my Desk: Centennia
This column is devoted to anything that ends
up on my desk while I'm planning my AP World History class. The general
idea is to take a particular resource and figure out how many ways I can
use it in a classroom, and how many other resources I can marshal to the
aid of my agenda. I like jigsaw puzzles and crosswords, and this column
provides me a similar sort of mental satisfaction.
My favorite mapping resource this year is
Centennia, a PC and Mac-compatible geography program
from Centennia Software (http://www.clockwk.com/clockwk2/centennia.html,
$89). Centennia is a historical atlas of almost ten thousand separate
maps depicting nearly month-to-month territorial change since 1000 c.e.
over a swath of territory stretching from Iran to the Atlantic and from
Ethiopia to Scandinavia. Users can zoom in to an area as small as, say,
Users can run through the maps automatically,
resulting in a bizarre animation sequence as empires, republics, and kingdoms
appear, expand, contract, and collapse. The publisher boasts that Centennia
is required at the Army War College. If so, it ought to send shivers down
the spines of young officers, who in ten minutes can learn just how ephemeral
power can be. Users can call also call up a narrative political history,
which scrolls along as the centuries transform the map.
The first time I used Centennia, I
ran the animation for my students. A minute into the show, the murmers turned
into a torrent: "What's that orange country over there?" "Is that Spain?
Why is it divided up like that?" "Who's that in the Arabian peninsula?"
As Hitler's Reich bled across the map, students went silent, bursting into
applause when it collapsed in on itself. I make no brief for the sophistication
of the day's discussion, but it did open up a lot of questions about geography
and politics. Assigning students to come up with the answers to these questions
-- and using Centennia to illustrate the answers -- is a natural
Centennia is an exceptional resource
for teaching European, North African, and West Asian history. I would love
to see Centennia Software develop a similar product for the rest
of the world.
Among the pleasures of Centennia, though
-- unanticipated by Centennia Software -- is that it lends itself to teaching
against the program by prompting students to question common assumptions
about sovereignty, borders, frontiers, and national or ethnic states.
For example, Centennia sharply demarcates
each polity with crisp black borders. Crisp black borders are often legal
fictions; effective control ebbed with distance from the palace; "local"
governments frequently functioned as sovereign entities in themselves. Indeed,
the very concept of "sovereignty" does not begin to capture the variety
of political organization which has existed (and still exists) alongside
the sovereign territorial state.
All this is true, of course, of most historical
atlases; it is simply rendered more visible by Centennia's claim
to comprehensive and authoritative coverage. Among the more common deceptions:
maps of the colonial Americas credit expansive and utterly notional European
territorial claims. Maps of East Asia treat some "tribute states" as though
they really were subject to Chinese sovereignty. Maps invent central states--
Champa comes to mind -- by depicting them with a single color on the map.
They grant an invented political continuity to other states (Kanem existed,
and so did Bornu, but "Kanem-Bornu" is a more recent invention). When it
comes to political organizations without substantive territorial power,
mapmakers are, seemingly, helpless. Cities of the Hanseatic League, for
example, are regularly depicted with some sort of color or symbol, but embedded
within the territories of another sovereign state.
Centennia does attempt to address such
concerns. Within a single-color "state" (Republican Spain, for instance),
Centennia depicts shifting lines of civil conflict. The accompanying
narrative provides evidence that the political situation was more complicated
than maps can imagine. The program might be improved if, like number of
more recently published historic atlases, color fades with the distance
from the political core, indicating the ambiguity of frontiers.
Centennia is a graphic tour de force.
How can students approach such a resource critically?
We can start with Mark Monmonier, Lying
with Maps and its amusing catalogue of the ways cartography can deceive.
Maps can be misleading without being deceptive, and examples of misleading
maps are worth student attention (discussions about the Peters Projection
may be useful here). Gerald Danzer's World History: An Atlas and Study
Guide includes a chapter, "Source Maps," which invite comparison of
the ideologies underlying cartographic representation from an 8,000 year
old map of Çatal Hüyük to contemporary cartograms. Teachers
can also find terrific resources for cartographic debate in Edward Tufte's
delightful books on graphic design: The Visual Display of Quantitative
Data, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations.
