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Cartes et cartographies dans le monde anglophone aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles

Cartographic Monsters and the Rise of Empiricism

Manon Turban


Cet article étudie l’impact de l’empirisme sur les monstres cartographiques au dix-septième siècle à travers l’analyse de trois cartes : celle que Jodocus Hondius offre en 1598 du territoire décrit par Walter Ralegh dans The discouerie of the large, rich, and bevvtiful empire of Guiana (1596), celle que Thomas Edge livre de Spitzberg (1625), et celle publiée en 1631 dans A prospect of the most famous parts of the vvorld où John Speed représente la Chine. Ces trois cartes soulignent en effet la trajectoire des monstres cartographiques à une époque où l’empirisme l’emporte progressivement comme méthode d’investigation de la nature. Tandis que les créatures monstrueuses apparaissent encore à la toute fin du XVIe siècle grâce aux témoignages qui attestent leur existence, elles semblent ensuite condamnées à deux destins : elles paraissent s’évanouir pour céder la place à la faune de la région représentée ou sont mobilisées uniquement à des fins décoratives.

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1In “L’énigme des monstres. Aperçus sur l’histoire culturelle et scientifique de la monstruosité,” Jean Céard offers a definition of what early modern populations regarded as monstrous (18-19). He explains that monstrosity was generally equated with the rare or any deviation from what was deemed to be normal (18). Thus, the notion embraced a wide range of realities as is shown by the list Jean Céard draws of people and things described as monsters at the time:

Sont monstrueuses, par exemples, ces races d’hommes, supposées vivre en de lointaines contrées, au fond de l’Orient ou dans le grand Nord, qui s’écartent de la forme ordinaire de l’homme : les Arimaspes, qui n’ont qu’un œil ; les Astomes, qui, sans bouche, ne vivent que du fumet des aliments ; les Sciapodes, qui n’ont qu’un pied, mais immense ; les Géants ; les Nains ; mais aussi bien tous ceux qui, non plus dans leur conformation physique, mais dans leurs mœurs, s’écartent de l’ordinaire, comme les Troglodytes ou les Anthropophages. Allons plus loin : sont monstres les êtres vivants qui, tout en ressemblant à leurs parents, s’écartent de la forme ordinaire de leur genre : ainsi l’autruche, qui est un oiseau, mais un oiseau qui ne vole pas ; les exocets, qui sont des poissons, mais des poissons qui peuvent voler ; ou encore les toucans, dont le bec est disproportionné par rapport aux dimensions ordinaires des becs d’oiseaux. Allons encore plus loin, et ne nous limitons pas aux formes vivantes : par rapport aux pluies, une pluie de sang ou de grenouilles sera un monstre ; par rapport aux phénomènes célestes ou aériens, une comète ou une éclipse méritera ce nom. (19)

Be they monstrous races, animals whose behaviours or shapes were regarded as abnormal, or unusual meteorological phenomena, monsters appeared in the studies dedicated to the investigation of natural productions throughout the seventeenth century.

2While, in his reformed natural philosophy, Francis Bacon turned monstrous beings and things into keys that could help unlock the secrets of nature (Daston and Park 220-31), learned societies such as the Royal Society of London took special care in collecting descriptions of strange facts (Daston and Park 231-54). In The historie of four-footed beasts, the 1607 translation he offered of Conrad Gesner’s natural history book, English cleric Edward Topsell also mentions several monstrous races. Alongside cows, goats, or beavers, his readers could find unicorns (711-21), satyrs (12-15) and other fabulous species that mostly emerged in classical antiquity. Still mentioned in natural history books written in the early seventeenth century, this last category of monsters – inherited and fabulous – nonetheless seems to have progressively disappeared from investigations of natural phenomena as the years went by. Paradoxically, the different editions of The history of four-footed beasts flag this disappearance. Indeed, while a gorgon was pictured on the title page of the 1607 edition of the translation, it gave way to a weasel, an animal that could actually be observed, in the 1658 version of the text.

3The progressive disappearance of these inherited monsters from seventeenth-century studies appears to be the result of the emphasis laid on the necessity of deriving knowledge from first-hand experience of natural phenomena, a method often described as “empiricism.” In the light of this theory indeed, monsters were doomed to disappear from works investigating nature since they could not be actually encountered in the real world.

