studies in the history of science and culture

© July 2004
revised 20 November 2009


Special thanks to Chet Van Duzer for pointing me to John Carey’s important article back in 1999, when I was first attempting to confirm the identity of Margaret Cavendish’s antipodist bishop.

the Bishop and the Antipodes

CARTOGRAPHERS AND OTHER SCHOLARS continue to debate the origins of north/south mapping conventions, which today typically present north as up, and south as down. As in the case of the Ferrar map of colonial Virginia in 1651 (with its non-standard orientation showing north to the right, south to the left), and the astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini’s late-17th-century Planisphere Terrestre, as originally inscribed on the floor of the Paris Observatoire (with the north pole in the center), it was not always so.

While there are many threads in the story of how a particular cultural perspective of geographical space became the standard convention for printed maps, there is one in particular I would like to explore now. I have suggested before that the commonplace conception of the Antipodes (i.e., an inhabited southern hemisphere) as down — which we can trace back to late antiquity, and such classical writers as Lucretius — may well have been a factor.

For centuries, this cultural convention was linked with the name of Virgil of Salzburg, otherwise known as “the antipodist,” at least through the 19th century.

Virgil was an Irish cleric active in Bavaria, and something of a celebrity among 17th-century scientists, who regarded his act of theorizing the antipodes as a milestone of scientific achievement. Hence, Margaret Cavendish listed the bishop who “found out the Antipodes in imagination before they were found out by navigation” in her pantheon of greatest “mathematicians, arithmeticians, logicians, geometricians, cosmographers ... chemists ... navigators, architects, exact surveyors, inventive artisans.” And Robert Hooke cast Virgil’s “atheistical, heretical, and damnable” assertions about the antipodes as an heroic act of scientific imagination.

In 748 CE, Virgil was indeed in trouble with the church hierarchy

... for his perverse and abominable teaching ... that there are another world and other men beneath the earth, or even the sun and moon: take counsel and then expel him from the church, stripped of his priestly dignity.
(letter from Pope Zachary to St. Boniface)

Nonetheless, he was elevated to the bishopric of Salzburg in 767, and canonized (St. Virgilius) in 1233.

Centuries later, both Johannes Kepler and Robert Hooke would associate themselves, and their own unorthodox scientific claims, with Virgilius. So Virgilian belief in an under side of the earth, accessible by seafaring (navigatione), was by then a commonplace within scientific circles. Moreover, by the end of the 17th century, the name of Virgil was familiar to even more humbly educated men and women, having been propagated in Nathaniel Crouch’s wildly popular “Twelve-Penny-Books, which are fill’d with Wonders, Rarities, and Curiosities,” as described with admiration by John Dunton in 1705 (Life and Errors 282). Crouch’s

historical works were reprinted many times during the eighteenth century and editions were printed in Bolton, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, and London. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography records that he sold the works of Bunyan to obtain a copy of “Burton’s books”, and in 1784 Samuel Johnson asked the bookseller Mr Dilly to obtain copies of Crouch’s histories for him. A collected edition of Crouch’s historical works issued between 1810 and 1814 was reported to be fetching high prices in the 1860s.
(Jason Mc Elligott, n. pag.)

Crouch’s historical work The English Empire in America (1685), published under Crouch’s pseudonym “R. B.” (for “Robert Burton” — a deliberate reference to the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy), opened its narrative of British colonialism in the Americas with discussion of the bishop and the antipodes:

The Ancient Fathers, Philosophers, and Poets, were of opinion, that those places near the North and South Pole were inhabitable, by the extremity of cold, and the middle parts, because of unreasonable heat, and thought it a great solecism or contradiction, to believe the Earth was round, for holding which opinion Pope Zachaus was so zealous against Bishop Virgil, that he sentenced him, To be cast out of the Temple, and Church of God, and to be deprived of his Bishoprick for this perverse Doctrine, that there were Antipodes, or people whose feet are placed against ours, though this discovery of America has fully confirmed these opinions, and evinced that there is no such torrid Zone, where the heat is so noxious, as to unpeople any part of the Earth, and the yearly compassing of the World, evidenceth the necessity of Inhabitants, living on all parts of this earthly Globe ....
(The English Empire in America 1–2)

Virgil’s own antipodal theories owed something to European folk culture, which had for centuries been steeped in stories and travel narratives of subterranean (sub terra and sub aquis) excursions to the Antipodes.

John Carey has traced the Celtic origins of such antipodal fancies back to early-medieval Ireland, and described their continental spread in Carolingian times. Irish scholars, then active on the continent, would have been quite familiar with the sort of sentiment expressed in Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid:

Others understand [the location of the underworld] more profoundly, who wish the infernal regions to lie under the earth, as those geographers and geometricians maintain who say that the earth is spherical (sphaeroiden), held up by water and air. If this be true, it is possible by seafaring to reach the Antipodes — those who seem to us to be below, even as we to them.

Furthermore, Carey notes how

It is interesting to find a virtually identical idea current in Britain and Brittany a few centuries later; the evidence has been convincingly documented by R. S. Loomis, who concludes “that in twelfth-century Britain the folk-belief in a subterranean fairyland was taken seriously by clerics and adapted to contemporary geographical conceptions as the lower hemisphere — the land of the Antipodes.”

Given the continuing resonance of inherited beliefs in an under side of the earth, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it became a visual topos, as well as a verbal one, for the new geocosmic science. And if so, I would expect it to be encoded, one way or another, in the age’s charts and maps.

Such encoding would, in fact, be a “strategy of imaginative synthesis” similar to that described by Carey, whose closing argument is that “the doctrine of an antipodean Otherworld,” drawn from Irish legend and folk tales, “provided the literati with a way ... of articulating it to themselves and accommodating their inherited beliefs to the new cosmology.”


a GALLERY exhibit on the Ferrar map of colonial Virginia (printed in 1651 and 1653)

a dissenting account of the “Heretick” Virgilius, given in Chambers’ Cyclopaedia article on the antipodes (pub. 1728)

more detailed discussion of Robert Burton and his best-selling Anatomy of Melancholy (which translated hundreds of quotations from Greek and Latin into English, making “the classics” readily available to the public at large) in the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy — Part II
Burton mentions the antipodist bishop in his “Digression of Air” (part of his Anatomy of Melancholy) — most likely, Crouch’s primary source on Virgil of Salzburg

Richard Flecknoe’s description of another part of the Americas — Brazil — as being antipodal to Europe (“almost to the Antipodes”) in a letter about his travels there in 1648–50 (see digital transcription in the LIBRARY)

more on the early-modern popularizer of science, John Dunton, in the GALLERY exhibit on The Athenian Society and its emblem

external link to Upside Down World Map

a “Visual antidote to the north-is-always-on-top notion that contributes to and legitimizes domination tendencies.”

external link to Peters Projection Map

Emphasizes relative size of the world’s land masses, countering more standard projections which distort areas to preserve accuracy for navigational purposes. With comparison to Mercator projection at bottom.

external link to Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Map (front & back)

Turns the world upside down to challenge conventional North-South perceptions, plus refines the Peters concept of equal area: “this Hobo Dyer Projection offers less elongation than the Peters map but more compression at the poles.” The map’s southern hemisphere is centered on Australia, and the northern hemisphere, on Africa.

3 examples of early modern maps with a non-standard orientation


Compass rose from 1651 Ferrar map of colonial Virginia

With NORTH oriented to the right (and WEST at the top). The two callouts read “C. Hatturas” and “Roanoke Ile.”

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Cassini’s world map
As drawn on the floor of the Paris Observatory, using an azimuthal projection with the North Pole at the center.

“Although the projection chosen greatly distorted land shapes it produced latitudes as concentric circles centred on the North Pole, and longitude as equally spaced radii. A cord was attached to the polar centre with a movable pointer on it. If the pointer was set to the correct latitude and the cord rotated to the correct longitude, the position of any desired place on the globe could be given precisely — an exercise performed regularly for the entertainment of members of Louis XIV’s court.” (Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits 189)

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William Cuningham’s map
As published in Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse (London, 1559).

