J. B. Harley, “Texts and Contexts in the Interpretation of Early Maps

Harley discusses that out of all the documents used by historians, maps are indeed well-known, but are very difficult to understand (34).  Historians tend to place maps under written evidence because of the inaccuracy placed on maps (34).  As noted, these maps are seen as being “slippery,” “dangerous,” and “unreliable” (34).  The author wants to answer the question of how and why map usage has such a bad reputation.  First, Harley notes that the study of maps is not a huge interest among historians (34).  Harley further discusses that maps are related to mirrors in which they are a “graphic representation” of the world (35).  But Harley argues that maps “redescribe the world – like any other document” (35).  Harley then notes how even though maps may not use written world, they use symbols and signs in order to illustrate the meaning behind the map which historians can use to their advantage (36).  Then, Harley distinguishes her argument by naming 3 aspects: “1) the context of the cartographer 2) the contexts of other maps and 3) the context of society” (38).  For the context of the cartographer, historians note that the maker of the map is not directly correlated to the map that historians have now (38).  Next, Harley describes the context of other maps; the relationship one map has with other maps (41).  She notes how in her study, a “corpus of related maps is built around the single map” (42).  Furthermore, Harley discusses how place-names or toponymy  “offer a way of constructing genealogies and source profiles for previously scattered maps (43).  Harley’s last aspect, the context of society, discusses the relationship of interpretation between an individual and a society (44).  Every map is cultural, therefore, the maps were made for the society of that culture, not outside of that society (44).  Harley then discusses the rules of cartography by saying that the main strategy for a cartographer is to identify the”rules of the social order” (45).  Lastly, she discusses the meaning of maps by understanding what that map meant when it was first produced to society (46).