Historical Geography

By Norman J. Pounds

August 17th, 2008

This book is a bit old: it was published in 1973. Still, its information has not gone obsolete and so it’s still quite useful today. It presents European geography in five snapshots: 450 BCE, 150 CE, 800 CE, 1100 CE, and 1300 CE. The early chapters are interesting but the later chapters bog down in a mass of detail. There’s tons of information here about every aspect of the spatial distribution of civilization. One point that is made quite clearly is that civilizations flourished in areas of good soil, and struggled in poor soils. The author also describes sources of minerals, wool, grain, cloth, and many other commoditie, as well as trade patterns. There are also lots of fascinating maps showing, among other things, the members of the Delian League with their financinal contributions, towns in the Roman Empire, locations where Charlemagne spent the most time, and population densities in France around 1450.

The most striking point I learned from this book was that European population had already begun to decline before the Black Death hit in 1348. Thus, the Black Death doesn’t look like a calamity that crippled a growing Europe, but rather the coup de grace for an already weakened population. I wonder, was the decline in population due to the decline in temperatures in Europe that began around 1000 CE?

I bought this book primarily for its information about Greek economics – I have been developing a thesis that depends heavily upon the nature of the Greek economy during the Dark Ages at the end of the Bronze Age. Everything I read in this book supported my basic thesis about the dependence of Greek city-states on trade in grain.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits found in the book: Athens during Roman times was but a shadow of its former self during the Greek Golden Age. Population densities in Italy during Roman times were about 30 per square kilometer, but this was only because Italy imported vast amounts of grain. For most of the rest of the Empire, population densities were between 10 and 20 per square kilometer. Yet, in the 1300s, population densities in France reached up to over 50 per square kilometer. This is an indicator of the improvements in agricultural methods.

All in all, this was a nice book from which I learned a number of interesting things. It was, however, a bit of a slog. I expect that I shall refer back to it in the future for hard data.