In the final part of his series revealing the hidden treasures at the Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown examines a collection of some of the world’s oldest maps and atlases.
At a time when the next county – let alone the next country – was a complete mystery to most, a few hardy souls set about creating the first atlases of the world.
Maps from as far back as the 12th century and atlases from the 15th and 16th centuries – including one from as early as 1482, ten years before Columbus discovered America – are among one of the finest collections of its type in the UK, at Birmingham Central Library.
They give a unique insight into the Midlands and the rest of the known world during the Renaissance, when the invention of printing sped the dissemination of ideas at a time when many thought you could drop off the edge of the planet.
Many of the books – some of which are worth up to a £1 million – were donated by the businessman and philanthropist William Cadbury, whose Quaker ethos meant he was committed to the advancement of education and social welfare in Birmingham.
Among the highlights of the collection are the Ptolemy Cosmographia from 1482 and the six volumes of Civitates Orbis Terrarum – containing maps of cities of the world which took 46 years to make, concluding in 1618.
David Bishop, development manager in the library’s archives and heritage department, said: “There was no way of getting up in the air and surveying so it is remarkable that the maps are as accurate as they are.
“They would have been walking around with a compass, but that is it. It would have been done completely by hand.”
Ptolemy was created in the Renaissance period, hence – though incredibly detailed and accurate for its time – there is still a nod to the mythical, with faces shown blowing wind towards the land.
The book was named after Ptolemy, who lived between 100 and 178 AD, a hugely important geographer and astronomer working in Ancient Rome, whose work informed later mapmakers on the size of the Earth. All knowledge of these co-ordinates had been lost in the West for centuries, until his work was rediscovered in 1407.
The map shows Europe, part of Africa and part of Asia, but swathes of the planet – not least the Americas – are still missing.
Mr Bishop said the book – one of the very first to include several countries – is thought to be worth close to £1 million, but difficult to value as there is no real market for such rare items.
He said: “It is a traditional map in the middle but on the outsides it becomes more mythical because people just didn’t know what was there.
“The likeness of Europe is not bad – the rough outline is there, but it gets increasingly vague the further away you get.
“A lot of the world would have been done from ships where they would have been sailing around collecting information for things like this.”
The archives and heritage service of Birmingham Central Library contains a large collection of about 55,000 sheet maps and atlases, both historical and current, for the Birmingham area and the rest of the world.
Among those is Civitates Orbis Terrarum, which was one of the most accurate and intricate collections of maps of its time.
It contains hand-coloured views of towns, cities and countries all over the world, and was edited by Georg Braun and largely engraved by Franz Hogenberg. It eventually contained 546 prospects, bird’s-eye views and map views after several decades of work.
Mr Bishop said the work would eventually have paid off, as books were among the more lavish and expensive items to purchase in the 16th century.
He said: “Back then books like this would have been the ultimate status symbol. It would have been a way of showing how wealthy you were.
“It would have taken a number of years just to do the surveying, even before you started making the maps from hand.”
Another of the jewels of the heritage department is an atlas published by A. Lafreri in Rome, which contains five unique maps found in no other surviving copy.
Every Lafreri Atlas is rare and unique – and hence nearly impossible to value – as it contains a different blend of maps as requested by the wealthy purchaser of the day, and contains excellent quality maps printed from copper-plate engravings.
Bought many years ago by the library for £800, it is an example of the Renaissance period – with evidence of the growing understanding of the world meeting the mystical, including serpents in the sea.
On a more local level, the Saxton Atlas of England and Wales from 1579 provides a fascinating insight into the region before the onset of the industrial revolution.
Again, it is surprisingly accurate and intricate, with Birmingham shown as Bromychm, as it was then known.
Mr Bishop said: “By this point, about 100 years after Ptolemy, the shape of the country is almost the same as now.
“There are things like mermaids in the sea, and that was probably believed then – you have the mix of accuracy and the more mythical.
“It is pre-industrial revolution, so Birmingham was significantly different, but you still have places like Sutton Coldfield, Handsworth and Smethwick on the map.”
The library also holds a copy of the earliest English marine atlas, the Mariners Mirrour from 1588, and the later more comprehensive French marine atlas was called Le Neptune François from 1693.
The finely-coloured and decorated Grand Atlas by Blaeu, in 12 volumes, created in 1667, was an earlier acquisition, and the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, an atlas by John Speed in 1614, was presented to the library by Paul Cadbury in 1966.
With Birmingham Central Library set to move to its new home in Centenary Square next year, there are plans to make a greater feature of the maps and atlases, which compare with any collection at a UK public library.
Mr Bishop said there would be better facilities in the new library, and more of the maps would be made available on a new website, which is planned for launch early next year.