British Museum blog

The role of maps in Shakespeare’s England

Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections, British Library

The most obvious place a person in Shakespeare’s England would have encountered a map would have been in a Bible. Protestant Bibles in particular contained maps to prove the veracity of the scriptures, and this tells us a lot about the role of maps in society. Maps were used sometimes (but not often) to get from A to B, and from about the 1520s onwards for administration purposes, but most of all they were regarded, quite consciously, as stages for human history.

If you were lucky enough, you might have been invited into the home of a merchant. It’s quite likely you would have seen wall maps adorning his parlour and his dining room. The most common maps would have shown the Holy Land as well as maps of the continents of the world. These maps were not there to show where his ships were travelling – their purpose was to show that its owner was a man who knew about the world.

Most wall maps served propagandas purposes. On the whole maps, whatever their size, were much more useful for merchants than for seamen. The merchant could use them for planning purposes but, as English sailors told the authorities repeatedly in the 16th century, charts weren’t much use once you were actually at sea because in the northern Atlantic it was usually so misty you couldn’t see any coastlines: it was far more practical to navigate using a plumb line to measure the depth of the sea, rather like a mole on land.

So rather than maps being navigational tools, maps – when not being used for practical purposes on land – tended to be symbolic, and educational. In 1570 the first modern atlas of printed maps was published, called The Theatre of the Lands of the World. This idea of the world as a stage, picked up by Shakespeare, was around long beforehand.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme England Goes Global:
Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal

Find out more:
The unveiling of Britain – maps of the British Isles
Maps at the British Library
Maps at the National Maritime Museum
British Library

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. From childhood, I felt fascinated by maps.. and had this feeling that knowing them would make me knowledgeable about that country/world! So, I too agree that perhaps the ancient merchants too showed their wealth of knowledge in terms of maps.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,941 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,941 other followers

%d bloggers like this: