- The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster: Describing the World in the Reformation
Sebastian Münster was one of the outstanding humanist scholars of Europe during the Reformation: multilinguist, Hebraicist, astronomer, cosmographer, geographer, cartographer, student of theology and mathematics, and an observer of places, plants, and economic activity. His inner circle included some of the best minds of the time —Konrad Pellikan, Konrad Peutinger, Heinrich Glareanus, for example —while his network of correspondents covered much of western Europe. He straddled the Roman Catholic world (he was a Franciscan in Heidelberg) and the Protestant (in 1529 he was appointed Professor of Hebrew at the University of Basel, one of the centers of the Reformation, where he remained, married, until his death from the plague in 1552), and he bridged Christianity and Judaism, providing the former with Hebrew dictionaries and grammars and the latter with a translation into Hebrew of the New Testament in the hope of winning the Jews for Christianity. His first significant publication was an illustrated practical guide to the use of astronomy in the calculation of the calendar. His greatest geographical work, and the one most widely known today, ran to thirty-five editions in five languages in less than a century. This was the Cosmographia Universalis, vetus et novus, complectens Claidii Ptolomaei Alexandrini erranationes libros VIII, first published in Basel in 1540.
As the main title of Matthew McLean's book indicates, his concern is with Münster as the author of the Cosmographia. The starting point is a brief biography that also covers Münster's early scholarly achievements, notably his Hebrew studies and translations. Chapter 2 is headed "Sources, Development, and the Extent of [the Cosmographia's] Ambitions." The remaining three chapters deal with the genesis of the Cosmographia, a discussion of its contents, and its place in Reformation Europe. Notes and references are prominently, and most conveniently, given in summary form at the foot of each page, and in full in the bibliography. [End Page 870]
As McLean explains, Münster was heir to two classical traditions, the textual and descriptive (Strabo's) and the more pragmatic approach of Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, to which Münster's title alludes. Ptolemy, author of the Almagest, is relevant here for his Geography, a book that includes instructions on how to represent a three-dimensional world on a flat surface: a map. While contemporaries hesitated between the two traditions, Münster drew on both and indeed sought to connect them, harnessing geography and history to achieve a remarkable, comprehensive, integrated, and fully illustrated description of the physical and human aspects of the world, the Cosmographia.
McLean's book is uneven. Had he adhered to his own brief and not attempted, in his misdirected second chapter, a largely irrelevant and seriously outdated potted history of maps from classical times to the end of the Middle Ages, he would have been on surer ground. He has amassed a fair amount on the humanist aspects, albeit relying rather too heavily on a narrow range of secondary texts (with the 1550 edition of the Cosmographia), which makes interesting, if somewhat unfocused, reading. Confidence in the work as a whole is badly shaken, however, by two main weaknesses: the superficiality of that cartographical narrative, and the extraordinarily cavalier treatment of references.
For the first, McLean seems unaware of the dangers of relying, uncritically, on books from a different epistemological age —for example, C. R. Beazely (1908), L. Bagrow (1964), and N. Thrower (1972) —instead of checking with recent specialist (periodical) literature that, in the case of the history of cartography especially, has been significantly revisionist since the 1980s. For the second, he has been ill-served by copyeditors, who cannot have been anywhere near the footnotes, and by, presumably, his former academic mentors, who failed to instill into a doctoral student the importance of consistent and correct referencing. Within a couple of pages (64 to 82) we are...