Historical Cartography

A second form of geographical and historical investigation about the past involves maps compiled from data relating to an earlier situation. Interpreted generously as the writing of history with maps rather than words, the practice is older and the reasons for it more diverse than is generally described. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example, maps of the world were compiled to portray the history of human time. As God's creation, the inhabited Earth was depicted at the center of the cosmos and the map packed with vignettes summarizing the major historical events from the beginning of time (marked by the Earthly paradise) to the end of time (marked by Jerusalem, site of the anticipated apocalypse). The content of these world maps (mappae mundi) is a systematic mixture of historical and contemporary geography, and myth and fantasy inherited from Classical texts, within the outlines of the three continents and their main natural features that provide the essential reference points. History (as related in the Bible) rather than geography was the key factor in this kind of map. When a Latin translation of Ptolemy's Geography became available in theWest, about 1400, it was apparent that the Roman geographer's maps referred to a past situation and, from the middle of the fourteenth century, 'modern' versions of the regional maps began to be added to the manuscript copies and, in due course, the printed editions. Biblical geography remained of interest in the sixteenth century, especially to Protestants; Peter Laicksteen and Christian Sgrooten's map of the Holy Land distinguishes surviving, lost, and ruined places. In 1573, Abraham Ortelius published the first edition of his Parergon, an atlas of 'ancient geography', with 32 topographical maps drawn to help the student of the ancient world in the same way as his Theatrum orbis terrarum could help the student of the modern world and its regions. Maps showing regions and countries as they once had been continue to be produced.

A slightly different conception of the historical map is that of the map drawn to display the processes of history. The temptation to appropriate map history to make a political statement or for purposes of a nationalistic claim has never been entirely resisted. Maps reconstructing earlier territories, with their settlements, were produced in the Middle Ages, often in a national genealogical context, but they acquired a more explicit pedagogical function with the emergence in the sixteenth century of history as a formal subject in the modern sense. The growing interest from the eighteenth century in school atlases, and aids for geographical education such as globes, wall maps, and school atlases, testifies to the ways in which geographical knowledge was transmitted to the wider population beyond those of wealth and high social standing with access to private libraries. According to Walter Goffart, historical atlases in the modern sense had to await the emergence of a well defined sense of chronology and so were not found before the seventeenth century. Instead of showing the extent of territory in earlier times, the historical map sensu stricto represented periods. Gathered into atlas format, change could be demonstrated in a sequence of maps. Unless imported or translated into English, British readers probably saw few of the works produced in France, the Netherlands, and Germany; the first issue of an ambitious English project, the Universal History from Ancient Times by George Sale and T. Salmon appeared only in 1736, with the maps bound separately from the text. From then on, the impetus to construct cartographical images to show the past accelerated. By the end of the twentieth century, Jeremy Black, another historian commenting on historical mapping, analyzing in particular the products of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and pointing to the way the content of such maps changed after World War II, reflected sadly on how little attention is paid to historical maps and atlases by historians (and, he could have added, geographers) despite the considerable influence they have in ''creating and sustaining notions of historical situations'' and ''advancing our understanding of space and spatial relationships.'' Modern geographers are familiar with the genre through the maps in Clifford Darby's seven volume reconstruction of the geography of England and Wales in 1086, from data recorded in Domesday Book. The millennial year 2000 saw a number of new publications in the by then well established genre of county historical atlases – the 'as we look forward, so we look back' genre – while the Historical Atlas of Canada (conceived in the early 1970s and Volume 1 published in 1987) represents the most ambitious construction of a national history through maps.

History from Maps

A particularly common approach to early maps assumes that the early map is a repository of information relating to the time when it was compiled, a simple quarry awaiting exploitation by the modern researcher. Early topographical maps, the printed regional or county maps of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the precursors of modern official national surveys such as Britain's Ordnance Survey (founded 1791), are often packed with geographical, political, social, and administrative details as well as natural features. Probably, no maps are richer in their content of data from the past than large scale town plans with buildings shown in elevation and used as sources for the topographical history of towns. Maps are also used to study the changing courses of rivers – some, indeed, were drawn at the time for that purpose, with liftup flaps to indicate newly cut off meanders – and maps made originally for navigation are scrutinized in the study of environmental change for the coastal and estuarine features (human and natural). However, none of these maps should be used without a thorough understanding of their quality as evidence. Without the essential verification of the map as historical document, the tendency of modern historians to relegate maps, like paintings and other nonverbal sources, to some lower division of evidence than the written word is fully justified.

The Map in History

The arrival of the 'new' history of cartography (see below) gave life to yet another way of looking at early maps. The emphasis placed in the last decades of the twentieth century on attempting to understand the map in its contemporary context – how it was made, why it was made, for whom, and to what purpose or effect – encouraged (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) the study of early maps as expressions of power and as instruments of control, either intentional or subliminal. While there are circumstances in which maps have indubitably had a significant and tangible impact on people's lives – in border definition (or lack of definition), in the consolidation of state control over land through cadastral mapping (or private control over landed property through estate mapping), in the manipulation of maps for political or religious (or, these days, commercial) propaganda – there has been a tendency to assume, rather than document, the power of maps and to overlook the point that every map, like every word, has some power ofcommunication, whether in a textbook, exegetical treatise, or in a newspaper or on television. Indeed, a judiciously simplified, or diagrammatic, map may be more effective than the written text.