Historical Geography

Historical geography is most often defined as the study of geographic phenomena as they change over time. However, the term may also refer to the physical/cultural geographies of the past, and the development of geographical ideas and theories over time.

The study of historical geography is generally considered to have begun as scholars attempted to decipher the geographical descriptions found in the Bible and other ancient texts, including Roman and Greek narratives such as Homer’s ‘Iliad’. Another example of classic historical geography is the study of the writings of Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, regarding his discussion of how the Nile River delta formed.

Historical geography also describes the process of exploration and discoveries made throughout the world. The study of historical geography took off in Europe after the First World War, as regional boundaries were re-drawn and re-organised. In France and Germany, these studies were generally classified more as geographical history than as historical geography. Indeed, the lines between history and geography are somewhat blurred, especially in these earlier studies. In the UK however, the work of H. C. Darby (1909-1992) could be easily distinguished from alternative studies of the history of the development of the English landscape because of his unique methodology.

darby england geography
Historical map of England in H.C. Darby’s “New Historical Geography of England” (1973).

The methods employed by Darby are an excellent example of how and why historical geography exists as a discipline, and shows the distinct differences between the study of historical geography and the similar disciplines of environmental history and historical ecology. Darby used evidence derived from historical archives to re-create the past geography as cartographic cross-sections, which themselves could be used to decipher historical sequences of geographical change, both physical and human. Darby utilized this methodology to produce his much-lauded work on the medieval human geography of England. Darby based much of this work on evidence gleaned from the Domesday Book.

Carl Sauer (1889-1975) at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 20th century approached the topic of historical geography from a different perspective. Sauer preferred the term cultural geography, and indeed much of his work is classified as such, due to his usage of mainly archaeological and anthropological evidence. There are many similarities between the two disciplines. However, for Sauer, the main factor was regional specialization.

Landscape change between 1987 and 1999 on the island of Sifnos, Greece. Source: Tzanopoulos and Vogiatzakis (2011).

Sauer believed that in order to have a good understanding of the historical evolution of a particular landscape, all influences must be taken into account; cultural, physical, economic, environmental, and political. To effectively accomplish this all-encompassing perspective, regional specialization was deemed necessary. The work of Sauer was particularly influential in the USA, and had a considerable effect on the direction in which the study of historical geography took during the 1960s and 1970s.  From the 1950s onward, the development of new scientific techniques for quantitative measurement of geographical phenomena allowed new ways to conduct geospatial research.

As new scientific methods influenced the way studies of historical geography were conducted, many scholars rose to the challenge. One of the finest pieces of historical geography  remains the study of epidemiology and disease diffusion. Statistical geographical techniques enabled these kinds of studies, as without the sophisticated methods developed since the inception of quantitative historical geography, such theories could not have been tested.

There are of course those who continue to attest to the greater significance of studying cultural and social literature as opposed to spatial science. They argue that statistical methods lack the capacity for moral and political interpretation. Many agree, however, that the best methods incorporate elements of both statistical and historical literature analysis.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) in Mumbai. Historical geographers are interested in the impact of colonialism, such as England’s role in India, on our modern world.

In recent times, cultural matters have been considered more and more frequently, and as such, the hybrid term ‘cultural-historical geography’ is now widely used. One example of cultural-historical geography is the study of imperialism and colonialism. While these topics are generally thought of as wholly in the realm of history, recent research on the environmental effects of imperialism and colonialism has brought them under the spotlight of cultural-historical geographers. These studies mostly look at how colonization focused on the acquisition of natural resources (and certainly human resources, in the form of slavery). Researchers assess how this altered the local and global environment and culture over time.

As the global political agenda becomes increasingly shifted towards talk of the environment and the anthropogenic impacts since the dawn of the Industrial era, historical geography is becoming increasingly relevant. Timely studies have examined how the exploitation of natural resources has affected the natural world, and how these impacts are in turn impacting our global society.

Moving forward, the study of historical geography appears to be becoming increasingly specialized and eclectic, with no specific methodology prevailing. This is in part due to the increasing historicisation in all sub-disciplines of human geography. The result of this historicisation has been to effectively degrade the relevance of the study of historical geography as a separate sub-discipline. Many contemporary geographers believe that historical geography should be integrated into the individual topics being discussed. Nearly all geographic phenomena vary over time, and it is often this spatial evolution over time that can tell us the most about our quickly changing world.

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