The Atlas Collection (15th-18th centuries)

« Listen to me, Dick, and cast your eyes over that map. »
Dick glanced over it, with resignation.
« Now, ascend the course of the Nile. »
« I have ascended it, » replied the Scotchman, with docility.
« Stop at Gondokoro. »
« I am there. »
And Kennedy thought to himself how easy such a trip was—on the map!
Five weeks in a Balloon, Jules Vernes.

A map encourages you to travel, pressed you to grab your backpack and to go down the road to new horizons. By opening an atlas, a voyager won’t resist at the call of the sea and adventure while a homebird will enjoy travel randomly, according to the atlas he is looking at, around his library, cosily settle down in his armchair. As for a prince, he will cherish a map as a tool of power. Louis XVI giving La Pérouse his instructions:

Louis_XVI_et_La_PérouseThe last three months, Lucile Haguet, French book curator and doctor of History specialized in the western map-making of Egypt in the Early Modern time (impressive, isn’t it?), worked at the section for maps and pictures. She was in charge of cataloguing a part of the atlas collection: 88 atlases printed before the 19th century: “I had to identify the atlas and the author, its provenance, date it, count the number of maps by atlas, note the size, and evaluate the binding. It is a meticulous work and it’s not always simple, especially when you are working on a volume with a title three km long written in Danish!” But all this prized effort informs us about the story of the collection. The atlases were mainly acquired in three different ways: by purchases, donations or war-booties.

Theses atlases, symbol of the appropriation of earth by man, were mostly fading from memory because they were still uncatalogued. And yet, such a collection! The oldest one is an incunabula printed in 1475. If the first atlases were published in Germany, they were afterwards notably published in Netherlands and then, in the 18th century, in France. By the way, do you know who the father of the Atlas was? Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was really the first one to use this term in 1595. Good information to impress your friends.

When I asked Lucile what was her favourite atlas in the collection, she was hesitant for a while: “I love them all, it’s not easy to answer…Well, I was really filled with emotion to have a Ptolemy in my hands, an atlas from the beginning of the 16th century representing America and its unknown territories. But I also love this small atlas portabilis, a lovely atlas in miniature. And I’m not even mentioning the Atlas Maior”. The latter, the final version of Joan Blaeu’s atlas, is indeed a treasure. It is the largest and most expensive book ever published in the 17th century.

If an atlas is sometimes a real masterpiece, it might also be a common map of a town that is not aesthetically pleasing but very useful. Some of them try to present the entire world while others are more specialised to a period or location. There are even maps representing some fantasy lands. However, there are no such maps in this collection because these atlases were mainly owned by scholars and intended for study, we remained, and it goes without saying, an academic library.

In some of these atlases we can find ex-libris and handwritten annotations made by readers. It gives us keys to unravel the life history of these books and understand how they were used. One of them was probably owned by a woman and was given, according to the dedication, as a “sign of eternal love”. You should give an atlas to your lover if you are short of inspiration next time.

Another one, a copy of the famous Theatrum by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), founder of cartography with the aforementioned Mercator, used to belong to a Jesuit order. Thus, an illustration of women initially depicted with naked breasts has been decorously covered with inks by a pious reader.

Theatrum Ortelius

Someone else has been more impudent towards an atlas, either he was very bored by the book and geography or a joker…anyway; he decided to add sophisticated moustaches to the feminine figures. Priceless amusement after a hard working day, I promise.

Land Atlas Keulen

However, we should not forget the work of the map-maker and send him our regards. This geographer, sometimes also a true artist, was often working in the confinement of his cabinet, which Lucile Haguet illustrates perfectly in an article by using the expression “an armchair map-maker”. Indeed, I beg the reader not to believe that the cartographer was either a daring traveller or an intrepid adventurer. Most of the time, he was drawing the contours of the world through others’ eyes, explorers and sailors.

Zeespiegel 17e siècleWhen Jacques Cartier officially discovered Canada in the 16th century, he described in a diary his discoveries. He encountered, for instance, what he then named “dogs of the sea” using his own vocabulary to depict a seal of something of the kind. But, the map-maker, preparing a beautiful map probably addressed to a prince, has never been to this exotic place and so, take Cartier’s word, and innocently represented a dog in the sea. Charming incomprehension!

