The History of Cartography

An in-depth interview with Matthew H. Edney and Mary Sponberg Pedley, editors of Volume IV of The History of Cartography.

This year has seen the publication of the fourth volume of The History of Cartography, the first volume of which was published back in 1987. With previous volumes covering prehistoric and ancient Europe, traditional societies across the world, the European Renaissance, and the twentieth century, the latest instalment focuses on cartography in the European Enlightenment. It is an extraordinary resource: over 1,700 pages long, with nearly a thousand full-colour illustrations to accompany entries on a dizzying range of fascinating subjects by over 200 expert contributors – from celestial mapping to customs administration, and from property maps to marine charts and geoditic surveys.

The volume has been edited by Matthew H. Edney, Osher Professor in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine, and Mary Sponberg Pedley, assistant curator of maps at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. We got in touch with Matthew and Mary and they were kind enough to answer our questions in detail.


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You are both experts in cartography – Matthew a geographer and historian; Mary a curator. How did your interests in maps first arise and how do your differing backgrounds offer different insights into cartography?

Mary: My academic background was in Classical Studies (Greek and Latin) where I learned to read ancient texts in multiple ways: as stand-alone fragments or complete works of literature and as cultural artifacts connected to people, events, and other physical remains of art and architecture. This multi-disciplinary approach to the ancient world made studying maps attractive, because of the way in which they incorporate graphic, historical, geographic, and linguistic material in satisfying and intriguing ways. In the course of research on map production and consumption in France in the eighteenth century, I met the founding editors of The History of Cartography, Brian Harley and David Woodward, and appreciated their broad views on maps and map history.

Matthew and I have long shared both an interest in the eighteenth century and an understanding of maps as cultural productions, not as strictly “scientific” documents, a term we use in a very limited way when discussing maps of this period

Matthew: I was going to be a professional land surveyor, so 30% of my undergraduate courses were in land surveying and photogrammetry; but I also fell in love at college with historical geography. When I read an essay by Harley that used many examples of old maps, I realized I could combine the two fields in the history of cartography! I ended up studying with Woodward, working on the history of modern government surveys, mostly in the nineteenth century. After the Ph.D. I found myself moving backwards into the eighteenth century, seeking to understand the origins of modern “scientific” cartography.

So Mary and I complement each other’s interests, her on the side of printing, art, and the business of map making, me on the side of surveying, statecraft, and the scientific elements of mapping. Which has worked well, as the eighteenth century was a period of profound changes that really churned up mapping practices.



The first volume of the History of Cartography was published in 1987. How does this volume fit within the broader series? How would you characterise the map-making of this period, and the factors shaping it, in comparison with those of the other volumes?

Matthew: The series of The History of Cartography has grown as Harley and Woodward’s principles took hold. Studying maps as cultural documents and social instruments has so thoroughly widened the field of inquiry that the volumes have increased in size and number within a broadly chronological structure. In this respect, Cartography in the European Enlightenment falls between Cartography in the European Renaissance and Cartography in the Nineteenth Century (which is currently in preparation).

As any historian will tell you, periodization can only be approximate and cannot be allowed to get in the way of historical understanding. Mary and I treated the volume’s chronological bounds as terminus flottants, as loose and fluctuating limits: some entries began in the 1630s, others in 1700; some end as early as 1775, others as late as 1820. The goal was to create a slice of the past appropriate to each particular topic, and not just cover the next period of map history.

There were several factors that give mapping a distinctive character in the 150 years covered in the volume: the emergence of the public sphere and the associated expansion of printing and publishing of many different kinds of maps; the greatly intensified use of maps as tools of governance and military planning, engendering the first regional topographical surveys; the growth of overseas empires and increasing interactions with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world; and the active interventions by the state in supporting scientific endeavors and in training civil and military surveyors.

For many, this mass of activity comprises the period when “cartography became a science” but it is more appropriate to read it as an era of persistent traditions in some kinds of mapping (property, urban, marine, celestial) and tremendous change in others (geographical, geodesy, topography, thematic).


History of Cartography


Maps can serve many different purposes but are often associated with knowledge and power. In what ways did map-making serve these twin objectives during the European Enlightenment?

