Modelling historical spatial data

Wieslawa Duży (Polish Academy of Sciences) on her research project and developing historical geoinformation

The spatial history of Poland is as fascinating to discover as difficult to explain and communicate. Territorial and state-like organisation started in Polish territory around the 10th century. From the second half of the 16th century, Poland (named Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów, which is usually translated as Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, and means directly “Commonwealth of Both Nations”, however “nation” does not have modern meaning here) was a huge state, consisted of two enormous state-level political and administrative bodies: the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the so-called Polish Crown. It may resemble to the reader the vastness of the Chinese Empire, however, the comparison is not legitimate as my main focus here is not the vastness of territory but its divisions and organisation.

Territory, cartography, comparability of historical administrative divisions in Poland

Therefore, let me mention that in an early modern era and until the end of the 18th century there was not one coherent legal system on a state level of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. The multitude of legal orders existed in fact on every possible level of administration and local power. Private towns were organised according to their particular legal acts; royal ownership might face different administrative regulations than estates owned by nobility or Roman-catholic clergy. This kaleidoscope of options covered not only administrative regulations but also political power. There were regions with various statuses: independent cities with their representation in the parliament, regions ruled independently by catholic bishops, being simultaneously senators in the higher chamber of the parliament. Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian brought indeed significant alterations.

The result was an introduction into Polish territory of three new political bodies and their administrative systems. The 19th century was a period in history without a Polish state, however the situation was not stable over the whole century and changes cover various parts of a former state. Not until 1918 could any Polish political power acted nor organise freely, without a control from one of three former neighbours of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania.

Even still in the early 20’s of the 20th century the fate of not every piece of land had been decided. There are two consequences of this for my considerations: 1) changing administrative units and legal orders had to be conveyed somehow among each other to provide an existence and maintenance of some legal power over time, 2) working on spatial history of Polish territories demands at least some level of curated harmonisation of changing administrative divisions to provide a long timeframe for analysis. In my approach administrative units are always connected to the physical area under governance and administration of a particular office. I also understand political power as a power of governance and management over a particular territory. Therefore, I am not discussing the very interesting topic of how dividing territory influenced human everyday life.

Understanding without explanation?

My attempts at modelling include various theoretical approaches. These include hermeneutic approaches, assemblage theory, grounded theory, as well as boundary object concepts. Investigating the latter brought me to my interest in the “Digitale Kartenwerkstatt Altes Reich” conducted by colleagues from a consortium of institutes and universities from Germany, Netherlands, and France.

The boundary object may be an entity which can be used by various parties, allowing them to understand successfully despite various meanings given to discussed issues. This feature makes it useful in modelling objects which are not easy or impossible to define, depict, and explain strictly and sharply due to various reasons, including lack of historical sources. Boundary objects come from information science. This is a concept designed or invented to enhance the communication process and explain how procedure, standards, or technologies work (or fail to work) by including perspectives of all actors engaged in the process. It was, therefore, a sort of answer to the technocratic approach of “as long as you act according to specific standards, the success is expected”.

Overlapping political and administrative systems in Warmia (Ermland) from Mediaeval Times till the late 18th century. Source & Copyright: W. Duży.

I am working on several case studies, allowing me to discuss various scenarios of managing the territory. Among others, there is a territory of Warmia (Ger. Ermland) as an example of the power of continuity over change, as the hierarchy of power and administrative divisions was as complex as stable there (Szorc 1990). Second case study in the area of Torun over centuries as the example of the power of urban domination (Duży 2018). Third case study is the area of Bielsko and Biała, discussed as an example of the power of merging. These two towns existed as separate entities for almost their whole history, however, many activities were undertaken in the area despite the border in between (Kisiel 2018). Fourth case study is Spisz (Ger. Zips) as an example of the power of inertia in administrative and political decision making, resulting in an ambiguity of land ownership lasting for several centuries (Historia Scepussi 2010).

Scheme of possible relation among various levels of administrative units and political powers. Source & Copyright: W. Duży.

These case studies are chosen intentionally to present the various visions, different understanding, and a process of negotiating a border by various actors – in this respect the boundary object approach helps develop understanding and – hopefully – explanation to reduce the ambiguity of a border in history, helps to visualise administrative divisions from the past, and to harmonise them with modern spatial datasets. Therefore, the expected objectives of my research may be relevant not only to Central Europe, as we know examples from other parts of the world worth to discuss and consider with a similar approach (Sahlins 1989).

Harmonisation and modelling historic administrative units and political bodies

I am interested in developing research on modelling borders and administrative divisions changing over time. This scope of my research is a consequence of two projects I participated in: “Historical Atlas of Poland in the 2nd Half of the 16th Century” focusing on reconstructing settlement network, and “Ontological foundations for building historical geoinformation systems” focusing on building formal domain ontology of settlements types and administrative units. I also elaborate my methodological considerations from the project “People, Places, and Events. Innovative Spatial Humanities Research to support Interpretation and Explanation”.

I try to situate my considerations within spatial history. This is why I refer to the broad range of research topics represented i.e. by Humphrey Southall, Anne K. Knowles, Ian Gregory, Michael Heffernan, Eva Semotanova. This approach is the most relevant for my considerations, as I am interested in modelling historical spatial data regarding administrative units and chances of their harmonisation with modern datasets.[i] As a historical spatial data I understand anything given, extracted, and acquired from historical sources, either written or illustrative, including cartographic sources, and allowing researchers to investigate changes in settlement network and administrative divisions in the past.


Wieslawa Duży (Polish Academy of Sciences) recieved the Leibniz-Fellowship “Value of the Past” in 2023 to visit the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG) in Mainz. She is part of the first ever editing project of the map used here as header that will be published by the end of 2024. For the work in progress see: https://atlas.ihpan.edu.pl/chrzanows


[i] It needs to be mentioned here that there is advanced research in this field conducted within the DARIAH.Lab project: https://wikihum.lab.dariah.pl/index.php?title=Main_Page_En.


Title picture: First page of the Karta dawnéj Polski z przyległémi okolicami krajów sąsiednich (“Map of former Poland with neighboring countries”) by Wojciech Chrzanowski et. al., 1859, full view: https://polona.pl/preview/8864800d-b602-44b8-a127-71f81f96c4b3.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Leibniz Fellows (2024, 12. März). Modelling historical spatial data. Value of the Past. Abgerufen am 13. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11oe3

Autor: Leibniz Fellows

Der Leibniz-Forschungsverbund Wert der Vergangenheit vergibt jährlich Stipendien für herausragende internationale Forscher:innen und Early Career Researcher. // The Leibniz Research Association Value of the Past annually awards scholarships to outstanding international researchers and early career researchers.

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