What’s that Croc Doing There?

Take a look at Bertuch’s comparative view Hohen der Alten; see that little surprise in the lower right corner?

Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)
Hohen der Alten by Bertuch, c1810. Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds. (Own work)

He tucked a tiny crocodile at the waterline, reminiscent of the sea monsters seen on earlier maps. Is this a modern sea monster? Probably not. To evaluate this, first I’d like to review the role sea monsters played on maps.

Sea Monsters

Sea monsters were a frequent feature of 16th and 17th century maps. They played several roles: aesthetic, cautionary, and even scientific.

Photo of sea monster from 1616 Bertius map of Bay of Cadiz. Monster is colored green and red.
Sea monster from Bertius 1616 Bay of Cadiz map. Note the green body and red mouth. (Photo own work)

Where engraving was a labor intensive process it was expensive. To this end, a map with a sea monster on it would be more expensive that one without. As sailors would know where dangers were, unadorned maps would suffice for their purposes. From this we can conclude that these maps were made for aristocracy.

Hinted at above, sea monsters often signified the unknown and the dangerous. Appearing on the periphery of a map may indicate the edge of charted, known territory. Moreover, they are larger than life hostile creatures which symbolize danger, real or perceived. Often overlooked, they further represent a scientific approach to understanding the unknown. Reflecting the Age of Enlightenment, they are an attempt to characterize the never before seen sea creatures in a logical, reason informed fashion rather than chalking then up as demons. Silly as they may appear now, the study of the oceans was in its infancy and much marine life was unknown.

There are some great resources on sea monster maps, including a radio interview and an excellent article.

The Croc
So, why did Bertuch place a crocodile on his comparative? Bearing in mind that this was in a children’s book, it probably served two purposes. The first being too educate children about the animals inhabiting the earth, especially one not found in Germany. And the second reason being too amuse the children.

Check out my free ebook to learn more about comparative views.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

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