The Eyes of History

Chronology and geography have been called the eyes of history for a significantly long amount of time. Sometimes history is considered to only have one eye and typically that one eye is either chronology or geography. Two other “eyes” of history that have been listed are time and space which are basically just chronology (time) and geography (space). Additionally, “Truth” has been called the eye of history.

In this instance, the word “eye” is synonymous with “foundation”. Therefore, when saying “chronology and geography are the eyes of history”, what is really being said is that “chronology and geography are the foundations of history”. As far as I’m aware, only one person has been called both the Father of Chronology and the Father of Geography and that’s Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-194 BC).

I compiled 26 quotes from 23 works that collectively identified 6 different eyes of history. Out of those quotes, 9 of them designated two eyes of history that exist simultaneously and 17 of them pinpointed a singular eye of history.

Geography: 1 (1595), 13 (2003), 14 (2003), 16 (2012), 17 (2012), 19 (2015), 20 (2015), 21 (2015)
Truth: 2 (1736), 3 (1756)
4 (1787), 5 (1812), 8 (1897), 7 (1896), 5 (1906), 23 (2016)
6 (1817)
Chronology & Geography: 9 (1904), 10 (1904), 11 (1916), 12 (2003), 15 (2011), 18 (2014), 22 (2015)
Time & Geography:
24 (2017)
Time & Space:
25 (2017)

10 – The Benedictines
12 – Jean Bodin & Other Renaissance Thinkers
18 – Since Antiquity


A: Supposedly Ortelius called geography the eye of history in 1588. Fadul provided a quote which I think is in Spanish. Where exactly was Fadul’s quote pulled from? “La geografía es el ojo de la historia”.[13, p.44] I found the cited work online but I’m not sure where the quote is located.[28]

1: “Historiae oculus Geographia.” (Geography is the eye of History.)
– Abraham Ortelius (1595)[27]

2: “My sole aim was truth, which is the eye of history…”
– Either Mr. Pierre Bayle or Mr. Des Maizeaux (1736).[23, p.338] I’m not sure exactly who wrote this line but I do think it was one of the two people I named. If you’re able to clarify, please do.

3: “Truth is the Eye of History.”
– Polybius according to the translation of Mr. Hampton (1756).[18, p.16] I checked three more recent translations and this line is not included.[19], [20], [21]

4: “Chronology, you know, is the eye of history; and every man’s life is of importance to himself.”
– Dr. Samuel Johnson in “The Works of Samuel Johnson: Volume 4” (1787)[22, p.242]

5: “Chronology is the eye of history.”
– Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) according to George Conklin in 1906.[3, p.23] This quote is also attributed to Dr. Johnson in Buckingham’s 1812 “The Polyanthos: Volume 1”.[24, p.333]

6: “Whilst the page of the historian records the actions of the higher classes of mankind in past ages, that of the antiquary displays the arts, customs, and pursuits of our ancestors in every sphere and station of life. Hence antiquity has been denominated the eye of history; and hence it becomes, not merely an useful, but almost essential branch of polite and dignified education.”
– John Britton (1817)[26, p.iii]

7: “Chronology is the eye of history.”
– Carlo Cattaneo (1801-1869)[5], [6]

8: “It is with no little justice, then, that chronology has been styled the eye, and even the soul, of history; or that without it the subjects of this art could be considered no other than a dark chaos, a wreck of fragments void of order and every other indication of design.”
– James Cecil MacDonald (1897)[17, p.3]

9: “The saying that Geography and Chronology are the two “Eyes” of History has become so hackneyed an expression that we are apt to forget the rational “Mind” of the Observer behind them.”
– Edward A. Petherick (1904)[7, p.xxxi]

10: “The Benedictines had a saying, that chronology and geography are “The two eyes of History. They are aware also that any exact chronology must depend upon astronomy.”
– Edwin Johnson (1904)[7, p.104]

11: “Chronology and Geography have been called the two eyes of History, without the use of which all is confusion and uncertainty.”
The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1916[2, p.240]

12: “Jean Bodin, a French jurist who brought out in 1566 a pioneering manual on the method for studying history critically, was only one of many Renaissance thinkers who compared chronology to geography. He treated them as twin disciplines: “the two eyes of history,” as he and many others put it.”
– Anthony Grafton (2003)[1, p.79]

13: “…Ortelius used the motto historiae oculus geographia, “geography (is) the eye of history,” meaning that geographical material allowed history to be visualized.”
– Walter Goffart (2003)[25, p.13]

14: “Geography in early modern Europe was more than just ‘the eye of history’, as Ortelius phrased it.”
– Zur Shalev (2003)[9, p.73]

15: “Baudouin’s recommendations were especially embraced in the fields of geography and chronology. These disciplines – the proverbial two “eyes” of history – flourished in the late sixteenth century as scholars searched for means to understand the past without relying on the prejudiced narratives of historians.”
– Nicholas Popper (2011)[14, pp.392-393]

16: “Abraham Ortelius famously was to refer to geography as the eye of history…”
– William Stenhouse (2012)[10, p.253]

