Historical geography is a sub-discipline of human geography concerned with the geographies of the past and with the influence of the past in shaping the geographies of the present and the future.
Before the 20th century, the term 'historical geography' was used to describe at least three distinct intellectual endeavours: the recreation of the geographies described in the Bible and in 'classical' Greek and Roman narratives; the 'geography behind history' as revealed by the changing frontiers and borders of states and empires; and the history of geographical exploration and discovery.(1)
Fragmented and incoherent, these early writings have had little impact on 20th-century historical geography, the intellectual roots of which can be traced to the late 19th-century writings on regional landscape formation by French geographers such as Paul Vidal de la Blache (whose influence spread into Britain through the work of H. J. Fleure and A. J. Herbertson) and by the German school of anthropogeographie led by Friedrich Ratzel (a perspective successfully promoted in the USA by Ellen Semple).
Historical research on regional landscape change received a powerful stimulus after the First World War when the re-organisation of national boundaries in Europe and the Middle East re-focused attention on regional landscapes as products of long-term economic, social and political evolution that could be objectively analysed by the scientific interrogation of historical and archaeological evidence.
The study of regional landscape change varied in different national contexts and was by no means always described by the term 'historical geography'. Continental European research on regional – and especially rural – landscape change continued without embracing a new disciplinary terminology.
In inter-war France, the so-called Annales School produced a mass of interdisciplinary research that might reasonably be described as gographie historique but is more usually regarded as a distinctively French style of history. Likewise in Germany, historical research on rural settlement change was generally seen as continuing an existing tradition of research on the cultural landscape rather than blazing a new trail in Historische Geografie.
The situation was different in the UK. Here, the term historical geography was deployed more frequently under the charismatic influence of H. C. Darby. Darby's historical geography exhibited many similarities with research carried out simultaneously on the history of the English landscape by social and economic historians such as W. G. Hoskins and Maurice Beresford.
It was distinguished, however, by a particular methodology whereby historical data sources were carefully analysed to construct visually impressive thematic cartography. According to Darby, historical geography was a fundamentally geographical endeavour, one of the 'twin pillars' of the larger discipline, alongside geomorphology.(2) Historical geography and geomorphology were both concerned with landscape formation and evolution, insisted Darby, the latter based primarily on field evidence derived from the natural environment itself, the former on historical evidence gleaned from archival sources, particularly those that allowed geographical patterns to be recreated as cartographic cross-sections that could be connected into longitudinal (vertical) historical sequences.
Darby's cross-sectional method was exemplified by his seven-volume reconstruction of the human geography of medieval England, published with collaborators between the early 1950s and the mid 1970s, based on evidence from the Domesday Book.(3) Darby's longitudinal method is encapsulated in his work on the changing fenland landscapes of eastern England.(4)
Darby's version of historical geography spread to other parts of the English-speaking world, particularly the former British colonies, but the study of regional landscape change in the USA developed along distinctive lines under the influence of Carl Sauer, doyen of the Berkeley school of cultural geography. Sauer wrote enthusiastically about historical geography but his own work is more commonly described as cultural geography in accordance with his interest in anthropological and archaeological evidence as emphasised by the German tradition of landschaft research.
In Sauer's view, this was a more appropriate model for the study of long-term landscape change in a 'New World' context where the scale of analysis was necessarily larger and where written historical evidence was non-existent before European settlement. It is important to emphasise, however, that some of the most successful 'big-picture' accounts of US history since Columbus have been written by American historical geographers working outside the Sauerian tradition.(5)
The diffusion in the 1960s and 1970s of spatial science, the quantitative, analytical and law-seeking version of geography, challenged some of the assumptions and practices of traditional historical geography, particularly the source-defined, cross-sectional studies that had little direct influence on present or future geographical patterns. A lively debate ensued, some of it conducted in the pages of the Journal of Historical Geography, established in 1975 to enhance the sub-discipline's status. Several different kinds of historical inquiry emerged within geography as a consequence of this period of uncertainty.
The first was advocated by historical geographers who were themselves impatient with traditional source-bound empiricism and who therefore welcomed a statistical methodology that allowed a wide range of historical evidence to be incorporated into more complex models of geographical change.(6) The result was a more quantitative historical geography that has taken several forms, beginning with the pioneering investigations by Torsten Hgerstrand into 'time geography' which have left an enduring legacy.(7)
Statistically minded historical geographers also became centrally involved in the field of demographic history, particularly in Britain where E. A. Wrigley has been a dominant influence.(8) In Wrigley's case, this involved an institutional move from geography into economic and social history, a well-trodden and by no means unidirectional career path. These interdisciplinary exchanges of personnel explain why some of the most important research on Britain's agricultural history has been published by scholars originally trained as historical geographers.(9)
The continuing significance of quantitative historical research within geography is also revealed by the highly sophisticated studies of epidemiology and disease diffusion, work consistently defined by its authors as historical geography.(10) The emerging field of historical geographical information science attests to the strength of the enumerative tendency within historical geography.(11)
Other historical geographers, particularly those who had familiarised themselves with previously unexplored literature in critical and social theory, were less convinced by the claims made by spatial science. Some of the original advocates of a quantitative approach also shifted their position and ultimately rejected the positivist philosophical assumptions underlying spatial science. From their perspective, statistical explanation lacked the capacity for moral or political critique and failed to acknowledge human agency, intentionality and emotion.(12)
Traditional forms of historical geography could scarcely claim a better track record, of course, so the solution was not to defend existing methods but rather to create a critical, theoretically informed historical geography within a new, historically sensitive human geography.
