A Window on the World: The Maps and Atlases of the House of Blaeu

[This is a departure from my usual posts. I hope it will still be appreciated by my usual readers, and that it has some usefulness in general.  A couple of years ago, I wrote a few articles and accompanying materials to be used for home schooling in history. The target reader is British KS3/American Grades 7-9. Again, I hope adults will get something from them as well.]

Many people are fascinated by maps, especially old maps.  Whether they are of far-off, exotic places or of familiar places, close to home they seem to catch our interest. They are in many ways a “window on the world” showing us the features of our planet.            But where do these maps come from? We may not always give this much thought as maps have become a very common part of our lives, but they have not always been so.  In the Age of Discovery maps were rare and especially valuable.  Many rulers saw maps as great secrets, and at times even ordered that maps of their kingdoms be made with purposeful mistakes to confuse foreigners or possible enemies.

Early European maps tell us a lot about those times and the Dutch maps are some of the best. They display the new learning, wealth, and power of the Dutch Golden Age. To Europeans, “New Worlds” were being found in the Americas, Africa and Asia and the Dutch, especially the United East-India Company, were taking a lead in these discoveries.

The Dutch soon became some of the best cartographers (map makers) in Europe, and one family, the Blaeus, were among the most important.  Willem, Joan and Cornelis Blaeu seemed to come into map making quite naturally.  Willem, the father of Joan and Cornelis had always been interested in mathematics and science, so in 1594 he travelled to Denmark to study and work with the astronomer Tycho Brache.

When Wellem returned to the Netherlands he set up a globe and map making company in Amsterdam.  It was in this household and business that the younger Blaeus grew up.

Joan, Wellem’s eldest son studied at the University of Leiden, becoming Dr. Joan Blaeu in 1620. He later joined his father’s work in Amsterdam, eventually becoming his business partner.  In 1651, the influence of Joan Blaeu was shown when he became the first printer to become a member of Amsterdam’s Council of Aldermen.

When Wellem died in 1638 his younger son, Cornelis took his place in the business.

Many of the maps in the Blaeus’ early atlases were made from printing plates they purchased from other map makers.  These included maps complied by their fellow Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius which they bought when Hondius died (Goss, 10).  The Blaeus went on to produce their own works and Joan Blaeu included the new discoveries made by  explorers like Abel Tasman, the discoverer of Tasmania, Australia, and New Zealand) (Goss, 12-13).  The work of the family was of such good quality that they became the official mapmakers for the Dutch East India Company.  This duty not only included making maps and charts, but also producing written directions for the sea captains and navigators of the company (Goss, 12).

Whether the Blaeus’ work was from their own discoveries, the descriptions of travellers, or from copying the work of others, the detail in their maps is amazing.  One of their maps shows the tiny village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire, England with two churches.  Most English villages only have one church, but Swaffham Prior has the unusual feature of having two churches sharing the same churchyard.  The Blaeus’ map not only shows this, but correctly pictures them with one having a square tower and the other with a circular one.

The artwork or illumination in the Blaeu maps is not only beautiful, but is also a really useful “primary source” for historians as well.  These illustrations include the flags of the countries shown on the maps as well as the coats of arms of important people, cities and countries.

The Blaeus’ illustrations also show people from the regions covered in their maps. Some of these people are taking part in everyday activities, such as hunting, farming and fishing.  The clothing in the pictures is also quite detailed, and seems to be accurate to the time and places which they show.  Examples include a Polish man with a large mustache and the back of his head shaved (Grand Atlas, 31), people from the Arctic wearing fur-lined parkas (Grand Atlas, 27),  and Chinese officials in colorful silks (Grand Atlas, 213. 218).  Many of these look identical to clothing shown in paintings from those countries which were made at the time.

From a modern point of view the Blaeus’ maps are not perfect, but even these shortcomings are interesting.  Some of the boarders and the shapes of land masses are not strictly correct.  They are, however, very close and may reflect the limits of the scientific equipment of the times. Some of the Blaeus’ illuminations also seem to show their Dutch pride.  Most of the ships shown on the seas of their maps are flying the flag of the United Netherlands.  The pictures of animals from foreign lands are also strange to our modern point of view.  An example of this is the portrayal of a rhinoceros on the map of Congo and Angola in Africa (Grand Atlas, 150).  The animal is shown with an extra horn on the back of its neck. It is clear that the Blaeus were not familiar with such “outlandish” creatures.

Sadly, at 3:30 in the morning on February 23, 1672, the Blaeus’ workshops were destroyed by fire, bringing to an end their marvelous work.  While fire ended their business, it did not close the window on their world which they had opened for us through their published maps and books.




Goss, John. Introduction. Blaeu’s The Grand Atlas of the 17th Century World. (London:1997).

“History of Cartography,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cartography

Livingston, Michael. “Modern Medieval Map Myths,”             http://www.strangehorizons.com/2002/20020610/medievalmaps.shtml

“Mapping History,” http://www.bl.uk/learning/artimages/maphist/mappinghistory.html


Questions and Activities

Discussion:  Why do you think that maps were seen as politically important to kings and rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries?

