Maps and History

By Black, Jeremy | History Review, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Maps and History


Black, Jeremy, History Review


Historical atlases have been generally neglected as a subject for scholarly study. They have to be distinguished from historic atlases, which have been widely studied. Historical atlases are works that at any one time depict earlier periods, as opposed to historic atlases -- old works that depict the then contemporary world.

The pre-history of the historical atlas was a long one, for the characteristic works of that genre were preceded by other that are less easy to define, notably individual maps depicting the Holy Land at the time of Christ, or the classical world, such as the map of ancient Greece produced by the Venetian cartographer Ferdinando Bertelli in 1563. Such maps would not have been regarded as historical in the same way as they are today. Without exactly being contemporary, their contents made up of so large a part of people's intellectual baggage as to give them a distinctly contemporary tincture.

The first known historical atlas, the Parergon of Abraham Ortell (Ortelius), was published in Antwerp in 1579, initially as part of his general atlas, but from 1624 as a separate work. The Parergon was followed by a number of other works. They shared a common subject: the world of the Bible and the classics. Knowledge of this world was seen as a vital aspect of genteel education and there was a growing sense that a cartographic perspective was important to this process.

The notion that maps might not only aid understanding but add a new dimension to it was an important development in early-modern European cartography. This led in the eighteenth century to a growing interest in mapping the post-classical world. Works appeared that included maps of medieval Europe, for example territorial boundaries at the time of Charlemagne, although the classical world remained the dominant theme and many historical atlases sought to go no further.

In the early-nineteenth century atlases that were primarily not classical/biblical started to appear in numbers. The Atlas Historique, Genealogique et Geographique (Paris, 1803-4) of Lesage (Comte de Las Casas) was one such. Its circulation was immense and it was published in a number of countries including Britain and the USA.

An even more influential work was the historical atlas published in 1846 by Karl von Spruner, a Bavarian army officer. An atlas depicting the development of Europe primarily from the perspective of the growth and interaction of its states, as was, and still is, the common pattern, Spruner's was influential because of his rigour and insistence on sound sources.

Within fifty years the historical atlas was to established firmly on the European scene. The establishment of mass national schooling and the growth of academic history at university level created a pedagogic demand for such works, while the development of a general book-reading public was also important.

Nations and empires

The growth of nation states was both cause and consequence of mentalites that were more focused on the nation, and this extended to the past, for past greatness and pretensions were crucial components of national myths, and the continuity of present and past was stressed. Furthermore, reliable maps became easier to provide and to publish. Most of the world had been mapped, colour printing became easier and less expensive and the production of historical atlases created a fund of information for further works. As today, emulation characterized much production.

However, the atlases were misleading. They presented states as homogeneous coloured blocks of territory separated by clear, linear frontiers, a misrepresentation of the situation in the medieval and early-modern period when there was much shared sovereignty and frontiers were generally imprecise. Instead, the cartography focused on undivided sovereignty and the development of the state. An emphasis on territoriality and control over blocs of space was extended to the extra-European world. …

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