Abraham Ortelius his epitome of the theatre of the worlde

Abraham Ortelius is widely recognized as the inventor of the modern atlas with the publication of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in 1570. He was trained as an engraver, traveled widely, became interested in map making through his friendship with Gerardus Mercator, and began compiling maps from the best cartographers of the time. His first edition of Theatrum contained 70 maps on 53 leaves, presented in similar style with supporting scholarly text, and logically arranged by continents. The atlas became widely popular. Three Latin editions and editions in Dutch, French, and German appeared before 1573. Ortelius continued to improve the maps and enlarge his atlas. By the time of his death in 1598, 25 editions had been printed, but none with English text until 1606.  

For those who could not afford Theatrum, an oblong “pocket version” of the atlas, the Epitome, was published in 1577 with eleven editions printed within two decades. The book came to England circa 1603 in two editions (of uncertain order), one translated from Latin and the other from Micheal Coignet’s French edition (the present copy). These were the first English-language world atlases. 

Copies of this edition of Epitome include 123 full-page (but miniature) engraved maps with facing text that describe the region’s towns, people, topography, agriculture and mining, and other features of interest. Continental Europe comprises the bulk of the maps; America is but one map; and the British Isles are scantily depicted in maps of Anglia, Scotia, and Hibernia. While generally positive about most regions, the text reveals long-standing nationality characterizations. We learn that the French are “very prompte of witt, curious, vnstedfaste, desirous of noveltie, enemies to quiett and peace, geven muche to pleasure and lust;” the Spanish are “much addicted to melacholie, vvhich make the graue in behauior and slow in theyr eantierprises;” and in Saxony “theyr drinke being for the most part beere, vvhereof they drinke extremelie.” 

Of distant lands, the description of China is strikingly positive and respectful. “All thinges vvhiche are vvritten of this countrie are so strange … [yet] may be beleeued. This is the moste famousest kingdome, not only in Asia, but of all the worlde.” The people are “industrious and carefull” and “They haue politicke lavves, which they obserue with all rigor.” The Great Wall of China is the only man-made feature present on any of the maps.

Chrzanowski 1603o *

STC 18956

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675