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Reviewed by:
  • Bernhard Varenius (1622-1650)
  • John M. Headley
Margret Schuchard , ed. Bernhard Varenius (1622-1650). Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 159. Leiden: Brill, 2007. xiv + 346 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. map. bibl. $129. ISBN: 978-90-04-16363-8.

The North German Bernhard Varenius, great-grandson of David Chrytaeus and student of Joachim Jungius, comes to us bearing the problem of geography's foundation and recognition as a distinct discipline. The present volume is largely [End Page 1349] the product of a symposium held at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, enlarged and edited with the commendable intent of providing an expanded context for the subject. In the brief period of Varenius's residence in Amsterdam, 1646 to 1650, the Dutch achieved formal political independence, effectively exercised a global commercial outreach, and advanced a free intellectual openness that manifested itself in a highly developed printing industry and the presence of the French philosopher René Descartes. All this would form a part of Varenius's inspiration and experience when he came to Amsterdam from Hamburg via Leiden.

In the book's effort to provide the reader with a broad context, Rienk Vermij's contribution, "Varenius and the World of Learning in the Dutch Republic," should be noted. The volume itself is divided into three parts and includes fourteen contributions, seven in German, seven in English, with summaries in the alternative language plus helpful tables and illustrations, as well as an appendix consisting of a German translation of the opening sections from the first edition of the Geographia generalis. Part 1 addresses the biography, background, and context of Varenius's career. Part 2 focuses on his first publication, the Descriptio regni Japoniae (1649), which constituted the belated thirty-fourth and last volume of the Elzevier series, each dedicated to the subject of an individual republic. Varenius had been preceded in his study of Japan by Franç ois Caron's treatment (1645), apparently the first to place that civilization on the European mental horizon. Varenius drew upon Caron in places but often departed freely from his predecessor, such as when he chose to omit a discussion of religion to consider Japanese food and clothing. Educated in mathematics as well as medicine, Varenius aspired at this time to an opening in the field of mathematics at the prestigious Athenaeum of Amsterdam, which, however, he never obtained. His work on Japan would be quickly forgotten, not to be recovered until the mid-1970s.

Part 3 is devoted to the Geographia generalis. In it Varenius moves from the geographia specialis of the study of Japan to geographia generalis, which seeks an effective universal consideration of the subject by means of mathematics. In defining geography as a scientia Mathematica mixta, thereby escaping pure mathematics, Varenius managed to serve notice on a dilemma that would continue to beset the discipline of geography. Although references to the ancients predominate over those to recent authors, Varenius appears as a Copernican, suitably distanced from Aristotle. Had Varenius lived beyond the year of its publication, he would have been able to consolidate his Cartesian propensities. Nevertheless he provides an essentially physical description of the earth sufficient for Isaac Newton, as the second Lucasian professor at Cambridge, to make use of it in his own teaching through the 1664 Latin edition he inherited from his predecessor, Isaac Barrow; Newton then effected a myriad of tiny refinements, updates, and corrections, evident in a 1672 Latin edition, Newton's first publication, to be used by his students and the emerging body of Newtonians. In Varenius's Geographia generalis, Newton apparently saw the opportunity to establish a theoretical foundation for geography based on mathematics. From there only a minimum of effort [End Page 1350] on his part would be required to nudge geography from an incipient Cartesianism into his own camp. Adjusted, supplemented, and republished by Newton in 1681, Varenius's Geographia generalis would enjoy two English translations, of which the second and later editions would help to establish the currency of the work. At the beginning of the next century, under the coercive ambitions of the illustrious Richard Bentley, the rendering of the work into a good English translation and its general...


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Archived 2009
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