In the 18th century, maps became more and more accurate; monsters and chimera of all kinds disappeared gradually. It is the Age of Enlightenment, scientific travelled are now legion, the Englishman James Cook or the French Jean-François de La Pérouse sailed with as many seaman as scientist on board. Portrait of James Cook:

480px-CaptainjamescookportraitDo not forget to have a look at our exhibition room when you visit the library. Here you can have a look to a 15th century world map from Ptolemy’s atlas, this Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer who worked in Alexandria during the 2th century AD. His influence as a geographer would last for centuries especially when his writings were rediscovered in Western Europe in the early 1400s.

But we started with Jules Vernes, so let’s conclude this article anew with the explorer Samuel Fergusson, dreaming of exploring Africa…or the map of Africa:

“I can skim it like a bird! I can advance without fatigue; I can halt without need of repose! I can soar above the nascent cities! I can speed onward with the rapidity of a tornado, sometimes at the loftiest heights, sometimes only a hundred feet above the soil, while the map of Africa unrolls itself beneath my gaze in the great atlas of the world. »


Lucile’s article :


A photographic journey to The Land of the Blue Sky

A journey to a faraway land. Here is an invitation to journey in time and space, a captivating ride through an immense territory of steppes and mountains, in a country that was at one time the cradle of the largest Empire in human history. Mongolia: a single word that kindles your imagination.

Pilgrim on his way westwards

The country, surrounded by Russia in the north and China down south, has been independent since 1911 and became a democracy in the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Mongolia came quickly under Russian influence, being what we called a satellite state. One might deservedly wonder why on earth I am, while chewing dried curds made on yak and camel milk, talking about this and how it can be related to the Cultural Heritage Group.


Throat singing (Khöömii), a tradition in Mongolia

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In 1985, about 800 hundred negatives of photographs were donated to Uppsala University Library by a 95 year old man named Joel Eriksson. Although blind at the end of his life he was able to depict each picture about his personal experiences and adventures in “the Land of the Blue Sky”.

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When I came upon this collection, I was instantaneously mesmerized by the faces and landscapes, these moments of life captured through the eyes of a sensitive and undoubtedly talented photographer who stayed around 25 years in this country, which is still nowadays the one of the least densely populated in the world.


A young prince (1936)

Tibetan Buddhism, which was subjected to religious repressions during the communist era, is the main religion in Mongolia. However, missionaries has been regularly sent there to try to spread the Christian religion.


1923-24 four children from an orphage

Joel Eriksson, Swedish citizen born in 1890 in a small village in the north of Uppsala, was one of these propagators.


In 1910, the Swedish Mongolian Mission (a protestant society founded in 1897) sent him to the Livingstone College, London, in order to acquire a missionary and medical education. Four years later, he arrived in Mongolia. On the train trip from Helsinki to Beijing he met Annie Almquist, a Swedish missionary too, that became his wife in 1918.




The expatriate and his family were highly appreciated among the Mongolians; Joel’s medical skills were especially well liked.





Blues master Paul Pena and throat singing master Kongar-ol Ondar :

In 1938, Joel, Annie and their children returned to Uppsala. The Swedish Mongolian Mission was closed in 1942 because of the Japanese occupation.

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After the World War II, Joel Eriksson tried to reorganize the activities but the civil war in China made it impossible. He continued his work for the missionary society in Sweden and died in Uppsala 1987 at the age of 97.

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Don’t forget to have a look on the database where you can find few pictures of this wonderful collection.

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My warm thanks to Åsa Henningsson, head of the maps and pictures department, for her precisous help.



The cave of the yellow dog, a Mongolian/German movie:

Leufsta Library

« I would go so far as to say that my dear mother has seen nothing in Sweden if she has not seen Leufstad”. Letter written by the future King Gustav III to his mother Queen Lovisa Ulrika in 1768.

5060In northern Uppland, somewhere in the forests, lies a treasure preserved by the Cultural Heritage Group. Une bibliothèque sur l’eau.

