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Early Mapping: The Tsardom in Manuscript

On June 2, 2016, Professor Valerie Kivelson (University of Michigan) made a presentation titled "Early Mapping: The Tsardom in Manuscript" at the regular research seminar «Boundaries of History» of the Center for Historical Research and the Department of History of Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg.

The report was dedicated to the analysis of Muscovite local maps. The author tried to show the extent to which local maps convey useful and usable information. A great attention was also paid to the way theymight circulate and communicate this information as relevant. Valerie Kivelson focuses mostly on the 17th century maps. However, she also pays attention to the first Russian local maps. The author showed the earliest known Russian map from the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery.

Some people could say that the amount of information in the Muscovite maps is minimal. Furthermore, they contain not so much information about geography. Maps created in the 17th century were drawn by hand and they were never more than two or sometimes three copies. Valerie Kivelson pointed out that it was limited private mode of communication. Muscovite maps can be difficult texts to decode and to set in context. 

Valerie Kivelson does not focuses on the accuracy and completeness of these local maps, but tries to expose their general cultural meanings. In the 17th century people who created that local maps were not formally trained in cartography. They created maps that reflected their human experience. As an example, Valerie Kivelson showed the map in which trees were turned out of the road to reflect human body passing through space. Villages on the map are similarly oriented to the most important human focuses.

The author also showed that the question of orientation in the local maps is very debatable. Some historians tried to prove that most of these maps were strictly oriented. Everybody have its own sense which way these maps were oriented. However, Valerie Kivelson pointed out that the problem is that they are asking the wrong question.  The author develop the idea that the documents tell us how they should be read. She illustrates this idea with the example of the ancient byzantine demon balls, which were supposed to be protective charms. Nobody will be able to read it because it is not addressed to us. It is demons writings and only demon could read this. Thus, this is a document to be read in certain way. Working with maps historians face the same situation. Valerie Kivelson gave an example of the map in which names of the rivers are upside down. However, if we try to turn the map the villages will be upside down. The author points out that there is no proper orientation. Thus, it is possible to read them any way we choose and in multiple directions.

Current directions are almost never represented in the local maps. There is also pragmatic explanation. Many of these maps were physically created from the four sides of the page, which again underscores the absence of strict orientation. Sometimes local maps contain orientation. For example, the map that has two little suns on it to show where sunrise take place. However, it is very rare situation. Valerie Kivelson concluded that the goal of these maps is not to show where this concrete thing is situated in the world. They show us what is important locally in the concrete landscape, determining where the boundaries lay. Although these maps served some pragmatic purposes, it does not mean that they were accurate in figuring out geography. Muscovite maps are really reach and valuable sources.