4It is important to indicate that this empirical approach to natural productions was far from being an invention of the seventeenth century. As early as classical antiquity, Aristotle had argued that experience was crucial and even the only possible way of building knowledge, as Peter Dear reminds us in “The Meaning of Experience” (106-107). This theory also found echoes in the Middle Ages and especially in the works of two Franciscans, one Scottish and the other English: John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (Priest 17-19). Going back to classical antiquity and medieval times, empiricism gained momentum in the sixteenth century. In the 1550s, indeed, the growing popularity of field trips, the creation of botanical gardens, and the emergence of anatomic theatres all testify to the desire to garner first-hand experience of natural phenomena (Blair 389).

  • 1 He also regarded the sense of sight as misleading (Hamou 30-38).

5Even though this method was not born in the seventeenth century, it nevertheless appears to have been increasingly encouraged at the time, especially in England. Thus, while their objects of study were quite different, both English physician William Harvey and English natural philosopher John Wilkins adopted this theory or/and explicitly defended it in the treatises they wrote (Dear 112-15; Hamou 47-54). The need to derive knowledge from experience also found a fierce advocate in Francis Bacon. The natural philosopher regarded this method as the only way to purify the investigation of nature from the prejudices that it inherited from past and contemporary sources (Cottegnies 113). Even if Bacon, Harvey, and Wilkins supported similar theories, it is worth noting that what they understood as “experience” varied. Thus, while the physician regarded his work primarily as “acquiring unmediated ocular evidence of the way things stood in the body” (Dear 112), Bacon seemed to have a broader understanding of experience.1 As Peter Dear notes, “by [experience Bacon] meant the scrupulous examination and collection of facts regarding the properties and behaviors of physical phenomenon” (111). In addition, he reckoned that activities such as “hunting, husbandry, gardening, shepherding, animal breeding, travelling, getting oriented in a forest, groping about in the dark, digesting food” could all allow “human beings [to] accumulate experience” (Giglioni 409).

6Deriving knowledge from a wide range of experiences, therefore, the seventeenth-century authors who used an empirical method also often insisted on the need to interpret the information provided by the senses with the intellect. As Giglioni indicates, for instance,

Bacon is extremely severe against all natural philosophical programmes in which experience is left to itself, as much as he is critical of the intellect when it is abandoned to its own devices (its idols). In his opinion, the domain of raw experience – “illiterate” experience – is barren, superstitious and obsessive. (409)

According to Bacon, the appropriate stance is not that of the empiricist or that of the rationalist, each respectively depicted as an ant and a spider (Priest 8). While investigating natural productions, the philosopher must act like the bee that gathers its nourishment in the outside world and then digests it (Priest 21): he must combine experience with reason.

7These preliminary remarks help specify the meaning given to “empiricism” in this paper. Used in the singular form to refer to a method that lays emphasis on first-hand experience of natural phenomena, this term does not suggest that there was only one version of this way of investigating the world. The need to combine the senses with the mind, which is expressed in seventeenth-century texts, invalidates the common philosophical opposition between empiricism and rationalism, arguing that while “empiricism is the thesis that there is no a priori metaphysical knowledge and all concepts are derived from experience” (Priest 5), “rationalism is the thesis that there is a priori metaphysical knowledge, or some concepts are not derived from experience, or both” (Priest 7). In the early modern period, indeed, the empirical approach to natural productions was not necessarily regarded as the opposite of rationalism and even sometimes pictured as interacting with it.

  • 2 Paula Findlen explains that, after its first edition in 1469, 55 editions of Pliny’s text had been (...)
  • 3 Pliny mentions them all as appears in the following extracts: “apes that be headed and long snouted (...)

8If the rise of empiricism caused scholars to gradually dismiss inherited monsters from natural history books, the works dedicated to the study of nature may not be the only early modern documents in which monsters record the wider adoption of this method. Maps could also offer fertile grounds for the appraisal of the impact of this theory on monsters since, up until the sixteenth century, it was quite common for them to represent fabulous monstrous creatures borrowed from former periods, and especially from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, an unprecedented piece of writing whose popularity is confirmed by its frequent reprinting in the sixteenth century.2 A case in point is Guillaume Le Testu’s 1556 atlas entitled Cosmographie Universelle. On the land called “India,” the monsters that appear, be they the dog-headed cynocephali, the headless Blemmies or the one-legged Sciapods, are indeed all Plinian (Service historique de la Défense, D.1.Z14, 28v).3

  • 4 Turned into ornaments, these monsters could be used to fill the gaps on maps, according to the aest (...)

