The Cartography of Poland: A Conversation in Europe

I recently submitted in English a proposal for a mobility grant to study XVIIIth century maps of Poland. The proposal was sadly rejected, on grounds which could by themselves be the matter of a whole story. I will pursue this work nevertheless, most likely in French, and I therefore offer here the core text of my original proposal, as an introduction to this on-going research. I’ve removed only the previsional costs section and some considerations specific to the original institution calling for applications. I’ve also added links to some of the sources and works cited.

The cartography of Poland posed significant problems to XVIIIth century cartographers, cosmographers, and scholars. The intricate history of Polish territories, before and after the three Partitions, led to several discrepancies between the perceived unity of an area of Polish culture and the actual political borders of the country. It is a fact that, while the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a State structure gradually lost its sovereignty over many territories, the Lutheran and Catholic intellectual elite in Warsaw strived to impose the concept of an extended and multilingual Polish cultural territory, which included cities such as Breslau or Kiev, already under the rule of foreign powers. In that context, numerous maps were produced by both this elite and competing or allied countries.

These maps are now scattered among various European collections, most notably one curated by the University Library of Vilnius, with other documents archived in Paris, Leipzig, Amsterdam, Genova, as well as various other institutions. The study of these documents has long proven to be difficult, especially due to their respective locations, often in contrast with their linguistic distribution. For instance, most of the maps printed in French are to be found in Vilnius, while the Robert Morden map of 1719 has been acquired by Genova. In giving simultaneous access to a large sample of cartographic documents, digitalizations provided invaluable instruments to the study of these maps and their social relevance in XVIIIth century Europe.

I propose a systematic review of this material, considering both the documents themselves and the metadata on provenance, to infer trends and patterns in distribution, and to offer a historical geopolitical commentary. Analysis of the maps will draw on book history and bibliography, to identify original editorial context, visual history and connected history, both of which have conceptualized early modern cartography, and historical cartography. Preliminary sampling of the collections have led me to infer the existence of at least 20 and maybe up to 50 maps of the Polish territories, in various geographical contexts, from 1700 to 1799. Historical linguistics may also prove to be of relevance to a comparative study of Polish toponymy in various languages (German, French, Polish, Italian, English, Spanish).

Most of the maps place Poland in an international context, featuring other countries, be they Sweden, Austrian territories, or Russia. This XVIIIth century geography was called by Larry Wolf the “invention of Eastern Europe”. The study of such maps tends nevertheless to show that one would think of Poland as a Northern country, rather than an Eastern one, and more specifically as an actor in the context of the Baltic grain trade. The study of such regional imaginary constructions and their role in the political subdivision of the European continent is essential to the understanding of the European construction in the long run.

Maps may also be categorized according to their use. It is likely one would find significant differences between maps produced by the burgeoning intelligence services of foreign powers, maps drawn for the purpose of commercial trade, and maps produced by scholarly cosmographers. For instance, commercial routes, natural obstacles, or historical sites are not, for this reason, distributed evenly among the documents.

The extension given to the territory of Poland as well as the reaction to its shifting borders may offer significant insights on the various reactions to the process of territorial disintegration from the Perpetual Peace to the Third Partition. There will likely be a correlation between the linguistical distribution of the maps and their depiction of territorial shifts.

As the maps are often copied from general works, they will contribute to the knowledge of printing practices and their role in European cultural circulation. This should lead to a more nuanced understanding of knowledge circulation, in which books would not be considered as necessarily coherent objects, but rather as a pool of extractible material that may cross cultural borders individually. Early modern maps were often copied, augmented, and reprinted from original cosmographic books, and traded or exchanged as independent objects. Such was also the case for many engravings, for instance the series of portraits of the Polish royal family from the Leipzig University Library and the Berlin State Library. A systematic biographical description of such items should therefore take into consideration their dual nature, as both individual objects and pages taken from more comprehensive works. For instance, such a description is offered for the Carte des provinces annexées à la Petite Pologne [1787], archived in Genova, which was drawn, as a careful examination of the upper part of the digitalized document suggests, from the famous and monumental Histoire universelle, t. 125.

Citer ce billet
François-Ronan Dubois (2017, 24 novembre). The Cartography of Poland: A Conversation in Europe. Contagions. Consulté le 15 avril 2024, à l’adresse

François-Ronan Dubois

Chargé de partenariats et d'échanges intellectuels pour la diplomatie culturelle à l'Institut français, à Paris. Docteur en littérature française et agrégé de lettres modernes, ancien chercheur et enseignant à l'Université de Varsovie (2017-2019), l'École Nationale d'Ingénieurs de Brest en France (2015-2016) et l'Université de Grenoble-Alpes (2012-2015).

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