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On my Desk: Centennia

Tom Laichas

     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. 1
     My favorite mapping resource this year is Centennia, a PC and Mac-compatible geography program from Centennia Software (, $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, Greece. 2
     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. 3
     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 sequel. 4
     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. 5
     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. 6
     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. 7
     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. 8
     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. 9
     Centennia is a graphic tour de force. How can students approach such a resource critically? 10
     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. 11
     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. 12
     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. 13
     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 development. 14
     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 identity. 15
     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. 16
     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. 17
     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? 18
     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. 19


Biographical note: Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.


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