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Charting an Empire: Geography at the English Universities, 1580–1620. By Lesley B. Cormack (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997) 281 pp. $68.00 cloth $23.95 paper

In late Tudor and early Stuart England, geographical studies consisted of three strands. Mathematical geography aimed at exact mapping of positions on the surface of the globe. Pursued largely by university scholars, and tracing its origins back to Ptolemy’s (c. 100–70) Geographia, this practice sought elegant solutions to such problems as determining the longitude at sea, navigating in northern waters where both magnetic variation and the conventions of commonly available charts made sailors’ work more difficult, and developing a mathematical map projection that permitted sailing courses and rhumb lines to be conveniently drawn as straight lines.

Descriptive geography was a lot less technical, though no less practical. There was a ready market for wonder mongering, and for travellers’ tales of greater or lesser reliability, both within and without the universities. As stories circulated about the exotic “Other,” descriptive geography furnished the English mind with vivid pictures of what “Abroad” was like, and, in so doing, arguably helped to constitute Englishmen’s sense of their own national identity.

Chorography—or local history—aimed at a survey or inventory of more familiar places. It also responded to practical needs: The rapid rate of social mobility in the period gave new stress to the importance of land surveying, the display of cultural familiarity with place, and the construction of genealogies.

Some time ago, materials showing the intimate connections between academic scientific concerns and practical activities in the scientific revolution would have engaged—as a matter of course—with the theses of Karl Marx or Robert Merton. Not a hint of such preoccupations enters Cormack’s book, though the pertinence of Marx and Merton to these materials and their interpretation is unmistakable. The big argument that opens this book, and that recurs throughout, is that “The study of geography was essential to the creation of an ideology of imperialism,” and that geographical tracts are to be seen as a causal element in the establishment of “an imperial mentalité” (1, 7). It is not clear, however, that the author recognizes the highly theoretical nature of such claims, and, in fact, nothing in the book suggests an appreciation [End Page 311] of what would have to be done to establish them securely. The practical import of some geographical studies in extending empire is well documented in Charting an Empire; their causal ideological function is mainly just asserted.

This is a worthy and informative book. Historians of both English education and imperialism will have much to learn from it. But it is not an easy read. Large chunks are devoted to dense seriatim accounts of individual Oxbridge geographers and painstaking inventories of geographical books held in college libraries. These would have formed useful appendixes to a more reader-friendly text. The author’s preference for the trees over the forest is evident. Poor Marx; poor Merton.

Steven Shapin
University of California, San Diego

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pp. 311-312
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