9This paper contends that the impact of the empirical approach to the world can also be seen in the fate of cartographic monsters in the seventeenth century. The analysis of three maps drawn at that particular time will back up this hypothesis. In the first map, drawn in 1598 by Jodocus Hondius, the presence of classical monstrous races paradoxically reveals the adoption of an empirical method as the cartographic representation of these fanciful monsters is only made possible because first-hand experience of them is conjured up to certify that these creatures exist. Despite the pieces of evidence – mostly ocular – provided in this case, monsters then appear to have undergone the same treatment as their counterparts in natural history books: they disappear to give way to actual living species in Thomas Edge’s 1625 representation of Spitsbergen. And yet, even though they were affected by the rise of empiricism, maps did not necessarily cause monsters to completely disappear. They could still exist cartographically as is indicated by John Speed’s map of China published in 1631. What this paper intends to show is that this lingering monstrous presence does not invalidate empiricism since the monsters represented were not meant to depict actual beings but only to serve as ornaments.4

10Highlighting a possible fate for cartographic monsters as the empirical method became more widely adopted, this paper does not intend to suggest that this destiny concerned all monsters in the seventeenth century. It would clearly be a mistake to argue that inherited and/or fabulous monstrous creatures were doomed either to disappear or to serve as ornaments. As the 1677 text entitled “A Full account of a Large Prodigious Whale” mentioned in this paper shows, strange, unlifelike shapes still lingered in the seventeenth century. The growing empirical method therefore did not preclude the creative reinterpretation of reality, far from it.


11In 1598 a Flemish engraver and cartographer, Jodocus Hondius, drew a map of the land that Walter Ralegh described in his travel narrative, The discouerie of the large, rich, and bevvtiful empire of Guiana, which had been published two years earlier in London.

Fig.1: Jodocus Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596.... Jodocus Hondius excudit, 1598.

Fig.1: Jodocus Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596.... Jodocus Hondius excudit, 1598. / Bibliothèque nationale de France

  • 5 As mentioned earlier, Blemmies are described in Pliny’s text (96). Amazons appear several times in (...)

Interspersed with the names of rivers and cities, bristling with mountains, this cartographic representation also offers a glimpse of the creatures that supposedly inhabit the area. The shores of the River Amazon thus become the homelands of a wild boar, a lion, a stag, a dog, and, more surprisingly to contemporary eyes, of a headless man whose eyes, nose and mouth are in the middle of his chest and of a naked woman whose body is flanked by an enormous bow. Walter Ralegh and Jodocus Hondius were far from being the first to write about and to represent these two creatures commonly referred to as Blemmies and Amazons. These, in fact, appeared as early as classical Antiquity, especially in the list of monstrous races drawn by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia.5

12The mention of these monstrous races in Ralegh’s narrative and their depiction on Hondius’s map are not unproblematic. For want of being actually seen, the two monsters were increasingly deemed to be mere figments of past authors’ imagination. In Shakespeare’s Othello (ca. 1601), for instance, Iago describes as “fantastical lies,” the eponymous character’s mentions of “The Anthropophagi – and men whose heads / Grew beneath their shoulders” (2.1.214-15; 1.3.144-45). In a passage from his 1595 treatise on fencing in which he defends women, Italian writer Vincentio Saviolo argues that he will “passe by the Amazones, their story being counted fabulous, and mention [rather] some, whose valiant vertuous acts haue been recorded in true histories” (Ll2r.). By contrasting the accounts that mention the Amazons with what he calls “true histories,” and describing them as “fabulous,” Saviolo suggests that he does not believe that the warlike women actually exist. Ralegh’s narrative itself echoes this doubt as the English explorer writes that, while “[the] nation of people, whose heades appeare not aboue their shoulders […] may be thought a meere fable” (69), “[he…] was very desirous to understand the trueth of those warlike women, bicause of some it is beleeued, of others not” (23).

