Monday, 14 September 2015

Mapping History

Perhaps it is because I am a cartographer's daughter or one of the last students taught by that wonderful geographer George Kish, but I love maps and always learn something from studying maps.  Last weekend I was chatting to a former university vice-chancellor at the Angel Canal Festival and he said that he always felt that historians should use more maps.  Whenever he listened to their presentations he found himself wishing they had started their talk with a map.

Maps help people navigate the past, just as they help us navigate the present.  Geography is intimately connected with history, influencing economic circumstances, culture, customs, legal principles and political evolution.  Ground conditions, climate, violent weather, catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods and volcanoes, all influence history.  Visually presenting a geography and/or a topography for an historical period helps the viewer/listener/reader orient themselves and mentally accept the conditions in which history was enacted.

I am now launching into my MA in Medieval History at King's College London.  I think it will need maps, but I suspect that maps are alien to the culture of historians.  This worries me.

Working my way through the reading list, I am finding very few maps.  I've just finished John H. Arnold's History: A Very Short Introduction.  It is excellent in its overview of the scope, methods and objectives of history, but it never once mentions maps and only rarely mentions geography.

In frustration I went down to the library and found George Kish's A Source Book in Geography and read it cover to cover.  What I wanted from the book was actually on the first page of the Introduction, but I read the rest of the book for fun.  George Kish was a fun professor and gives a lively account of the history of geography from the earliest sources to the modern era.

The quote I wanted is as follows:

Quum oceanus movetur, totus movetur. 
- Bernardus Varenius, Geographie Generalis (1650) 

'When the ocean is moving, everything is moving.'  That is going to be the tagline of my dissertation, which will likely be on the implications of coastal geomorphology on the continent and in Britain for early migrations, settlement, conflicts and conquests in England.  I'm going to have maps, because maps will correct the errors of perception of the past 500 years faster than any amount of historiography.

Kish translates Polycarp Leyser in Commentario de vera geographiae methodo (Helmstedt, 1726):
He who wishes to read the works of historians, or desires to hold forth in the proper manner about history, must know all disciplines, arts and sciences.  Yet there are certain disciplines which are of such a nature that they relate more closely to history than others:  chronology, archaeology, the study of coinage, and geography.

Geography, which I list in last place, surpasses all the others both in dignity and excellence.  For it assists in a wonderful way the study of history, making it easier to remember historical events when relying on geography. 

I would even add that geography is the touchstone of both history and historians, which reveals the errors of historians with ease.
I plan to reveal 500+ years of misguided interpretation of history and toponomy as historians neglected to study geography and geomorphic change.  Geography can drive history, as famine, flooding, fire, storms and catastrophes drive migration, settlement, conflict and conquest.

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