North is at the top, right? I mean there are some things you know as a child without having to be told… Well, actually Miss Grundy made that perfectly clear to me when she asked me to leave my seat and point to North on a map she’d hung over the blackboard in the front of the classroom. I think I’d been drawing a made-up treasure map in my notebook at the time. I liked maps, but I had no idea how they worked. Maybe that’s why Miss Grundy wanted our attention.
“So if north is at the top, where is west, G?” She obviously thought I’d just made a lucky guess. Actually, she was right.
She planted her hands firmly on her hips and rolled her eyes at the class. “If you’d been paying attention, you’d know how to tell, G…” After a rather theatrical sigh, she stared at the class. “Who can tell me how you can find the directions on a map?” For this, her eyes locked on one of the frantically waving arms from the front row. “Lindsay…?” Of course she’d pick Lindsay.
Lindsay stood up and smiled. “You just have to look at the compass rose, Miss Grundy. It points to the four directions… ” She risked a quick smirk in my direction.
Miss Grundy nodded approvingly. “And where do you find the compass rose, Lindsay?”
“On your map, it’s in the bottom right corner, but it’s usually somewhere near the edge of any map.” She glanced at me with a smug expression in her eyes and sat down again.
“Maps try to make sense of the world,” Miss Grundy continued. “They not only help you know where you are, but also how to get to where you want to go.”
I knew that, of course -it’s why pirates have treasure maps.
“So, G, do you think you could find your house on this map?”
That was ridiculous; you could barely see the name of the city, let alone my street. But she was determined to teach me to pay attention; I was forced to shake my head again.
Her expression softened for a moment. “Why is this map no good for finding streets…?” She had evidently given up on me and immediately turned her head to her favourite arm again. “Lindsay…?”
“The scale, Miss Grundy. ‘Small scale, large area; large scale, small area’” -teacher’s pet quote. “Your map is small scale, so it wasn’t designed to show streets -just provinces, or countries.”
Embarrassing episodes like that are probably purposely designed by teachers to drive points home. It did for me, at any rate. I remember quietly crumpling up my treasure map and putting it in the waste paper basket along with my gum when the class finished. It was my first introduction to real maps: ones which knew where north belonged. But it turned out I had a lot to learn; things weren’t entirely as Miss Grundy and her sycophant had portrayed -Grade 3 rarely is, I suppose.
That class came to mind when I happened upon an article in BBC Future by the freelance science journalist Caroline Williams: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160614-maps-have-north-at-the-top-but-it-couldve-been-different
It turns out that, Miss Grundy notwithstanding, ‘it is only within the last few hundred years that north has been consistently considered to be at the top. In fact, for much of human history, north almost never appeared at the top, according to Jerry Brotton, a map historian from Queen Mary University, London… “North was rarely put at the top for the simple fact that north is where darkness comes from,” he says. “West is also very unlikely to be put at the top because west is where the sun disappears.”
There were exceptions, of course. ‘[I]n Chinese maps, the Emperor, who lived in the north of the country was always put at the top of the map, with everyone else, his loyal subjects, looking up towards him.’ Very Grundian, I suppose, and yet, ‘In ancient Egyptian times the top of the world was east, the position of sunrise. Early Islamic maps favoured south at the top because most of the early Muslim cultures were north of Mecca, so they imagined looking up (south) towards it. Christian maps from the same era (called Mappa Mundi) put east at the top, towards the Garden of Eden and with Jerusalem in the centre.’
I wish I’d known that. But it obviously didn’t really seem to matter for explorers. ‘“When Columbus describes the world it is in accordance with east being at the top,” he writes. “Columbus says he is going towards paradise, so his mentality is from a medieval mappa mundi.” We’ve got to remember, adds Brotton, that at the time, “no one knows what they are doing and where they are going”.’
But anyway, as long as the features are drawn in correct proportions, does it really matter which direction is at the top of the map? Far more important, perhaps, is taking into account the curvature of the earth -and hence the curvature of lines of longitude. Still, ‘evidence from psychology suggests that our north-up culture might be polluting the way we think of what is valuable in the world. A well-known bias in psychology reveals that most people think of north as being ‘up’ and south, ‘down’. Brian Meier, a psychologist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, has also found that people unconsciously process positive words as if they were higher in space than negative ones.’ In other words, that north is ‘better’ than south. Richer than the south. ‘The good news is that in Meier’s experiments the relationship between ‘north’ and ‘good’ was eliminated by one simple thing – turning the map upside down.’
That would have really upset Miss Grundy, but I think it would have been worse for Lindsay. She might not have possessed the chosen arm anymore. Mine might have had a chance had I chosen to wave it. Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown out my treasure map that day either. I could have brought it with me to the front of the class and taped it over Miss Grundy’s map; I could have stretched out my own arm and declared hers a fake. I could have let everybody know that the Mappa Grundy was not even close to the historical Mappa Mundi. I could have insisted mine was equally valid… all the way to the Principal’s office.