17: “Conceiving of geography as ‘the eye of history’ as Ortelius wrote in the Parergon’s title page, and as necessary for the true understanding of history the cartographer makes claims regarding the visual character and scientific accuracy of maps as essential for the proper understanding of past events.”
– Monica Matei-Chesnoiu (2012)[11]

18: “Ever since antiquity, geography and chronology had been regarded as the two eyes of history, and both were now undergoing radical reassessments in the light of the recent voyages of discovery.”
– Jerry Brotton (2014)[16, p.242]

19: “In the preface to his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Phillip II’s official cartographer Abraham Ortelius (d. 1598) repeated the standard saying, “geography is the eye of history.””
– Valeria A. Escauriaza López Fadul (2015)[13, p.44]

20: “Like Páez de Castro, Montano also believed that geography was the eye of history.”
– Valeria A. Escauriaza López Fadul (2015)[13, p.244]

21: “In the nineteenth century, an era in which geography was held to be the “eye of history,” books ranging from Bibles to exploration narratives included prominent fold-out maps.”
– Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (2015)[8]

22: “The traditional saying that geography and chronology are the eyes of history can be interpreted in two ways: they are (parts of) the nature of history, or they are tools that can be used to make history apprehensible.”
– Anne Eriksen (2015)[15, p.19]

23: “…as all historians know: “chronology is the eye of history”.”
– Gerard Gertoux (2016)[4, p.85]

24: “One eye of history is time; the other geography.”
– Anne Eriksen (2017)[12, p.183]

25: “As the two eyes of history, time and space were necessary tools for a proper understanding of it, but they were not themselves integral parts of history.”
– Anne Eriksen (2017)[12, p.184]

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[1] – Grafton, Anthony. “Dating History: The Renaissance & the Reformation of Chronology.” Daedalus, vol. 132, no. 2, 2003, pp. 74–85. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[2] – “Part I: The Auxiliary Sciences. II. Chronology.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1916, pp. 240–243. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Oct. 2020.

[3] – Conklin, George W. “Conklin’s who Said That?: Being the Sources of Famous Sayings by Prof. Geo. W. Conklin …” (1906). Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.

[4] – Gerard Gertoux. “80 Old Testament Characters of World History: Chronological, Historical and Archaeological Evidence”. 2016. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[5] – Guidi, Alessandro. “Social dimensions of time: A comparison between chronologies adopted in the literature, in the Museums and in the handbooks of History.” Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.

[6] – Mario, Jessie White. “ITALY, ROME, AND THE FRANCOPRUSSIAN WAR.” (1896). Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.

[7] – Johnson, Edwin. “The Rise of English Culture.” Accessed 30 Sept. 2020.

[8] – Accessed 3 Oct. 2020.

[9] – Shalev, Zur. “Sacred Geography, Antiquarianism and Visual Erudition: Benito Arias Montano and the Maps in the Antwerp Polyglot Bible.” Imago Mundi, vol. 55, 2003, pp. 56–80. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[10] – Stenhouse, William. “Panvinio and renditions of history and antiquity in the late renaissance”, 2012. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[11] –  Matei-Chesnoiu, Monica. “Geography as the Eye of History.” 2012. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[12] – Eriksen, Anne. “Time and Exemplarity.” 2017. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[13] – Valeria A. Escauriaza López Fadul. “LANGUAGES, KNOWLEDGE, AND EMPIRE IN THE EARLY MODERN IBERIAN WORLD (1492-1650)” (2015). Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[14] – Popper, Nicholas. “An Ocean of Lies: The Problem of Historical Evidence in the Sixteenth Century.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 74, no. 3, 2011, pp. 375–400. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[15] – Anne Ericksen. “How to Study History: Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy and the Heritage of ars historica“. 2015. file:///C:/Users/carle/Downloads/How_to_Study_History_Nicolas_Lenglet_Dufresnoy_and.pdf. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[16] – Jerry Brotton. “A History of the World in Twelve Maps.” 2014. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

[17] – James Cecil Macdonald. “Chronologies and Calendars” (London, 1897). Accessed Jan. 2021.

[18] – “The General History of Polybius. In Five Books. Translated from the Greek by Mr. Hampton” (1756). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[19] –*.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[20] – Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[21] – Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[22] – “The Works of Samuel Johnson: Volume 4” (1787). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[23] – “The Dictionary Historical and Critical of Mr. Peter Bayle: Volume 3” (1736). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[24] – J. T. Buckingham. “The Polyanthos: Volume 1” (1812). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[25] – Walter Goffart. “Historical Atlases: The First Three Hundred Years, 1570-1870” (2003). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[26] – John Britton. “The History and Antiquities of the See and Cathedral Church of Winchester” (1817). Accessed 1 Feb. 2021.

[27] – Abraham Ortelius. “Parergon, sive Veteris Geographiae aliquot Tabulae.” (1595). Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

[28] – Abraham Ortelius. “Theatro de la tierra vniversal” (1588). Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

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