Cartographic frameworks for historical research

Knowledge of the European past over the last millennium derives primarily from documentary not archaeological sources. Most such information relates to ‘places’, and generally to administrative areas with defined borders, from states down to parishes and communes. However, unlike archaeological sites, documents are not literally grounded in specific locations: the historical researcher must actively associate documents with places: via maps and, increasingly over the last 25 years, by formal integration of textual and locational data within a computerised Geographical Information System (GIS).

Historical information about states or cities can usually be interpreted using modern maps. However, mapping detailed historical information onto recent base maps causes large errors: over time, administrative boundaries change and placenames evolve. These need detailed research, which can be disseminated as an atlas or, more cheaply and conveniently, as a historical GIS. Both boundary research and GIS construction are necessarily time-consuming and expensive, and can seldom be justified by one researcher’s needs, even if they have the skills required. However, such GIS’s have many uses.

The main justification for most major existing projects has been analysis of historical censuses. Without accurate boundaries, we cannot compute densities and so compare areas; without knowing boundary changes, we cannot distinguish population growth from just boundary extension — for example, to study the demographic impact of industrialisation. However, ‘customers’ for the British historical GIS exemplify many other uses:

• Mapping earlier surveys back to Domesday (1086).

• Studying the history of ‘print culture’ by mapping bibliographic databases.

• The REED (Records of Early English Drama) project wishes to interpret reports of pre-1642 travelling players.

• TASC (Trans-national database and Atlas of Saints’ Cults) seek to interpret dedications of churches, eventually across Europe, to explore patterns of devotion, defining or transcending localities.

• Associated research into changing placenames has attracted official support from England’s National Monuments Record and National Council on Archives.

Components of a historical boundary GIS

The workshop will build on a 1994 Florence meeting on historical GIS organised by the Association for History and Computing, funded by participants. Our focus is more specific: historical GIS’s recording the changing boundaries of administrative units. Several such national systems have been built, so we need the specific authors of these systems to attend, plus participants from states lacking such projects; the need for external funding is obvious.

Most European countries possess GIS’s recording modern administrative boundaries, created and maintained by national mapping agencies or census offices. Historical boundary GIS’s are less common, are usually academic projects, and pose two new challenges:

Reviewing current national activity

The workshop will include as many countries as possible, activity varying greatly in sophistication. Several smaller northern countries — Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden — have completed boundary GIS’s covering large parts of the 19th and 20th centuries down at least to municipality level. The Scientific Co-ordinator is leading a large project covering England and Wales at parish-level (over 15,000 units), with linked activity in Scotland and Ireland. There is a large collaborative group in Germany with a problematic history. Elsewhere there appears to be considerable interest but little systematic activity, meaning projects based on archival research and creating a continuous record of change, not static maps.

Where possible, the workshop will bring together those who have built systematic historical GIS’s or those currently building them. Elsewhere, the meeting will include experts on the raw materials, meaning historians of boundaries, or simply those actively seeking to build such a GIS. All contributors will prepare a review of current activity and future potential for their country. The meeting will therefore share expertise, create a European inventory of both completed systems and relevant sources, and help stimulate projects in additional countries.

The need for a European historical GIS

Our aims go further. Any truly national historical GIS can be joined onto similar GIS’s for adjacent states. This potential is already being explored: the British projects have been linked from conception; the Norwegian and Swedish GIS’s, and the Danish atlas, developed independently but the historical data archives for the three countries — all supporting this workshop — have discussed collaborating to create a Scandinavian historical atlas. Different methods for representing hierarchies of units and boundary changes make such linkage technically complex.

We wish to explore the potential for a truly European system, far more than the sum of its parts. By linking both boundary mapping and censuses, researchers could trace the 19th century impact of industrialisation, which rarely respected national borders. In earlier times, empire builders from the Ottomans to Napoleon, religious and social movements similarly ignored borders. As the British examples above showed, a boundary GIS becomes a framework integrating varied sources to create a vast corpus of demographic, economic, social and cultural knowledge, a resource for both academic research and wider educational use. The nature of the European past itself means that such corpora should not stop at national borders.

However, building a European GIS needs more than promoting new national projects and then linking them together. Existing activity is concentrated in small countries with national borders largely following coastlines, and long-established central governments. Elsewhere, strictly ‘national’ projects may be impossible: current states are recent creations, and historical sources for boundary mapping are scattered in the archives of component statelets, or in ex-imperial archives in another country; for examples, a ‘pan-Habsburg’ project may be needed, linking to earlier Ottoman records. We will explore the longer term potential for both a European project to link component GIS’s and ‘regional’ international collaborations to build them.

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