Maps and views blog

12 February 2021

Münster’s Cosmographia

While dealing with an enquiry I came across this beautifully coloured copy of Münster’s Cosmographia. This monumental publication is one of the most important works of the Reformation era and considered one of the earliest modern descriptions of the world. The first edition was published in Basel in 1544 containing twenty four double-page maps with numerous woodcut views and illustrations. The work proved to be so popular that it was followed by a further 35 complete editions and reprints in five different languages. 

1297.m.6.World1

General Tafel Begreifend der Gantzen Undern Weldt Beschreibun from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6. 

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a true versatile scholar described as a cosmographer, geographer, linguist, historian, Hebrew scholar, theologian, mathematician, you name it! His Cosmographia is a compendium of historical and geographical knowledge compiled from information gathered as part of Münster’s personal research, international collaborations and editions of the classical authors. The work was based on up-to-date knowledge and provided the geographical and historical overview of the world, natural history, topographical features, boundaries and administrative division of the described lands, their inhabitants, flora and fauna. Divided into six books it contains a series of maps which advanced the cartographical knowledge of the time. 

1297.m.6.Asia

Neuw India, mit vilen anstossenden laendern, besunder Scythia, Parchia, Arabia, Persia etc. from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6. 

Münster not only was the first to introduce separate maps of four known continents, he also produced regional maps many of which were the first printed depictions of a given region. His vision and surprisingly modern thinking embraced many concepts familiar to an average 21st century person. He recognised that in order for his ambitious project to be successful it required reliable information which he as much as he wanted to was unable to collate all by himself. He realised that collaboration is the key and in his correspondence invited fellow scholars to send in information about their lands. His appeal had an enthusiastic response and Münster received contributions from all over Europe, in fact Cosmographia is a product of what we would nowadays consider a crowdsourcing project. 

1297.m.6.Silesia

Schlesia nach aller gelegenheit in Wässern Stetten Bergen und anstossende Lenderen. Map of Silesia published in Cosmographia also included in later editions of Münster's Geographiae Claudii Ptolemæi... BL 1297.m.6.

Not only a great scholar Münster was also a good businessmen – for example instead of commissioning new woodblocks he re-used some of the blocks (a number of which were created by artist such as Hans Holbein the Younger) from his earlier published works including his edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (first issued in 1540). He then borrowed some of the woodblocks cut for Cosmographia and used them in his later editions of Geographia (for example the map of Silesia). Now, that’s what I call recycling!
He also recognised the potential of publishing in common languages including the rare Czech edition of Cosmographia issued in 1554 thus making knowledge more accessible by reaching wider audiences. 

1297.m.6.views

Depiction of German cities from Cosmographia by S. Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6.

This incredibly influential work had a huge impact on the contemporary scholars, it was used as a geographical source by famous cartographers like Mercator or Ortelius and inspired publications such as Civitates Orbis Terrarum the popular city atlas published by Braun and Hogenberg a few decades later. 

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