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1556 Münster Map of the World According to Ptolemy

[La Secunde Table Generale Selon Ptol.] - Main View

1556 Münster Map of the World According to Ptolemy


A foundational map.


[La Secunde Table Generale Selon Ptol.]
  1540 (undated)     10 x 13.25 in (25.4 x 33.655 cm)     1 : 70000000


An attractive 1556 example of Sebastian Münster's map of the world, according to Claudius Ptolemy. The map thus details the Oikumene, the inhabited world as it was known to the Roman Empire of the second century, well before the Age of Discovery. It covers only the 'Old World' from the Atlantic (Pillars of Hercules) to Indochina, and from the Arctic to the Equator. The map is surrounded by aeoli and clouds.
On the Map
The map shows a roughly conic projection of part of the globe reaching as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn. (Ptolemy knew the world was round, as did virtually every geographer and astronomer of the classical era.) Europe can be seen in the upper left. Below it, a familiar North Africa continues into a massive continent, expanding to fill the lower part of the map. The African interior is dominated by two great river systems, the Niger, extending form the Atlantic, and the Nile. The southern extreme of Africa continues into a massive landform entirely surrounding the Indian Ocean and ultimately connecting with Asia beyond the Malay Peninsula (a territory called India Extra Gangem (India beyond the Ganges). Within the enclosed Indian Ocean, Arabia and the Persian Gulf are clearly recognizable. Tapobrana, in the midst of this great sea, is mostly probably the island of Ceylon or modern-day Sri Lanka. It appeared on Ptolemaic maps greatly exaggerated in size due to its significance to the classical spice trade. Scholars of Münster's day, however, were beginning to suspect that the great insular trade center described in Ptolemy's work was actually Sumatra. India, appearing amorphously just to the north, is undersized by comparison.
Beyond Ptolemy
The depiction on this map of Scandinavia - Septētrional Regiones - does not originate with Ptolemy. The northern limits of the Ptolemaic world map end at about 63 degrees north, and there are no Ptolemaic maps specifically of Scandinavia: for the 2nd century Alexandrian Roman, those areas were utterly unknown, beyond the remotest hinterlands of the north. Some fifteenth century manuscript editions of Ptolemy began to include a new mapping of the northern regions, and this part of the world began to be appended to the Ptolemaic world map, as Münster has done here: the Ptolemaic maps he would have had access to during his student years in Germany would have included this element.
The Classical Foundations of Modern Geography
Münster's Cosmographia contained a complement of between fourteen and twenty-eight maps, depending on the edition; virtually all of these were notable for being among the first printed maps of the areas they depicted. They included maps of the whole continents of America, Asia and Africa, as well as a more modern map of the world than this one. Why, then, did Cosmographia include this element of ancient geography?

The maps appearing in Münster's Cosmographia had an earlier outing in his authoritative, expanded version of Ptolemy's Geographia. This work presented Ptolemy's exhaustive tables plotting the coordinates of the cities, mountains, rivers and seas of the known inhabited world - the Oikumene. To these classical maps, Münster added maps showing both the new discoveries made since Ptolemy, and also showing the changes to place names that had occurred in the intervening period. But while Münster corrected Ptolemy's antiquated data, he retained the ancient scholar's methodology - laying out a grid on a projection, assigning coordinates to real world locations, and then plotting those locations out on the projection to produce a mathematical map. Ptolemy's Geographia would remain an essential, foundational work studied by geographers up into the eighteenth century, so updated and improved editions of the work (such as Münster's) would continue to be published. Münster's inclusion of Ptolemy's Oikumene in his otherwise explicitly modern Cosmographia provided both an homage to Ptolemy's towering authority, and also a reference point to understand the rapidity with which the discoveries of the 16th century were expanding the 'known inhabited world.'
Publication History and Census
This map was first published in Münster's 1540 Basel Heinrich Petri edition of Geographia. It appeared in all subsequent editions of that work and Münster's own Cosmographia until 1578. Petri's son, Sebastian, would continue printing editions of Cosmographia beginning in 1588, but with a new complement of woodcut maps based on the more up-to-date geography of Abraham Ortelius. All editions of Geographia were printed in Latin, but there were editions of Cosmographia printed in Latin, German, French, and Italian. The present example corresponds to those appearing in the 1556 French edition. The German and Latin editions of Cosmographia are well represented in institutional collections; French and Italian editions were printed in smaller number and are scarcer.