P1110235In 1738, in a little building close to his manor in Lövstabruk, estate that was at that time one of the world´s leading ironworks, Charles de Geer (1720-1778), then renowned as one of the foremost scientists in Sweden, created his library. There is nothing pompous or grandiose in this book haven, just a cozy and intimate, almost bewitching atmosphere where the time seems to have stood still.

P1110219Approximately 8500 books were acquired in 1986 by Uppsala University Library. Although the more valuable volumes are now kept in Uppsala, the layout of the book room has been preserved as it was in the XVIII century, when its industrialist / entomologist founder was relaxing and studying there.

charles de GeerCharles, who was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1739, at the age of nineteen, and a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1748, owned an impressive collection of manuscripts and books on natural history. To cite only one example, he acquired the tremendous hand-drawn and hand-coloured illustrated work The Book of Flowers which consists of eleven massive volumes made by the scientist Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630-1702) who had intended to depict (a wonderful but unrealized ambition) all the herbs of the entire world.

But Charles was also, judging from his library, quite the connoisseur of the Enlightenment. He subscribed to Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and was reading influential works by Montesquieu,Voltaire and Rousseau among others. Moreover he was himself, like is wife Catharina Charlotta, a participant in the movement. The couple were among the first to inoculate in 1756 their children against the menacing smallpox virus. A pioneering initiative at a time when the technique was still highly controversial and faced a great deal of resistance in the kingdom.


The untouched character of the library invites you to daydream but soon the splendid Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau awakens you:


Indeed, this lovely building also hosted the musical collections of the family. Charles de Geer was very passionate about music. Despite being born in the Swedish kingdom into a Huguenot family who had moved there in the 1620’s, he spent his childhood and early youth in the Netherlands. When he returned to Sweden to manage the industrial community of Lövstabruk, he brought with him a large amount of sheet music, for the most part printed in Amsterdam. Once established in his new mansion, he continued to collect music together with his son.

The collection, which is preserved by the Cultural Heritage Group, contains 84 prints and 99 handwritten pieces including some from the most famous composers of the period, such as Handel, Vivaldi or Telemann and others from less well known, more of less forgotten composers such as Jean-Baptiste Senaillé, a virtuoso violinist. Some are also anonymous.

Vivaldi RV 362, another musical treasure of Leufsta:

The Leusta’s musical treasure contains some rarities and several unique printed scores. It is also reflects the taste of the day and mirors the musical life of the manor where elegance and charm were embodied by keyboard and chamber music pieces in the galant style. If you decide to visit Lövstabruk, you will also discover a well-preserved organ constructed in 1726.

You can buy recordings of music from the Leufsta collection at the shop of Carolina Rediviva.


Louis Renard’s book of fantastic fish from the Leufsta collection:

If you want to learn more about caterpillars, butterflies and insects of all descriptions you could browse Charles de Geer’s work. Proficiency in French is required:

Mysterious ciphers

The Cultural Heritage Group regularly receives persons who want to discover some parts of the collections. Last week, two researchers, from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University, visited the manuscript department. In 2011, this international team cracked the « Copiale cipher » a famous encrypted manuscript that deals with a secret society in the XVIII century.

Who hasn’t dreamt of secret method of communication and mysterious encoded documents ? Cryptography is a science based on linguistic and mathematics. The reader who knows me a little might be floored that I’ve decided to write about this topic since I usually faint at the simple evocation of the word mathematics. But my fondness for enigmatic subjects get the better of me against my fear of numbers.

P1110061An investigation into our collections became clearly unavoidable and it quickly appeared that the Manuscript department shelters some cryptic documents. Would you like to start with a fleeting medieval excursion ?

Welcome in Vadstena, Östergötland County, a monastery founded by Saint Brigitta – one of the six patron saints of Europe – and soon to be famous as the mother-house of the order she founded in 1346. Sweden is still a Catholic country, we are more than one hundred years before the Reformation. All around Europe, lots of men and women decided to leave in retreat, into a life of prayers, far from the everyday life.

