This is one of those books that has been piled beside the bed and which I’ve been dipping into for weeks. To be honest I think the work, by Scott L. Montgomery (University of Arizona Press, 1999) should really have been called Images of the Moon in the Western Imagination, because it is primarily concerned with how the moon has appeared in art and in science, and principally from the Renaissance onwards. There is brief (too brief, from my point of view) coverage of Frances Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac, otherwise the extensive western literature of moon voyages does not get a look in. There is fascinating stuff about portrayals of the moon in western art became gradually more realistic as the middle ages gave way to the Renaissance, but then around 1600 Queen Elizabeth’s mathematician, William Gilbert, chiefly known for his work on the magnetism of the Earth, drew a map of the moon from naked-eye observations, and actually applied names to the features he identified. From that point on, the nature of the book changes. Now it is all about the mapping of the moon, and in particular the politics (and the religious politics) involved in the various naming schemes for the lunar landscape that were proposed during the seventeenth century.

Astonishingly, Gilbert’s drawing (not published during his lifetime) was the first time that names were appended to lunar features, therefore turning the moon from a celestial globe into an identifiable landscape. Observations through the new invention of the telescope that came within a few years of Gilbert’s map – the Englishman Thomas Hariot, chiefly known for his writing about another new world, America, drew the moon as seen through the telescope a few months before Galileo made his own far more detailed observations in 1609 – instantly transformed the moon into a territory that the expansive realms of Europe could now lay claim to. (Bishop Wilkins’s 1638 book on the Moon is largely about laying claim to the moon in this way – though Montgomery doesn’t give this the attention it deserves. He also tends to ignore the way the reinterpretation of the moon as a world resonated with theological arguments about the plurality of worlds which was then becoming topical because of the persecution of Giordano Bruno and because of the political splits between the Catholic and Protestant worlds over their reactions to the new science. These are two areas that could have been fruitfully covered in what is, after all, a rather short book.) After Galileo a succession of observers began producing maps of the moon, each with different naming schemes, and Montgomery is particularly good about the difficulties of reconciling their different maps, and also about the political battles that are hidden behind the differences in the naming schemes proposed.

In the end I can’t help feeling that this is half of a really fascinating book, but it’s the other half that I would be most interested in.

First published at Livejournal, 9 October 2004.