13In the face of such doubts, Ralegh feels compelled to justify the inclusion of these monsters in his narrative. To attest to their presence in Guiana, the English explorer uses a method which recalls the effort of contemporary natural philosophers and natural historians, among others, to provide first-hand testimonies of what they describe. Thus, he invokes eyewitnesses who can provide eye proof of the monsters’ existence. For instance, the fact that a race of headless humans live in the area is confirmed by a Spaniard whose words Ralegh reports:

After he [the Spaniard] knew that I had been in Guiana, and so far directly west as Caroli, the first question he asked me was whether I had seen any of the Ewaipanoma, which are those without heads: who being esteemed a most honest man of his word, and in all things else, told me that he had seen many of them. (71)

  • 6 Walter Ralegh adds that other people can testify to the existence of the Spaniard as yet another wa (...)

Here, the emphasis on sight – mentioned twice – and on the eyewitness’s reliability – the Spaniard is said to be “honest” – shows the importance given to human senses at the turn of the seventeenth century.6 When earlier in his narrative, Ralegh describes the Amazons, he also argues that his sources – natives of the region this time – had first-hand experience of the warlike women for they “had been in the river, and beyond it also,” where the monstrous race supposedly lives (23). He also stressed the reliability of the witnesses: their old age, their experiences – “the most ancient and best travelled of the Orenoqueponi” (Ralegh 23) – and social status – “I spake with a Casique or Lorde of people” (Ralegh 23) – appear to vouch for their being trustworthy as Line Cottegnies explains in “the Fantastic Ethnography of Sir Walter Ralegh and Baconian Experimentalism” (113-14).

14The parallel that may be drawn between the method Walter Ralegh uses and the empirical way of investigating the world also appears in the representations the English explorer offers of the two inherited monstrous races since they seem to derive more from the human shapes that can actually be encountered than from the fabulous tradition that gave their bodies monstrous, inhuman shapes. Walter Ralegh thus rejects the idea that Amazons cut their breasts off to shoot arrows with more ease as he writes: “that they cut off the right dug of their brest I do not finde to be true” (24). He also argues, as Line Cottegnies highlights (116-18), that Blemmies’ heads simply “appeare not above their shoulders” but are not necessarily missing (Ralegh 69). Jodocus Hondius does not seem to have paid heed to this subtle qualification in his representation of the monster, which he conventionally draws as headless and as having, as a result, his eyes, nose and mouth in the middle of his chest. However, his representation of the Amazon appears to match the description Ralegh makes of the warlike women since the monstrous woman on his map is depicted with uncut breasts. Following in the English explorer’s footsteps, Jodocus Hondius also shrinks away from the fabulous and monstrous representation of Amazons to give them more lifelike appearances.

15The juxtaposition of these monsters and actual animals, especially animals that are endemic to the Americas, also testifies to the fact that the cartographer echoes the empirical method while drawing his map. A case in point is the armadillo. Only visible in the “new world” and therefore absent from classical sources, its presence on the 1599 cartographic representation of Guiana reveals the new-found legitimacy of first-hand experience and especially of sight in the context of territorial discoveries.

  • 7 Even though it is named “Greneland,” the land it represents is in fact Spitsbergen, an isle off the (...)

16As time went by, these observable animals seem to have replaced inherited monsters on cartographic representations of the globe. Published in 1625 in Purchas his pilgrimes, Thomas Edge’s map of Spitsbergen offers a striking example of this disappearance of monstrous creatures in favour of the local fauna (Purchas 472-73).7


  • 8 Naturalists of the time put extra effort into including drawings drawn from life in their natural h (...)

17The desire to derive representations of the natural world from first-hand experience appears to have reached beyond the circles of learned societies in the seventeenth century. Not a scholar but a whaler and a merchant, Thomas Edge adopted a method similar to that of naturalists to draw his map of Spitsbergen. As did the pictures from natural history books, the representation he offered of the region stemmed from the actual observation of the specificities of the area, which he was able to explore in his many journeys there.8 The empirical approach Thomas Edge used does not aim to participate in knowledge-building but to secure funds by showing the many riches and economic potential of the North. Rooted in financial concerns, it caused the disappearance of monstrosity from an area and species that were often described as monstrous.

18The depiction of the North of Europe as a place rife with monsters appears in Olaus Magnus’s 1539 Carta Marina.

Fig.2: Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum deligentissime elaborata Anno Dni 1539.

