This lesson considers the representative nature of mapmaking through Gerard Mercator’s sixteenth-century world map. The lesson centers power relations in its analysis of maps and knowledge production, to demonstrate how to read the signs within maps that illustrate mapmakers’ objectives, their cultural practices, and political contexts.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson students will

  • Be able to visually analyze primary source maps from early modern Europe
  • Be able to compare and contrast maps and cartographic techniques from early modern Europe and the twentieth century
  • Be able to analyze how maps are the products of power put to work and both reflect and also contribute to the cultures of which they are a part
  • Be able to understand that maps are historical documents that should be interrogated for historical information, the intent and positionality of the creator(s), and the cultural and political contexts of the period

A map is a show, a representation.

–Jeremy Black, Maps and Politics

Gerard Mercator, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae descriptio
Gerard Mercator, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata. Cropped image of South America interior, depicting (clockwise from the left) an animal “having under the belly a receptacle in which it keeps its young warm and takes them out but to suckle them,” cannibals, and “giants” of Patagonia.

Classroom Group Activity

Divide students into groups and have them examine Gerard Mercator’s world map (1569) via the Bibliotheque Nationale. Open

Ask students to scroll through each image and identify examples of each of the following:

  • Geographical distortion due to Mercator’s cartographic method
  • Problems in the maps that can be attributed to surveying issues or lack of information
  • High population
  • Text and “paratext”—in other words, dedications, descriptions, and other textual elements for readers that accompany Mercator’s maps, his primary “texts.”
  • Emphasis of particular natural or man-made features they might be politically or religiously useful
  • Military utility
  • Indications of fertility or abundance of the land or other resources
  • Environmental change over time
  • Matters of historical interest to Mercator and his patron

As a class, have students consider the following questions:

Mercator is famous for using a projection—a grid cartographers use for representing the three-dimensional surface of the Earth in two dimensions—adapted for maritime navigation, called the Mercator projection. The full title of the map is Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata, or “New and More Complete Representation of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation.” The Mercator projection warps the curved surface of the planet to allow sailing courses (rhumb lines) to be mapped as straight lines. Why was this projection useful to Mercator and his patrons? What are some of the potential problems with the Mercator projection and how do they appear on the maps?

The second object at which we aimed was to represent the positions and the dimensions of the lands, as well as the distances of places, as much in conformity with very truth as it is possible so to do. To this we have given the greatest care, first by comparing the charts of the Castilians and of the Portuguese with each other, then by comparing them with the greater number of records of voyages both printed and in manuscript.[/quote]

Map of the Atlantic Charter. MacDonald Gill. 1942
MacDonald Gill, The “Time & Tide” Map of the Atlantic Charter, 1942.

Gerardus Mercator lived in a period that historians call the Age of Discovery and his world map presents a kind of narrative of that age. How did the practices and cultural context of that period in Europe influence the making of Mercator’s world map and the choices he made in depicting it? Mercator was not a navigator, himself. Where and how did he learn enough about the world to become the premiere geographer and cartographer of his time? What does the map tell us about the Age of Discovery? How did discovery happen, for example, and who receives credit for it?

Mercator’s world map is immense, printed from engraved copper plates on eighteen sheets, totalling 6.6×4.1 ft (80×49 in, 202×124 cm) in size. Given the size of the map as well as the expense and resources necessary for its creation, who had access to maps like Mercator’s 1569 world map? How might access have reflected and enforced power relations in early modern Europe? What does Mercator’s use of Latin indicate about the readers he anticipated for his map?


–Gerard Mercator, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata

Class Activity

As a class, compare Mercator’s 1569 world map to “The ‘Time & Tide’ Map of the Atlantic Charter” from the Bancroft Library collection of British and British Commonwealth war posters from the Second World War.

Ask students to analyze this map from 1942 in the way they did Mercator’s map. What is the narrative that the “Time & Tide” map depicts? Setting “accuracy” aside, how do the two maps differ, and in what ways are they similar? Is it important that the creator of the second map, MacDonald Gill, was an artist rather than a geographer? What are the maps’ respective relationships to Europe? Do both maps attempt to aggregate regions into nations in the same way?

Again, identify signs, symbols, and paratexts. What symbols or illustrations carry over across centuries of mapmaking and which are new or different? Do the symbols and paratexts serve the same or similar purposes or has their function changed? How and why? What kind of history interests the creator and commissioners of the second map? Where would people have seen the 1942 poster and how might audiences have interacted with it? What does the map tell us about the world, Britain, and the United States in the early 1940s?

Teacher Resources

  • For more on Mercator, see: Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2002); Andrew Taylor, The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker Who Revolutionized Geography (New York: Walker & Co, 2004)
  • For the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” version of Mercator’s Atlas of Europe (1570):
  • Old Maps Online:
  • Understanding historical and critical cartography: Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York, 1992); Jeremy Black (ed), Maps and Politics, Jeremy Black (London: Reaktion, 2000); P Laxton (ed), The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (Baltimore: 2001); Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins (eds), Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory (London: Routledge, 2009); Denis Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps (2010)
  • Understanding early modern European mapping: JB Harley, English Map-Making, 1500-1650 (1983); David Woodward (ed), The History of Cartography: Volume Three, Cartography in the European Renaissance (1987); David Buisseret (ed), Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe (1992); David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)