How America got on the map

By Scott Martelle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009


The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name

By Toby Lester

Free Press

480 pp., $30

Six years ago Toby Lester, a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, spotted an announcement that the Library of Congress had just spent $10 million for the 1507 map that experts believe was the first to affix the name "America" to the New World. What, Lester wondered, could possibly make a map worth that much money? Value, obviously, is relative, and Lester never does answer the question that launched his rumination on exploration and European cartography, "The Fourth Part of the World." But no matter. His real interest lies in the evolution of Europeans' perception of the world, as reflected by their maps. It's an unusual approach, and it works splendidly.

The map in Lester's title is the "Waldseemüller map," drawn by Martin Waldseemüller. Ultimately, the long-missing map plays a bit role in the book, appearing near the beginning as a priest discovers a copy in 1901 while browsing a private collection of medieval texts in a south German castle. And near the end of the book Lester describes the partnership between Waldseemüller and writer Matthias Ringmann that led to the map's creation. In between, Lester takes us on a rambling voyage following scholars and explorers as they try to make sense of the world, from Ptolemy's mathematical formulas for rendering the globe into a two-dimensional map (no flat-Earther, he), to Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci and how their hunches about geography propelled their voyages.

Lester also manages to cram in some key moments in history, such as the 1414-17 Council of Constance that drew together some 700 religious and secular power brokers to unscramble the schism that had led to there being three sitting popes. As the religious and royal leaders worked, their courts -- thousands of aides, scholars and legal advisers -- fell into lengthy discussions about every imaginable topic, eventually sharing ideas, copying each other's pre-Gutenberg manuscripts and, quite by accident, conducting what was probably the world's first international book fair and academic conference.

A copy of Ptolemy's "Geography," with its mathematical formula for mapping, was also there, attracting new readers and, in a sense, new adherents among the humanist-inclined scholars and priests. "The Geography's arrival in Constance . . . marks the point at which many Europeans began to reconsider their fundamental preconceptions about geography -- and about the very function of a world map," Lester writes. Most people, he argues, had been using maps -- including Ptolemy's projections -- to understand the ancient world. At Constance, they began to realize maps could also be used to explain the present.

Lester, like the explorers he writes about, covers a lot of ground, and a short appendix with a cast of characters and a timeline would have helped. He also could have tossed a passing nod to early non-European explorers, such as the Ming Dynasty's Zheng He, who in the early 1400s traveled as far west as Africa while the Portuguese were trying to come around from the other side.

Still, Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. And yes, money figured prominently. Trade-hungry kings and queens financed many of the trips, hoping to find ocean trade routes to the Far East. But there was also a desire by the explorers themselves for knowledge and for fame.

In our era of instant mapping and Google Earth, it can be hard to understand a time when people had no clear concept of the Earth on which they stood. Yet to mid-millennial Europeans, there was nothing over the western sea but mystery and legends about islands, monsters and mythical beings. It took courage to sail off into that unknown, and Lester's book offers a clear survey of how people came to understand the world in which they lived.

Scott Martelle is the author of "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West."

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