Fig.2: Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum deligentissime elaborata Anno Dni 1539. / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

  • 9 The influence of this description in seventeenth-century England can also be seen in the fact that (...)

While a dragon devours its prey in the land called “Finmarchia,” monstrous creatures proliferate in what is now known as the Norwegian sea. Thus, a gigantic snake crushes a ship, the head of a sea-cow surfaces from underwater off the coast of Norway, and an enormous lobster tightly grips an unfortunate sailor in its claws. This representation of Northern Europe as teeming with monstrous creatures is confirmed in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Published in 1555, the text describes the inhabitants, both human and animal, of the region the Swedish author had drawn in his Carta Marina. Written in the middle of the sixteenth century, this Historia found an echo in England a hundred years later. Translated into English and published in 1658 under the title A compendious history of the Goths, Svvedes, & Vandals, and other northern nations written by Olaus Magnus, it circulated the idea that the area was inhabited by monstrous creatures well after its first printing.9 The chapter “Of the Horrible Monsters of the Coast of Norway,” for instance, conveys this idea as its opening sentences indicate:

There are monstrous fish on the Coasts or Sea of Norway, of unusual Names […] who shew their cruelty at first sight, and make men afraid to see them; and if men look long on them, they will fright and amaze them. Their Forms are horrible, their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes: the compass whereof is above eight or ten cubits: the Apple of the Eye is of one Cubit, and is red and fiery coloured, which in the dark night appears to Fisher-men afar off under Waters, as a burning fire, having hairs like Goose-Feathers, thick and long, like a Beard hanging down; the rest of the body, for the greatness of the head, which is square, is very small, not being above 14 or 15 Cubits long; one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners. (Magnus, A compendious history 225)

  • 10 The last drawing, which represents neither whales nor walruses, depicts different ways of killing b (...)

Even though he represents the same region, Thomas Edge banishes these dreadful and strangely shaped monsters from his map of Spitsbergen by focusing – for economic reasons – only on the animals he could actually encounter in the area. Monstrous aquatic creatures thus give way to cranes, bears, but most of all to walruses, and whales, which are represented both on the map itself and in ten of the eleven drawings that frame it. Two of these drawings offer close-ups of each of the animals, while the others explain how to hunt them.10 These depictions of whales and walruses also deprive the area of its alleged monstrosity since, being lifelike to lay emphasis on the economic potential of the animals, they shrink away from the traditional – and enduring – representation of whales and walruses as monsters.

  • 11 Gesner’s comments on these illustrations suggests that he did not entirely believe that they were r (...)

19Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina offers a good example of the monstrous traits that were traditionally given to whales. With its boar-like tusks, its paws, its two protruding blowholes, and malicious eye, the monster depicted in the left-hand corner of the map can hardly be recognised as a whale by modern eyes. And yet, it is this animal that the Swedish author intended to represent as can be inferred from the term “balena” written on it. Walruses were also given monstrous features as is shown by the two illustrations of the animals that appeared in the 1558 edition of the third book of Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium, a book focusing on fish and other sea creatures. In the first drawing, the walrus is represented with tusks that jut out from its lower jaw and as a quadruped with a fish tail (Gesner 249).11 The second picture also turns it into a four-footed beast with a fish tail and adds two lateral fins on top of its front legs (Gesner 250). The seventeenth century did not put an end to these representations. The picture of a whale that appears on the title page of a 1677 anonymous text entitled “A Full account of a Large Prodigious Whale” gives the animal a monstrous aspect as sharp teeth are menacingly revealed by its gaping mouth, two blowholes crown its head, and three fins sprout from its neck. As to walruses, they still appear as aquatic quadrupeds in the description that English botanist and physician Nehemiah Grew wrote in 1685: “the MORSE: so called by the Muscovites; by the Danes, Rosmarus […] hath four feet, and his Body shapen not much unlike the SEA-CALF” (88).