Once persuaded that maps are not mere
vessels of objective data, students can rethink their understanding of region.
A good source for that lesson is Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen, The
Myth of Continents. The beauty of this book is its series of ten world
maps, each reflecting idealized regional schemas for instance, the "Western
Civilization" of the schoolboks, Hodgson's "Afro-Eurasian ecumene" and Huntington's
clashing civilizations. Map 3 explores the geographic concept of the "West"
(as in "Western Civilization", while Map 4 focuses on "The Orient", comparing
several versions of each. That regional boundaries reflect political choices
is a useful lesson for students.
Third, students ought to reconsider their
understanding of territorial power and sovereignty. Because we all take
the centralized sovereign state pretty much for granted, this task is particularly
difficult. There are, however, several resources available which can make
it easier. Gérard Chaliand and Jean-Peirre Rageau, The Penguin
Atlas of Diasporas and Peter N. Stearns, Cultures in Motion are
two atlases that chart the movement of peoples, ideas, and goods across
state boundaries. Philip Curtin's Cross-Cultural Trade in World History
introduces the concept of "trade diasporas" and includes maps which can
be useful to get the idea across in the classroom. For more advanced students,
excerpts from two other works can be useful in questioning the significance
of sovereignty: Stephen Krasner's Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy
condemns the entire concept of sovereignty as it has developed in international
law since the Treaty of Westphalia. The first three chapters of Hendrik
Spruyt's The Sovereign State and its Competitors, questions the idea
that sovereign territorial states somehow were inevitable consequences of
economic development and were, in any event, an improvement over the political
forms with which they long coexisted. Though concerned with the Hanseatic
League, Spruyt's essays have much to say about sovereignty in general.
The issue of frontiers is useful to investigate
as well. Representative sources include: Daniel Richter, Facing East
from Indian Country and D.W. Meinig's magisterial series The Shaping
of America develop the idea of porous frontiers in North America. So
too do chapters on the so-called "conquest dynasties" (particularly the
Xi Xia, Liao and Jin) in F. W. Mote's Imperial China, 900-1800. Anthony
Marx, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South
Africa, and Brazil addresses the relationship between frontier and national
Finally, there is the enormous literature
on the idea of "nation" itself. The classics in this field -- Benedict Anderson's
Imagined Communities, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The
Invention of Tradition, and the works of and Josep Fontana's the
Distorted Past: A Reinterpretation of Europe all challenge the idea
of an ancient lineage for European nations. Fontana's chapter on the Franks,
"The Barbarian Mirror," bears comparison to Mote's discussion of Mongol
Many high school and college-level teachers
will find these sources challenging for their students -- perhaps too much
so. Apart from literary sources (which will require another column entirely),
I would briefly suggest Neil Ascherson's The Black Sea, whose tour
of regional ethnicities -- some commanding sovereign states, some dominating
autonomous regions and some without political recognition of any kind --
does the job of an Anderson or a Hobsbawm much more accessibly.
And yet sometimes borders, even those
drawn with the confidence of Centennia, do accurately depict
political reality. Sometimes "nations" and "nation-states" actually exist.
Hobbes is right: the illusion of power really is power, and the illusion
of identity really becomes identity. To get at the way fictive boundaries
and identities become real, students can read William McNeil's Mythistory.
In a classroom dependent upon a single
textbook, how can students get at such geographic complexity? Here is one
approach: create, in a notebook or on a wall, a list of political entities,
ranked from most centralized to least. On one end might be 20th
century totalitarian states, the Qin dynasty, or the Aztec state. At the
other end might be the Hanseatic League, the Swahili coast, or Republican
China. Where would federal states rank? How about the Persian Empire and
its satrapis? Mayan city-state alliances? The European Union? Once students
have created this ranking, move on to this question: what purpose does central
control serve? Why are frontiers well defined in some places and times,
and ill-defined in others?
It may not be obvious from this essay,
but I love Centennia. I love it not only for what it does well but
for what it does miserably. Students can learn from both.
Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches
world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.