Shows the earth’s four “zones” (i.e., “every portio[n] betwixt two paralleles”). Although this map anticipates our modern convention of placing north at the top and south at the bottom, it is decidedly unconventional in showing east to the left, and west to the right.

an example from the mid-17th century which uses popular belief in the antipodes to map a political world turned upside down

The polemical text by J. H. (possibly the Leveller, John Harris), published at Oxford in 1647, and descriptively titled

The Antipodes, or, Reformation with the heeles upward being a compendious narrative or discovery, of the great hypocrisie of our pretending reformers, the treacherous enslaving practices of a trayterous party in the House of Commons, contrary to their solemn protestations, frequent declarations, declared duties and the known laws of the land &c.: whereby both the commonality and souldiery may plainly discover that what was formerly by them adjudged tyrannie and oppression in others is now practiced and maintained to be justice and equity in themselves, and that notwithstanding they pretend liberty, they intend slavery, both to the King, his posterity and the people ....

2 examples of a scientist’s use of popular belief in the antipodes as a “strategy of imaginative synthesis”

Robert Hooke’s description “Of the Feet of Flies, and several other Insects” in Observ. XXXVII. of Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (London, 1665), pp. 169–70:

“The foot of a Fly ... is of a most admirable and curious contrivance, for by this the Flies are inabled to walk against the sides of Glass, perpendicularly upwards, and to contain themselves in that posture as long as they please; nay, to walk and suspend themselves against the under surface of many bodies, as the ceiling of a room, or the like, and this with as great a seeming facility and firmness, as if they were a kind of Antipodes, and had a tendency upwards, as we are sure they have the contrary, which they also evidently discover, in that they cannot make themselves so light, as to stick or suspend themselves on the surface of a Glass well polish’d and cleans’d; their suspension therefore is wholly to be ascrib’d to some Mechanical contrivance in their feet; which, what it is, we shall in brief explain, by shewing, that its Mechanism consists principally in two parts, that is, first its two Claws, or Tallons, and secondly, two Palms, Pattens, or Soles....”.


Hooke’s drawing of a fly’s foot as viewed through his microscope

His schematic (Scheme XXIII) and accompanying microscopical observations were first presented at a meeting of the Royal Society of London on 9 September 1663, and subjected to peer review, before being published in the Micrographia.

Figure 1 “represents three joints, the two Tallons, and the two Pattens in a flat posture” (Hooke, Micrographia, p. 169).

Figure 2 “represents onely one joint, the Tallons and Pattens in another posture” (Hooke, Micrographia, p. 169).

As Hooke describes them, the fly’s “two Tallons are very large, in proportion to the foot, and handsomly shap’d in the manner describ’d in the Figures ...” (Micrographia, p. 170).

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Robert Hooke’s description “Of the Water-Insect or Gnat” in Observ. XLIII. of Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (London, 1665), pp. 185–93:

“Both its motion and rest is very strange, and pleasant, and differing from those of most other creatures I have observ'd; for, where it ceases from moving its body, the tail of it seeming much lighter then the rest of its body, and a little lighter then the water it swims in, presently boys it up to the top of the water, where it hangs suspended with the head always downward; and like our Antipodes, if they do by a frisk get below that superficies, they presently ascend again unto it, if they cease moving, until they tread, as it were, under that superficies with their tails; the hanging of these in this posture, put me in mind of a certain creature I have seen in London, that was brought out of America, which would very firmly suspend it self by the tail, with the head downwards, and was said to sleep in that posture, with her young ones in her false belly, which is a Purse, provided by Nature for the production, nutrition, and preservation of her young ones, which is described by Piso in the 24. Chapter of the fifth Book of his Natural History of Brasil....”


Hooke’s drawing of a gnat as observed through his microscope

The gnat was “generated in Rain-water ... also ... Pond and River-water.” His schematic (Scheme XXVII) and accompanying microscopical observations were first presented at a meeting of the Royal Society of London on 17 August 1663.

Everything about this creature fascinated Hooke, not only its form and diverse means of propulsion, but also its stages of metamorphosis and amphibian nature (“a creature that inhabits the Air, does yet produce a creature, that for some time lives in the water as a Fish, though afterward (which is as strange) it becomes an inhabitant of the Air, like its Sire, in the form of a Fly”).

Figure 1 shows the rainwater gnat in an antipodean-like stance, with its two-part tail (callouts K and V) at the top of the scheme, and its head (callout Q) at the bottom, pointing downwards.

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John Evelyn also used an antipodean conceit to explain the behavior of a spider hunting a fly, as observed when Evelyn was in Rome (Evelyn’s bit of natural history was juxtaposed with Hooke’s own microscopical observations of spiders in Observ. XLVIII. of Micrographia).

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