Historian to research the subject "that might never have existed"
A Swansea University history lecturer has been awarded a prestigious fellowship that will enable him to research a subject that might never have existed.
Dr Adam Mosley (pictured), from Swansea University's School of Humanities, specialises in the history of early modern science and will spend October and November 2007 as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge University.
He will spend his time researching the history of cosmography, a subject sometimes represented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the sum of astronomy and geography.
"In the sixteenth century, cosmography was commonly represented as a subject that comprised geography, astronomy and history," said Dr Mosley.
"But at some point that changed and scholars preferred to refer to the individual subjects as distinct disciplines in their own right.
"My aim is to understand precisely what cosmography was, the extent to which it was pursued within the universities of Europe, and the reasons for its eventual disappearance as an academic subject."
It is believed that cosmography as a discipline originated as the result of a mistake in translating texts recovered from the ancient world. It is first used in a translation of the Geography of the mathematician, geographer and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a description of the world as it was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
"We are not sure why cosmography died or even to what extent it ever really existed as a subject," admits Dr Mosley, "but we do know that the term was associated with the art of navigation by the stars practised by seafarers in the sixteenth century. In addition to its scholarly form, therefore, it enjoyed some kind of existence as a practical activity taught to and studied by sailors.
"In fact, you can argue that the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in use today are are a modern form of cosmography as they combine geography and astronomy to give users precise locations."
Cosmography is a term also associated with the Flemish cartographer, Mercator, who published his own atlas that included corrected versions of the maps first produced by Ptolemy.
Although Mercator is the best-known cosmographer – he gave his name to the standard way in which world maps were represented (the Mercator projection) – a prominent Welshman is also connected with the subject.
John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I's astrologer, is more famous for his supposed conversations with angels and for being the first person to coin the phrase "the British Empire".
Dee claimed Welsh descent and wrote a text that argued that the Welsh conquered America in the 13th century. He also wrote texts on mathematics that offered a definition of the subject of cosmography.
Dr Mosley said: "It may be misleading to describe John Dee as a cosmographer, but he is a part of the subject's history and I hope that my research in Cambridge will answer a few questions about the role he played in the development of the discipline."