- The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster: Describing the World in the Reformation
Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia will be well known to those who have substantial collections of early modern titles in their care. It attempted to describe the world, discussing its history, geography, ethnography, zoology, and biology region by region. Münster's aim was to write in a way that combined the two traditions of cosmographical description: the descriptive, historical, and anthropocentric approach with that of empirical investigation, expressed through mathematics and geography. First published in 1544, thirty-five editions in five languages followed in the next eighty-five years.
Matthew McLean has written a thorough and scholarly study of Münster and his times: indeed, the first two of the five chapters look at the background to the Cosmographia, before discussing the work itself in the second portion of the book. The first chapter gives biographical details about Münster, his education and early influences upon his thought. It describes his earlier publications, and his movements between Heidelberg and Basel until he finally settled in the latter city in 1529. McLean also discusses the wide network of contacts that Münster built up and maintained. The following chapter focuses upon sixteenth-century cosmography and shows how Münster's work was part of a general enthusiasm at the time for describing the world and representing it across time. McLean has a useful section that discusses other chorographers and cosmographers, such as Conrad Celtis and Peter Apian. He compares cosmographies with representations of creation in the medieval church, and he demonstrates how sixteenth-century cosmographers have to be looked at in the context both of what preceded them and of contemporary exploration and building up of empires.
McLean then turns in his third chapter to examining how Münster set about compiling Cosmographia, using an unprecedented network of regional collaborators who were provided with templates for their contributions. He argues that the work started with a meeting between Münster and Beatus Rhenanus in Basel in 1524, when they discussed a geographical project based on the Rhine. It grew from there, first to Germany and then to the entire world. By 1543, his ambitions had expanded beyond the boundaries of Germany and the disciplines of geography, topographical description, and history; and in 1550 Münster stated his wish to include the best available maps and other high-quality illustrations. McLean describes how the Cosmographia evolved from its first edition in 1544 to the definitive one of 1550, and then to many posthumous ones. These later editions lost the coherence of that of 1550, so that by 1628 the work could no longer be read in a narrative fashion. The work raised the standard for the quality of illustrations at the time, and its influence can be clearly seen in the publications by Ortelius and Mercator.
The fourth chapter describes the organization, topics, and content of the Cosmographia in some detail, and shows the ways in which Münster contributed to the advancement of knowledge and scholarly methods. McLean argues that although the organization of information might now seem cumbersome, the principles by which the work was ordered would then have been familiar and easily accessible. Münster moves from place to place much as a traveller would, geographically rather than alphabetically, region by region. During his lifetime, the narrative was [End Page 215] all-important, and anecdotes and illustrations were used to break up the text and to enliven rather dry passages; later editors greatly improved the quality of the index. Münster's use of maps is notable; many were illustrated aspects of human and economic geography. From geography, McLean turns to history, ethnography, zoology, botany, and 'prodigies of nature', and then he briefly looks at what was, perhaps surprisingly, left out.
McLean's final chapter discusses how the Cosmographia reflected the convictions of Münster, and tries to work out why the book was so successful. He...