For the best part of five centuries Western man’s vision of the world has been conditioned by the map. It was the advent of the printed map that made it possible for sixteenth-century Europeans to conceptualize global space, allowing them to replace an odd assortment of known details, vague impressions, and wild imaginings with the image of a world that could be grasped and known. In 1566 the son of St. Francis Borgia wrote to thank his father for sending him a map or sphere of the world. “Before seeing it,” he wrote, “I was still ignorant of how small the world is.” No sooner mapped, the world began to shrink; and the effect of its shrinking was to enlarge the ambition of Europeans to master and control it.

But if our view of the world is shaped by the way that we map it, it would seem no less true that our maps of the world are shaped by the way that we view it. Idrisi, the twelfth-century cartographer at the court of Roger II of Sicily, likened the shape of England to the head of an ostrich—hardly the first image to occur to the Englishman, who, if he ever thinks of his island in terms of the bestiary, is more likely to see it as a sedately seated lion. Preconceptions and inherited assumptions help determine our cartography, like everything else that we think and do. In the days of Jonathan Swift,

…geographers in Afric-maps
with savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
place elephants for want of towns.

If we no longer fill our “Afric-maps” with elephants, we may still be filling them with signs and symbols which are likely to tell future generations at least as much about the mappers as the territories mapped.

It would therefore not be inappropriate to salute the superb new Times Atlas of World History as an atlas preeminently for, and of, our times. It is the latest, and certainly the most glamorous, in a long line of atlases which have sought to give visual comprehensibility to historical development. We all have our schoolroom memories of those venerable and rather musty volumes which sought to lay bare the complexities of the partitions of Poland or to illustrate the battles of the Civil War. They were worthy, and indeed indispensable, compilations, reflecting, as is only to be expected, the interests and the preoccupations of the age and place in which they were produced. Their focus was essentially, although not exclusively, military and political. They were much concerned with the growth of nationhood and statehood, as was natural in an age which looked upon the nation-state as the culmination of historical development. Above all, their bias was Eurocentric, with non-European parts of the world coming to be deemed as map-worthy when they entered the European field of vision, or, better still, passed under European control.

As Europe’s global preeminence came to be questioned, and Europe itself was dwarfed by the emergence of the non-European superpowers, it was inevitable that the traditional priorities should cease to satisfy. In the substantially revised sixth edition (1927) of that standard work for the English-speaking world, Ramsay Muir’s Historical Atlas, the editors were still attempting to “give to the history of the non-European world, as it has influenced or been influenced by Europe, a fuller and more adequate treatment than has hitherto been afforded in general historical atlases.” It is instructive to compare Ramsay Muir with the admirable Atlas of World History edited by Professor R.R. Palmer (1957). Here the non-European and pre-European world are allowed to appear in their own right, although the volume is still thin on “Afric-maps,” with or without elephants. There is a far more comprehensive coverage of Africa in the atlas volume of The New Cambridge Modern History (1970), a sober production which breaks radically away from the pattern of the series it is designed to illustrate by allocating almost as many maps to the rest of the world as it does to Europe.

A historical atlas for our times, then, should clearly be an ecumenical atlas, reflecting the later twentieth-century vision of a single—non-European—world. But it can also be expected to reflect other trends in later twentieth-century historical writing. The old-style history—political, military, diplomatic—has given ground before the history of economic and social change. The biography of the individual has to some extent been edged aside by the study of the group. The cultural history of the elite has become the history of popular mentalités. It is the mass, the collectivity, which arouses most interest today, and particularly the mass in motion, rather than repose. A world which has lived through a century of violent change has lost its awareness of the continuous and the stable. “History,” writes Professor Geoffrey Barraclough in his introduction to the Times Atlas, “is dynamic, not static; it is a process of change and movement in time; we have tried to avoid a series of static pictures of particular situations at particular moments in the past.” History, then, tends to be seen as movement, especially collective movement, and this itself dictates a distinctive cartographical approach.


Of all the recent historical atlases there is no doubt that the Times Atlas most faithfully reflects these modern historiographical trends. It breaks away from the narrowly political, preferring the movement of commodities and peoples to the development of nation-states. Above all it eschews the Eurocentric approach, although it deserves special credit for avoiding the opposite extreme of playing down to the point of absurdity the European contribution to world history. It carries its ecumenicism further than Palmer or the Cambridge atlas, by moving, sometimes at a positively vertiginous pace, from region to region and continent to continent, while they still group their maps by regions of the globe. The effect is to complicate the comparison of the same area over time, in the sense that the reader who wishes to contrast the expansion of Russia between 1462 and 1815 with its expansion between 1815 and 1917 has to move forward seventy pages. On the other hand it facilitates comparison through space, juxtaposing simultaneous developments in different parts of the world in its attempt to strengthen its message of global unity.

It might well be said of the Times Atlas that in the beginning was the arrow. The first impression given by the volume is of arrows everywhere—blue arrows, green arrows, red arrows, purple arrows—thrusting out in every direction as they link people to people and continent to continent. The arrow becomes the symbol both of one world and of history on the move. Suddenly one becomes aware of the contemporaneous nature of this kind of representation: we are watching another edition of the television news. On to our screens there flashes the dramatic diagram, the map of the latest battlefront with its moving arrows of armies on the march. The television technique of instant, painless updating is here frozen into print.

There is no doubt that, for the kinds of thing the Times Atlas is trying to do, this is the right approach. If a historical atlas is to grip the attention of a large late-twentieth-century public, it can only do so by using the methods of visual communication to which that public has grown accustomed. Fortunately the editor and compilers of this atlas assume that it is a public still capable of reading, and have accompanied the maps with careful, conscientious explanatory texts whose sobriety contrasts sharply with the cartographical spectaculars that leap out from the page.

For, in spite of the texts, the maps are the message. They are deliberately designed to shake us out of our conventional, and parochial, modes of vision, by turning the world upside down—sometimes literally. All the latest techniques of cartography, printing, and presentation are employed to produce this shock effect. The colors are bright and occasionally garish—in particular there are patches of purple and magenta which made me run for cover. But color itself becomes a device for breaking with convention. It can hardly be an accident that the British Empire, once a soldierly scarlet, is now a genteel shade of faded, post-imperial lavender.

Even more dramatic than the colors are the shapes and contours that confront us. Some maps become three-dimensional, as when the Alps are made to tower over Italy. Others bend and distort the familiar shapes in order to make them suddenly unfamiliar. Without firm editorial control distortions become mere gimmicks; but here they are harnessed to themes, and are used with sometimes spectacular success to drive home a point. A curving Eurasian landmass conveys with extraordinary vividness the vast extent of the Mongol empire. A tilted map of Europe gives actuality to the inundation of the civilized world by German and Slavonic tribes. A Western Europe turned on its side unloads its unwanted millions on the Americas.

Behind the deliberate distortions lies an exercise in relativism. Professor Barraclough wants to help us see the world through eyes other than our own. The Islamic world is therefore depicted from the standpoint of Mecca. We get an idea of how the policy of containment must look to the Soviet Union. Where normally we look up the Adriatic toward Venice, here Venice itself gazes down upon its Adriatic lifeline. Inevitably this device works better on some occasions than on others. The map of Venice displays at a glance the importance of the Morea to the Venetian polity, but, by omitting even the major ports, conceals the importance of the Italian littoral to Venetian merchants. No doubt the fear of excessive complication has influenced this decision, and within its chosen limits the map still makes its point.


On the other hand there are bound to be occasions when cartography—even with all the technical resources available to it here—is simply incapable of depicting the angle of vision which the editor and compilers are anxious to present. How, for instance, can one depict on a map the contracting spaces of North America as seen by the Indians? The intention is clearly there, but we are left with a map which looks very much like any other map on this subject, with its crossed swords for the major Indian battles and its patches of color for the reservations.

Specialists will inevitably find slips and mistakes, as in the map of Spanish overseas expansion, where the audiencia of Charcas, in what is now Bolivia, is firmly placed in northern Mexico in an obvious confusion with the Charcas silver mines. But all historical atlases have their share of errors of detail, and this is not the kind of atlas to consult for an exact knowledge of the disposition of frontier towns or for unraveling the complexities of the Schleswig-Holstein question. There are plenty of existing atlases for this kind of thing, and Professor Barraclough has different, and wider, ambitions. The question is whether these ambitions, and the way in which they are realized, justify on the part of potential readers the substantial outlay they are called upon to make.

