The nature of early-modern human geography in the light of Samuel Johnson’s definition

“Geography in a strict sense, signifies the knowledge of the circles of the earthly globe, and the situation of the various parts of the earth. When it is taken in a little larger sense, it includes the knowledge of the seas also; and in the largest sense of all, it extends to the various customs, habits, and governments of nations.” (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755))

The empirical discipline of Human Geography up to and during the period of Samuel Johnson’s study in the 1750s was not recognized in the way it is today. Indeed, Johnson himself only classes it as part of ‘the largest sense of all’ within the description of the subject of Geography.

The recognition of Geography as a science by Immanuel Kant during the period leading up to the writing of this definition meant that the preciseness that Statistics gave had only recently been realised in a Geographical aspect.

It would indeed have been hard for an unspecialised author such as Johnson to have evaluated all aspects of Geography, especially as this definition was made before any Geographical authority or society was established. The definition was written 72 years before the first regular gathering of geographers took place in a public house in 1827, which would then lead on in 1830 to the formation of the Royal Geographical Society.

Earlier studies by scholars and geographers such as the one by Bernhardus Varenius, one of many German geographers, didn’t even go as far as Johnson in their definitions of Human Geography. Indeed Varenius divided Geography into three separate branches: the first dealing with the form and dimensions of the globe; the second with tides, climates, and seasons; and the third with studies of particular regions of the globe in a comparative form. There is no mention of human geography, or the components of geography which we would call human geography today:

“The study of how human societies developed all over the world, especially in relation to the earth’s physical features” (Michael Rundell et al, Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2002 edition)

“That part of the discipline of Geography concerned with the spatial differentiation and organisation of human activity and its interrelationships with the physical environment” (R.J. Johnston et al, The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th Ed., 2000).

Human geography was not classed as one the six branches of Geography during the 1700s by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who in the same period played a very decisive role in recognizing Geography as a science. However branches he did recognise such as moral geography and political geography could be closely connected with human geography.

It is important to note that the word Geography in it’s early sense comes from the Latin works ‘Geo’, referring to the earth as a whole, and ‘Graphien’, referring to ‘making marks’, making the term Geographia, or Geography as we refer to it now, to mean ‘making marks about the globe’. Geographers, who were mostly clergymen in the period up to and including Johnson’s study, were in fact writers who gathered information from a variety of sources who travelled to various parts of the globe and reported back to a Geographer, telling of what they found.

The plagiarising Geographer would then write a summary, the most popular form being a Grammar, which described various parts of the globes in sections by continent or country. A famous example of this would be the clergyman William Guthrie’s ‘A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar, And Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World’, published in London in 1790. William Guthrie is actually just as famous for his 10 famous sermons, as he is for his Geographical prose.

The other type of Geography book being the Gazetteer, an alphabetical list of places and continents. Human Geography elements would include rough estimations of population and descriptions of the everyday life in the area.

This collection of information would then be used by governmental and royal organisations in order to gather intelligence, by trade to strengthen trade links, for use also by scholars, such as Varenius’s example ‘Geographia Generalis’, and would also be used by travellers.

During the 18th or 19th Century, someone claiming to have read a Geography book, would have read a Grammar.

Although early Geographers didn’t write a great deal about the life of humans as their main point of reference, physical elements which were written about can be used as evidence as to the conditions of various parts of the earth over time, and can be used to suggest the kind of living conditions of the time.

Early maps from the period are also not as accurate as today, mostly due to a lack of our modern technologies, but also because cartographers only really wrote about what they had been told about, and so settlements, countries, and indeed continents in the case of the Americas, which were not visited by the cartographer’s sources, were not documented. Maps didn’t become as clear or mathematically precise as those we are used to today until 1913.