Unknown Europe: The Mapping of the Northern countries by Olaus Magnus in 1539
By Leena Miekkavaara
Belgeo: Review Belge de Geographie, Vol.3:4 (2008)
Abstract: Olaus Magnus, a highly educated Swedish priest and scholar, published his geographically and ethnographically remarkable map of the Northern countries, the Carta marina, in Venice in 1539. During his travels in southern and central Europe Olaus Magnus had noticed how little people knew about the northern regions. Through the map he wanted to remove this obscurity.
The map – which was one of the largest maps of its time (woodcut, 125 x 170 cm) – changed the cartographic representation of the Northern countries profoundly for nearly a hundred years. Due to its numerous illustrations and commentaries, the map was and is a fascinating description of the life in the region during the sixteenth century. The Carta marina was accepted, and it became a model for many cartographers in depicting the Northern countries. Even today the map fascinates the scholars, and many questions are still left unsolved.
Introduction: At the beginning of the 16th century the Northern countries were a very unknown region to most people in southern Europe. The information about the North was based on the descriptions written in the Antiquity and Medieval times, and depicted on few maps. The region was often described as an island in a nameless northern sea, or as an east-to-west “peninsula” resembling the shape of an oak leaf. Before Olaus Magnus’s map, the most important earliest maps of the Nordic countries – that have survived to our days – were in addition to the map published in 1532 by the Bavarian Jacob Ziegler – those that appeared in the numerous printed “Ptolemy Editions”. They were based on the map compiled in 1427 by the first Nordic cartographer, the Dane Claudius Clavus, and improved by the German Nicolaus Germanus. The cartographic representation of the North was, however, quite faulty and far from reality.