Historical Geographies: creating geography in 18th century France

by Fiona Ferbrache

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) commands an especially important position in the history of modern geography, as the acknowledged ‘founding father’ of the French School of Human Geography. 

AvePaul(1)This is how Howard (1986:174) introduces the man whose name is displayed on the road sign, illustrated on the right.  Vidal de la Blache was born in Pézenas and one of the town’s main thoroughfares is named after the geographer (see earlier post on place-naming). 

Vidal de la Blache’s Tableau de la Geographie de la France is perhaps his best known book, and his ideas on regional geography strongly shaped geographical paradigms at that time (see Baker 2002).  However, we need to look further back than the Vidalian era to better understand the development of geography, both in France and more generally.

Heffernan’s article in TIBG provides this “deeper history” by exploring the scientific value of geography during the early 18th century “before the first geographical societies were established in Paris, Berlin and London” (p.1).  He draws on archives and publications of the Paris Academy of Sciences to explain how geography became recognised as a science, particularly with the election of a specialist in geography in 1730 – Philippe Buache.  Heffernan’s broader argument proposes this organisation as one of the key sites in which geography became defined, practised and produced in Europe (linking to the creation of scientific knowledge and epistemic formation).  So how was geography defined at this time?

Geography emerged, as scientific practices such as cartographic survey were re-allocated from astronomy.  This, Heffernan suggests, laid “the conceptual terrain on which the modern discipline would later be enacted” (p.9).  The influence of Buache’s work in the mid 18th century (notably his 1752 memoire) is also said to have laid the path for political debates about the role of ‘natural’ regions to French administrative geography.  These geographical ideas are perhaps linked to those that came later in the work of Vidal de la Blache.

Overall, Heffernan’s paper provides a deeper insight to the historical creation of geography as a recognised discipline. 

books_icon  Baker, A.R.H. 2002 Book Review: Le tableau de la géographie de la France de Paul Vidal de la Blache. Dans le labyrinthe des formes. Progress in Human Geography. 26:707

 books_iconHeffernan, M. 2013 Geography and the Paris Academy of Sciences: politics and patronage in early 18th-century France. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12008

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