Mapping Cultures

Mapping Cultures in the Early Modern World:

an exhibition curated by

Mr Zach Ghodsi

(Chapman University, California).


Sir Francis Bacon once advised that a traveller should carry a book or card with him in order to describe the country he was travelling to for later inquiry purposes.[1]This exhibition illustrates European involvement in exploring and expanding knowledge of regions like Ceylon, Scandinavia, Crimea, Transylvania, and Moldova. Early modern explorers brought back and published new information for kings, trading companies, and countrymen about the people, culture, and geography of these unfamiliar regions. These explorers wrote their accounts not based on the accuracy of what they saw, but to appeal to their financiers. Each travel account, however slanted, reflects tones and ideals of early anthropological observations through the ethnocentric texts and images produced.

Olaus Magnus

Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

Rome, 1555


This book studies the northern kingdoms’ social history, biology, meteorology, geography, folklore, and warfare. Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), explained that the people in Scandinavian kingdoms lived in, what he deemed to be, extreme coldness, and examined the vast lands and resources that could be found and cultivated by the Catholic Church. Sweden, under King Gustav Vasa (1496-1560), converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism in 1523, displacing Magnus and his brother Johannes Magnus (1488-1544), who was the then archbishop of Uppsala. Prior to this conversion, Olaus travelled around parts of Sweden and Norway, and mapped out the kingdoms from 1519 to1521.


His book started off as a commentary for his map, Carta Marina, (shown above) and his travels in those areas, but became a book on the history of the region based on his observations. Magnus’ book, like many travel accounts from this time period, misinformed the ‘civilized’ world by fabricating a false image of the kingdoms examined in the book, particularly Lapland.


The myths created in the book influenced how people looked at Lapland and Sweden. Lapland was illustrated as a region teaming with wizards spreading ‘dark magic’ across the land. These wizards are pictured as demons or trolls wrecking havoc on the land and the people with whom they go to battle. Prussia would later use these images to support their claims that Sweden was only able to defeat the Prussian army in the Thirty Years War with the help of such evil.[2]


Magnus painted this image of sea monsters swimming around the waters in the northern sea borders of Sweden. Olaus’ depiction of both sea monsters and the demonic wizards would later influence Jean Bodin (1530-1596), and his book De la demonomaie des sorciers (1580), which was an important source on witchcraft, monsters, and devils.[3]

Magnus’ tales of sea monsters, demons, and witchcraft shaped perceptions of Lapland and Sweden for over a century before Magnus de la Gardie (1622-1686), the regent for the son of the late king of Sweden Karl X Gustav (1622-1660), hired a professor of Law and Rhetoric at the University of Uppsala, Johannes Scheffer (1621-1679), in 1671 to write his famous book, L’Histoire du Laponie (1678), to change this damaging perception.

Johannes Scheffer

Histoire de la Laponie

Paris, 1678


This book examines the people of the Lapland region, at the time part of the Swedish Kingdom, and focuses on their culture, habits, geography, climate, agriculture, wildlife, and societal practices. As we have seen previous knowledge about the people of Lapland, also known as the Sami, came from Olaus Magnus’ book, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555), which depicted them as heathens, giving both Lapland and Sweden a bad reputation. It was not until 1671 that Magnus de la Gardie (1622-1686), the regent of the son of the late king Karl X Gustav (1622-1660), charged Scheffer to write an account of Lapland to demystify the rumours swirling around Europe about the region.

Scheffer (1621-1679), on the other hand, sought to change audiences’ perception and knowledge of the Sami. The Sami were skilled craftsmen who crafted tobacco boxes, boats, and tool cases to house their weapons.


The image above shows the tools needed to weave their intricate baskets, as well as their boots and other garments. These items were part of a skilled trade the Sami specialized in; these are only a few of the items that they sold to other clans and communities.


The Sami women were skilled tailors who embroidered clothes with gold and silver threads, wove fur gloves and boots, and also crafted straps for their sheaths. To find out more about Scheffer’s L’Histoire du Laponie see the Worth Library August 2014 Book of the Month.

Robert Knox

The Historical Relation of Ceylon

London, 1681



This book explores the Sinhalese people of the Kandy Kingdom, and their way of life. By observing their geography, flora, fauna, language, social hierarchy, food, and culture, Robert Knox (1641-1720), was able to convey knowledge of this unfamiliar region to the Royal Society, the East India Company, and the gentry class. He was on an expedition with his father in 1660 to Persia, when the mast on their ship, Anne, broke, and they drifted ashore on Ceylon. Both Knox and his father were captured by the Kandy people. Knox lived amongst the Sinhalese people for nineteen years, but his father died shortly after their capture. During his time in Kandy, he worked as a farmer, a moneylender, and a pedlar; he became fluent in Sinhalese and the kingdom’s customs. Knox immersed himself in the culture, wore traditional outfits, and even raised a child during his stay.[4] After escaping from the island through the Dutch fort stationed in Arippu in 1680, Knox started to write his accounts of Kandy. Upon his arrival in London, he reported to the East India Company, where the board hired Knox to write a book about his experiences, the people, agriculture, and societal customs of the kingdom of Kandy.