For some, this demanded a more direct engagement with historical materialism and a sustained analysis of the deeper economic, social and political forces determining geographical change, an approach strongly influenced by developments in social and economic history during the 1960s and 1970s.
This style of historical geography was exemplified by Harvey's analysis of mid 19th-century Paris,(13) though the same concerns can be detected in less explicitly Marxist work on the historical geography of Britain produced during the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly the research on the urban-industrial revolution.(14)
Since the mid 1980s, new historical geographies of space, power and the social order have extended this style of historical research, inspired by a range of poststructuralist theorists, notably Michel Foucault.(15)
A somewhat different style of historical investigation arose from a second attack on spatial science. This sought to reconnect geography with a wider range of disciplines in the arts and humanities, based in part on the theory and practice of hermeneutics. While sympathetic to historical forms of geographical inquiry, the leading advocates of a broadly humanistic geography refused to privilege the past as an arena of investigation and have therefore tended to define their work as (new) cultural geography allied to the visual arts and cultural studies rather than history.
The cultural landscape has been the central preoccupation of this form of historical inquiry and there is now a rich geographical literature on this topic, including several theoretically ambitious attempts to uncover the origins and development of landscape as social and political construction and as a way of envisioning and representing space.(16)
Investigations into the relationship between landscape, heritage and tourism generate continuing interest,(17) as does the relationship between landscape and memory.(18) Research on 20th-century debates about landscape, identity and social practice has been especially influential.(19)
These distinct forms of historical research in geography, always closely related, have effectively merged in the past two decades.(20) The single, hybrid term 'cultural-historical geography' is now widely deployed to describe a particular style of geographical research in which three closely related themes have animated recent research.
First, the study of imperialism and colonialism has grown steadily more important. This has shifted the focus of historical research in geography from the developed to the developing world. It has also revealed how landscapes, identities and social values in the imperial core regions and in the colonised territories of Africa and Asia were fashioned by a process of imperial interaction involving the circulation of people, practices and ideas on a global scale.(21)
Second, as the colonial project was largely concerned with the acquisition and exploitation of natural resources in colonised territories, much of the new work on the historical geography of colonialism has focused on its environmental consequences. This is scarcely an unheralded development (22) for the relationship between historical geography and environmental history has traditionally been extremely close, particularly in the USA.(23)
However, recent environmentalism has generated a more politically charged historical geography which has explored the impact of natural resource exploitation on regional and urban development.(24) This includes explicitly Marxist historical geographies on the interactions of class, race and the physical environment in industrialising regions.(25)
Third, as Western science, including the science of geography itself, was directly implicated in the processes of agricultural and industrial transformation, urbanisation and imperial expansion that historical geographers have investigated, this has prompted a renewed interest in the critical history of post-Enlightenment geographical and environmental thought.(26)
Inspired in part by the writings of the literary critic Edward Said, this work has emphasised the constitutive significance of geographical knowledge in the creation of national and imperial identities.(27) It has also re-connected historical geography with the history of cartography, the latter field re-energised by the similarly motivated work of Brian Harley.(28)
No single methodological or philosophical orthodoxy has prevailed since the 1970s and historical geography has become increasingly eclectic. This demonstrates the growing influence of perspectives from allied disciplines but is also evidence of a wider 'historicisation' of human geography that has partially compromised historical geography's status as a distinctive sub-discipline.(29)
This has generated some unease about disciplinary identity, an anxiety revealed by recent debates about the legitimacy of the terms 'historical geography' and 'geographical history'.(30) For all its thematic diversity, however, 21st-century historical geography has become increasingly focused on the recent past, a trend partly determined by the need for reliable, spatially extensive data but also influenced by a simplistic assumption that historical research in geography should have immediate relevance to contemporary issues.(31)
Alan R. H. Baker, Geography and History: Bridging the Divide (Cambridge, 2003).
Alan R. H. Baker, 'Classifying geographical history', Professional Geographer, 59 (2007), 344–56.
Geography and Imperialism, 1820 –1920, ed. Morag Bell, Robin Butlin and Michael Heffernan (Manchester, 1995).
