But suppose a very large Map could be drawn, still the Inconveniency would be such, that the Inspector must have a magnifying Glass to read what he looke for, without such a Book as this, to direct in what part of the Town it lies.
There is no Place which (to the best of my Knowledge) I have escap'd.
William Stow, Remarks on London (1722)(1)
William Stow's words mark a new cultural sense of both the visual and the psychological uncontainability of London. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the ancient commercial and topographic center of London within three days. All that had been familiar, settled, phenomenologically given, was suddenly and entirely swept away; Londoners of all ranks faced an emptiness that was not only physical and structural but also historical, social, financial, conceptual. In the decades that followed, the demands of rebuilding the city generated an intense and widespread interest in urban recovery and redefinition that shaped a new set of mapping technologies and a new set of descriptive literatures. Contemporary topographic, architectural, and cartographic texts began to share vocabularies, rhetorics, and assumptions in a citywide attempt to make the strange new spaces and structures of London comprehensible, familiar, navigable, containable. I want in this essay to explore the shift in narrative techniques and conceptual concerns of London topographies before and after the Fire as a shift in cultural perceptions of urban space.(2)
Before the Fire, the few descriptions of London (textual topographies) were modelled almost exclusively on John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, which conceptually presumes and narratively reflects a comparative sense of urban fixity, a recognizable correspondence between place-name and place-behavior or commercial function. Stow's Survey supplies narrative structures and grammatical paradigms of stasis, fixity, possession, containment, suggesting that the spaces and patterns of London's streets seemed more or less knowable, reliable, and relatively static. But as London was destroyed and rebuilt, recovered and remembered, reperceived and redefined, the experience of inhabiting its new spaces demanded new habits and new forms of expression. With a number of new maps of the city, for the first time consistently English-made, came a rush of guidebooks and topographies written expressly for Londoners.(3) Maps and topographies were designed and sold to meet the needs of "Gentlemen, Ladies, and others" for spatial reorientation.(4) They were made available in affordable, pocket-sized form, and became increasingly popular to a wide-ranging public.(5) As the ornamental bird's-eye-views and elevations of maps from the fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries were replaced with two-dimensional groundplans that recorded the most obscure courts and alleys, so the narrativized antiquities of Stow disappeared under a welter of alphabetized and cross-referenced lists of street names designed to capture and make accessible the burgeoning new centers as well as the mystifying old corners of this swiftly changing space.
But as fast as the new spaces were mapped and described, they changed. Discernibly ambitious new building in the western suburbs, with discernibly different architectural assumptions,(6) added more of the new to the sense of shape, structure, and topography of the city, and effected even greater change in the city's social and commercial patterns. Shops, trades, neighbors, and social customs, dislodged from their medieval patterns, resettled in new places, and as London's hypertrophic trade economy increasingly governed shifting social as well as commercial trends, transience generally replaced stability.
The historical question of London's social, political, and topographic instability is much debated.(7) In the argument that follows I want to emphasize two different points. First, part of this great sense of changed urban space is perceptual and comparative: Londoners after the Fire perceived and described themselves in terms of drastic historical and cultural change, looking back nostalgically towards a nonexistent golden age of topographical reliability and fixity. …