Faces, Places, Spaces: The Renaissance of Geographic History
The first history we write is a history of races. Our tribe’s myth is here, yours is over there, our race is called “the people” and blessed by the gods, and yours, well, not so blessed. Next comes the history of faces: history as the epic acts of bosses and chiefs, pharaohs and emirs, kings and Popes and sultans in conflict, where the past is essentially the chronicle of who wears the crown first and who wears it next. Then comes the history of places, where the ingathering of people and classes in a single city or state makes a historical whole bigger than any one face within it. Modern history is mostly place history, of an ambitious kind: what all the little faces were doing while the big faces were looking at each other. Modern place history has produced scholarly masterpieces, like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou,” the densely inhabited tale of one region in France in medieval times, and a lot of collective social history “from below.” (It has also produced great pop writing: Robert Hughes on Barcelona, Peter Ackroyd on London.)
But beyond, or beneath, these histories is the history of spaces: the history of terrains and territories, a history where plains and rivers and harbors shape the social place that sits above them or around them. As a form of poetry, space history is very old. Milton sang of “the Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty,” implying there was a reason that the Swiss were freer than the French, and the idea that geography shapes character is essential to Montesquieu: southern peoples are sweaty and stolid; mountain dwellers are springy and defiant, and so on. France, in his view, is ideal, because it is, like Mama Bear’s porridge, neither too cold nor too hot. (Actually, it is too cold, but the myth that the French live in a beautifully temperate climate is impossible for them to surrender, even in January.) In recent years, space history has been armed with data and detail and an urge to explain everything. Like the “naked ape” anthropology of the nineteen-seventies, sure in its belief that the missionary position in sex explains all of human bonding, the new space history has imperial ambitions. Russians always want a warm-weather port and will always have a huddled, suspicious culture, whether Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinish. Ideology is mere summer clouds above an unchanging terrain.