Robin Butlin, Historical Geography: Through the Gates of Space and Time (London, 1993).
Bruce M. S. Campbell and Ken Bartley, England on the Eve of the Black Death: an Atlas of Lay Lordship, Land and Wealth, 1300 – 1349 (Manchester, 2006).
Andrew H. Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals: the South Island (New Brunswick, NJ, 1949).
Dan Clayton, Islands of Truth: the Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island (Vancouver, 2000).
Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (London, 1983).
Denis Cosgrove, The Palladian Landscape: Geographical Change and its Cultural Representation in Sixteenth-Century Italy (Leicester, 1993).
Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments (Cambridge, 1988).
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991).
Stephen Daniels, Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England (New Haven, 1999).
C. Darby, The Draining of the Fens (Cambridge, 1940).
C. Darby, Domesday England (Cambridge, 1977).
C. Darby, The Relations of History and Geography: Studies in England, France and the United States (Exeter, 2002).
Richard Dennis, English Industrial Cities in the Nineteenth Century: a Social Geography (Cambridge, 1984).
Robert A. Dodgshon, Society in Time and Space: a Geographical Perspective on Change (Cambridge, 1998).
Robin A. Donkin, Dragon's Brain Perfume: an Historical Geography of Camphor (Leiden, 1999).
Felix Driver, Power and Pauperism: the Workhouse System 1834 – 1884 (Cambridge, 1993).
Felix Driver, 'The historicity of human geography', Progress in Human Geography, 12 (1998), 397–506.
Felix Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Oxford, 2001).
Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity, ed. Felix Driver and David Gilbert (Manchester, 1999).
James Duncan, The City as Text: the Politics of Landscape Interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom (Cambridge, 1990).
Modern Historical Geographies, ed. Brian Graham and Catherine Nash (Harlow, 1999).
Brian Graham, Gregory Ashworth and John Tunbridge, A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy (Oxford, 2000).
Derek Gregory, Ideology, Science and Human Geography (London, 1978).
Derek Gregory, Regional Transformation and Industrial Revolution: a Geography of the Yorkshire Woollen Industry (London, 1982).
Ian Gregory and Paul Ell, Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship (Cambridge, 2007).
Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600 – 1860 (Cambridge, 1995).
Matthew Hannah, Governmentality and the Mastery of Territory in Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, 2000).
B. Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays on the History of Cartography (Baltimore, 2001).
Cole Harris, 'Theory and synthesis in historical geography', Canadian Geographer, 15 (1971), 157–72.
Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver, 1997).
David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience (Oxford, 1985).
David Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity (London, 2003).
Nuala Johnston, Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance (Cambridge, 2003).
Rhys Jones, 'What time human geography?', Progress in Human Geography, 28 (2004), 287–304.
David Lambert, White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, 2005).
John Langton, Geographical Change and Industrial Revolution: Coalmining in South-West Lancashire, 1590 – 1799 (Cambridge, 1979).
John Langton, 'The Industrial Revolution and the regional geography of England', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 9 (1984), 145–67.
Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities (Oxford, 2007).
Alan Lester, Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth-Century South Africa and Britain (London, 2001).
David Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition: Essays in a Contested Enterprise (Oxford, 1992).
David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998).
Donald Meinig, The Shaping of America: a Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (4 vols., New Haven, 1986–2004).
Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis, 1996).
Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies 1680 – 1780 (New York, 1998).
Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: the Transformation of the Agrarian Economy (Cambridge, 1996).
Chris Philo, A Geographical History of Institutional Provision for the Insane from Medieval Times to the 1860s in England and Wales: the Space Reserved for Insanity (Lewiston, 2004).
Joseph M. Powell, An Historical Geography of Modern Australia: the Restive Fringe (Cambridge, 1988).
Alan Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: the United States' System of Cities, 1790 – 1840 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973).
Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew Cliff, War Epidemics: an Historical Geography of Infectious Diseases in Military Conflict and Civilian Strife (Oxford, 2004).
Geography and Empire, ed. Neil Smith and Anne Godlewska (Oxford, 1994).
Richard Walker, 'California's golden road to riches: natural resources and regional capitalism, 1848–1940', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91 (2001), 167–99.
Michael Williams, Americans and their Forests: a Historical Geography (Cambridge, 1989).
Michael Williams, 'The relations of environmental history and historical geography', Journal of Historical Geography, 20 (1994), 3–21.
Charles W. J. Withers, Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520 (Cambridge, 2001).
Georgian Geographies: Essays on Space, Place and Landscape in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Charles W. J. Withers and Miles Ogborn (Manchester, 2004).
A Population History of England, 1541 – 1871: a Reconstruction, ed. E. A. Wrigley and Roger Schofield (London, 1981).
Mike Heffernan is Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham.