Cadastral Maps Essay

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Cadastral maps are maps of properties. They identify plot boundaries, and so generally are very large-scale (covering a relatively small area in great detail), and identify the owner(s) and/or user(s) of each property, usually by linking plots on a map to a written register that records ownership and use, and often other details such as the area of the plot. Before maps were used for these purposes, written registers recorded each plot’s owner(s) and/ or user(s), and a description of plot location and boundaries. The change from written to mapped cadasters started about 1570 and continued primarily through 1900, in tandem with a move to capitalist property relations and market-orientated agriculture. England was an early leader, probably because capitalist economic relations emerged so early there. Sometimes the written textual descriptions remained the authoritative legal documents proving ownership, the maps being merely descriptive accompaniments. Cadastral maps, called estate maps, record the property owned in one area by one person, family, or body such as a college. Such maps usually remained in manuscript, being of interest to only a few people who commissioned the maps to help them manage their estates.

Publicly commissioned cadastral maps record the plots of all the property owners and/or users in one administrative unit, and may be commissioned by government at all levels. Publicly commissioned cadastral mapping, which was practiced by the Romans at least as early as the second century B.C.E., began again in the early 17th century in the Netherlands and Sweden and continues today. The public authority might order such mapping for several reasons: to impose taxation, to reallocate land, as an inventory of national resources, to distribute plots on land to be settled, or as a public legal record to aid property transactions. Such projects almost invariably aroused opposition, either for the general reason that they absorbed time, personnel, and money that others thought might be better spent elsewhere, or from those who would suffer from the particular measure being effected by the maps. Nobles resented taxation surveys, which threatened their traditional immunity from taxation; peasants resented land redistribution schemes, which threatened their precarious livelihoods; and local people resented imperial surveys, which would allow central authorities more control over their lives. Publicly commissioned cadastral mapping did not always represent a threat: some of the earliest occurred in polder areas of the Netherlands, where people knew they must work together to raise money for dikes to keep their lands dry.

Because each publicly commissioned cadastral map was used by relatively few people, they generally remained in manuscript and in government archives. A few, such as those advertising plots for sale in newly laid out towns, were printed. Between the private estate maps and the publicly commissioned cadastral maps lie maps of crown estates (land over which the crown, or later in some countries the state, has rights, but which may include plots of land held by others). Where the estate in question was small and the purpose of the map was land management, the maps often resemble estate maps. There are many beautiful examples of such maps, made for display by the prince and perhaps showing his hunting grounds. Where such estates covered huge tracts of land or had many tenants, they resemble government cadastral maps and could have a connected purpose, because the more money raised by the crown through effective administration of crown estates, the less pressure for taxation to fund government. Government cadastral maps gradually changed from being used to effect one particular measure to being a body of information useful for a variety of government needs. Cadastral maps today are mostly publicly commissioned, and many use geographical information systems accurately and comprehensively to record information for many purposes.


  1. Roger P. Kain and Elizabeth Baigent, The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State: A History of Property Mapping (University of Chicago Press, 1992);
  2. David Buisseret, , Rural Images: Maps in the Old and New Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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