Matthew: Every map is made for a reason, to communicate knowledge and to exercise power. But power is not an absolute. Michel Foucault notably identified many kinds of power—juridical power and surveillance, power/knowledge, governmentality, biopower, etc.—each functioning through specific social formations and discursive arrangements. Each kind of mapping, which the volume calls “modes,” entails its own sets of social relations: “power” and “knowledge” play out differently in each. Property mapping appears very much the preserve of the landowner, especially with the display of beautiful plans of estates, but the techniques of property mapping were simple enough that surveys and maps could also be deployed by tenants in their disputes with the landowners; and as tenure systems changed, large tenants themselves adopted mapping as a management tool, even as it was rejected by more hidebound agents of large landowners who saw no need for change (Sarah Bendall, “Property Mapping in Great Britain”).

Every map is made for a reason, to communicate knowledge and to exercise power. But power is not an absolute.

Even when property mapping was extended by the increasingly centralized states in the form of cadastral surveys in aid of land taxation, there were marked variations in practice: indeed, the first regular cadastral survey, the censimento of the duchy of Milan, beginning in 1718, was directed by the new Austrian Habsburg rulers against the Milanese nobility more than the peasantry (Paola Pressenda, “Property Mapping in the Italian States”).

By contrast, marine mapping was much more an exercise in power/knowledge—the enhancing of ability and status through sustaining precise domains of knowledge and skills—than the juridical power that imbued cadastral mapping (Olivier Chapuis, “Marine Charting in the Enlightenment”). And the power of geographical mapping, of world and regional mapping, was more an imaginary power stemming from conceptual control of territory rather than an instrumental, functional exercise of authority.

By designing Cartography in the European Enlightenment around the modes of mapping, Mary and I ensured that issues of knowledge and power permeate the volume. We did not even include an entry on “Power, Maps as” because that would undermine the entire ethos of the volume: to work from variations in the practices of producing and consuming maps to reveal the exercise of different kinds of power, each to particular effect.


History of Cartography


The essay on Indigenous Peoples and European Cartography gives a fascinating overview of colonial appropriation, exchange and objectification. The text also directs readers towards volume 2,3 for “mapmaking in traditional societies”. But, in this volume specifically, are there examples of map-making practices that constituted attempts to resist power rather than serve it?

Mary: This question, which logically follows from the ideas of power and knowledge in mapping, is similarly complex and not a binary resistance-versus-service query. To make it so, one would have to ignore other forces at work: the questions of survival and of staking a claim within a changing society. Given the wide range of mapping processes employed in this period, from the mapping the heavens to the fine detail of property mapping a small holding, it is probably more useful to shift the question to how techniques and persuasive styles were melded and co-opted to serve a particular purpose.

“Resistance” came in many guises and with many goals. Since styles of communication differed among indigenous groups, the process of information gathering by administrative powers offered no guarantees of the veracity of or control over the content of the replies. There was plenty of opportunity for confusion and misunderstanding, particularly in the transmission of directions and placenames given in a foreign language, spoken with sounds neither readily heard by European ears nor easily rendered by European writing systems.

European mapmakers, whether on site (such as missionaries and officials) or in their quiet studies in the metropole, analyzed and extrapolated from often contradictory reports or incomprehensible descriptions (how long is a day’s journey over terrain that is only described as “woods” or “plains”? Is the journey by foot or by boat? What is the measure of a day?). The important point is that reports from the indigeni were taken seriously and usually considered on a par with information from European observers or travelers. The Enlightenment endeavor was to collect as much information as possible, to corroborate what was gathered, and to accommodate the information, if possible, to a locational grid on the globe.

Indigenous mapping processes and their graphic display varied from region to region, culture to culture. Within the European model, which is the focus of this volume, there was plenty of scope for an accommodation and contrast of mapping processes. This may be seen in these two examples from a property dispute between an indigenous group in Mexico and a wealthy landowning family in 1801. In an interesting reversal of expectations, the indigenous group employed a licensed surveyor who produced a plain but detailed, scaled and measured plan of the area in contention. The wealthy, on the other hand, hired a practical surveyor (i.e., unlicensed) whose plan is pictorial, unscaled, and unmeasured (figs. 1 and 2, from Jordana Dym, “Property Mapping in Spanish America”). What stands out here is the access of the indigenous group to a trained and licensed surveyor and their equal standing in property law as well as their use of maps as evidence in the case. This is resistance at its best, when it can employ the same system that subjects it.

