The History of Maps and Mapping

That new approach emerged in the 1980s, propelled by factors both external and internal. External to – one might say foreign to – the world of cartography was the French theoretical and philosophical post structuralist movement led by Michel Foucault and Jacque Derrida that had already found fertile ground in the humanities (including geography) in Europe in the late 1970s. Internal to the history of cartography were two factors: the foundation in 1981 by J. B. Harley and David Woodward of The History of Cartography Project, devoted to the publication of a six volume history of maps; and the personality and publications of Brian Harley himself. While the first, path breaking, volume of the History of Cartography, published by the University of Chicago Press, moved slowly toward completion through the decade (see below), Harley, a British historical geographer, had abandoned his insistence on empiricism and was applying the theories he found not only in Foucault and Derrida, but also in the work of ''prominent sociologists, anthropologists, art historians, and literary and cultural scholars.'' Matthew Edney lists 15 authors used by Harley in an avowed attempt to move the study of early maps away from the ahistorical grip of cartography and toward academic autonomy. The substantial corpus of theoretical essays and articles Harley wrote between 1980 and his premature death in 1991 were the most influential of his career. By the close of the millennium, Harley's writings combined with his and Woodward's History of Cartography Project – which involved not only selecting authors for the three volumes published to date, but also, in the 1980s especially, persuading them to interpret maps as human constructs from a specific historical context – had, by the close of the millennium, ensured the desired shift of emphasis from the study of cartographical processes and products to include the social history of maps.

The new history of cartography (despite the private inclinations of Harley andWoodward, the traditional label proved too difficult to dislodge entirely), unlike the old, is inclusive, accommodating the humanistic and scientific aspects of the creation, compilation, and production of premodern maps. Accuracy, for example, is still an important criterion, but different kinds of accuracy are recognized as well as that of the map's overall construction. In the Middle Ages and not only on the maps for Ptolemy's Geography. In the Middle Ages as in Sixteenth century, and not only on the maps for Plolemy's Geography, in individual localities might be positioned on a map according to contemporary measurements of latitude (reasonably correct) and longitude (which remained difficult to measure until the eighteenth century), while other places were interpolated; those accurately plotted were identified by a special mark or place sign. Measurements and distances might be given in writing on the map next to the features to which they applied. Another form of accuracy was that of the map's content. This might concern the correct classification of the local settlement hierarchy, the showing of towns as walled or unwalled (vital knowledge for anyone planning a journey), or the presence of a bridge at a major river crossing.

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty first century, the alternative term 'history of maps and mapping' was being generally welcomed as a more commodious term. To a few, wedded to the conception of the map as a technical construct, new definition offered they Harley and Woodward in 1987 —

Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.' (Harley and Woodward, 1987: xvi)

—is an invitation to overstretch the idea of what constitutes a map to extremes. It is true that the metaphorical use of the word 'map' has become extremely popular, with titles such as The Mind Map Book and Mapping the Fiction of C F Cubas. In the view of the majority of serious scholars now contributing to the advancement of our understanding of how and why maps were made and used at different times and under different circumstances in the past, however, there is no doubt that the subject has benefited considerably from the wider definition. Always open to input from a range of viewpoints, but traditionally fueled by geographers, historians, librarians, and collectors, those now writing articles and books or presenting papers at international and national conferences on, or involving the history of maps, include art historians, literary scholars, historians of science, social psychologists, and military historians; in truth, map history is a genuinely interdisciplinary endeavor.

In seeking, with Harley, to steer the 'history' of cartography away from an unbalanced preoccupation with the technical mapmaking process, Woodward continuously stressed that a more holistic interpretation of early maps could be achieved by a systematic approach to three key aspects: the map as artifact, as image, and as vehicle of communication fashioned in the likeness of the society which created it. The order in which the three aspects are taken is unimportant; what matters is to arrive at an appreciation of the relationship among all three as a means of seeing the map in its historical context. The questions guiding researchers are deceptively simple – not only how was the map originally produced, but also why? For whom? How was it used? Not only what does this map show (or omit) but also what did the map mean to those for whom it was made (or who saw it subsequently and under possibly quite different circumstances)? What were the messages conveyed overtly or subliminally by the map image? What knowledge (or misinformation) is embodied in each map? Such questions also direct attention to the need for evidence; analogy may occasionally be admissible to help illuminate the history of maps, as of other artifacts, but the emphasis is always on high standards of documentation from contemporary sources. The task is monumental, given the sheer quantity of extant material (in absolute, not relative terms; much has been lost over time, which makes the intellectual reconstructions all the more elusive) and its variety in medium, format, and function. The goal is to be able to treat early maps as individuals, not mere categories, and to illuminate the place of each one within the society that produced it, in relation to other genres of maps circulating at the time as well as to all aspects of the cultural, social, economic, and technical circumstances of the day. To this end, the concentrated scholarly efforts of researchers from every cognate field are combined in the furtherance of a worldwide history of maps and mapping practices. Harley and Woodward, and those who have taken their 1987 redefinition of 'map' to heart, have largely succeeded both in closing the methodological gap between the subdiscipline of the history of cartography and the broader discipline of history and in drawing together the conceptual approaches of the humanities and the social sciences academy. The history of cartography, in our opinion now more properly labeled map history, has come of age.