Contemporary sources


Elizabethan pix & quotes: Ortelius maps and Tamburlaine

I love maps. Many people do. The Elizabethans — and Renaissance Europeans generally — loved them even more. Their world was expanding before their very eyes and map-makers like Abraham Ortelius were in great demand. Christopher Marlowe had access to beautiful maps of the world in the library at Corpus Christi College, where he still lived while he was writing Tamburlaine, part 1, the play that rocked the socks of European theater in 1587.

Typus Orbis Terrarum, by Abraham Ortelius

Marlowe didn’t leave us much, beyond a half-dozen poorly preserved plays and a few scraps in institutional records here and there. So scholars have pored over his plays for clues about the man and the world he lived in. 

Over 40 different place names are mentioned in Tamburlaine part 1 and over 80 in part two. Errors are always revealing. Ethel Seaton discovered that errors in Marlowe’s geography could be traced to a particular version of Ortelius Theatrum orbis terrarum. (He placed Zanzibar on the west coast of Africa rather than the east.)

Emrys Jones thinks Marlowe got the idea of using maps as literary devices from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a romantic epic poem widely read in sixteenth century Europe. From 1540 to 1580, there appeared at least 113 editions of Orlando. (I really must read that, at least some of it. All my young characters love it. I suspect it was like their Lord of the Rings. We can find the full text of John Harington’s 1597 English translation online at the Internet Archive.)

Here’s a quote from Orlando, via Jones. Our hero is flying over North Africa on a winged horse.

“Oran he saw, Ippon, Marocco, Fesse,

Algier, Buzea, and those stately townes,

Whose Princes with great pompe and pride possesse

Of divers Provinces the stately crownes.

He saw Byserta and Tunigi no lesse,

And flying over many dales and downes

He saw Capisse and Alzerbee Ile

And all the Cities to the flood of Nyle…”

Marlowe’s characters are real, however. They must march, rather than fly. He writes about power politics, not fantastic romances.

“Kings of Argier, Moroccus, and of Fesse,

You that have marched with happy Tamburlaine

As far as from the frozen plage of heaven

Unto the wat’ry morning’s ruddy bower,

And then by land into the torrid zone,

Deserve those titles I endow you with.” (I Tamburlaine, IV. 4. 123-28.)

They march and they march. They march toward Persia, along Armenia and the Caspian Sea. Africa, Asia, Scythia. They ride, too, especially “in triumph through Persepolis.” (The only way to see the place.) They battle in Bithynia (Turkey), specifically in Ankara. 

Tamburlaine eventually crowns himself emperor of Asia and Africa. (Zenocrate is his beloved wife, whom he captured in Egypt.)

“To gratify thee, sweet Zenocrate,

Egyptians, Moors, and men of Asia,

From Barbary unto the Western Indie,

Shall pay a yearly tribute to thy sire;

And from the bounds of Afric to the banks

Of Ganges shall his mighty arm extend.” (V.I.517-22)

I like to think about Marlowe in his shabby robes, holed up in the stuffy library at his college, poring over the maps to plot his play, picking out exotic names that fit his mighty rhythmic lines.



Jones, Emrys. 2008. “‘A World of Ground’: Terrestrial space in Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine’ plays,” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Tudor Literature (2008), pp. 168-182.

Seaton, Ethel. 1924. “Marlowe’ Map,” Essays and Studies, 10 (1924), pp. 13-35.

Elizabethan pix & quotes: Gessner's Animalium

In Death by Disputation, Tom is in Cambridge doing intelligence work, guided by Francis Bacon through a daily exchange of letters. Bacon asks Tom to buy a few books for him while he’s there. Scholars and university booksellers sometimes imported books directly to the universities, so some of the more arcane works might never be available in London.

Orca. Vol III, pg. 748

I like my details to be real, so I went grazing around the internet, looking for a book that all three of us could enjoy (me, Francis, and Tom.) If it impressed Christopher Marlowe as well, so much the better. I found Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (Histories of the Animals), published in Zurich in 1551–58 and 1587. It’s this new edition that Tom bought for Francis. Get ready, because you are in for a WHALE of a good time!

Renaissance zoology

The Wikipedia article about the book calls it “an inventory of renaissance zoology.” First, if I were ever to go back for another degree, that would totally be my major. Second, how wonderful is the modern world, in which there are articles about encyclopediae of renaissance zoology at our fingertips?

Further marvelosities: you can download the whole lovely 4-volume work in pdf format from Google Books. (I would never have finished my PhD if this stuff had been available in the 90s.) Volume I, live-bearing quadrupeds; Volume II, egg-laying quadrupeds (reptiles); Volume III, birds; and IV, fish and aquatics.

Actually, Bacon could easily have found these volumes in London. Gesner’s opus was hugely popular among those who could read Latin or just enjoy the fabulous illustrations. Edward Topsell translated and condensed it as a Historie of foure-footed beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607.) Bacon had more money in 1607, or at least better credit. He probably bought that too. Alas, his library was not preserved. You can look at the pictures from this one at the University of Houston’s Digital Library.

The renaissance is available to us as it has never been before. Thank you, Librarians of the World!

The text

I’m extracting pages and turning them into jpgs for display. This is what you call serious, hard-core screwing around. You wouldn’t know I had a draft3 revision waiting for me or a big landscaping project taking over my driveway. But wait til you see these pictures!

Here’s a look at the text. This is page 3 from volume II: egg-bearing quadrupeds, modernly known as reptiles. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that not only is the body of the work in Latin, but the prose is also liberally sprinkled with Greek and even Hebrew. Impenetrable to all but the likes of Francis Bacon! But who cares, when you’ve got a chameleon like this to admire?

Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. II, pg 3



Here’s page 3 from Librium II, the one about egg-laying quadrupeds. This lovely creature, I assume, is a chameleon.

There aren’t very many illustrations in this volume, actually. It’s mostly many long pages of dense text. But old Conrad was no fool. He starts with this beautifully rendered specimen and then jumps straight into fearsome and exotic crocodiles, saving the humble and familiar frog for last.













Close up of Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. II, pg. 3

Now for a closer look at the text. I admire the sheer scholarship of this kind of work! But neither Tom nor Christopher Marlowe could have read the Hebrew, and Tom would have been defeated by the Greek. I wonder if Bacon had an earlier version of this encyclopedia growing up at Gorhambury? His mother taught him and his brother Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. This would have been just thing to pique the interest of intellectual boys.

But now that I think of it, it’s kind of pleasing to know that most of my characters and I would approach this book on much the same level. I don’t read any Latin at all, but the whole encyclopedia is so heavily larded with other ancient languages, I’m not sure how much it would help. But even so, me and my old pal Billy Shakespeare can still goggle at the erudition and groove on the awesome illustrations.


Welcome to the zoo!

You’ll see a merman down there. Gesner included many mythical creatures, like the unicorn and the merfolks. He generally made an effort to distinguish fact from fantasy, but given his sources, it would be difficult to rule these commonly reported beings altogether.


Crocodile! Lib II, pg 10
Image from the frontispices of Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. III
This guy says, “What? I am smiling! This is how I smile.” lib I, p632.
What do you call an 8-legged sea creature who brings about the end of the world? An apocaloctopus. Lib. IV, p908
Merman. Gesner Animalium IV, pg 557
A twofer: Stork with serpent. Gesner animalium III, pg 251