A more overt and obvious form of potential resistance is shown in the oft-reproduced cartouche to the manuscript map, “Mappa da Comarca do Sabara” by José Joaquim da Rocha, 1778 (fig. 3, from Furtado and Safier, “Indigenous Peoples and European Cartography”).


History of Cartography


The book contains sections on engraving and printing, reproductions, colour printing, typographic printing etc. How did technologies of reproduction and dissemination affect the nature and purpose of maps during the European Enlightenment.

In the sense that printing allowed the map greater access to the public sphere, methods of engraving and reproduction had a great impact on the consumption of maps and geographical ideas in the European Enlightenment. More importantly, the volume’s entries on these topics help the reader to understand the various stages and components of the processes of map production and dissemination, their costs both in human and material capital, and their return. Decisions by mapmakers regarding layout and design (including colour, symbol, and the decorative schemes of cartouches) affect the meaning conveyed by maps; the entries on these topics help a map reader to understand how these choices were made and to what end.

It is important to remember that what is possible on the manuscript map is not always possible in the black and white of copperplate engraving. Engraving inevitably precluded some design choices, such as colour printing, which was costly and labor intensive, requiring the use of multiple copperplates; the application of colour by hand to printed maps was cheaper but more idiosyncratic, as it relied on human consistency. This reduced the printed use of color, especially on thematic maps, where color can provide a convenient shorthand. It also meant that manuscript maps, especially military maps, for which colors had been codified, and topographical maps, retained a strong foothold.


History of Cartography


And how do you think the proliferation of digital technologies continues to affect map-making and map use today?

Matthew: This is a huge topic! Cartography today is currently undergoing a huge surge enabled in large part by digital technologies. The supply of data to map is now incredible, from the detailed topographical information and a raft of different kinds of satellite imagery to census and other data about the earth’s environmental, demographic, and social systems. This is the age of “big data,” much of it spatially structured. At the same time, the software (“geographical information systems”; GIS) and hardware to manage these data have become ever cheaper and more powerful, and geographers have refined and codified symbolization strategies to make mapmaking still more effective. This is a great time to be a geographer! And you don’t have to be a specialist to make maps, either. There’s a whole “maps 2.0” developing in conjunction with “web 2.0” in which the public can make their own maps.

This is a great time to be a geographer! And you don’t have to be a specialist to make maps, either.

This fascinating trend blends two historical themes. On the one hand, it’s the logical progression of the ever-widening public sphere, which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries encompassed mass culture in industrialized countries. On the other, it recreates the very specific mapping practices that in the eighteenth century were generally carried on in manuscript (eighteenth-century figures did on occasion commission printed maps to be circulated in private), but now it is the web that is being used to disseminate maps to precise audiences.

Digital technologies have not passed by old maps. The digital imaging of early works has proliferated since 2000, and the number of institutions that are providing high-resolution images through the internet is growing almost daily. It is now possible to consult a huge array of material without leaving one’s home. Finding and identifying maps is so much faster now: it now requires just hours rather than months of correspondence to find particular maps and books. This has been very useful during the covid-19 pandemic, at least for my own research.

And, technically speaking, digital technologies have revolutionized the production of works such as Cartography in the European Enlightenment. All but one of the thousand images in volume three of the History (published in 2007) arrived as physical photographic prints or color transparencies, which the publisher had to process. By contrast, all of the images in volume six and four were supplied as digital files, which easily integrate with modern production processes, permitting the volume to be printed in full color.


History of Cartography


Putting together a publication on this scale must have been a huge undertaking. An encyclopedia of cartography is almost like a map of maps! Could you say a bit about the process – specifically the decisions around how to arrange and group the material, and how you decided what to include and what to leave out?

Mary: We had the good fortune to be guided in the art of encyclopedia design by an editor then with the University of Chicago Press named Linda Halvorson. We like to refer to the time spent with her as encyclopedia boot camp. It is relatively easy to create a dictionary of eighteenth-century mapping, comprising the names, places, maps, events, institutions, instruments, and techniques that might be included. It is quite another thing to develop a conceptual framework that makes such as list meaningful and comprehensive. Linda taught us the importance of clustering items on the list in a conceptual way and creating a hierarchy of relationships between these concepts. The technical term for this construct is the HICCs: hierarchically integrated conceptual clusters. Only then can specific subjects be identified. The framework of HICCs is displayed on the end papers of the volume to help users find their way through the related entries.

