European Regions Back to the Future

William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, New York 1911, the independent regions in Central Europe from 1815 until 1866. Photo: TES.

The pre-history of the historical Atlas in Europe was a long one. The history of European mapping goes back to Mesopotamia, the Greeks and Romans. Though ancient geography remained prestigious (educational) pursuits, the Bible and maps depicting the Holy land became the significant inspiration in medieval times, but mapping could not be called ‘historical’. Biblical toponomy and religious themes  were the main characteristics. This radically changed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Technological developments, the rise of dynastic monarchies and the discovery of new continents led to new historical atlases. They reflected the increasing interest in and understanding of cartography, aiding the dissemination of cartographic images, new cultures and regions. Maps were increasingly published as part of texts, due to the influence of the new textualism and new readerships.

The higher degree of historical literacy produced a need for precise cartography. The first historical atlas of Europe is the Parergon of Arbaham Ortelius (1527-1598), published in Antwerp in 1579. He also created the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published in 1570. Maps came to play an integral role in the presentation of the past. Knowledge of the Bible and the Classics remained a vital aspect of education and knowledge, but historical accuracy increased. The French revolutionary period lent renewed energy to mapping the contemporary world and provided a solid base for historical mapping.

The Revolution favoured jurisdictional and political territorial criteria when it radically redrew frontiers within and outside France. The Napoleontic regime and its wars demanded detailed mapping of Europe. Atlases could display the development of nation states in the nineteeth century. The atlases were nationalist, imperialist and didactic in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The European Union and the Council of Europe (re) unite European states from 1945, but historical atlases from 1989 differ from atlases in 2008, division instead of unification. Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia, the disappearance of the German Federal Republic, what will the atlas look like in twenty years ? After East-Europe, now West-Europe ? Catalonia, Scotland, Flanders, regions in Northern Italy and Southern Germany, who knows ? There is a trend from big entities to smaller regions. People apparently need an identity in a globalizing world. The nation states are sandwiched between the European Union and the regions. Are the historical maps of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, Italy and many other regions again the maps of the future ? It remains to be seen, but the trend is there.

Regions already cooperate and it will give a new impetus to European cooperation. The question remains whether the European Union is ready to deal with autonomous or independent regions instead of nation states. Regionalization is not an issue at European level and the new European Treaty does not respond to this challenge. Regions have always been an important economic, cultural, political and intellectual asset in previous periods and they will become more important in the near future. (source: Prof. J. Black, Maps and History. Constructing images of the Past, London 1997).