Why is the Mercator projection bad

Images in history and politics

Dr. Ute Schneider

To person

HD Dr. Ute Schneider, studied history and general linguistics at the University of Düsseldorf; since 2003 university lecturer for modern and contemporary history at the TU Darmstadt; also editor-in-chief of the "New Political Literature (NPL)"; several monographs, including "Die Macht der Karten" (Darmstadt 2004); "Various projects in the field of cultural and social history

Maps store knowledge. The choice of information, however, often also reflects the prevailing discourses of their time.

The picture of the world

Card of a student
A group of students should draw the world; the result caused great astonishment for everyone, because the number of different worlds corresponded to the number of seminar participants. The depiction was striking because of its color and other features. While others had projected the world onto a surface, this illustrator had opted for the globe. Therefore it could not depict all countries, but it did depict parts of North and South America, Europe and Africa; Asia is absent, as is Greenland in the north. The viewer's gaze falls on Europe, the center of the map. This representation corresponds to the European images of the world as we know it from atlases and other media.


The student has added another piece of information to their illustration. Instead of drawing mountains, cities, rivers or lakes as usual, she drew people. They may refer to inhabited regions, but they may mean even more. The people are by no means evenly distributed: Africa and South America are heavily populated, the other countries and continents are rather thin. Intuitively and without being asked, the student had inserted knowledge and ideas about the world and the problems of different population densities into her drawing. The figure does not show the extent to which she had the problem of overpopulation and nutrition in her head.

The card phenomenon

Maps store knowledge and contain information related to space, but this does not have to be restricted to geographical aspects. To this day, the storage of knowledge is mostly tied to institutions such as church and state or to people from the social elite. Maps are therefore always a means and an expression of power, as the American geographer Brian Harley once put it. In addition, to a certain extent, the choice of information depends on the decisions of the cartographers. And because they too are children of their time, the predominant discourses and worldviews involuntarily flow into their maps. Maps do not depict reality in an "objective" sense, but rather in the sense of contemporary interpretations, norms and contemporary knowledge. Like texts, maps have a surface and so-called sub-texts, which can only be understood if the maps are viewed in the context of their time of creation. [Fig. 2, knight; Fig. 3, Stiehler]

Deciphering cartographic messages requires the ability of contemporaries to read maps. This seems natural to us today, but it probably only became a general cultural technique in the course of the 19th century. So far we know very little about the distribution and use of maps among the population. However, it seems that the military and schools, which have become general duties in Europe since the 19th century, also contributed to the spread of cards and thus card reading.

The world map stands for the world

Maps are a fascinating medium that everyone comes into contact with at school at the latest, with the Diercke Atlas and Putzger's Historical World Atlas. Some people even spontaneously remember certain favorite cards, their colors, country outlines or thick black arrows. With these maps in the head we speak of "mental maps" or "cognitive maps", which, however, can also be considerably more than representations of topographic conditions.

Postage stamp of the Deutsche Post (& copy Deutsche Post)
Cognitive maps are tricky because they have their own white spots and distortions that we are generally unaware of. The example of the designer of this stamp is not an isolated case. She was completely surprised when she heard about the protest from Iceland and Greenland against her badge, and that there was even demand for it to be crushed. She hadn't noticed that Greenland and Iceland were missing from her map. Her attempt to explain that a world map does not depend on the individual countries, refers to the individual structure of their cognitive map and their specific blindness.

Organizational principles

An important prerequisite for understanding real maps are organizational principles and standards that allow us to read a map like a book. If one disregards language skills and slight differences in the projection, we can orientate ourselves in a Chinese, African or South American world map in the same way as we can understand pictograms without even knowing the language of their draftsman. The fact that reading maps presents us with relatively few problems nowadays is a result of various developments in the early modern period. This is illustrated by a look at medieval European maps of the world. We cannot read them until we know their organizational principles.

Paradise, excerpt from the Ebstorf world map (& copy uni-lueneburg.de)
In contrast to the maps we are familiar with, medieval world maps, the so-called mappae mundi like the famous Ebstorf world map, are organized not according to topographical criteria, but according to criteria of salvation history. In the case of the Ebstorf map, this is already clear from the frame, because it is Christ who in a sense carries the world with his body. In the center, the navel of the world, is the earthly Jerusalem, which also always shows the heavenly Jerusalem. In contrast to today's standards, the map is not north, but oriented to the east, because the medieval people assumed paradise in the east. If we finally also know that standards for the arrangement of the three known continents Asia, Africa and Europe already existed in the Middle Ages, then this map becomes legible. It is the so-called T-O scheme, which is followed by numerous medieval maps.

Card according to the T-O scheme (& copy of the Bern Burger Library)
This form of representation has existed since the early Middle Ages and according to a widespread interpretation it stands for orbis terrarum, the globe. The T inscribed in the earth separates the three continents from each other, which also bear the names of Noah's sons, Sem, Japhet and Cham, on numerous maps. The ocean flows around the continents and forms the edge of the globe. In addition to the T-O card, there is another type, the so-called climate zone card. It divides the world into five or more zones, of which only the moderate one can be inhabited by humans.

Völker Gog and Magog, excerpt from the Ebstorf world map (& copy uni-lueneburg.de)
Medieval cartographers did not limit themselves to depicting the topography in the form of continents, cities, rivers and mountains. There was also space on their cards for history, from creation to the immediate present. That is why the peoples Gog and Magog are shown on the Ebstorf map as well as Noah's ark.
Also became islands
Island, excerpt from the Ebstorf world map (& copy uni-lueneburg.de)
and mountains are placed according to their salvation and world-historical references or their significance for the cartographer. Today's viewer is therefore occasionally surprised by the size and location of some islands or cities. On the Ebstorf map, this applies to the Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, the presumed place of origin of the map, which is particularly clearly highlighted in relation to other cities and regions.