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Centuries ago, political power used to be displayed so much more colorfully than it is today.

What exactly do I mean by that?  Take a look at this map from the mid-15th century, the “Catalan-Estense” map.  This was created before the Age of Exploration began in earnest, and Europeans still did not know that the Americas existed.  They had not even rounded the continent of Africa yet.  There are a lot of blank areas on the map, but they populated some of these unknown lands with curious robed figures.  These are supposed to be kings, dressed in regal garb, ruling over their respective territories.  Even in places that Europeans had barely seen or understood, they surmised that there would be a power-wielding king in charge, and they illustrated this fact as directly as possible.

The Catalan-Estense World Map, unknown author, c. 1450-1460. (via http://svaradarajan.blogspot.com/2005/04/india-tertia-and-mapping-of-colonial.html)

Here is a closer view where we can see the ruler of India sitting in his tent:

The European section of the map, meanwhile, chooses different colorful representations of political power.  England, France, Spain, and the other kingdoms of Europe are distinguished by their shields and flags, as seen below:

The map is dominated by these kings, flags, and shields, all different manifestations of power.  Think about how different this is from a map produced today.  On a current political map of Europe, for example, each nation is clearly delineated and colored, with the capital and main cities labeled.  Paris, France, is usually indicated by a star, not a picture of Francois Hollande’s face.  Sometimes flags appear on maps too, but often not.

The point is that simply by labeling a section of the map as “France” and giving it a different color from the countries around it, we (generally) recognize that nation’s claim to power over that territory.  Now we believe, at least in democratic countries, that power should derive from the collective will of the people to be autonomous.  In the past, a king or other autocratic ruler claimed to hold power which derived from his own position of strength or as a gift from God.  People swore loyalty to their king; they were his subjects.  The power of the king was thus reinforced by putting the king’s visage, or flag, or shield, which he would carry with him as he rode into battle, on the map.  The king and the country he ruled were intertwined;  as King Louis XIV said, “I am the state.”

Today, it seems that we no longer feel this way.  The leader has become divorced from the country he or she rules.  And political power is no longer colorful and concrete.  Instead, it has become abstract, based on collective agreement in certain goals and principles.  In a map of the United States, the capital city star over Washington, D.C., represents the power held by the executive (President Obama), the legislative (both houses of Congress), and the judicial branches (the Supreme Court and all lower federal courts).  Rather than one man in royal clothes, we have an entire governmental apparatus that now includes thousands and thousands of people, all holding a degree of administrative power over the citizens of the U.S.

Of course, all of these people would not fit on the map, so we settle on an abstract manifestation of this power instead. But old maps hold a certain amount of charm by harkening back to the days when power was simple, direct, and we knew from whence it had come.

Well, we’ve definitely gone quite far down the rabbit hole this week!  Stay tuned next week when we will take a look at some maps of Panem from the Hunger Games.

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