A Musical journey with the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos:

Let’s walk wordlessly around the cloister and the scriptorium, the room devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes, and open up one manuscript after another, rummage through the papers to find some curiosities. But here is a monk approaching. His name is Störkarus Thurgillus. Wait, he is handing a manuscript, the one that we now keep in the shelves of the Cultural Heritage Group.

P1110092He explains that he copied this volume in 1379 that contains religious treatises and sermons. But it’s impossible to talk further with this monk, we should inquire about it somewhere else. This manuscript is one of the very few that is currently known to contain cipher notations. There are indeed only about two dozen in Europe, a minuscule fraction of the medieval manuscripts.

It seems important to notice that nowhere in the medieval sources is any word equivalent to the English « cipher ». They are simply referred to as figures or numbers.

This small encoded note on our manuscript is a valuable proof that ciphers were known in Sweden in the late XIV century. According to the professor David A. King, the cipher might deal with magic and could be used as an invocation or more likely a curse involving devils. The mystery still partly surrounds.

P1110075I highly advise you to read the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and to watch the excellent adaptation movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud if you wish to extend the travel into the captivating world of medieval libraries and scriptoriums.

It is now time to jump through ages. A time warp to the XVIII century. At that time, cryptographic methods were abundantly used especially by diplomats for whom it was a necessary tool of communication. The different diplomatic representations were trying to hide their political secrets and never-ending plots of all types. Monarchs, ministers, ambassadors, they were all accustomed to refined ciphers.

Postal spying was ever-present and the letters were often unsealed. Thus, the French Countess of Egmont, correspondent of the Swedish king Gustav III, warned him that he should not, on any accounts, trust the postal service : « An even more important precaution is to only write by mail what you want to be publicly known (…) because it is certain that all the letters are unsealed, and even often not properly returned ».

Count Gustaf Philip Creutz, Swedish ambassador at the French court for 17 years, between 1766 and 1783, was exasperated by the bad habit of the Cabinet Noir, the office where the letters of suspected persons (but almost everyone was potentially a suspect !) were opened and read by public officials before being forwarded to their destination. This is why, as much as possible, Creutz sent his letters and dispatches by private route, taking for instance the opportunity of a friend or a close relation’s departure to the homeland. Here is the beginning of a letter he wrote to Gustav III :

« As this is by a sure hand that this letter will be delivered to Your Majesty, I take this opportunity to make him aware of some features that I would not even wish entrust to the postal service despite the cipher (…). I beg Your Majesty to burn this letter. There are spies everywhere and if ever the King here knew the contents of this letter, we should never ever think of France anymore ».

But the travelers were also controlled so cunning was compulsory : « Mr. Kling Sporr on which I can absolutely count will sew this package in his coat lining and so shirk it of all accidents ».

The use of a foreign tongue was also a good way to hide some information. The Count of Creutz often switched between French (most of his letters are written in the language of Molière) and Swedish for political news that he wanted to hide from curious people. It is also possible to mix in one sentence different languages and then encode it. It will be almost impossible to discover the meaning of it without the good interpretation key.
 Of course, There are thousands of different ciphers, each using different techniques .

P1110049The Manuscript department still has a sumptuous portfolio that contained various documents about French ciphers from the second part of the XVIII century. The perfect ambassador’s kit.

P1110046A technique, among many others, was to state the opposite of the reality. Pointed by brackets or other signs ascertained in advance, the meaning of the contained was actually diametrically reverse. An example : « The Queen is still ill but will recover soon » was to be understood as « she will pass away soon ». However, the common technique to protect writings from undesired eyes was to represent every letter and some words and proper noun by a number. See the picture, the queen of France was, in this case, encoded by the number 16.

If you don’t know what to do of your spare time, feel free to contact us, you can have a great fun trying to decode some political letters that might contains invaluable undisclosed data. And who knows, your training attempts might help you to be the first to unveil the secret of the Voynich manuscript, the world’s most famous mysterious manuscript.


Note: All the pictures are from our collections. A huge amount of Creutz letters are in the Gustavian Collection in the Manuscript department.

USC Scientist Cracks Mysterious « Copiale Cipher »:

Library in the Name of the Rose:

The Book That Can’t Be Read, a documentary about the Voynich manuscript: