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Imagine Nation: How Pocket Maps Helped Poets and Subjects Reenvision England

By Mary Alexandra Agner | HUMANITIES, January/February 2015 | Volume 36, Number 1

Like many other familiar objects, the road map has been transformed by digital technology. From unfoldable glove-compartment staple to robotically voiced GPS system, maps have become more portable, easier to hold, and just plain different. Whether or not we pause to reflect on it, these gadgets are transforming our notions of place, as surely as the right turn coming up in “point-one miles.”

How maps fit into our lives and our pockets is an interesting question, but this is not the first time it’s come up. In sixteenth-century England, travelers used so-called pocket maps, complete with colorful commentary about roads and destinations written by the printer, to get from point A to point B. And today such objects are being used to learn how a burgeoning sense of national identity came to characterize English culture of the time. Simply by representing locations of interest, such as market towns in relationship to each other, these maps lent legitimacy to the subject’s point of view.

Richard Helgerson, one of the first scholars to connect the changing English identity with the printed publications of the Elizabethan period, wrote that maps let people “see in a way never before possible the country—both county and nation—to which they belonged and at the same time showed royal authority—or at least its insignia—to be a merely ornamental adjunct to that country. Maps thus opened a conceptual gap between the land and its ruler.” People began to believe that being English was an individual trait, applicable to commoners, aristocrats, and the crown as well—encouraged in this view by a bound paper book sized to fit inside a pocket.

From the outside, pocket maps look as unremarkable as black Moleskin notebooks. Their interiors surprise the modern reader with the work of multiple engravers, commentary added by printers to make the book more saleable, and marginalia handwritten by their owners. Some pages have ragged edges, some papers appear pasted in. None of them look their age. Overview pages show large distances with few details; smaller expanses of land are crowded with roads, towns, trees, and occasionally topography. They include tables, telling you how far the walk is, in old English miles, from one town to another.

Bundles of these little maps would have cost less than a few shillings in the late sixteenth century, and in 1646 a steward purchased a pocket guide for one shilling six pence—the equivalent of about nine pounds or close to $14 today. Many opened with a page explaining exactly how they would save their owner money, beginning with their own cheap price, and time, helping one find market towns, avoid rough roads, and determine the shortest distance between two places. Yet pocket maps weren’t considered of sufficient value to require approval from the royal censors.

As a member of the middle class at that time, you would have purchased your maps along with produce, perhaps after listening to a sermon, in a public space like the yard of St. Paul’s cathedral in London. You could ask the printer, who was also the publisher, to bind your maps up with your favorite poems, the latest political tract, maybe even today’s news sheet. Or you could fold the map into your pocket until you needed it. Some printers even put maps on playing cards, for the gaming traveler. Spaces like St. Paul’s yard not only mixed sellers of cheapbooks (today called chapbooks), knickknacks, and food stuffs, but also people of the middle class, merchants, and aristocrats. Royalists rubbed elbows with Roundheads.

Kat Lecky, an expert on pocket maps and poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, studies the personal marks made on map sheets. Lecky’s investigations in the Folger Library collection show numerous users filling pages with columns of values in pounds, totaling debts and payments. In a 1598 edition of John Norden’s county maps, an owner left notes in Latin, in a handwriting known to be used by secretaries. This owner listed benefices, money from the Church for services rendered, on the reverse side of the table of contents, itemizing the monetary worth of London churches and bishoprics. Another map user wasn’t content to handwrite a label at the top of a specific page to mark it for frequent use; he further modified the page by cutting the right angles into soft, rounded corners, making them slightly smaller than the surrounding pages. The result is that, even five hundred years later, thumbing through the pocket map brings you immediately to this page.

It may seem a great distance from personally modified maps to political poems, but Lecky’s research shows the influence of pocket maps on the poetry of John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and others already connected by scholars to the English formation of national identity. There is evidence that Milton and Spenser were familiar with pocket maps. Milton was the son of a moneylender; he traveled to collect debts for his father’s business. The printer for his political pamphlets also printed a best-selling pocket map titled A Direction for the English Traveler. Spenser worked for the crown in Ireland, traveling to London on business and to present his poetry to the queen. Ben Jonson, a poet whose lifetime overlapped both Spenser’s and Milton’s, makes offhand reference to the widespread use of pocket maps in his poem “The New Crie” while describing the people who frequented the public shopping spaces: “Yet have they seen the maps, and bought ‘em too, / And understand ’em, as most chapmen do.”

Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen, written during the reign of Elizabeth I, also takes its cues from a nonroyal perspective as the author relates adventures of knights in the romantic tradition of Arthurian legend. Compared with later epic works, Spenser’s poem appears to be pro-monarch, but an absent figurehead and a text that glorifies heroic endeavor shows his elevation of aristocracy over crown. Book III of the poem may even show the influence of pocket maps specifically. Spenser, who often associates large scale with immoral excess, uses many size-related adjectives (twenty-five uses of “huge” or a synonym within two cantos, for example). The heroine in need of rescuing is described as small and tender, and held captive by “mighty” chains. Lecky says that through the knight’s victory, Spenser “privileges the pocket-sized heart of the romance heroine over the majesty of the imperial agents who would subdue it. The poet offers his audience a country to possess intimately instead of a nation to dread.”

Milton’s poetry includes many examples of travel and frequent use of exotic place names. Paradise Lost details the stories of such famous wanderers as Satan, Adam, and Eve. The title of the epic itself can be read as a cartographic reference as well as a metaphysical one. A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, also by Milton, features three traveling siblings who are separated in unfamiliar countryside. Their story occurs within a disputed borderland, Lecky says, and the antagonists present different views of the land using language associated with either the crown or the commons.

While no pocket maps remain as part of Milton and Spenser’s extant libraries, Lecky’s work with anonymous users’ marks shows how personal an item a pocket map could be. And the personal was clearly political as well.

About the Author

Mary Alexandra Agner writes poetry, prose, and nonfiction in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Funding Information

In 2014, Katarzyna Lecky of Arkansas State University received a $6,000 summer stipend to support her research on pocket maps. NEH has supported numerous projects relating to Edmund Spenser, including two grants to Washington University in St. Louis totaling more than $300,000 to support The Spenser Project, which aims to produce a new scholarly edition of Spenser’s collected works along with an open access digital archive. John Milton has also been the subject of many NEH-supported projects, including a 2008 research fellowship to Thomas Chandler Fulton of Rutgers University for his work on Milton’s political thought.