Discussion:  Why might the maps of the Blaeus and other early map-makers be important sources for historians and geographers?

Activity:  Find an old map of your town or city and compare it to today.  What features can you still identify?  Which ones have changed?

Activity:  Draw a map of your neighbourhood.  Be sure to include important buildings like schools, churches, and temples.  You can also “illuminate” your map with pictures of people and activities common in your area.


Internet Pictures/Maps 




Cross-Curricular Applications




The H

Image result for monk writing illuminated manuscript

The H

Brother Gerald’s eyes strained under the dull flickering of the tallow taper. The page was nearly complete. He put down his quill and reviewed the neatly spaced lines, slavishly comparing them to Hildegard’s text before him.

“Perfect,” he thought; then crossed himself in repentance for the momentary lapse in modesty.

He picked up the shell and began mixing the powdered gold and egg white he would use in the illumination of the “H.”



Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #82 – “Illumination” in 73 words

The Tourist Trap

They couldn’t believe their luck. Who could imagine a half board holiday at a farmhouse in the west of Ireland for such a low price? Better still, the advertisement said the deal included free transfers from the station, and “dedicated transport for sightseeing and excursions” for the length of the vacation. This more than compensated for the flights and train.

With a sense of excitement and expectation, they were met by Mr. Leary at the station. He took their bags, and led them from the platform. As they exited the station they were shocked as they met the sixteen year year-old mare, Lady, harnessed to the tourists’ trap.

Image result for pony trap


Fandango prompt: Trap

Morphy Richards 48822, Stainless Steel Soup Maker: Review


American “Turkey Day” has now come and passed, and the days are getting chilly. That must mean it is “Soup Season.” [Okay, to be fair “Soup Season” never really ends in my house, but for many it is this time of year when the broths and soups begin to grace the tables]. It being Foodie Friday, it seemed a suitable occasion to write my second gadget review.

I have mentioned my Morphy Richards soup maker before, but not as a thorough review. My machine is a Morphy Richards 48822, stainless steel model.  It has a 1.6 litre capacity, and settings for chunky soup, smooth soup, and a blitzing function. The manufacturer’s manual said that the blitzer aspect could also be used to make smoothies, but I have never been so inclined in a device that a- heats up, and b- has been used to make multiple pots of soup [thereby have some burned on remnants].

As my wife prefers creamy and smooth soups, I experimented with the smooth setting.  I found that some more dense or fibrous veg didn’t always soften fully in a single cycle, and once blitzed burned in the bottom corners if run again [thus the previous note about smoothies].  Now to be fully fair here, it made lovely soup in a single cycle if not dealing with Swede, or similar.

To meet my needs, however, I generally run my ingredients through the two cycles of  the chunky cycle to make sure they are ultra soft, and then use the internal blades to make a perfectly smooth soup, blitzing it myself.  Timing is usually comparable to the pot method [each chunky cycle being 28 minutes], but there is somewhat less slicing and dicing, and the final blitz is a “one stop” process.

While it is billed as a 1.6 litre appliance, I find that it runs better at 1.5, as the internal sensors sometimes cut off the process when it begins to boil with the full capacity is reached.

Cleaning is relatively easy, though it does require a bit of scrubbing and care [especially if it is allowed to fully cool]. The upper section, which has the controls, and blade arm attached requires a soapy cloth or sponge to clean. A careful stream of running water over the blades is helpful.  But as it is an electrical device water needs to be kept away from parts further up.  Similarly as the heating elements are in the base this too needs care. The jug can be filled with water for cleaning, but can’t be immersed. After cleaning a good towel dry is usually enough to have it ready to start again.

All in all, I do really like this machine, and think it is one of my “good” purchases.  While I am a traditionalist in most things kitchen, this is one of my modern concessions, as it does allow me to put my focus on other things once it is up and running.


Quiet Yard


Sharon's photo.jpg

                                                       Quiet Yard


Open to all – day by day.

Quiet yard, hedged in ewe,

An invitation is always there,

But its visitors, are but a few.

. . .

Cool stones there await the feel,

The warmth of breath upon their faces.

But seldom are they so tempered;

As people rush to other places.

. . .

But alas the day, will surely come,

when all – these gates shall pass.

But warm breath shall not be shared,

having already having loosed the last.




I challenge you prompt

The Rest


photo: Dale Rogerson

The Rest

The wagons had crossed the wide dusty prairie; and it had been a hard crossing as they made the pass, flanked by forlorn craggy peaks. There now below them was the valley filled with promise.

The descent into the canyon was far more gentle than they had expected. The party soon rested, dry and parched, next to the gurgling steam which flowed with a fluid more precious than gold. The cold crystal water relieved their thirst, and restored their spirits. Soon they would be in the promised land of Oregon.

