I was born in Bradford and educated at state schools in Leeds before studying for a BA (Hons) in English at Sussex University, followed by an MA at Essex University in the Sociology of Literature. I lived in East Berlin before returning to study for a PhD in early modern mapping at Queen Mary. After a research fellowship at Leeds University and a lectureship at Royal Holloway, I returned to Queen Mary in 2003, and was appointed Professor of Renaissance Studies in 2007.
My first book, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World (1997) began an interest in mapping and east-west cultural exchange. This was followed by collaborative work with Lisa Jardine that led to Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West (2000). I have since written The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (2002), The Sale of the Late King’s Goods (2006) shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2006), Great Maps (2014) and the bestselling A History of the World in Twelve Maps (2012), translated into eleven languages which won book of the year in Austria and was shortlisted for the Hessel Tiltman Prize and was a New York Times Bestseller.
My books have been translated into twenty languages. I am a regular broadcaster, critic and feature writer, presenting BBC4’s three-part TV series, ‘Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession’ (2010), BBC NI’s ‘Mapping Ulster’ (2013) BBC Radio 3’s ‘Courting the East’ (2007), BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Venice Ghetto’ (2016), the BBC World Service’s ‘A Tempest in Rio’ (2016), and BBC Radio 4’s ‘Shakespeare: Lord of Misrule’ (2017).
I have also co-curated and edited the catalogue of ‘Penelope’s Labour: Weaving Words and Images’ (with Adam Lowe), an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 2011.
I am an Associate of the People’s Palace Projects, where I work on a variety of projects in Brazil on subjects Shakespeare, utopia and indigenous communities.
My most recent book This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016) was a Radio 4 Book of the Week and a Waterstone’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year. It was also published in the United States as The Sultan and the Queen (Viking 2016). I am currently curating an exhibition on maps at the Bodleian Library, Oxford (2019), and writing the accompanying exhibition catalogue, and writing a book on the history of discovery.
I have taught on:
- ESH280: Renaissance Drama
- ESH366: Shakespeare: The Play, the Work, and the Book
I have taught on:
- ESH7021: Early Modern Contexts
- ESH7025: Global Interests in the Shakespearean World
- Renaissance intellectual and cultural history
- Early modern literature
- History of cartography
- East-west cultural exchange
- History of discovery
Recent and On-Going Research:
My research is on the history of mapping and early modern global exchange, with particular reference to the European and Islamic worlds. My book A History of the World in Twelve Maps forms part of my research into the history of mapping. This includes my participation in a recent Leverhulme research network grant, led by Alfred Hiatt in English (PI) on early modern cartography between Europe and the Islamic world. I am also working with my long-time collaborator, Adam Lowe of Factum Arte, on a variety of cartographic projects, including the creation of a 3D map of the world as an art installation, digital conservation projects with the Bodleian Library and a projected exhibition at the Cini Foundation in Venice. In 2014 I published a popular book on cartography entitled Great Maps (Dorling Kindersley and the Smithsonian Institute). My next book is This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016). I am also working on a longer-term global history of discovery in the early modern period.
I am a member of the Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News, and Networks (CEMMN.net) at Queen Mary, a trustee of J.B. Harley Research Trust, Associate Director of Global Shakespeare, and an associate of the People’s Palace Projects at Queen Mary.
- This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, London, 2016). Also published in the US as The Sultan and the Queen (Viking, 2016)
- Great Maps (Dorling Kindserley and Smithsonian Books, 2014). The book has since been published in four different languages.
- A History of the World in Twelve Maps (London: Allen Lane, 2012)
- with A. Lowe, eds, Penelope's Labour: Weaving Words and Images (Madrid: Factum Arte, 2011)
- The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection (London: Macmillan, 2006)
- The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
- The Renaissance Bazaar: from Silk Road to Michelangelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
I would welcome enquiries from potential doctoral students interested in any of the areas of my research. Current supervision projects include the East India Company archives and early Tudor cartography.
I have recently supervised the following successful PhD projects:
- Colette Gordon, 'The Play of Credit in Shakespearean Comedy' (2009)
- Katherine Diamond, 'The Production, Transmission and Reception of "The Principal Navigations"' (2013)
- Kurosh Meshkat, 'Sir Anthony Sherley's Journey to Persia, 1598-1599' (2013)
- Kirsty Rolfe, 'Letters of Elizabeth Stuart' (2014)
- Peter Mitchell, '"The Centre of the Muniment": The India Office Records and the Historiography of Early Modern Empire, 1875-1891'
Much of my academic work is concerned with public impact. My books have been published in twenty languages worldwide, and a History of the World in Twelve Maps was a New York Times Bestseller.
I have always believed in the importance of communicating specialised research to a wider audience. This has led me to present three BBC television programmes, two BBC Radio 3 programmes, a BBC4 Radio programme and a BBC World Service programme, on subjects including Shakespeare and misrule, Shakespeare in Brazil, Anglo-Islamic relations in the Elizabethan period and the history of the Venice Ghetto.
I have appeared as a guest and contributor on various television and radio programmes including flagship BBC and Channel 4 series on Leonardo and the Medici, as well as providing consultation for various independent TV companies. I write and review regularly for various newspapers, including The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, BBC History Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Literary Review.
I am a regular speaker at various national and international literary festivals, and was programme director for the Shakespeare 400 strand of the Hay Festival in 2016.
I am also involved in curatorial and conservation work, having co-curated Penelope's Labour: Weaving Words and Images, a critically acclaimed show featuring hand-woven and digitally created tapestry, held at the Cini Foundation, San Giorgio, as part of the 2011 Venice Biennale (with Adam Lowe).
In 2019 I am co-curating an exhibition on maps at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which will be accompanied with a catalogue (published by Bodleian Books and Chicago University Press).
In collaboration with the People’s Palace Projects, where I act as one of its Associates, I have developed various publicly engaged projects including performing Shakespeare in various Brazilian cities, debating the history and future of the concept of utopia, and working with indigenous communities on art and architectural projects.
I have a longstanding association with Adam Lowe and his company Factum Arte, working on various ongoing projects including a 3D map of the world in relief entitled ‘Terra-Forming’.