Knox wrote this book based on his accounts and observations he witnessed in Kandy. He held multiple professions in the kingdom, one of which was farming. Like the images shown above, he would tend to the land, and grow products that would be sold within and outside the kingdom. He was later tasked by the East India Company, because of this prior agricultural knowledge, to transplant the Sinhalese crops in other British settlements like St. Helena. Knox was also a pedlar of wares in Kandy; while selling and trading goods with people, he observed the social hierarchy of the kingdom and made observations concerning how the Kandy society represented themselves, their social norms, and how they classified each person within the kingdom.

 mapping11  mapping12

Knox’s observations were focused on studying the culture, biology, and geography of the island. These observations were used by both the Royal Society and the East India Company; the East India Company wanted to use the information to gain an edge over other trading companies in the spice trade. The circulation of travel information around European capitals and their colonial settlements was dangerous for trading companies, because any useful information could be used against them by rival companies.[5]The Dutch and French East India Company were competing for trade routes and resources with the British East India Company; all of these trading companies had a stake to claim in this region.

Marcin Broniowski

Tartarie descriptio

Cologne, 1595



This book surveys the regions of Crimea, Transylvania, and Moldova, as well as the kingdoms’ people and courts. Marcin Broniowski (d. 1624), an envoy for the Polish king, Stefan Batory (1533-1586), interpreted the political and social histories of these regions through the eyes of an ambassador. He was tasked in 1578 to map out Crimea and its terrain. Batory was a brilliant strategist, and it is thought that he wanted Crimea mapped out in order to better understand the geography of the land and prepare Poland for battle with the clans of Crimea.[6] Broniowski was secretary to Batory, as well as the Crimean ambassador for Poland. During his time in Crimea, he met with Persian Shahs to discuss politics between the two kingdoms and sojourned at their court.

Broniowski’s observations, like other envoys’ travel accounts, are distorted by their ethnocentric views and biases on certain matters. In his book, he resented having to genuflect while in the presence of the shah or the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.[7] There was also the issue that envoys would fabricate their accounts of their time in foreign kingdoms, making themselves and their king look better in order to keep up appearances at the foreign court. His map of Crimea, however, was very accurate, and was widely used until more modern maps were developed. He also mapped out the regions of Transylvania, now Romania, and Moldova.


These maps, along with Crimea, illustrate the extensive work the Polish monarchy engaged in to expand cartography in the Early Modern period.


Kolodziejczyk, Dariusz. “Semiotics of Behaviour in Early Modern Diplomacy: Polish Embassies in Istanbul and Bahcesaray,” Journal of Early Modern History 7, no. 3-4 (2003): 245-256.

Mikos, Michael J. “The Polish Kings and Cartography,” Imago Mundi 41 (1989): 76-86.

Sjoholm, Barbara. “Lapponia,” Harvard Review 29 (January 2005): 6-19.

Sjoholm, Barbara. “‘Things to Be Marvelled at Rather than Examined’: Olaus Magnus and ‘A Description of the Northern People,’” The Antioch Review 62, no. 2 (2004): 245-254.

Winterbottom, Anna. “Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal Society,” The British Journal for the History of Science 42, no. 4 (December 2009): 515-538.


Text: Mr Zach Ghodsi (Chapman University, California).


[1]Anna Winterbottom, “Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal Society,” The British Journal for the History of Science 42, no. 4 (December 2009): 517.

[2]Barbara Sjoholm, “Lapponia,” Harvard Review 29 (January 2005).

[3]Barbara Sjoholm, “‘Things to Be Marvelled at Rather than Examined’: Olaus Magnus and ‘A Description of the Northern People,’” The Antioch Review 62, no. 2 (2004): 252.

[4]Winterbottom, “Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon,” 533.

[5]Winterbottom, “Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon,” 524.

[6]Michael J. Mikos, “The Polish Kings and Cartography,” Imago Mundi 41 (1989): 76.

[7]Dariusz Kolodziejczyk, “Semiotics of Behaviour in Early Modern Diplomacy: Polish Embassies in Istanbul and Bahcesaray,” Journal of Early Modern History 7, no. 3-4 (2003): 251.

Scroll to Top