It was “The Age of Discovery”. During the 16th century European explorers set sail on many long and arduous journeys searching for new trade routes and lands to explore and exploit. Vasco da Gama sailed to India around the Cape of Good Hope, Ferdinand Magellan to the Pacific via Cape Horn and John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci followed Christopher Columbus to the Americas.
These intrepid sailors were celebrated throughout Europe and their voyages became the stuff of legend. Monarchs vied with each other to establish distant colonies, merchants to establish lucrative trade routes and ordinary folk were captivated by the Traveller’s Tales of far-off lands, strange people and bizarre monsters.
By the 16th century, printing presses were set up in many European cities, books were appearing in ever greater numbers and humanism and scientific enquiry were replacing old ideas of religious conformity. Now Europeans could read about foreign places and strange peoples in books called cosmographiae, literally descriptions of the whole world.
One of the most popular was that of Sebastian Münster, first published in 1544 in German. It was later produced in Latin, French, Italian, English and Czech, going through about 40 editions in 80 years. Münster’s Cosmographia attempted nothing less than a geography of the whole known world and a history of all its peoples. Worcester Cathedral Library has a Latin edition of Münster’s Cosmographia published in 1554.
Sebastian Münster was born in 1488 near Mainz. He studied locally, then in Heidelberg where he was clearly an able scholar and like many studious boys in the Middle Ages, he joined a religious order. At a Franciscan Monastery he studied languages, astronomy, geography, mathematics and theology. He mastered Hebrew and Greek and published a translation of the Psalms into Hebrew as well as texts, dictionaries and grammars. He was the first German to produce an edition of the Hebrew Bible.
However, the sixteenth century in Germany was a period of religious turbulence. Outraged by corruption and the sale of Indulgences, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five propositions to the church door in Wittenberg, a provocative step which precipitated the turmoil of the Reformation which swept through the whole of Europe. Sebastian Münster, an associate and friend of Martin Luther, left his monastery for the Lutheran Church. On the strength of his scholarship, he was elected to the chair of Hebrew in the University of Basel and he moved there in 1529. He married Anna Selber with whom he had a daughter, Aretia. Although he travelled extensively throughout Germany and Switzerland, Münster never went further afield. Cosmographia is considered to be his principal work, although a list of his other books is both impressive and humbling. He died of plague in 1552 and was interred by “a great procession of learned men” from Basel University and the town council.
Münster spent 18 years writing Cosmographia using his own experience of travelling, extensive reading and assistance from learned friends. Münster’s students at the University became a Europe-wide network of correspondents and in Basel, a town of scholars, political refugees, merchants, printers and book sellers, Münster would have found many useful contacts.
Cosmographia is divided into six books, the first of which describes astronomy, mathematics and the science of geography and map making. Crucial to the Age of Discovery, the renaissance re-discovery of mathematical map making (using latitude and longitude, measuring distance using the stars and accurately plotting the curved surface of the earth on two-dimensional paper) meant that the globe was being charted more accurately than had been possible before. Maps were produced that are recognisably modern in style, in contrast to medieval maps which helped to tell a story rather than chart an actual journey or place.
Münster’s intention was ambitious, he wrote
“The art of cosmography concerns itself not only with the countries, habitations and lives of the various peoples of the earth, but also with many other things, such as strange animals, trees, metals, and so on, things both useful and useless, to be found on land and in the sea; [also] the habits, customs, laws and governments of men, … the origins of countries, regions, cities, and towns, how nature has endowed them and what human inventiveness has produced in them, [also] what notable things have happened everywhere”.
The popularity of Cosmographia from the beginning was due in part to the many woodcut illustrations throughout the book. Some were commissioned from leading artists such as Hans Holbein, whereas others were more modest sketches done by local artists, but all enliven the text. In addition to many maps, to illustrate cities and landscapes, Münster used a sort of “birds-eye view” that is both appealing and modern.
Cosmographia books 2, 3 and 4 cover Europe, including Russia and Turkey. Münster’s descriptions of German speaking lands and Europe generally are accurate and detailed, with many sources to back up his text. The Cosmographia is a history as well as a geography, and keen to praise German speaking peoples. Münster describes how they fought the Roman Empire, were never totally conquered and preserved their attributes of bravery and steadfastness.
In each region or country, Münster gives an account of the landscape, the principal towns, the activity of the citizens and their language, politics, customs and religious beliefs. The book is peppered with blunt thumbnail sketches of national characteristics which whilst undoubtedly offensive, enliven the text. For example, he writes
“…one Swabian produces enough sexual vice for all Germany, as Franks produce enough theft and lies, Bavarians wrath, the Swiss murder and mercenary behaviour, Saxons inebriation, Frisians and Westphalians perjury and Rhinelanders gluttony”
Cosmographia book 5 is devoted to Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, China, the East Indies, Madagascar and America, and book 6 is devoted to Africa. As the lands become more distant and the sources fewer and less reliable, the narrative becomes more and more bizarre and fanciful. In India, for example, we read of people with only one eye, others with a single huge leg used as a parasol, headless folk, Siamese twins and wolf men. These bizarre creatures had been described by Pliny and Münster includes them, however sceptical he may have been.
Throughout Cosmographia, animals are described mainly in the context of their utility to people as food or beasts of burden, or as hazards, and the text is enlivened by woodcut illustrations of many creatures. As with the human inhabitants, Münster’s account of the animals found in distant lands becomes increasingly far-fetched. His African lion, although leonine, is more of a heraldic device than a living creature, the artist was clearly not drawing from life!
An illustration of “monsters” of the sea shows vaguely identifiable sea animals: great lobsters, whales and fish. While the bodies of these creatures are familiar, the artist has supplied imaginary heads. The land animals in the top panel supply man with transport and fur; those of the sea overturn his boats and devour him.
Münster also includes mythical creatures including the Basilisk, a legendary reptile that can cause death with a single glance. Readers wishing to know more might consult Wikipedia, where they will see an illustration of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s “Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo” published in 1640. They will be amused to note that the image is identical to that of Sebastian Münster, published 100 years earlier!
In Cosmographia, Münster gives the impression that he is quite content to include these fantastic and scarcely credible images of monsters, because he wants his readers to be entertained as well as informed. He wrote
“…I seek that the mind of the reader be seized by enjoyment, as if at the same time he sees before his eyes the placement of a region, a city, buildings, artifices of man, animals, trees, forms of dress, the faces of notable men”
The modern reader cannot argue with that!
McLean, Matthew (2005) “The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster” Thesis submitted for the degree of Ph.D. University of St. Andrews.
Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/library/library_exhibitions/schoolresources/exploration/Münster
by Sebastian Münster http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/Münster/Münster.html
Die Nüw Welt – Myoldmaps.com
Cosmographia (Sebastian Münster) http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Cosmographia_(Sebastian_M%C3%BCnster)
Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia (Basel, 1544)
Cosmographia (Sebastian Münster) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmographia_(Sebastian_M%C3%BCnster)
The Basilisk https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilisk