When Did Historical Atlases Really Originate?

When Did Historical Atlases Really Originate?

By Walter Goffart

Humanities Research Group, Vol.9 (2001)

Introduction: Historical atlases are collections of maps reconstructing happenings or scenes out of the past. The three- volume Historical Atlas of Canada is a particularly luxurious example of the genre; a more modest example is the pocket-size Barnes and Noble Historical Atlas of the World originally published in Norway. What lies behind such collections? Who thought them up and how did they develop? Recent commentators including Professor Jeremy Black the author of Maps and History are agreed on one point. They believe that “the first historical atlas” stems from the dawn of modern atlas-making. This inaugural atlas they say was a work called Parergon meaning “supplement” in English; it was compiled and published by Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp between 1579 and 1595. If this opinion is correct all other historical atlases are more or less extensive and skilful elaborations of the Ortelian impulse. From his establishment of this genre a gallery of examples would lead steadily and undramatically to the present.

I think this Ortelius-centred approach is radically flawed. What Ortelius produced in the Parergon was admirable; but it was different from an historical atlas. I would argue that the collections familiar to us resulted from sporadic haphazard initiatives that jelled only in the early nineteenth century. My account stresses discontinuity and moves the beginning of historical atlases much later than Ortelius.

A few terms need clarification; the subject is strewn with ambiguities. Curiously enough historical atlases cannot be said to contain “historical maps.” An historical map may be a primary source for history and historical maps may have documentary value; they are splendid and important, but . . . they are not the normal ingredients of historical atlases.

Historical atlases are also distinct from the branch of today’s discipline of geography called historical geography. I’m not sure what the interests and pursuits of historical geographers are, but I know that sitting around compiling historical atlases is not what they do. Finally, a little caution about the term “atlas.” Atlases are not the exclusive property of geography. Many, perhaps most, atlases are medical and surgical, sometimes even botanical. Geographical atlases are a minority. The term is often equivalent to “album,” a large book, profusely illustrated but not necessarily with maps. Diversity does not stop there. An eighteenth-century French journal uses “atlas” to mean a single map. The second work called “historical atlas” by its author (in the Latin form, Atlas historicus) is dated 1718; it is a world chronicle couched in miniature pictures rather than in words. Whether we like it or not, atlas is not a strictly defined technical term; books bearing this name cannot be relied on to have predictable contents.

Click here to read this article from Humanities Research Group

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!