Once this framework was established, we developed the topics we needed to cover in the volume. Between us as editors, with our board of Advisors, and the aid of an international group of colleagues with whom we meet biannually at an international conference, we cast a wide net for contributors. We encouraged people who were close to primary source material and who had contributed already to map studies; those people recommended other people as we included topics that had not been much written about before. This ever-expanding network finally provided 207 authors, over 50% of whom are non-Anglophone, writing the 479 entries in the volume. We only left out those topics for which we absolutely could not find an author or for which there has not been sufficient research already to create a robust entry. Two examples of entries we would have liked to include but had to omit are Law and Cartography and Literature and Cartography.



One thing that is hard to ignore about the maps is how beautiful many of them are – richly coloured, ornate and full of detail. Is this a result of their official purposes and likely audiences? Or is this a reflection of the kinds of maps that you were drawn to as editors?

Mary: We knew from the start that we would have beautiful illustrations because many of the mapping processes described used color and symbol in meaningful and sophisticated ways. As we mentioned, much of the mapping in the long eighteenth century remained in manuscript, and manuscript provides a more versatile and nuanced medium for maps than the black-white-grey of intaglio printing. The concerns of color, layout, embellishment, cartouches all fall under the conceptual cluster of “Art, Craft, and Cartography” with several related entries. The aesthetics of mapmaking were rarely absent from the minds of most mapmakers, whether the property surveyor or military engineer or the astronomer studying the movement of comets or the commercial geographer creating the next atlas. The design choices made by the mapmaker, if successful, had more to do with clarity of purpose and understanding of audience: a map is a finely tuned persuasion device rather than a power tool.

We should also give credit to our authors, who suggested the illustrations for each entry; they chose the maps whose details would best reflect the points made in their essays. We hope it is fair to say that the illustrations in the volume are not only beautiful but effective in illuminating the content of the volume. As we say in the “How to Use this Book” section, don’t be shy about starting with the pictures: may they lead you to the text where you can learn much more!

Matthew: Indeed, one of the best parts of editing the volume was when Mary and I worked together to review all the illustrations recommended by the authors. Our concern was always to ensure that the images do indeed support the argument in the text. We also worked to eliminate duplicate images, either of exactly the same map or of very similar kinds of maps. There was some scope for us to choose replacement images, or to add an image to help make an author’s argument clearer. Being able to reproduce all the maps in full color was a great boon: we could select the most appropriate map without worrying about how it appear in the printed volume.


The History of Cartography, Volume 4: Cartography in the European Enlightenment is edited by Matthew H. Edney and Mary Sponberg Pedley.

Readers can purchase The History of Cartography: Volume 4 direct from The University of Chicago Press, 2020. And you can even receive 20% off with this promo code: UCPNEW. There is also more information about The History of Cartography Project as a whole.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


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Image credits and captions (from top):
1. DEVLET-I.ʿALI.YYE’NI.N ASYA T.ARAFINDA OLAN MEMAˉ LI.KI.(ASIAN TERRITORIES OF THE OTTOMAN STATE), ÜSKÜDAR MÜHEN DISH˘AˉNE PRESS, 1218/1803–4. From Cedıˉd at.las tercümesi, copied from the General Atlas of William Faden, translated by Resmıˉ Mus.t.afaˉ Ag˘ a, and published in Istanbul; the fi rst atlas published in Turkish. Size of the original: ca. 54.0 × 71.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

2. WORLD MAP, CA. 1801. This map comes from the untitled atlas (known as Atlas terrestre) of fifty-two maps printed by the Arco do Cego editorial house, Lisbon, with support from the Sociedade Real Marítima e Militar. Copper engraved. This proof copy, with empty title cartouche, has legends explaining how the map might be colored thematically according to religion, skin color, and facial shapes of world population. Size of the original: ca. 25.5 × 40.0 cm. Acervo da Fundação Biblioteca Nacional–Brasil, Rio de Janeiro.

