Lists are often treated as a ‘matter-of-fact, unrhetorical, and innocent’ source by historians (Delbourgo & Müller-Wille 2012, 711). At the same time, they can be daunting to work with because of the sheer volume of information they contain: inventories and census data often run to many hundreds or even thousands of pages. Taking as our inspiration the 2012 special issue on “Listmania” in Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, in the November meeting of the EUI History of Science Working Group, we explored some of the ways in which we might begin to tackle lists as a historical source.


EUI History of Science Working Group. Photo courtesy of Déborah Dubald @_dbrh_ 


Bringing Ethnographic Lists and Maps Together

At the outset of my research on ethnographic cartography in the Russian Empire, I was reluctant to focus too heavily on statistical data. Not only has this topic already been extensively researched, but I was also more interested in the spatial definition of ethnographic areas rather than the quantitative numeration the Empire’s inhabitants. However, as my research developed, I became increasingly aware that list-making was closely intertwined with map-making in fascinating ways.

Firstly, the data used to make ethnographic maps was taken from lists and tables compiled as a result of fieldwork expeditions, local censuses, and provincial statistical data books (памятная книжка). The job of the cartographers, who I was focusing on in my research, was to translate this statistical demographic data into a graphical and cartographical medium.

Secondly, on a deeper level, lists and maps have in common that they communicate information based on a two-dimensional spatial logic. In lists and tables, words, or numbers are placed on the page in vertical columns and horizontal rows. On maps, coordinate points are plotted along the x- and y- axes. So, in addition to studying the maps themselves, I became increasingly interested in thinking about the similarities between list-making and map-making as ways of communicating ideas about ethnographic classification.


Statistical Tables

Not all cartographers went on fieldwork expeditions themselves and most relied instead on statistical data gathered from other sources, such as the provincial statistical commissions. This data was presented and circulated in the form of tables, which generally followed a similar format: ethnographic groups were listed horizontally across the page as column headings and provinces, districts, or parishes (depending on the scale of the statistical study) were listed vertically down the page as row headings. The number of inhabitants pertaining to each ethnographic group was listed for each locality. In this way, an overview of the ethnographic composition of the population of all “European Russia” could be synthesised onto a single sheet of paper.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Ethnographic Taxonomies

Ethnographers worked with the same statistical data tables, however they were more interested in schematising the information to say something about the relationships between the ethnographic groups lists in row or column headings. Curly brackets (or braces) were often used to indicate that groups were part of a single ethnographic “family”. This technique also allowed ethnographers to create hierarchies by portraying branches and nesting sub-groups.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Legends: Another Kind of List?

Map legends often closely resembled taxonomic lists in the way that they arranged information about the ethnographic groups depicted in vertical columns. Some maps, such as Aleksandr Rittikh’s Ethnographic Map of European Russia (1875), even incorporated curly brackets into the legend to sort the ethnographic groups into “families”. Compiling a map legend, however, also took the taxonomisation process a step further by assigning a corresponding colour to each ethnographic group. Ethnographic groups perceived as being close kins to one another, were rendered in similar shades of a single colour. Differences between the various ethnographic families were emphasised using contrasting colours.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki


Lost (and Gained) in Translation

As in every translation process, some aspects of the statistical and ethnographic lists were “lost” in the transformation of the data into a cartographical medium. For example, ethnographic maps in the mid-nineteenth century mostly did not convey any information about the relative numbers of inhabitants belonging to each ethnographic group or population density. Moreover, itinerant or nomadic populations who had no sizeable or fixed area of permanent habitation often simply disappeared. Instead, these choropleth maps converted the information contained in each row of the data table into a flat, enclosed, and homogeneous block of colour.