Sebastian Münster (January 20, 1488 - May 26, 1552), was a German cartographer, cosmographer, Hebrew scholar and humanist. He was born at Ingelheim near Mainz, the son of Andreas Munster. He completed his studies at the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen in 1518, after which he was appointed to the University of Basel in 1527. As Professor of Hebrew, he edited the Hebrew Bible, accompanied by a Latin translation. In 1540 he published a Latin edition of Ptolemy's Geographia, which presented the ancient cartographer's 2nd century geographical data supplemented systematically with maps of the modern world. This was followed by what can be considered his principal work, the Cosmographia. First issued in 1544, this was the earliest German description of the modern world. It would become the go-to book for any literate layperson who wished to know about anywhere that was further than a day's journey from home. In preparation for his work on Cosmographia, Münster reached out to humanists around Europe and especially within the Holy Roman Empire, enlisting colleagues to provide him with up-to-date maps and views of their countries and cities, with the result that the book contains a disproportionate number of maps providing the first modern depictions of the areas they depict. Münster, as a religious man, was not producing a travel guide. Just as his work in ancient languages was intended to provide his students with as direct a connection as possible to scriptural revelation, his object in producing Cosmographia was to provide the reader with a description of all of creation: a further means of gaining revelation. The book, unsurprisingly, proved popular and was reissued in numerous editions and languages including Latin, French, Italian, and Czech. The last German edition was published in 1628, long after Münster's death of the plague in 1552. Cosmographia was one of the most successful and popular books of the 16th century, passing through 24 editions between 1544 and 1628. This success was due in part to its fascinating woodcuts (some by Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf, Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch, and David Kandel). Münster's work was highly influential in reviving classical geography in 16th century Europe, and providing the intellectual foundations for the production of later compilations of cartographic work, such as Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Münster's output includes a small format 1536 map of Europe; the 1532 Grynaeus map of the world is also attributed to him. His non-geographical output includes Dictionarium trilingue in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and his 1537 Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. Most of Munster's work was published by his stepson, Heinrich Petri (Henricus Petrus), and his son Sebastian Henric Petri. More by this mapmaker...

Claudius Ptolemy (83 - 161 AD) is considered to be the father of cartography. A native of Alexandria living at the height of the Roman Empire, Ptolemy was renowned as a student of Astronomy and Geography. His work as an astronomer, as published in his Almagest, held considerable influence over western thought until Isaac Newton. His cartographic influence remains to this day. Ptolemy was the first to introduce projection techniques and to publish an atlas, the Geographiae. Ptolemy based his geographical and historical information on the "Geographiae" of Strabo, the cartographic materials assembled by Marinus of Tyre, and contemporary accounts provided by the many traders and navigators passing through Alexandria. Ptolemy's Geographiae was a groundbreaking achievement far in advance of any known pre-existent cartography, not for any accuracy in its data, but in his method. His projection of a conic portion of the globe on a grid, and his meticulous tabulation of the known cities and geographical features of his world, allowed scholars for the first time to produce a mathematical model of the world's surface. In this, Ptolemy's work provided the foundation for all mapmaking to follow. His errors in the estimation of the size of the globe (more than twenty percent too small) resulted in Columbus's fateful expedition to India in 1492.

Ptolemy's text was lost to Western Europe in the middle ages, but survived in the Arab world and was passed along to the Greek world. Although the original text almost certainly did not include maps, the instructions contained in the text of Ptolemy's Geographiae allowed the execution of such maps. When vellum and paper books became available, manuscript examples of Ptolemy began to include maps. The earliest known manuscript Geographias survive from the fourteenth century; of Ptolemies that have come down to us today are based upon the manuscript editions produced in the mid 15th century by Donnus Nicolaus Germanus, who provided the basis for all but one of the printed fifteenth century editions of the work. Learn More...

Heinrich Petri (1508 - 1579) and his son Sebastian Henric Petri (1545 – 1627) were printers based in Basel, Switzerland. Heinrich was the son of the printer Adam Petri and Anna Selber. After Adam died in 1527, Anna married the humanist and geographer Sebastian Münster - one of Adam's collaborators. Sebastian contracted his stepson, Henricus Petri (Petrus), to print editions of his wildly popular Cosmographia. Later Petri, brought his son, Sebastian Henric Petri, into the family business. Their firm was known as the Officina Henricpetrina. In addition to the Cosmographia, they also published a number of other seminal works including the 1566 second edition of Nicolaus Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium and Georg Joachim Rheticus's Narratio. Learn More...


Münster, Sebastian La Cosmographie Universelle, (Basel: Petri) 1556.    


Good. Margins extended, not impacting map image, title lacking. Reinforced on verso, else a very attractive example.


OCLC 701823340. Rumsey 11623.011. Shirley, Rodney W., The Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps 1472-1700, 76.