There is, first, the question of simplification. Historical cartography by its very nature is forced to simplify. This particular atlas takes further a trend already marked in recent historical atlases toward a reduction of clutter. Towns, once so closely concentrated as to be almost invisible to the naked eye, are nowadays expunged in an attempt to make the names of the survivors legible. This is unsatisfactory when maps are designed to present a past conceived in essentially static terms, but matters less when the aim is to represent history in movement. In this atlas the ubiquitous arrow fills the empty spaces, and the drama of historical movement substitutes for the compendious detail of the historical gazetteer.

Simplification is the price of clarity, and there is no doubt that the simplest maps in the Times Atlas tend to be the most effective. But all too soon there comes a moment when the simple becomes the misleading. Take, for example, a curving map of Europe from Lisbon to the Urals designed to show the extent to which the peasantry had been emancipated by 1812. To the left and right of the map are two vast blocs of pale yellow, one covering the Iberian peninsula, the other the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Yellow represents “peasants remaining unfree,” and the text reinforces the message of the color chart by informing us that “only Russia, Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy remained fully under the landlords’ yoke.” Given the nature of cartography similarity of color implies similarity of status. But, if one sets aside any question of the wide regional disparities within the Iberian peninsula itself, it is hard to find that any very useful historical purpose is served by equating the Castilian peasant, who traditionally enjoyed freedom of movement, with the Russian serf who was bound to the soil.

The introduction of certainty into the uncertain world of the past is an endemic defect of the historical atlas, and is bound to be specially marked in one which attempts as ambitiously as this to cover the grand sweep of human history from the domestication of crops to the dropping of the atom bomb. The subtleties cannot fail to be lost when complex historical facts have to be represented by a limited range of colors (however ingeniously expanded by the Times cartographers) and by an equally limited range of conventional, or unconventional, signs. But the built-in limitations of the art go further than this. Historical cartography imposes its own brand of selectivity, if only because some areas of human experience lend themselves to mapping, and others do not. It is possible to represent in cartographic form—as indeed happens somewhat disconcertingly here in two adjoining maps—the diffusion both of world religions and of the banana. No doubt it is also possible, given the statistics, to depict cartographically the changing global trends in banana consumption. It is not clear, however, that any map can illustrate, except in the crudest form, the degrees of intensity of religious devotion.

What, then, is the historical cartographer to do when faced with the history of culture and ideas? Professor Barraclough, perhaps wisely, has taken the line of least resistance. “Cultural and intellectual history,” he writes, “does not, unfortunately, lend itself satisfactorily to cartographic documentation, and there are some subjects which ideally we should have wished to include and were forced reluctantly to omit.” To compensate for this enormous omission he has introduced alongside his maps miniatures of artifacts or products characteristic of the civilization concerned. Technically the reproductions of these are greatly inferior to the maps—there is a particularly dreadful reproduction of a portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles to illustrate the relationship of Southeast Asia and the European powers—and they tend to create an impression of cheapness unworthy of the book.

Cartography need not perhaps be quite as helpless in the face of cultural and intellectual history as Professor Barraclough implies. Something might have been done in this volume, for example, to illustrate the distribution of universities and centers of learning. Palmer’s atlas includes maps of “European civilization” in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century. These are the kind of static maps which Professor Barraclough is clearly anxious to avoid, and it is true that they cannot hope to show much more than the location of libraries or scientific academies or the centers which can boast a Nobel Prize winner. But at least they do suggest a dimension of human history—and not perhaps the least important—which in the Times Atlas is virtually allowed to go by default. In the absence of this dimension the user of the atlas is liable to come away with a rather dour view of world history as a continuous flow of packaged commodities, ranging all the way from human beings to religions, hurtling through space and time until meeting some immovable barrier or some irresistible counterflow which halts them in their tracks.

For all these caveats, however—and many of them derive from the genre itself of cartography as a form of historical instruction—there is no doubt that the Times Atlas does superbly well what it sets out to do. It is a fascinating and technically brilliant achievement, which would have been beyond the scope of realization only a few years ago. Everyone should at least glance at it, if only to experience a salutary shock. Every institutional library should certainly acquire it, and every wealthy uncle should give it to his nephews and nieces.

This Issue

December 7, 1978