20On Thomas Edge’s map, the monstrous representation of the two animals is dismissed. Whales have lost their tusks, while these attributes have moved from the lower to the upper jaws of walruses. Moreover, both animals no longer appear as hybrids: their paws have been replaced with flippers. The effort to offer lifelike depictions of whales and walruses also appears in the mention of their actual sizes, the map indicating that they are respectively “about 60-foote longe” and “in quantity as bigg as an oxe.” The realism of the drawings on the map is echoed in the description that Thomas Edge gave of the animals and that Samuel Purchas inserted in his Pilgrimes. In this text, the sharp teeth or tusks that used to appear in the conventional representations of whales as monsters are replaced with whalebone, which he calls “finnes,” of which a rather faithful description is given:

These finnes are fastned or rooted in his vpper chap, and spread ouer his tongue on both sides his mouth, being in number about two hundred and fiftie on one side, and as many on the other side. The longest finnes are placed in the midst of his mouth, and the rest doe shorten by their proportionable degrees, backward and forwards, from ten or eleuen foot long to foure inches in length. (Purchas 470)

The malicious eyes that whales were used to displaying are replaced by “eyes [which] are not much bigger than an Oxes eyes,” while the four legs of the mammals give way to a “tail [… of] about twentie foot broad, and […] two swimming finnes” (Purchas 470). Ranging from black to white, the colours of each of the eight sorts of whales Thomas Edge then goes on to describe are also much more sober than those displayed in the monstrous depictions of the animal (Purchas 471-72).

21If the empirical method Thomas Edge used to draw his map caused the disappearance of monsters, the more general rise of this way of investigating the world did not lead to the complete demise of cartographic monsters in the seventeenth century. Indeed, some eerie shapes still lingered on maps as is shown by the representation of China that was drawn by John Speed, an English cartographer, and that was posthumously published in 1631 in A prospect of the most famous parts of the vvorld (37-38).


22On this cartographic representation of China, several monsters can indeed be spotted.

Fig.3: John Speed, The Kingdom of China nawly angmented / by I.S... The Germanian, 1626.

Fig.3: John Speed, The Kingdom of China nawly angmented / by I.S... The Germanian, 1626. / Bibliothèque nationale de France

23An aquatic beast, threateningly revealing its sharp teeth, surfaces from what is referred to as “the Chinian Ocean,” while eerie shapes – most of them hybrid – appear in the north west. This monstrous presence shows that the wider adoption of empiricism did not cause monsters to suddenly disappear from early seventeenth-century maps. John Speed’s fanciful shapes do not contradict this approach to the natural world, however, since they appear to have been conjured up to serve more as ornaments than as representations of actual beings.

24Thus, the hybrids that John Speed locates in the north west of China do not depict monstrous faraway peoples. They are instead conjured up to picture the illusions – both ephemeral and ungraspable – that humans are said to suffer from in this region as the description that comes with them explains: “In ye deserte Lop and Belgian, men are thought to be seduced by wonderful illusions and devilish spitting.” John Speed seems to have given these monsters particular care as he drew them. He represented a total of fifteen monstrous shapes, each displaying unique features: some are two-legged, and some appear as quadrupeds; some have wings while the others have arms; some have claws when the others have feet; some have bird-like beaks whereas the others have snouts; some resemble humans while the others look rather like birds or monkeys. Such meticulous drawing of each of the illusions could appear as an invitation to the reader of A prospect of the most famous parts of the vvorld to take a closer look at these monsters. This invitation is also made thanks to the visual emphasis laid on the strange creatures. By allowing them to frolic over quite a wide area, John Speed indeed seems to have made sure that these monsters would quickly catch the attention of the people looking at his map.

25It may come as a surprise that the cartographer should give such importance to these “wonderful illusions and devilish spitting” as they appear quite anecdotal when compared to the other elements that are drawn on the map, namely the floods that are said to plague the country, the Great Wall of China, and major cities. All of them are both drawn and described on the map as well as mentioned in “the Description of the Kingdome of China” that comes with this cartographic representation (Speed, A Prospect 37-38). Thus, while the “Description” reads: “the largest Citie of the world […] is subject to Floods” (38), the map explains: “in the Province of Sancy was made a rounde lake here by a deluge in the yeare 1557 […] onely one boye was saved in the body of a tree,” a tragic episode which is drawn. The Great Wall is also depicted on the map, where it appears with the following sentence: “a wall of 400 leages, betwixt the bankes of ye hilles, built of ye King of China against ye breaking in of ye Tartars in this side.” The “Description” adds: “on the North the Empire of the great Chane [is] severed from the Chinoyse by high mountains, continued with a wall of a thousand miles in length, built by Tzanitzon, their 117 King” (37). Finally, major cities are visually indicated through the use of a common symbol representing several buildings, their names are written on the map as well as mentioned in the “Description” (37-38).

