Old Maps


Our Daily Correspondent

Islandia, a map by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1590.

Many years ago, on a family vacation in another country, we took an English-language tour of a medieval university. The group saw the antique telescopes and charts used by famous astronomers, and the stone-floored laboratories where philosophers had tried to turn lead into gold. And there was a room filled with maps—sixteenth-century maps, we were told. These were objects of beauty, filled with colors and sea monsters, fanciful by modern standards. 

The earnest young guide pointed out the map’s many inaccuracies. India was mere steps from Greenland; oceans shrank and distended themselves seemingly on a whim; North America was the size of a pea. Everyone laughed and crowded closer to point out the mistakes, shaking our heads at the folly of earlier people. How little they knew about themselves in relationship to the world!

Why did it make me so angry? I’m sure none of these museumgoers was smug and jeering—and what if they had been? The cartographer had been in his grave for centuries. And yet I was furious: it seemed to me the height of arrogance to mock people for not knowing what we do now. How much do we take on faith today? Living five hundred years ago, I would surely have trusted the scholars who made these maps, who wrested some idea of the world from others who had sailed for weeks and months and kept charts with all the precision they could muster. Hell, if asked now, I probably couldn’t draw a map as accurate as this one. 

I wish I could say I was thinking something grander—about colonialism, maybe, or shortsighted global arrogance. But I wasn’t, I don’t think. This was around the age when I self-described as a deist and exclusively wore 1940s-era housedresses. I was probably just mad: angry at older people, at the world, at my family, and obscurely humiliated by my role in the human race.

Now I think that maybe my anger wasn’t completely unjustified. But that, in a sense, the smug, modern superiority that so enraged me was “progress”—the most literal form of it. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.