Review | The First Three Hundred Years of Historical Atlases

G.T. Dempsey


Walter Goffart Historical Atlases:  The First Three Hundred Years, 1570-1870 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. xxiii, 603, ISBN: 0226300714

This is a book well-worth our reminding ourselves of.  Though published a decade and a half ago, it remains – as it will for the foreseeable future – the indispensable reference source for the appearance and development of historical atlases in the Western world.  Its author, a long-time professor at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, was one of the heavyweights of early medieval historians of his generation.  Of particular note were his Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584, a study of both the why and the how of the settlement of the various barbarian invaders within the Roman empire of the fifth and sixth centuries, a book which set forth a thesis of accommodation challenging traditional interpretations and sparking a still ongoing reconsideration of this fundamental transformation of the Roman world, and his The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800), which demonstrated the purposefulness of both methodology and intentions of such very early medieval historians as Bede and Gregory of Tours.

Goffart explains his transition from such institutional and intellectual history to the markedly different subject matter and methodology of Historical Atlases by recalling his desire, in writing an article for the festschrift of a colleague, to discover the origins of the standard map typically entitled ‘The Barbarian Invasions (A.D. 376-568).’  What he discovered was a void.  Historical maps and atlases proved to be a largely uncultivated field.  He set out to create both the methodology and the data base, visiting public collections from (as he puts it) ‘Sacramento to Jerusalem, Stockholm to Naples, and many points in between.’  The result is a book divided into six chapters, covering the sixteenth into the nineteenth century.  The chapters are paired, with the first chapter setting out the development of historical maps and map collections in that period and the second chapter dealing with individual maps (with profuse black-and-white illustrations).  The book concludes with a 105-page catalogue listing over 700 maps and atlases from some sixty collections around the world (perhaps the greatest virtue of this altogether virtuous book).

The ‘historical map’ differs from the ordinary map by focusing not on physical geography but on ‘moments in time,’ its purpose being to illustrate an historical event, such as the movement of the various Germanic barbarians into the Roman Empire.  Physical features are dispensed with, if helpful to historical instruction.  Visual aids matter while topography is a secondary concern.  Outline maps are typical.

Goffart begins by sketching in the proliferation, dating from the early fifteenth century, of illustrated copies of the Latin translation of Ptolemy’s second-century A.D. Geographia.  These set in motion a new era of mapmaking by introducing a set of methods to map-illustrators, including a grid of latitude and longitude, an extensive set of coordinates, and the goal of uniformity of scale, projection, and coverage.  Ptolemy’s geography soon proved obsolete as contemporary European exploration and mapping of the world broke out of its coordinates.  Along with the crafting of geographically accurate world maps came the introduction, as supplement, of maps illustrating ancient history, particularly biblical, such as Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum of 1570 or his Parergon of 1612.  It must be emphasized that these map collections focused on ‘lands’ and not on historical moments.

Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570.
Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570.

In the eighteenth century, atlases first appear which are wholly (or nearly so) devoted to historical maps.  One such was Christoph Gatterer’s map collection in forty-four sheets with twenty-four devoted to historical events from A.D. 100 to 1500.  Gatterer, a professor at the University of Göttingen, produced the collection, c. 1775, for his course in historical geography.  This followed a pattern of development begun at the very beginning of the century.  The anonymous Atlas historique produced in Amsterdam, the first atlas to be explicitly labelled ‘historical,’ appeared in 1705 (eventually, after some fifteen years, reaching seven folio volumes), with its maps profusely accompanied with illustrations, chronological charts, and historical essays.  Many of the latter were the work of Nicolas Gueudeville, a run-away monk from Normandy, and were laced with both anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiments.  The controversy did not hurt the sale of the atlas.  Contemporaneous were the maps of Guillaume Delisle, some drawn to teach King Louis XV, in his minority, about his predecessors; Delisle’s ‘Historical vista for A.D. 400,’ setting out both the Roman Empire and the barbarians living around it was soon widely copied throughout Europe, as though the public had long been waiting for such a map.

Historical maps and atlases designed as pedagogic tools can be said to have come of commercial age in the nineteenth century.  Such collections as the Genealogical, Chronological, Historical, and Geographical Atlas of A. Lesage (Émmanuel de las Cases) of 1801 or the Atlas und Tabellen of Christian Kruse of 1802/04 were huge commercial successes.  Similar productions appeared in abundance in virtually every European country, permeating even humble school textbooks.

This is the story in outline.  Goffart narrates the entire story in enticing detail – this is, truly, an enjoyably readable account but also one executed with the rigorous scholarship expected from such a practiced scholar – all is footnoted.   Rarely has a decade of sustained primary scholarly research produced such a delightful book.


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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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