyen’sItinerarium, a work drawing on the Res gestae Arturi britannibut principally a summary of the Inventio fortunata. The latter text was allegedly composed by an Oxford Friar in the fourteenth-century (probably not Nicholas of King’s Lynn, as Mercator supposed) who compiled a report of his travels in the far north and possibly created a map of his own. The underlying assumption was that King Arthur had sent settlers to the Arctic, and the author of the Inventio fortunata had met their descendants. It was a convenient intellectual justification for Elizabethan and Jacobean seafarers, exploring the region in search of the Northwestern and Northeastern passages to Asia. From separate (Italian) sources we have the mythical island of Frisland, confused with Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes, but here shown south west of Iceland and wholly imaginary.
There is some excellent map-making going on here. Mercator was aware of the latest discoveries by Martin Frobisher and John Davis. And note the revisions by Hondius affecting the region north of Russia (Hondius owned Mercator’s plates by this time and made a commercial success of the Atlas. Our example is this second, revised state; to compare it with the first, here’s the Princeton copy. The coastline of Nova Zembla has been amended and, at the centre of the map, part of the lower right-hand island of the four flanking the Pole has been burnished out altogether; a truncated coastline has been tentatively dotted back in, separating off Greenland and allowing space for new discoveries just north of (Hugh) Willoughby’s Land (another fictitious island). And yet, whatever tinkering Hondius carried out, he allowed Mercator’s basic concept to stand and continued to publish the map. He may have found errors in the detail, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary a map based on a series of lost manuscripts (even Cnoyen’s account had vanished by Hondius’ day) continued to appear in the most modern atlases. This wasn’t just the view from Duisburg/Amsterdam. It might seem highly unlikely to us that King Arthur despatched thousands of his countrymen to the Arctic, and the garbled travel account of a mediaeval Oxford scholar seems a slender thread to trust with one’s life, but for Elizabethan/Jacobean Englishmen these were valuable precedents for their own hazardous voyages of discovery, in search of the supposed Northwestern and Northeastern Passages which are depicted with such certainty on Mercator’s map. The prize was rich enough: a fast route to China and the Indies, free from Spanish or Portuguese competition, and if Englishmen had navigated those waters before then so much the better. To modern eyes Mercator’s blend of historical, and one might even say literary sources, with reports from navigators of his own age (some more reliable than others) seems curious and archaic. We expect nothing short of total accuracy from our own maps. Early modern readers, by contrast, were accustomed to the idea of reading a map on several different levels.
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