Today In Fact, 2 April

I love maps. Wherever I go I must get a map to explore. Maps allow my imagination to fly and, drawn as they are, from a bird’s eye view, maps allow me to feel some measure of control even in a strange city. I was taught to read maps and to draw them in Boy Scouts and have used them ever since. Maps are inventions. Maps must be read and studied in particular ways. Maps around the world share a remarkable consistency. We owe our thinking about the maps and our shared world map to a gentle, diligent man who lived in Antwerp in the 16th century. A man who nonetheless, considered us all damned.

Abraham Ortelius was born was born today in 1527 in Antwerp, Belgium. He died over 70 years later in 1598 and was buried in his hometown, Antwerp. His tomb at the local Abbey has the inscription “Quietis Cultor sine bit, uxore, prole,” which loosely translated means “served quietly, without accusation, wife, and offspring.”

The death of his father in 1535, who had been a wealthy merchant, seems to have placed Abraham’s family in difficulties, for Abraham began to trade in geographical charts and maps while still a mere youth. At the age of twenty, he joined a local guild as a colourer of charts.

His chief occupation it seems, involved purchasing as many valuable maps as possible, mounting them on canvas, colouring, and re-selling them. This enterprise supported his family and was probably one of the main reasons for his unusually extended trips to Germany, England, Italy, and particularly for his annual visits to the great fair at Leipzig.

Abraham published a world atlas, generally considered the first modern world atlas. His “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum”(Theatre of the World) was published in the 1570’s. His world map was designed in such a way as to allow it to be improved over the years as new editions were published.

The world atlas that he published contained a reference section at the back. This was an innovation in scholarship, and so we owe to Abraham Ortelius, the very idea of a bibliography and reference section to serious works of scholarship. Something that every scholar takes for granted and often curses the need to do before their work can be published.

This surely would be enough to mark Abraham for fame but he is also considered to be the first put forward the idea of continental drift; he thought he could see, in his maps, how the Americas were “torn” away from Europe and Africa.

All good stuff eh? Well it never really is that simple. Abraham Ortelius seems to have belonged to a secretive Christian sect known as the “Family of Love”. The Family of Love or “Familists” was founded in the sixteenth century by Henry Nicholis, and prospered in England, Holland and Belgium.

This sect avoided bold public statements of their adherence to different beliefs than those of their neighbours. Instead members served quietly in their communities and churches, safe in the sure knowledge that they alone were “saved”.

There is a strange map which probably was drawn by Abraham and gives us an insight into his worldview. It is known as the “Clown Cap Map” and contains many Latin inscriptions deriding humanity. It would seem that the inscription on his tomb;”..without accusation…” might have an ironic twist to it?

If Abraham had publicly announced his religious beliefs, that all those apart from members of his elite sect were damned to eternal perdition, he would surely have not lived long enough to publish his world Atlas, or to have introduced the idea of a reference section to scholarly works or come up with the idea of continental drift. Those were intolerant times and by surrendering, at least outwardly to the powers that be, Abraham was able to make serious contributions to our civilization. Therein lies the irony; why bother to make any contribution to our civilization if it was damned?

If, however he had resisted the authoritarianism of the times and boldly made public his dissenting views, he might have encouraged others and helped to quicken our enlightenment but would have been very dead.

So which is better; to resist, or to surrender? It seems that Abraham Ortelius chose the quiet, if ironic surrender to heroic and perhaps futile resistance.

– Douglas Racionzer (you can read more of Doug’s quirky glances at history at