(90 words)



Dual Prompt Challenge:

Fandango – “Fluid”

Friday Fictioneer’s – Photo prompt above

Come To Safety

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Yesterday, I had a usually attentive student in the front of the class who seemed distracted. When I questioned if there was something the matter, she responded that it was the plug outlet on my wall that concerned her.  In the UK, plug points or mains terminals have their own separate on/off switches, allowing for the electricity to be shut off not only to any appliance connected to it, but to the point itself. Mine was an empty socket with a “live” current. Dangerous? No, unless you plan on sticking a paperclip into it, but an over-engineered safety feature.

We have become risk adverse to the extreme.  We don’t sleep in the open under a blanket, as a tent will protect us from the elements. We don’t sleep in a tent, as a cabin will protect us from bears. We don’t sleep in cabins, as modern homes will protect us from discomfort.

We are constantly looking for security, and a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. But is this a fool’s errand? Can we really ever make “ourselves” safe?

The Islamic call to prayer, the Adhan, is telling in this.  In the centre of the address are two key lines: “Come to prayer,” “Come to security.” I find this a really empowering concept. We cannot on our own control every aspect of our lives. But there is One who can.

While the Adhan is not Christian, this aspect of it is true to the teachings of the Bible. God is Jehovah Jireh – “The Lord Will Provide.”  Matthew 6:26, tells us,“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they?” Matthew continues, Jesus’ words in MT 7:7-8, Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you. For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.”

We may not live in a world devoid of dangers, but rather than having multilayered, secondary, breakers and switches, let us hand it over to God.




Treasure That You Bear

...where he took further care of him – Slide 25

source: Free Bible Images

The Treasure That You Bear


“What things precious do you carry?

What treasures do you bear?”

The Jericho bound merchant,

His beast laden with his wears.


Trouble was before him,

More than he could sustain,

His earthly goods were taken –

Leaving only pain.


Along came the “righteous,”

Their “duties” too – to bear,

The “burdens” that they carried,

Eclipsed their human cares. 


Along came a traveller,

Coming from abroad,

He bore with him a conscience,

And his pity opened broad.


The merchant was cradled,

Pulled to the Samaritan’s breast,

And to an inn was taken,

To receive some healing rest.


What is it that you have there?

What treasures do you bring?

“I bear a thing as precious, as any that I can –

The thing that I carry,  It is my fellow man.”





FOWC with Fandango Prompt: “Carry”

Saul: “by faith, not by sight”


Image result for paul damascus

Saul was closely associated with the Council and other leaders of the Jews.  He would have well known the events which led to Jesus’ execution and the “wild story” of His resurrection.   It is precisely that, that seems to be one of the driving forces of his persecution of the fledgling Christian movement. It does not make sense for the dead to return.

But this is exactly what had happened. It is interesting to note that in Luke, Jesus had ended the parable of the rich man and Lazarus with an assertion that if one would not believe the words of Moses and the Prophets, they would not believe even if one returned from death!

Paul on the surface, a man who professed that his “righteousness based on the law, [was] faultless;” nevertheless he persecuted the church for the claim of resurrection (Philippians 3:6).  Maybe it was his dedication to a narrow interpretation of law that “blinded” him. He was so caught up in the tangible and in the “concrete” written word, that he failed to see what the spirit underlying the word was teaching him.

He did not grasp what the Hebrews writer concluded: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).”  Jesus, Himself had picked up on this when Thomas called for a physical sign of the resurrection, “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29).”

So there was Saul, fixated on what he thought he knew. The witnesses of Jesus’ actions during His ministry were ignored, and those who proclaimed the risen Christ were persecuted.

Then, Bang! Saul encounters Jesus on the Damascus road. All of his assumptions and prejudices were challenged.

“Saul, why do you persecute me?,” Jesus asked.

“But, who are you?”

“I am Jesus!”

[One can imagine the embellishment to the scripture:] “But, you’re dead!”

“Apparently not!”

Saul, was blinded by the brilliant light of Jesus’ presence. In a sense, he had to be physically blinded, in order to truly spiritually see. This was a conversion, and changing of the path he was on.

Yet, this life changing realisation, goes in the face of Jesus’ suggestion in Luke that even if one witnessed one returning from the dead, and didn’t believe the scriptures, they would not believe.  Maybe it is still the case with Saul. He did believe what Moses and the Prophets had taught, he just failed to fully understand.  It was his dedication to the principle (with a little enlightening from Jesus) that prepared him for what was to come.

Saul (now Paul) was transformed and could now profess, “for we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).”

Are we bound by our assumptions (religious or secular)? Do we take the “seeing is believing” approach?  Or do we “close our eyes” to possibilities that don’t fit into our conceptions or plans? If so, let us seek our own Damascus moments.




Life’s Twisting Path

Image result for tunnel

Life’s Twisting Path

The Road of Life is twisting –

Its ways not easy to discern.

Its winding paths oft deceive us –

As to familiar crossroads, we again return.


The passage is often littered,

The detritus of our past mistakes,

Like some catacomb of old,

Blocked by choices, we didn’t make.



But each day brings a new dawning,

The blockage we can rise to shift,

A travellers’ cloak we’re donning,

Fresh starts, our journey’s gift.






Today’s Prompt:

The passage was blocked by decades of dirt and debris.


Write Now Prompt