Tuesday, March 08, 2011

In Nietzsche's Shadow:
Cartography, Geohistory and the Changing Nature of Landscape

...you would fancy him a madman when you see him walking along the most devious of paths...seeking for the traces of lost facts in rough woods and thickets...
--Cassiodorus on Roman Surveyors

My current work of searching for the remains of Roman mapping and cartography was born on the ancient paths and trails of Southern France. Hiking through these areas year after year continually brought me face to face with a type of historical research that I think has been missing from what has recently come to pass for the history of cartography. Wandering these paths and old Roman roads makes one consider the relationship that cartography has to landscape and with the kind of geohistory first imagined by members the French Annales School.

The village of Eze from Mont Bastide

The medieval historian Georges Duby said in his autobiography, History Continues, that,

"historians sometimes find much of what they are looking for when they step outside their rooms and look around."

I believe this to be especially true for the historian of cartography. Duby says that,

"What I was looking for in my wanderings through forests and fields was the reassurance of a concrete grasp on reality. The tattered, threadbare fabric that I was trying to mend stitch by stitch with the aid of my Latin texts needed solid support. I wanted to lay it down over a document of a very different kind: one just as rich...but without gaps and preserved not in the darkness of the archives but open to the sunlight and to life itself, namely, the landscape."

Duby talks at length about how,

"no technological revolution had yet radically transformed the agricultural system in my region, and forty years ago the network of paths was still much the same as it had been in the year 1000."

Today some things have changed but many of the old paths and field patterns survive and, as I have shown in my work on Tunisia, can be extremely useful when trying to reconstruct the Roman limits. This is especially true in places like Tunisia and Libya were a great deal survives in the way of field patterns and boundaries, but these same hints in the landscape can also be found in some areas on the continent. My own wanderings along the forgot paths of the moyenne and grande corniche, places like the Friedrich Nietzsche trail, which goes from the Mediterranean Sea up to the village of Eze (shown in the photo above) continuing to the summit of the Mount Bastide, have shown just how enlightening such an approach can be. Nietzsche himself used to walk this particular chemin daily while he was living in Eze, and composing parts of Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the history of the path goes back at least to the iron age. As Nietzsche said in Ecce Homo,

"The following winter [1883-84], under the halcyon skies of Nice, which glistened above me for the first time in my life, I discovered the third part of Zarathustra-and the book was finished. Scarcely a year for the composition of the whole. Many concealed spots and many heights in the landscape of Nice have become sacrosanct to me because of unforgettable moments there. That decisive part of the third book, 'Of Old and New Tablets,' was composed on the difficult and steep ascent from the railway station at Èze to the marvelous Moorish eagle's nest overhead.-My muscle tone was always greatest when my creative energies flowed most abundantly. The body is spirited-let us leave the 'soul' out of play. . . . One could often have spotted me dancing: at that time I could wander through the mountains for seven or eight hours at a time without tiring. I slept well. I laughed a lot-I was fit as I could be, and I was patient."

Along the trail one finds the remains of a large bastide or oppidum whose occupation dates back to neolithic times but that was also occupied and rebuilt by the Romans during the Julian-Claudian period. Many of the walls and some of the roads are still intact, as shown in the photo above. Ruins of this type, with parts of the road structure remaining, are useful in reconstructing how and where the Romans actually surveyed and mapped. Boundary stones and mile markers have also been found in this region and lend further help in producing accurate reconstructions of the type that I am engaged in.

Most of the theoretical foundation for these types of researches stem from the work of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) and Marc Bloch (1866-1944), two of the founders of the Annales School. Braudelian landscape and geohistory can be reduced to a few basic assumptions.

1. geohistory has a specific concrete object that is 'tied to the soil', to elemental ecological conditions...to the landscape and its historical modifications.
2. geohistorical process, because it develops so slowly, represents a relatively immobile history, whose characteristic patterns last for long periods, things like field patterns, paths and roads.
3. geohistory is fundamental to other kinds of historical process and underlies other forms of historiocity.

Braudel wrote that within the bonds of his technological capacity man is free to do what he will with the landscape in which he dwells. A very interesting Heideggarian parrallel could be written here using Heidegger's essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking but I will not go into that now.

According to Braudel, the very formative capacity of the human endeavor, the ability to bend the landscape and change it in ways that last beyond single human lifetimes, creates constraints that become determinants of later human history because they are relatively 'fixed' or 'permanent'. Hence paths and field patterns last much longer and have their origins in many places in the remote past. These things become fixed and although we do not recognize them at first sight, old paths and field patterns can tell us a great deal about the history of an area and can open up new areas of physical research that help in our cartographic researches.

One look at Marc Bloch's French Rural History will give some insight into what I am getting at here. Bloch's essay is very important for a number of reasons that are methodologically interesting for this particular project. Bloch, in this short book (it is only 200 pages long), is concerned ironically with a long span of time, beginning in the 13th century and ending in the early 18th century. His conception of rural history is broad, taking into account not only farming techniques, but customs and the development of social norms. What was for the time most revolutionary however, was Bloch's systematic use of non-documentary sources like estate maps and the layout of the physical environment itself.

French Rural History came to my attention because of it's use of the so-called 'regressive method'. Bloch read history backwards on the grounds that we know more about later periods and that it makes logical sense to proceed from the known to the unknown. There were others before him who used this method like the English historian Frederick Seebohm who, in 1883, published The English Village Community. The book begins with an important chapter entitled, 'The English Open Field System Examined in its Modern Remains". Seebohm uses the surviving clues in the landscape to work backwards to the foundations of early English village life much in the same way as Bloch does with his maps of remaining field patterns in France and as I am trying to do with Roman Surveying. More modern studies, like Alan Baker's, Studies of Field systems in the British Isles give one some sense of what the historian can achieve if one simply gets outside. All of this of course requires a certain rethinking of how we write and conceptualize cartographic history as something that as George Duby said, "is open to the sunshine".