3. ROBERT ADAM, MAP AND VEDUTA OF SPLIT (SPALATRO) AND DIOCLETIAN’S PALACE, GENERAL PLAN OF THE TOWN AND FORTIFICATIONS OF SPALATRO. The remains of three metal clamps appear between the map and the veduta. From Adam 1764, pl. II. Size of the original: 67.0 × 50.8 cm. Image courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

4. DETAIL FROM A MANUSCRIPT MAP OF THE SIERADZ VOIVODESHIP, CA. 1789, BY FRANCISZEK SALEZY CZAJKOWSKI. Scale ca. 1:185,000. Colors designate the boundaries of deaneries, dotted lines show diocesan boundaries. Numerous roads are shown, relief is indicated by mole-hill symbols, and in some areas symbols indicate woods or swamps. Size of the entire original 58.5 × 83.5 cm; size of detail: ca. 30 × 42 cm. Image courtesy of the Biblioteka Narodowa, Warsaw (BN ZZK 12 993).

5. PETER FIDLER, MAP OF HOLY LAKE OR PEE SHE PAW WINNE PEE [“DEEP WATER LAKE,” NOW OXFORD LAKE, MANITOBA] 1792. This map and forty others like it make up the visual component of Fidler’s survey journal from York Factory to Cumberland House. Fidler copied his journal after 1794 and before 1806, the date of his observation for latitude at Oxford House, at the east end of the lake. The drawing indicates the lake’s shape and extent, while the compass directions and distances marking Fidler’s passage are given from left to right, in conformity with the journal narrative (the orientation is thus reversed, south is at the top). In this entry the map replaces the journal’s verbal component by combining its numerical and visual components. Size of the entire page: 38 × 24 cm; size of map detail: ca. 14 × 24 cm. Image courtesy of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg (E.3/1, fol. 75).

6. A NEW MAP OF THE LAND OF MATRIMONY (LONDON: JOSEPH JOHNSON, 1772). Engraved by Joseph Ellis. An exemplary eighteenth-century “marriage map.” Size of the original: ca. 28 × 35 cm. Image courtesy of the Map Collection, Yale University Library, New Haven (1an 1772).


8. SAMUEL HEARNE, “A MAP OF SOME OF THE PRINCIPAL LAKES RIVER’S &C LEADING FROM YF [YORK FACTORY] TO BASQUIAW,” 1775. The graticule of latitude and longitude, rendition of rivers and elevations, and elaborate cartouche make Hearne’s map an example of familiar European cartographic conventions; at the same time its employment of indigenous toponyms and its linear layout of connected waterways are reminiscent of Amerindian cartography and refl ect the traders’ emphasis on route fi nding over relatively fl at, featureless terrain. Size of the original: 55.5 × 75.5 cm. Image courtesy of Barbara Belyea. Permission courtesy of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg (G.1/20).

9. THOMAS MOORE, SKETCH OF THE ROAD ON THE NE SIDE OF THE ISLAND HOUAT IN QUIBERON BAY, NOVEMBER 1800. The chart of part of Ile Houat was the fi rst to be engraved and printed in the Hydrographical Offi ce. Remarks and directions were added by letterpress in the marigin of the chart. The imprint “Published” was used in expectation of a decision to publish, but no such decisions were taken until after 1810. Experimental charts such as that of Houat were not proceeded with, and consequently only proof copies exist. Size of the original: 34 × 53 cm. Image courtesy of the U.K. Hydrographic Offi ce, Taunton (Admiralty Library Vf 8/8).

10. DETAIL FROM MATTHEUS VAN NISPEN, ABEL DE VRIES, AND B. VAN DEN HEUVEL, “NIEUWE CAERTE VAN DE VERDRONCKEN WAERT VAN ZUYTHOLLANDT,” 11 JUNE 1686. Ink and watercolor on paper; ca. 1:9,250. The parcels shown are polders. Compare the turbulent part of the Merwede, called den ouden Wiel (the old wheel), with the same area on the Cruquius map made almost fi fty years later (fi g. 33). Size of the entire original: 104 × 130 cm; size of detail: ca. 24 × 38 cm. Licentie CC-BY, Kaartcollectie Binnenland Hingman, Nationaal Archief, The Hague (4.VTH, inv. nr. 1926).


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