The History of Cartography

The division of the history of cartography into 'old' and 'new' came about in the penultimate decade of the twentieth century. Examples of the use of the word 'cartography' in Germany as early as the second decade of the nineteenth-century have been found, but the idea of a formal history of cartography for the study of old, that is, nonmodern, maps is usually attributed to the Portuguese scholar Manuel Francisco de Barros e Sousa in 1839. Inevitably, the nineteenth and earlytwentieth century practitioners judged maps in the light of their own, post Enlightenment, times. The application of current thought to a position in the past to which it does not apply (presentism), the idea that civilization always advances in a desired direction (progressivism), the privileging of technology, and the acceptance of the invincibility, objectivity, and accuracy of science – only some of the constituents of a way of thinking that has yet to die out completely – meant that whereas the earliest maps might be discussed in a preliminary paragraph or chapter, they were not to be admitted to the pantheon. They were considered too 'crude', 'inaccurate' (mathematically), and oversimplified, or having too many exaggerated and out of scale features, to qualify as maps. cases, with exaggerated (i.e., out of scale) features in other cases to qualify as maps. A map was considered to be (as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary continues to put it)

A representation of the earth's surface or a part of it, its physical and political features, etc., or of the heavens, delineated on a flat surface of paper, etc., according to a definite scale or projection. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1986, Vol.1, p. 1276)

Today, even when the progressivist notion, at least, has been abandoned by most scholars, the implicitly scientific connotation of the word cartography is held by others to justify a persistently exclusive attitude to the history of maps. The key factors in map production are seen as technical; the validity of the projection used for the representation of a sphere or parts of a sphere on a flat surface, and of the geodetical precision of the coordinates of latitude and longitude. In short, their preoccupation is with maps drawn to mathematical scale, on which both distance and direction are measurable. For a majority of maps produced from the eighteenth century onward, these are valuable and important preoccupations, but they are not the only issues of relevance to the wider discipline of history.

Studies conducted in the perspective of the post-Enlightenment paradigm have made, and continue to make, contributions of importance. They include, for example, work on the characteristics of projections, and on the science of surveying the heavens, the oceans and seas, and the land at large and small scale. They examine the nature of conventional signs used on nineteenth and twentieth century maps, and the processes of map reproduction and printing. They liaise with historians of science to document the way contemporary scientific knowledge was applied to surveying instruments for use on land or sea. This focus on the technical aspects of map construction and assemblage of a map's contents, however, leaves current practitioners of the history of 'cartography' impatient with maps that fail to meet the expected criteria; while those who would like to place the emphasis on the 'history' of cartography remain unhappy with the curtailing, as they see it, of the lengthy and rich global past of maps. Maps from antiquity (not to mention prehistory), the European Middle Ages, and many Renaissance maps tend to be structured on, or contain elements of, topological – not Euclidean – geometry; they are maps in diagrammatic style, for example, or they have selected place signs of exaggerated dimension in reflection of their perceived importance. To accommodate these maps, and the humanistic factors that account for their 'artistic' nature, a different approach is needed.