Thomas Harriot and His Contemporaries

This information is taken from an online exhibition created by Oriel's Librarian Marjory Szurko entitled 'Mapping the Spheres: Thomas Harriot and his contemporaries in the seventeenth century'.

The Medieval Map of the World

A World Map from the Rudimentum Novitiorum

Lübeck: Lucas Brandis, 1475. From the collection in Oriel College Library.

Two very early printed maps were published in the Rudimentum Novitiorum (Handbook for Beginners). One was a map of the world, and the other of Palestine. Both were woodcuts, printed from two blocks.

The world map (left) is medieval in its design, and is in pictorial form, with the Pope at the lower left, enthroned in Rome, while the Pillars of Hercules adorn the foot of the map. It is interesting to note that the word ‘America’ has been written in ink above the upper left quadrant in the Oriel copy. It is in the same handwriting as that on the flyleaf at the front of the book. Oriel’s copy has been coloured by a contemporary hand.

This map of the world derives from a long tradition of world maps based on Christian and medieval geographic concepts (mappaemundi). Many of the place-names and features on the map depict ideas of distant places or wonders that were generally derived from ancient travel.

A Map from the Liber Cronicarum

by Hartman Schedel, 1493. From the collection in Oriel College Library.

Known widely as the Nuremberg Chronicle, this book was designed to present a textual and pictorial history of the world from the creation to the fifteenth century. The Chronicle was published in a Latin and German edition in the same year. Oriel has the Latin edition, published on July 12th 1493. It was given to the College by John Jackman, a Fellow who practised as a physician in Oxford, and gave a selection of medical books and herbals to Oriel in 1600 after he left the College upon his marriage in 1586.

The Liber Cronicarum appeared in print just before the knowledge of Christopher Columbus’ discoveries re-shaped the contemporary world view. Schedel’s world map (Folio XII and XIII) is of the traditional type, omitting Scandinavia, southern Africa and the Far East, and depicting the Indian Ocean as landlocked. The woodcut is flanked by the figures of Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, who re-populated the earth after the flood. On the left hand side, and printed from a separate block, are pictures of outlandish creatures, taken from the accounts of classical and early medieval travellers.

Harriot's Travels to America: The new found land of Virginia

Thomas Harriot was a member of the short-lived colony which landed on Roanoke Island, Virginia, in June 1585 and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake in June 1586. Before the voyage Harriot had studied the local language from two Algonquian Indians who had been taken to England in 1584 by a reconnaissance expedition. He even invented a phonetic alphabet to represent the language, and used his knowledge in Virginia to study local social and religious customs, together with plants, animals, and produce.

Harriot published a summary of his survey as a pamphlet in 1588 entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. At a time of brutal violence between colonists and native inhabitants the text is remarkable for its sympathy towards Algonquian beliefs and customs.

The first image (above left) depicts the arrival of the English ships in ‘Virginia’ (now part of the state of South Carolina), and is an illustration from A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (De Bry edition, 1590) engraved by Theodor de Bry after the drawings of John White. [There is a reprint of the 1590 edition of this work in the Orielensia collection]. The second image (left) is a Map of Virginia derived from the drawing by John White.

*Excerpt from the text written by J J Roche from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, January 2011.

Harriot the Astronomer

Harriot’s map of the Moon. Source: Petworth house collection, HMC 241/9, ff. 26-30. (Courtesy of Lord Egremont and Leconfield).

It is indisputable that, when Harriot used his 6x Dutch telescope as an astronomical instrument to observe the Moon [in 1609], he was several months ahead of Galileo Galilei in Italy. Of course, Galileo’s researches achieved immediate fame and influence: he made sure of that by publishing his Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610.

Harriot’s manuscript records and drawings remained unknown until 1784, and the image attached was not published until 1965. Experts have come to acknowledge Harriot’s priority, but until very recently they have universally judged his sketches of the Moon to be inferior to Galileo’s. Robert Huerta still considers that when ‘Harriot and others tried to describe what they saw, the schemas or mental constructs they brought to the process of vision were not up to the task of correct interpretation.'

In the 1580s and 1590s Harriot had been a client of Sir Walter Ralegh, supplying him with expertise in branches of practical mathematics such as ballistics, astronomical navigation, surveying and mapping. All of these skills were crucial when Harriot sailed with Ralegh’s expedition to establish the colony in America named Virginia in honour of Elizabeth I. Harriot might have lacked Galileo’s skill in Florentine disegno techniques, but he knew how to map unfamiliar coastlines and territories.

Harriot saw the patches of light and dark on the Moon as lands and oceans: he referred to one patch as ‘the Caspian’. The conviction that the Moon had seas and continents, forests and plains just like Earth’s was common to the small number of radical Copernicans, which included Galileo, Kepler, Harriot and his English contemporary William Gilbert. Thus, for Harriot, the boundaries he drew on this map were literally littoral. This kind of cartography is concerned with the accurate depiction of relative spatial relations in two dimensions; it lacks the three-dimensional emphasis of topography...Harriot’s image represents the success of an English, non-Galilean yet pro-Copernican approach to depicting the Moon. [Given that Harriot thought the features he numbered 26 and 28 had moved], it might also represent the very first intentional, dated and precise observation of lunar libration in history.

*Excerpt from the text written by Stephen Pumfrey entitled Harriot’s maps of the Moon in Notes & Records of the Royal. Soc. 2009 63, 163-168 first published online April 15, 2009.

Walter Ralegh's History of the World

The History of the World by Sir Walter Ralegh. Printed for Thomas Basset et al. in 1687.

There is some proof that the navigator Sir Walter Ralegh was a member of Oriel, and he wrote The History of the World whilst in the Tower of London (having been charged with plotting against James I). The History was first printed in 1614. It was composed of five volumes but only reached as far as the second Macedonian War in 130 BC.

In the preface to the book, Ralegh says, “How unfit, and how unworthy a choice I have made of my selfe to undertake a worke of this mixture.” He goes on to refer to those who put him in the Tower as “ungentle and uncourteous Readers” but thanks them for putting him there “...for had it been otherwise, I should hardly have had the leisure, to have made myself a foole in print.”

Ralegh was released from the Tower, but was then involved in another expedition against the Spanish. Spanish influence at court was such that he was re-arrested on his previous charge and finally sentenced to be beheaded.

Catesby's 18th Century Maps of America

The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

by Mark Catesby (London, 2nd edition, 1754). From the collection of Oriel College Library.

Mark Catesby (1683–1749), naturalist...raised the means for starting on a voyage in 1712 to Virginia...and returned to England in 1719 with a collection of dried plants, reported to have been the most perfect ever brought into the country, which attracted the attention of men of science such as Sir Hans Sloane. With assistance from Sloane and others, Catesby went again to America in 1722 and sent from Carolina to his English subscribers large quantities of biological material. He also prepared for himself large drawings of birds, reptiles, fish, and plants, and explored the Bahama Islands in 1725.

In 1726 Catesby returned to England and at once set to work in preparing materials for his large and best-known work The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. This book included a new map drawn by Catesby showing the districts he had explored. The two volumes of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands contained over 200 plates, all the figures of the plants and animals being drawn and etched by Catesby himself.

The images left show the map drawn by Catesby and one of his animal illustrations (crabs).

*Excerpt from the text written by F. Nigel Hepper from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, January 2011.