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  • Historical Atlases: The First Three Hundred Years, 1570-1870
  • Catherine Delano-Smith
Walter Goffart . Historical Atlases: The First Three Hundred Years, 1570–1870. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. xxiii + 603 pp. index. illus. map. $65. ISBN: 0–226–30071–4.

The neatness of the subtitle of this richly detailed and densely packed book is deceptive, for we soon learn that the historical map proper "came of age" only in the eighteenth century, after the first explicitly titled historical atlas, the Amsterdam Atlas historique, was published between 1705 and 1713. By "historical atlas" Walter Goffart intends a "specialised collection" of "maps for history," designed specifically to illustrate moments of time and to serve the teaching of history (1–2). Renaissance books of maps, such as those of Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator, which were created as the "eye of history" (Ortelius's words) and dedicated to understanding the world's geography and the human events that took place on the global stage, were intended as all-encompassing philosophical and theological statements and are not part of the story of the historical atlas sensu stricto. In the seventeenth-century, likewise, historical maps tended to be either separate sheet maps, book maps, or at most a handful of maps added to a geographical atlas. Yet the story has to start early, in the Renaissance if not in the Middle Ages, if only because maps containing features from the past were being compiled and looked at by contemporaries. The distinction between present and past in the context of atlases is found as early as the mid-fourteenth century, when modern maps (tabulae novae) were first included in Latin manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geography.

In fact, Goffart's focus throughout the book is medieval in the sense that he is expressly concerned with maps showing medieval history published in the late sixteenth century onwards. From the age of print, in other words. Goffart is a historian, not a historian of cartography, and it would be unreasonable to expect a more authoritative assessment of the history of the maps he discusses from periods prior to his starting date (or even after it). It is odd, however, that he shows so little interest in the history of history itself. It is difficult to see how there can [End Page 642] be any rewarding discussion of the development of the historical atlas over three centuries without at least some attention being paid to the parallel — and surely related — changes in the way the past was viewed.

Goffart also does himself a disservice in devising a most confusing structure for his text. Three chronological sections (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, eighteenth century, nineteenth century) are each subdivided into two categories (dealing first with "milestones in the origins of specialist historical atlases" and then with individual maps). The misfortune is not so much the repetition that he himself anticipated as loss of information through over-fragmentation and lack of cohesion. In the end, the book neither tells a story, nor is it easy to use as the reference work it deserves to be. There is little sense of historical maps and atlases as cultural or social documents or of mapmakers or publishers on the one hand and map-users and teachers of history and the classics on the other hand. Descriptions of the cartographical artifact dominate. Little account is taken of the people responsible for it or associated with it, and still less of the factors involved. There are some compensations. The reader is provided with a subject index, an index to the maps and atlases cited, a list of the secondary literature cited in the chapter endnotes, and — a major bonus — over a hundred pages of a catalogue of maps and atlases. Alas, though, even the catalogue is presented in a less than reader-friendly manner, for what catches the eye is the coding, in bold, indicating the classification of the entry (H = historical atlas, M = map for history, G = geographical atlas with historical additions), followed by the pressmark. The date or author of the work is less easy to spot: the Atlas historique referred to above proved elusive.

In the end, unfortunate as it...


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pp. 642-643
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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