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  • Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters by Surekha Davies
  • Gavin Hollis (bio)
Surekha Davies. Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 355 pages + xxiv. $120.00.

How can you map with authority places and peoples you have not seen? While perhaps less of a concern for mapmakers now (especially after "Earth-rise at Christmas," when the first photographs of earth were taken from lunar orbit in 1968), mapmakers at the emergence of "modern" global consciousness found themselves repeatedly confronted with this question. The proliferation of information from transoceanic exploration in the age of Columbus and De Gama was vast, the means by which this information disseminated were complex, and the information itself was, at times, haphazardly assembled and known to be inconsistently reliable. According to the dominant narrative in the history of cartography, it was the sixteenth century that gave rise to accurate, "modern" mapping: the new geography shed the trappings of older, symbolic forms, the vestiges of a prior epistemes, and embraced the geometrical accuracy of the grid. Yet we can see considerable vestiges of these older geographies (particularly in the continuous presence of the monsters of classical and medieval thought) evident in both maps' decorative apparatus and on the territory itself, well into the Age of Enlightenment.

Jonathan Swift famously lampooned "geographers" who "With savage pictures fill their gaps." However, as Surekha Davies claims convincingly in Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, "savage pictures" were far from fanciful, outmoded ornamentation. Mapmakers were highly attentive to the forms of knowledge circulating in sources that described the New World. Cognizant of the need to present information in as clear and distinct a way as possible, mapmakers streamlined [End Page 213] what were often diverse and dissonant accounts to construct visual code associated with particular regions. By establishing a visual grammar of human difference, which was often (but not always) shared across regional cartographic traditions from Amsterdam to Seville, mapmakers shaped European attitudes towards the New World, encouraged trade and settlement, and gave license to appropriation and exploitation. Iconic map illustrations of monsters, argues Davies, did profoundly ideological work—and this work had far-reaching consequences.

We might imagine that ontological claims about categories of being should temper epistemological ones about maps' authority. Accounts of travel and exploration frequently look suspect to our eyes (especially in the wake of interpretive work by, among others, Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, and Mary C. Fuller). They were also questioned at the time, bedeviled as they were by the vagaries of eye-witness testimony (recorded at a remove from the events and/or with assistance from unnamed, untranslated local guides) and by the reputation of travelers. These travelers (to quote William Wood, New England's Prospect, 1634) "may lie by authority, because none can control them." Mapmakers were one stage further removed, located in their workshops in Europe: the travels of Gerard de Jode, Petrus Plancius, Jodocus Hondius, Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, Abraham Ortelius, and Willem Blaeu (to name just a handful of the mapmakers whom Davies considers) were limited to Europe. We might thus expect their epistemological authority to be less convincing (indeed, this has often been how their knowledge has been treated in cartographic historiography).

Yet, as Davies insists, sixteenth century "geographical thinking [was] underpinned by maps [and] shaped ideas about indigenous bodies and temperaments" (6). Map-readers (ranging from collectors to statesmen) took maps' geographical and ethnographic information as authoritative because it conformed to preconceptions about how climate, geography, and "spatial thinking" (44) shaped human existence. Maps' monsters bolstered the authority of eye-witness testimony about New World monstrosity by enabling viewers to visualize the logic of ethnic difference implicit in much travel writing. Rather than aberrations clumsily distributed on empty spaces, mapmakers applied geo-humoral logic whereby human difference was understood through geographical (and particularly latitudinal) variation, in a cosmography inherited from the ancient Greeks. The depiction of difference on a Ptolemaic grid both visualized and codified difference across continents. They tied together [End Page 214] received ideas of the body and bodily...


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