  • 12 For further information on grotesque motifs and on the various places where monsters were exhibited (...)

26Since they are not mentioned in the “Description” that comes with the map, why should the hybrids be given the same iconographic importance as the floods, the Great Wall, or cities? What’s more, why did John Speed draw them so meticulously? The emphasis laid on these monsters and the particular care given to them can be understood as ways for the cartographer to please his audience at a time that witnessed extreme fondness for wonders. Be they from the natural world, and called naturalia, or handmade, and described as artificialia, wonders are defined by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park as: “constitut[ing] a distinct ontological category [for medieval and early modern populations], the preternatural, suspended between the mundane and the miraculous” (14). Because of their singular shapes, their apparent deviations from what was deemed ordinary, monsters would frequently be classified in this category. The proliferation of places where strange objects and beings could be seen testifies to the keen interest that these wonders sparked in sixteenth and seventeenth-century populations. While grotesque motifs flourished in mannerist works of art, cabinets of curiosities gathered together naturalia and artificialia, and fairs, taverns, private houses, and even royal courts were turned into places where monstrous bodies could be exhibited.12

27In the light of this taste for the rare and the curious, and, therefore, for the monstrous, the fanciful hybrids on John Speed’s representation of China could have been conjured up to enthral the cartographer’s contemporaries. This hypothesis is all the more probable as the map mentions another wonder that was allegedly found in China, namely a strangely fireproof material that was used to weave clothes. Between the representations and descriptions of the monsters and of the Great Wall of China, a short text reads: “in this country is a hill, out of the wch Earth is digged wth small haires like vnto grasse, wch being spun or wouen and ye clothe thereof being cast into ye fire is not burned.” The inclusion of another purely decorative monster on the map also confirms John Speed’s desire to satisfy his readers’ taste for wonders.

28With its exaggeratedly aggressive posture, its sharp teeth, and its fins resembling oversized ears, the aquatic creature lurking between the waves of the “Chinian Ocean” appears to be the result of artistic licence rather than evidence of an effort to represent an actual aquatic creature. John Speed is not the only seventeenth-century cartographer to display such licence when it comes to depicting marine animals as appears, for instance, in the eerie shapes that surface from the oceans on William Blaeu and Joshua van den Ende’s 1606 Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis, or from Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1652 Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis. The rise of empiricism in the seventeenth century may explain why oceans and seas offered particularly fertile ground for the emergence of fanciful monsters. The technologies available at the time made it difficult to explore the marine world as thoroughly as the lands and possibly led to empirical constraints having a lesser impact on the representation of the animals living underwater.


29Drawn in the last decade of the sixteenth century, Jan Doetecom’s Nova Francia, seems to point to a period of transition for cartographic monsters. As Chet Van Duzer suggests, this map draws on a traditional representation of marine creatures as monstrous while simultaneously testifying to a new realistic approach to fish and aquatic mammals (110-12). While the sea monsters that appear in the Atlantic seem to be directly derived from Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, with their gaping jaws, their sharp teeth, and their several blowholes, those in the inset “look completely different […] much more lifelike,” and can thus unambiguously be recognised as whales by modern eyes (111). If aquatic monsters are still present on this map, Van Duzer nevertheless argues that:

With the close of the sixteenth century, the period of the most florid development and widest use of sea monsters on maps had come to an end. New and more lifelike images of sea creatures were available and copied onto maps, and in addition, human beings’ technological advances gave them more control over the creatures in the ocean, and depictions that reflected these developments effectively removed the animals portrayed from the category of monster. (114-15)

30Besides the increasing availability of realistic depictions of aquatic animals and the human technological control over them, the gradual disappearance of sea and of land monsters from seventeenth-century maps could stem from the wider adoption of empiricism in the period, as this paper argued. Even though some monstrous creatures still featured on maps drawn at the turn of the seventeenth century when first-hand testimonies backed up their existence, they could not but vanish in later cartographic productions as they were nowhere to be found on the globe.

