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Chorography (from χῶρος khōros, "place" and γράφειν graphein, "writing") is the art of describing or mapping a region or district, and by extension such a description or map.[1] This term derives from the writings of the ancient geographer Pomponius Mela and Ptolemy, where it meant the geographical description of regions. However, its resonances of meaning have varied at different times. Richard Helgerson states that "chorography defines itself by opposition to chronicle. It is the genre devoted to place, and chronicle is the genre devoted to time".[2] Darrell Rohl prefers a broad definition of "the representation of space or place".[3]

Ptolemy as imagined by a 16th-century artist


  • Ptolemy's definition 1
  • Renaissance revival 2
  • Modern usages 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Bibliography 6

Ptolemy's definition

In his text of the Geographia (2nd century CE), Ptolemy defined geography as the study of the entire world, but chorography as the study of its smaller parts—provinces, regions, cities, or ports. Its goal was "an impression of a part, as when one makes an image of just an ear or an eye"; and it dealt with "the qualities rather than the quantities of the things that it sets down". Ptolemy implied that it was a graphic technique, comprising the making of views (not simply maps), since he claimed that it required the skills of a draftsman or landscape artist, rather than the more technical skills of recording "proportional placements". Ptolemy's most recent English translators, however, render the term as "regional cartography".[4]

Renaissance revival

Ptolemy's text was rediscovered in the west at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and the term "chorography" was revived by humanist scholars.[5] An early instance is a small-scale map of Britain in an early fifteenth-century manuscript, which is labelled a tabula chorographica.[6] John Dee in 1570 regarded the practice as "an underling, and a twig of Geographie", by which the "plat" [plan or drawing] of a particular place would be exhibited to the eye.[7]

William Camden

The term also came to be used, however, for written descriptions of regions. These regions were extensively visited by the writer, who then combined local topographical description, summaries of the historical sources, and local knowledge and stories, into a text. The most influential example (at least in Britain) was probably William Camden's Britannia (first edition 1586), which described itself on its title page as a Chorographica descriptio. William Harrison in 1587 similarly described his own "Description of Britaine" as an exercise in chorography, distinguishing it from the historical/chronological text of Holinshed's Chronicles (to which the "Description" formed an introductory section).[8] Peter Heylyn in 1652 defined chorography as "the exact description of some Kingdom, Countrey, or particular Province of the same", and gave as examples Pausanias's Description of Greece (2nd century AD); Camden's Britannia (1586); Lodovico Guicciardini's Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi (1567) (on the Low Countries); and Leandro Alberti's Descrizione d'Italia (1550).[9]

Camden's Britannia was predominantly concerned with the history and antiquities of Britain, and, probably as a result, the term chorography in English came to be particularly associated with antiquarian texts. William Lambarde, John Stow, John Hooker, Michael Drayton, Tristram Risdon, John Aubrey and many others used it in this way, arising from a gentlemanly topophilia and a sense of service to one's county or city, until it was eventually often applied to the genre of county history. A late example was William Grey's Chorographia (1649), a survey of the antiquities of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Even before Camden's work appeared, Andrew Melville in 1574 had referred to chorography and chronology as the "twa lights" [two lights] of history.[10]

Example of Christopher Saxton's cartography.

However, the term also continued to be used for maps and map-making, particularly of sub-national or county areas. William Camden praised the county mapmakers Christopher Saxton and John Norden as "most skilfull Chorographers";[11] and Robert Plot in 1677[12] and Christopher Packe in 1743[13] both referred to their county maps as chorographies.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the term had largely fallen out of use in all these contexts, being superseded for most purposes by either "topography" or "cartography". Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary (1755) made a distinction between geography, chorography and topography, arguing that geography dealt with large areas, topography with small areas, but chorography with medium-sized areas, being "less in its object than geography, and greater than topography".[14] In practice, however, the term is only rarely found in English by this date.

Ferdinand von Richhofen

Modern usages

In more technical geographical literature, the term had been abandoned as city views and city maps became more and more sophisticated and demanded a set of skills that required not only skilled draftsmanship but also some knowledge of scientific surveying. However, its use was revived for a second time in the late nineteenth century by the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. He regarded chorography as a specialization within geography, comprising the description through field observation of the particular traits of a given area.[15]

The term is also now widely used by historians and literary scholars to refer to the early modern genre of topographical and antiquarian literature.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster
  2. ^ Helgerson 1992, p. 132.
  3. ^ Rohl 2011, p. 1.
  4. ^ J.L. Berggren and Alexander Jones (eds), Ptolemy's Geography (Princeton, 2000), pp. 57-9.
  5. ^ See Lucia Nuti, 'Mapping Places: Chorography and Vision in the Renaissance', in Denis Cosgrove (ed.), Mappings (London, 1999), pp. 90-108.
  6. ^ British Library Harleian MS 1808, fol. 9v; reproduced in Catherine Delano-Smith and R.J.P Kain, English Maps: a History (London, 1999), p. 21.
  7. ^ John Dee, 'Mathematicall Praeface', in Euclid, The Elements of Geometrie, trans. H. Billingsley (London, 1570), sig. A4r.
  8. ^ William Harrison, "An Historicall Description of the Iland of Britaine", in Raphael Holinshed, The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles (2nd edn, London, 1587), sig. [A2]v.[1]
  9. ^ Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (London, 1652), p. 27.
  10. ^ [G.R. Kinloch (ed.)], The Diary of Mr James Melvill, 1556–1601, Bannatyne Club (Edinburgh, 1829), pp. 38-9.
  11. ^ William Camden, Britain, trans Philemon Holland (London, 1610), sig. [*5]v.
  12. ^ Robert Plot, The Natural History of Oxford-shire (Oxford, 1677), p. 299.
  13. ^ Christopher Packe, A New Philosophico-Chorographical Chart of East-Kent ([Canterbury], 1743).
  14. ^ Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London 1755), s.v. 'chorography'; cf. [2].
  15. ^ GEO 466/566: The Profession of Geography.
  16. ^ Particularly influential in reviving the term has been Helgerson 1992, esp. pp. 105-47.


  • Brayshay (ed.), Mark (1996). Topographical Writers in South-West England. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.  
  • Broadway, Jan (2006). "No Historie So Meete": gentry culture and the development of local history in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.  
  • Currie (ed.), C.R.J.; Lewis (ed.), C.P. (1994). English County Histories: a guide. Stroud: Alan Sutton.  
  • Helgerson, Richard (1992). Forms of Nationhood: the Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago: Chicago University Press.  
  • Mendyk, S.A.E. (1989). "Speculum Britanniae": regional study, antiquarianism and science in Britain to 1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  
  • Rohl, Darrell J. (2011). "The Chorographic Tradition and Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Scottish Antiquaries". Journal of Art Historiography 5.  Open access journal
  • Michael Shanks and Christopher Witmore (2010) Echoes across the Past: Chorography and Topography in Antiquarian Engagements with Place. Performance Research 15.4: 97–106.
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