At the same time, cartography was not simply a method for graphically visualising the information contained in a statistical list, but also played a significant role in shaping the ideas about population categorisation. As Georg von Mayr (1841-1925), a statistician and professor of statistics at the University of Munich, observed: ‘The map differs significantly from the diagram, in that it contains not merely a sensual illustration of the table provided as evidence, but also something new that the table cannot represent’ (Mayr 1874: 15). By using graphical techniques such as shading, lines and chromatics, maps could make powerful statements about the distribution and borders between ethnographic groups, as well as the nature of their relationship to one another.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.

Thank you to Déborah Dubald for the opportunity to collaborate in putting together this session of the EUI History of Science Working Group and to think about my research from a new perspective.

Catherine Gibson

Researcher, European University Institute

For more information about Catherine’s current research on ethnographic maps, see


Delbourgo, James and Staffan Müller-Wille. “Introduction.” Isis 103:4 (2012), 710-715

Mayr, G. von. Gutachten über die Anwendung der graphischen und geographischen Methode in der Statistik. Munich: gedruckt bei J. Gotteswinter, 1874.

‘Chasing Unicorns and Amassing Rhinos to Think About the History of Knowledge’

Unicorn (Monoceros). Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium; liber primus, qui est de quadrupedibus viviparis, Zurich, 1551. retrieved from

Do not miss our next session on: 

‘Chasing Unicorns and Amassing Rhinos to Think About the History of Knowledge’
with Bruno A Martinho (HEC3) & Camille Sallé (HEC1)

Monday 5/12/2016, 17:00-19:00
Location: Sala dei Levrieri, Villa Salviati, European University Institute, Florence

How do historians of knowledge and science deal with materials? And what do materials do to the history of knowledge? Reversely, how are notions of science and knowledge approached by historians of material culture? This session will be centred on a case study presented by Bruno A. Martinho, and will aim at opening the discussion on these questions and some methodological issues encountered when approaching material culture. Especially, we will examine the extent to which those questions related to material culture and materiality can bring together and blur the lines between various fields of history. We will consider the possibility of thinking outside categories produced by material culturel/history of science approaches, as well as more powerful questionnaires obtained from crossed methodologies.


‘Viviani, Galileo, Ghiberti: the manuscript traces of Florentine science’

This year again, the History of Science Working Group is happy to invite you to ‘Science in Florence’ visits, which encourage the exploration of Florence’ very own institutions of the history of science.

The first visit will take us to the Manuscript Department of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze: ‘Viviani, Galileo, Ghiberti: the manuscript traces of Florentine science’ on Friday, 11 March, 10 am.

Meeting point: front door of the BNCF, Piazza dei Cavalleggeri, 1 – 50122 Firenze, at 9:55am.

Everyone is welcome, but  places are limited. Please register with Simon Dumas Primbault:

Conference in honour of Roger Chartier | The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 21.52.24

Chartier_posterOn September 17-18, the EUI will host the conference The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind: Towards a Connected History of Textual Practices (Teatro, Badia Fiesolana, 9h-18h), organized by the Chair of the History of Science at the Department of History and Civilization, Professor Stéphane Van Damme. In honor of the leading cultural and book historian Roger Chartier, professor at the Collège de France, the conference emerges from, and takes the name of, his most recent publication, The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014). It will bring together book, literary, and art historians, as well as historians of science and knowledge in an exploration of the materiality of texts in the early modern period.

Part of the conference will be live-tweeted under hashtag #EUIChartier

See conference programme below:FINALProgrammeChartierSept2015

EUI | History of Science

The History of Science working group is a non-official, student-led group aimed at bringing together PhD researchers with similar interests in History of Science. Thus, the group’s members engage with a wide coverage of topics ranging from natural history over imperial science to amateur inventions, from seventeenth-century France to Interwar Russia. In our blog, we wish to bring forward the diversity of research in History of Science, to seek for a broader understanding of history of science and review available instruments, which includes reading of classics but also examining recent methodological approaches. As a student-led project, we wish to maintain a wide scope of the published material, with a nevertheless strong emphasis on the rich and necessary links with other historical fields, and with history in general.