Europe: Near and Far

There is no geographical reason why Europe should be a continent on its own rather than a region within Asia. Europe is a cultural construct, existing as a category because the people who devised the continental system used today were from Europe and understandably needed a term to describe their part of the world. They had mapped and described parts of their region for centuries and by the time the maps in the Venable collection were produced, the infrastructure to survey Europe was largely in place. (Surveying was still not easy, however, as the fifty years required for the Cassini family’s meticulous survey of France shows.) Some mapmakers, like Philipp Clüver, could draw upon their own travels to verify and confirm the shapes of the maps they designed.

Unlike many of the maps in the collection, these maps depicted places where a person who could afford to buy the atlases in which they appeared might reasonably be able to travel. On some level, other European places were more “real” than other continents: they were around the corner and actions taken there might have direct repercussions in your part of the continent. If you owned one of these maps, you might have specific business partners there, and if you went there, it was quite likely that you could either speak the language or might share a lingua franca like French or Latin with the locals. At the same time, these were places that you might only know by name: it is telling that John Speed’s famous accomplishment was the mapping of English counties that had not hitherto been systematically mapped. Making maps of them was one way to bring them into sharper focus.

The maps in this gallery show different approaches to mapping Europe. They include two maps of the continent as a whole that focus either on cities or on historical sources; maps of England and the Habsburg Netherlands that concentrate on major cities; and finally a map of Yorkshire that narrows its focus to a portion of a county and the administrative districts therein. How does the scope of a map affect what is included? What other aspects might a map have focused on?