As part of my work experience here at the Parker Library I was given the opportunity to do my own research and write it up on a blog post. This was an amazing chance to see what research means practically, and at first I was overwhelmed by the number of books available to look at and make the focus of my post. I spent a solid forty minutes trawling through the list of print books here at the Parker (twice!), and came upon a few I thought looked interesting based on the title. I took out four books which date between 1473 and 1631. Once I had stumbled through the one Latin book I decided to brave, and skimmed the three English ones, I decided to properly look at “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” by John Speed, published in 1631.
This book aims to teach people about the world, first by a brief overview of world history, then by continent, then by country or empire, including an entry on the English Civil War at the end. Every section, whether on the whole world, a continent or a country has a map to go with it, most of which are dated to 1626. In the same volume, although a separate book is “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain”, by the same author, published in in 1632, which has entries on history and each county, starting in the south and moving up to the north.
“A Prospect of the most Famous Parts of the World” begins with descriptions of the continents, of which John Speed identifies four. He also, very helpfully, ranked them in how good he believes them to be. The first is Asia, which he gives first position to because the “greatest part of our divine history was there written and acted”, with the birth and death of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian Church. He acknowledges that Europe is the most famous for “the acts of men”, but Speed evidently places this of less importance than Biblical history.
Second place goes to Africa for similar reasons – it is where life came from and therefore God has shown his approval. Europe comes in third with an apology from the author, followed by America in last position because it is new and does not have much history or world power at this point. The map for America is partially incomplete, with the explanation that it is “those known parts of that unknown world”.
All the continents and countries have two full pages of description on its history, culture and people, and a double pages map with cityscapes and pictures of men and women wearing traditional dress. These images give us an insight into how different cultures were, and what people from England thought other places were like, or what they wanted to think they were like.
All in all, “A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World” was a fascinating and sometimes unintentionally funny read, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to look through some historical texts. I was interested by how different cultured viewed each other, and what interactions were like between them, especially at this point in history, as travel was becoming easier and European nations were starting to build their empires.