31However, the rise of empiricism is not only recorded in the disappearance of monsters from maps. It is also signalled by their being used as ornaments. Seventeenth-century maps are certainly not the first to turn monsters into mere decorations, as the category of “whimsical” monsters coined by Chet Van Duzer suggests. Not intended to represent living creatures but rather to show one’s artistic talent, these “whimsical” monsters appeared very early in cartographic representations of the world and became quite common on sixteenth-century maps (Van Duzer 58-78; 92-120). However, as empiricism became more widely adopted, this use of monsters as ornaments seems to have become the only possibility monstrous creatures had to appear on maps. Whereas past cartographic representations of the world still conjured up monsters to depict what people believed to be actual beings, this became progressively impossible as first-hand experience of natural phenomena emerged as one of the dominant ways of building knowledge.

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1 He also regarded the sense of sight as misleading (Hamou 30-38).

2 Paula Findlen explains that, after its first edition in 1469, 55 editions of Pliny’s text had been printed by 1600 (439).

3 Pliny mentions them all as appears in the following extracts: “apes that be headed and long snouted like dogs, and thereof called Cynocephali, are of all other most curst, shrewd and vnhappy” (232); “the Blemmyi, by report haue no heads, but mouth and eies both in their brest” (96); “there is a kind of people named Monoscelli, that haue but one leg appeace, but they are most nimble, and hop wondrous swiftly. The same men are also called Sciopodes” (156).

4 Turned into ornaments, these monsters could be used to fill the gaps on maps, according to the aesthetic principle of horror vacui. This particular use of monsters could have had more than mere aesthetic functions and played a political part as is suggested by MacMillan.

5 As mentioned earlier, Blemmies are described in Pliny’s text (96). Amazons appear several times in Naturalis Historia, as the following passages indicate: “but vpon the sea coast, yee haue Manteium, and Ephesus, founded in times past by the Amazones” (108); “first of all are the Sauromatae, surnamed Gynaecocratumeni […] from whence the Amazones are prouided and furnished of men to serue their turne in stead of husbands” (118).

6 Walter Ralegh adds that other people can testify to the existence of the Spaniard as yet another way to convince his readership of the authenticity of the latter’s account: “I may not name him because it may be for his disaduantage, but he is well knowen to Monsier Mucherons sonne of London, and to Peter Mucheron marchant of the Flemish shippe that was there in trade, who also heard what he auowed to be true of those people” (71).

For further information on the sense of sight and how it was used to investigate nature, see Philippe Hamou, La Mutation du visible: Microscopes et télescopes en Angleterre de Bacon à Hooke.

7 Even though it is named “Greneland,” the land it represents is in fact Spitsbergen, an isle off the coast of Norway. “Greenland” was indeed the name the English commonly gave to the place as the following extract from Purchas his pilgrimes indicates: “And this is that Land which now is called Greenland, or King Iames his New-land, and is knowne to the Hollanders by the name of Spitsbergen” (463).

8 Naturalists of the time put extra effort into including drawings drawn from life in their natural history books (Margócsy 73). These drawings, however, did not suddenly replace, invalidate or preclude former or fabulous representations of species (Margócsy 76).

9 The influence of this description in seventeenth-century England can also be seen in the fact that it is mentioned by Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle in some of his studies (138).

10 The last drawing, which represents neither whales nor walruses, depicts different ways of killing bears.

11 Gesner’s comments on these illustrations suggests that he did not entirely believe that they were reliable. He explains that, if the head was drawn from life, the rest of the body is speculation. He reckons, however, that walruses had feet (Margócsy 74).

12 For further information on grotesque motifs and on the various places where monsters were exhibited see Philippe Morel (29-39) and Mark Thornton-Burnett (77-97). On early modern cabinets of curiosities, see for instance Krzysztof Pomian, Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux. Paris-Venise, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle or Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (1998, 265-76).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.2: Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum deligentissime elaborata Anno Dni 1539.
Crédits / Bibliothèque nationale de France.
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Titre Fig.3: John Speed, The Kingdom of China nawly angmented / by I.S... The Germanian, 1626.
Crédits / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Fichier image/jpeg, 941k
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Manon Turban, « Cartographic Monsters and the Rise of Empiricism »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 78 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 28 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Manon Turban

Manon Turban is a PhD candidate at Université de Paris. Her thesis on monsters and emotions in Shakespeare’s plays is supervised by Prof. Ladan Niayesh.

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