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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

100 - World


The concept of the ‘world’ has changed dramatically over the centuries. The world is perceived through current boundaries and limits, so the concept in classical times was very different to that of today. When trying to interpret this changing understanding, we use the term ‘known world’ to contextualize the conceptual boundaries of a particular era. More recent conceptions consider the entire world, our globe, as a holistic entity. In the twenty-first century, a global imagination, suggesting a shared vision of identity, freedom and movement, is often discussed and has emerged. World travel genuinely means that we have the potential to move outside our own national boundaries to any country in the world, and even to the most climactically hostile regions. But we have to consider the start point of the traveller. Some travel literature, especially in the past, has tended to be euro-centric and therefore its focus on the world was connected to particular cultural and ideological viewpoints, identifying the ‘other’ as elsewhere, as outside Europe.

One method of imagining the world has been to render it visually, in maps and atlases (see cartography). Looking back on these historic depictions of the thenknown-world we can understand how the limits of that world changed. For example, in medieval mappae mundi, the known world included real places alongside mythical sites such as the Garden of Eden. The distinction between physical and spiritual realms was understood very differently. Maps at this time also included many illustrations depicting the animals (some mythological) that might be found (see nature). A transition phase during the early modern period saw maps reflect the findings of navigators and explorers and these maps were collected into beautifully illustrated atlases for the first time, such as Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (‘the theatre of the world’) printed in Antwerp in 1570. During this period, exploration and navigation flourished, not only by the Europeans in the Atlantic World but also in the Indian Ocean, and by the Chinese globally. Maps incorporated the latest knowledge and often became obsolete quickly. It is during this period, in 1503, that the term ‘New World’ was coined to describe the continents of North and South America and the Caribbean Islands by explorer Amerigo Vespucci.