The Fourth Part of the World

Today’s post will be a departure from my usual content. Below, I offer a book review on an historical map. While it may not seem relevant, I believe history is important, and history about maps even more so. Read on to learn more about the map that named half of the world.


The Fourth Part of the World, The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester

The Fourth Part (my abbreviation for that long title) is a hefty tome.  At 462 pages (hardback edition – yes, it’s worth it), including an index and notes, one might think a book so long about one map would be a slog to get through. But Toby Lester easily engages the reader by bringing the European Middle Ages to life.

The author starts the book with a preface that details why he started on a quest to research the Waldseemuller world map of 1507.

$10 million.  (It’s always about money, isn’t it?)

In 2003, the Library of Congress had just purchased the Waldseemuller map for $10 million dollars, 2 million more than the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. This fact piqued Toby Lester’s interest and six years later, he produced The Fourth Part.

The Fourth Part is divided into three parts: Part One, Old World; Part Two, New World; and Part Three, The Whole World. It also includes a Prologue, Epilogue, and an Appendix along with Notes and an Index.

Part One – Old World

In this section, Mr. Lester delves into the mindset of the early Medieval scholar. Their religious view of the world told them that the world consisted of three parts only – Asia, Africa, and Europe. They based much of their geographic knowledge of the world on what the Bible taught or alluded to. This lead to representations of the world that were rather limited and did not take into account knowledge gathered outside of their religious texts. However, just because those religious scholars might not have wanted to know anything beyond the bounds of the world set out in their religious texts, the world has a way of making itself known.

In the mid 13th century, the Great Khan Guyuk (widely known as Genphis Khan) announced to the western world (Europe):

Through the power of God all empires from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them.

What a surprising and frightening proclamation! Ultimately, the Mongol empire building efforts, along with the numerous Crusades to win back Jerusalem, led to more geographic information circulating among the European scholars.

Monks were sent to parley and Christianize the Mongols. Though they did not succeed in that venture, they did bring back cultural and geographical details that helped flesh out European’s sense of the world. Still, their view of the world consisted of T-O maps and mappamundi – rather poor representations of the world that excluded at least half of it.

It’s easy for us to look back and scoff at the inadequate maps that were produced in Europe before the 14th century. It’s easy to forget that most people were illiterate. Merchants and travelers didn’t have the benefit of a travel guide, nor were they able to produce one with their own knowledge because they didn’t have the skills or means to do so. What geographic information they gathered, it mostly stayed int heir heads.

The Christian monks that produced maps and cosmology (geography) texts at the time worked with the best knowledge available to them, but they were bereft of the great secular knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Roman Latins. Much of their knowledge of the world’s geography was more accurate, but it was lost to Europe’s Catholics (who were the keeper of knowledge at that time).

Example of a mappamundi. Click on the image above to see more.

Part Two – New World

In this section, the author chronicles the efforts of the great Genoese and Florentine mariners at rediscovering the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the 14th century, surprisingly detailed and accurate marine charts of Europe and North Africa emerged. Europeans also rediscovered Ptolemy and other Greek texts that helped piece the larger world together. With Portugal and Spain’s drive to reach India (as their overland routes were hampered by the Muslims taking control over the entire Middle East), maps of the known world were improved, and the thought of sailing west gripped explorers. So they did.

Part Two is the largest section in The Fourth Part, and contain the most fascinating tales. Any summary of mine will do it injustice. So, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

Just as one thing leads to another and starts a train of thought, while he was in Portugal [my father] began to speculate that just as the Portuguese had sailed so far south, it should be possible to sail as far west, and to find land in that direction. – Ferdinand Columbus (circa 1538)

This was the great age of discovery. When maps and the information they held started and decided wars, when the slave trade fed European’s insatiable hunger for more goods, and when there was a rivalry between nations at a fervor. It was only a matter of time before something earth-shattering would happen.

Part Three – The Whole World

The last part of the book, Mr. Lester explains how Walter Lud, Matthias Ringmann, and Martin Waldseemuller, all cartographers, came across one of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters that detailed his explorations of the New World. Though that letter was a fake, the three scholars and map makers didn’t know that at the time. They took it, and the information it offered, at face value. Together they created a “curious little book” titled Cosmographiae introductio (1507). This little book included a huge map (the largest known map to have been produced at the time), and it just so happened to haphazardly name the New World – America.

What struck me most while reading The Fourth Part is how religion has played such a huge role in our political, social, and geographic history. Of course, I already knew that. Anyone with any sort of education can see religion’s stamp on just about everything, but the author presents the motives (both religious and otherwise) behind the map makers and explorers in a manner that drives that fact home.

Conclusion? I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a well-researched, yet concise, summary of the events that led up to the discovery of the New World – the fourth part of the world – then this is the perfect book for you. If you have any interest in history and/or maps, this is also a must read.