Using Maps in History: An Interview with Dr. Helmut Walser Smith

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Aside from adding a splash of color to one’s dissertation or latest book, there are many ways using old maps can enhance one’s historical project. While many look to maps to understand how borders and boundaries evolve, to determine the environmental changes that affect our history, or to deconstruct world-processes like colonialism and empire, Dr. Helmut Walser Smith,  Vanderbilt’s Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History and Director of the Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, has found unusual and innovative ways to use early maps to shape and further his understanding of European intellectual history.

Etzlaub's RomeWay Map, 1500. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As an avid collector of old maps, Smith came across an upside-down (or South-oriented) map of what was essentially Germany from 1500 that captured his imagination—the Romeway Map. It was titled so because Rome is at the very top, and it was intended for millennial pilgrims to make their final voyage there before the end of the world. As a modern historian of nationalism, Smith knew little about why such a map existed, and started looking into the origins of it.

In addition to his answers, Smith found that investigating the Romeway map raised a whole host of new questions about concepts that had been taken for granted. Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm argue that nations are products of modernization, and yet here was a map that suggested conceptions of the nation were more complex, with roots that reach into the early modern. Smith’s research of 16th century mapmaking led him to think about what nation meant in the early modern period; namely that it was a more cohesive cultural idea than he had assumed. Smith discovered that these maps (which often came with descriptions from the makers) are just one cultural product among many that encouraged him to question in which terms early modern people conceived of their nation(s).

It was this thinking that created the framework for Smith’s latest book The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race Across the Long Nineteenth Century. In the first chapter (“The Mirror Turn Lamp: Senses of the Nation Before Nationalism”), Smith argues that nations are not new in the 18th century, but their epistemology is. In the early modern period the cultural products of the nation (such as maps) suggest that nations are things that are exterior of the self. In the late 18th and early 19th century, nations become something which is more interior—a part of one’s sense of self. This has to do with the early 18th century notion of Innerlichkeit, or one’s connection to the self that was expressed for the first time in the age of the Romantics.

Ortelius' Map of Europe, 1572. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Smith’s forthcoming book, his first chapter (tentatively titled “Seeing Germany for the First Time,”) Smith will demonstrate how the creationof maps and early Atlases are at least as easily the story of a peaceful Europe as they are of a warring Europe. Early mapmakers were mostly humanists, caught in the cross wings of religious strife and violence. The early Atlases (for example, those by Ortelius in 1570) were intended to show countries existing next to one another in a peaceful way. Smith is interested in the worldviews that produced these images of nations to better understand how modern ideas of the nation formed.

For those of you who want to know more about how maps can get you to think about your non-European fields, Smith has a few recommendations. In addition to looking at the maps mentioned above, all Americanists could benefit from sitting down with the Waldseemüller Map of 1507. It is the first known map to display the name of America, and one of the first to divert from traditional Portuguese and Spanish cartography in the use of theory to fill in for lack of geographic knowledge. It is a pictorial manifestation of historical imagination and critical thinking, and Smith uses it each time he teaches Western Civ. to help his students understand how early modern people conceived of the world they lived in.

Mathematically inclined historians (there must be at least a handful of you out there) and Atlantic historians should look at Mercator’s 1569 map. It is the first to deal with negative space—it is a map of the oceans and accurate only in those measurements. It was created to answer the question of how to represent the spaces a ship must traverse in crossing the Atlantic. It has mariners’ reasoning and represents the curvature of the earth on a flat two-dimensional medium.

Last but not least, in order to best understand maps, one must understand how and why the maps were created. Smith recommends David Woodward’s History of Cartography as the starting point for anyone who is curious about the maps in their field and how these maps can enhance the historical process.

I’d like to encourage anyone that has used maps in their historical research and writing to share a bit about their work in the comments below, and recommend their own favorite maps.

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5 Responses to “Using Maps in History: An Interview with Dr. Helmut Walser Smith”

  1. Jared Wasser Says:

    Though I can’t say I’ve done a large share of research with aged maps, I do find them fascinating. Thanks for the great post. For those who are technologically-inclined, the iPhone/iPod has a great app on it called History: Maps of the World which features maps that someone painstakingly uploaded and are from a huge variety of eras and look great. Likely not the kind of post you were looking for, but a different spin, perhaps.

  2. John Cunningham Says:

    Hi Angela, for various reasons, including the expense, I didn’t reproduce any relevant early modern maps in my dissertation, although I have identified a few I would be keen to include in future publications. I did create one map to accompany a chapter; your post suggests to me that it is necessary to think about what it is we are doing, and what choices we are making, when we create such maps.

    • Angela Sutton Says:

      I think you’re right. The choices you make in the creating of your map will leave behind clues for future historians– they’ll be able to tell how you perceived of the world and possibly why you thought it was important to create a map in the first place. It’s the same with anything we as academics produce, I guess. Whether we intend or not, our worldview always comes out in our work in some way.

      On a related note, which program did you use to create the map? Would you recommend it?

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