Lines of Latitude: Sebastian Münster and his Cosmographia (1544)

Sebastian Münster, Hebrew scholar and theologian, was a curious man, a seeker and a risk taker. First a professor of Old Testament Studies, Münster reinvented himself. In 1536, he accepted a teaching position in mathematics at the University of Basel, in Switzerland.

Sebastian Munster
Portrait of Sebastian Münster by Christoph Amberger, ca. 1552

And Münster developed a sideline that came to define how we remember him today–he worked as a cartographer and cosmographer. Already in 1536, he released a Mappa Europae, later followed by a Latin edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. But Sebastian Münster’s legacy is wrapped up in his Cosmographia of 1544, a book that managed the rare feat of being both scientific and popular. It was a runaway bestseller which described and explained the cosmos. In fact, it revolutionized how 16th century readers thought about the physical world.

From 1544 to 1628 the work passed through 40 editions in German, Latin, Czech, Italian, French and English and somehow persuaded educated Europeans to get interested in geography. Münster was assisted by more than one hundred and twenty collaborators. Famous woodcut artists contributed illustrations and that surely must have helped. The richly illustrated Latin version published in 1550 is the most prized edition today, in part because of its amazing city views.

But there was something else in the Cosmographia that rightfully fascinated readers: Four maps which struck a mortal blow at the medieval world view that ordered the physical world based on religious ideas. For centuries, medieval mappae mundi [= world maps] had depicted the known world, Asia, Africa and Europe, arranged in a Jerusalem-centered T-O design. Separate maps of individual continents were extremely rare in the European Middle Ages.

Münster made a radical choice. He insisted that this divinely ordered world, God’s creation, could be disassembled and depicted in parts, on different maps, which together would make up the known world. For his Cosmographia Sebastian Münster created four separate maps to depict the four known continents– the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. That includes his now famous depiction of the Western Hemisphere.

Nova Insulae
Novae Insulae Nova Tabula (= New Map of the New World) by Sebastian Münster, 1544

Lines of Latitude: Telling the Story of Maps

Why do maps speak to us?

Maps have explanatory power. They are visualization tools which help us to comprehend the social and physical world around us. They orient us. They impose order on chaos. But maps are also based on subjective choices made by cartographers who employ visualization techniques to reduce complexity. Cartographers create meaning by simplifying the social and physical world.

Cartography is a varied visual tradition which reaches back thousands of years. It emerged in different places and created the diverse mappy universe which we will explore through this map blog. Maps offer insights, a greater understanding of the world around us – and also of the past. And they are a window into the incredible biological and cultural diversity on this planet we call home.

The University of California Library at Berkeley just started the soft launch of our German World War II Captured Maps spatial humanities project which involves digitizing rich collections with about 20,000 maps, chiefly issued by German mapping agencies between the 1880s and 1945. That project will last into 2022 and our initial posts will focus on telling stories related to this important project.

But the Earth Sciences and Map Library at UC Berkeley is also located in a particular place, the East Bay, at the edge of the vast San Francisco Estuary, in northern California. Our small Bay Area world is connected to the larger world through Oakland’s vast commercial port. Transportation networks sustain our lives at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Commuter ferries whiz across San Francisco Bay. We are close to some incredible physical spaces, the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, several ranges of the Coastal Mountains.

The Ohlone are the predominant Indigenous group of the Bay Area. Spanish colonizers and the European diseases they brought to northern California undermined Ohlone existence and culture. In the wake of the Gold Rush the California state government sanctioned the murder of Indigenous populations by local militia. By the 1880s, the Bay Area Ohlone population was dramatically reduced.

Historically this area has been part of larger geographical frames, for example the Southwest, the borderlands of New Spain, Alta California, and the Western United States. We will look at how historical change has affected northern California.

And we are planning to explore many other worthwhile places and topics–the larger mappy universe. That is a world filled with surveyors, cosmographers, explorers, topographic engineers, mapping agencies, globes, atlases, aerial photography, satellite images, geological maps and rhumb lines, in short many worthwhile things.

Right now we are still working from our home offices, separated from the physical collections at the Earth Science and Map Library, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This also will be a place to publicize what is happening at the Earth Sciences and Map Library.

We hope you will find something enjoyable here and come along for the ride!

Bonita Dyess

Erica Newcome

Heiko Mühr

Susan Powell

Samantha Teplitzky