Putting the State on the Map: Cartography, Territory, and European State Formation

Comparative Studies in Society and History,vol. 41, no. 2, 1999, pp. 374-411

Willem Blaeu’s map of 1617, in Joan Blaeu’s atlas of 1662 (Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection)When I wrote this article, the historical sociology of state formation in Europe focused on explaining how the state's power and resources increased over the centuries. Thus the state was treated as an entity. By contrast, I wanted to understand a more basic question: how people came to conceive the state as an entity—how the state emerged in the mind, as it were. I chose to investigate historical cartography, for maps show us how people imagined the space in which they lived. From the Renaissance onwards, techniques of surveying and map-making provided a new way of conceiving political power and enabled rulers to gain new knowledge of the space over which they claimed to rule. This, I argue, was the basis of our modern notion of a territorial state—homogeneous space enclosed by a linear boundary. Nevertheless, this transformation was very gradual. When we examine published maps of Europe since the sixteenth century, what is surprising is that they do not attempt to depict consistent or accurate state boundaries. The modern image of a jigsaw of territorial states emerged only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This warns us of the danger of anachronism, of projecting our notion of the state back into the past.




Errata: without giving me any opportunity to make final revisions, or even to see the page proofs, the journal printed this essay—having introduced over thirty errors (virtually every French word is wrongly spelled).


Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford