Cosmography, Knowledge in Transit: A Conspectus

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)

University of Florence
4 min readSep 13, 2023

Janet Clare, University of Bristol

  1. Introduction: Origins and Producers of Cosmographical Knowledge

For modern scholars, the significations of cosmography present difficulties. It has been long out of fashion, indeed, obsolete, in some places. Penguin’s Dictionary of Science, first published in 1942 with the subtitle Definitions and Explanations of Terms used in Chemistry, Physics and Elementary Mathematics, for example, contains no entry for cosmography. Its closest approximation is the unfamiliar ‘cosmogony’ with its de!nition of theories as to the origins of the heavenly bodies. Notably, the French translation of the same dictionary, published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1956, voluntarily introduces cosmography into its subtitle:

Mathématique, Mécanique, Cosmographie, Physique, Chimie, and has an entry on ‘cosmographie’:Le sens initial de cette expression: description de l’univers, n’est pas guère utilisé; la cosmographie désigne aujourd’hui l’ensemble des éléments d’astronomie et de géodésie enseigné dans les classes terminales du Second Degré. (Uvarov and Chapman, 1956, 63)

The deliberate revision of the title in the French translation suggests the longue durée of cosmography. In France cosmography was taught in classes of rhetoric and philosophy, as is evidenced by the late nineteenth-century publication of Amédée Guillemin’s Eléments de cosmographie (1867) and Pichot’s Cosmographie élémentaire(1881). “e several editions of these late French cosmographical works exemplify the fact that universal knowledge is not universal in its application. ‘Cosmography’ represented a pan-European body of knowledge that was widely transmitted, but it took root in different places at different times, and with variations of depth and influence.”e widespread use of ‘cosmography’ and ‘cosmographical’ as terms to denote studies that encompassed the earth and the heavens was probably due to the vagaries of translation. When Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia — completing the work of his teacher of Greek, Manuel Chrysoloras — translated Ptolemy’s Geography into Latin, he did so under the title Cosmographia (1406–1409). The term ‘cosmography’ was adopted in all Latin manuscripts of Ptolemy’s work and in the early editions printed in Vicenza, Bologna, Rome, and Ulm (Burnett and Shalev 2011, 5–6). In his preface, Angeli makes far-reaching claims for cosmography and justifies his use of the term:In addition, our author calls the whole work, in Greek the Geography — that, is the description of the earth … we, however, have altered it to Cosmographia … since something more is denoted in the term ‘cosmography’ than the earth itself, which gives its name to geography. For ‘cosmos’ in Greek is ‘mundus’ in Latin, which clearly signifies the earth and the heavens themselves, which throughout this work are adduced as a kind of foundation of the subject matter. (In Burnett and Shalev 2011 228)

Since Ptolemy’s treatise describes the world (on a map) by means of astronomical data, preference had to be given to a name referring to both earth and heavens. In subsequent editions, however, the title reverted to Geography. Nevertheless, its circulation under the title of Cosmography inaugurated a European refashioning of a field of study from classical and medieval roots.Evidently, there was a buoyant market for books advertising cosmography and directed at both the scholar and interested general reader. In the early- to mid-fifteenth century it became a recognizable genre as digests of Ptolemy were published in both Latin and the vernacular. Peter Apian, for example, who combined the work of a mathematician and astronomer with the art of the printer, also lecturing at Ingolstadt, published Cosmographicus liber in 1524. It was followed in 1529 by an abridgement Cosmographiae introductio with the running title Rudimenta cosmographiae’. A second edition of Cosmographicus liber was published in Antwerp in 1529, edited by Gemma Frisius, mathematician, physician, instrument maker, and cartographer, who was later to translate the work into French.3”e 1529 edition formed the basis of an almost continuous publishing history up to 1609. In a bibliography of Apian’s works forty-one editions are listed, published in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium (van Ortroy 1963, 117–156).

An overview of the publication, reception, and circulation of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia universalis tells a similar story. Klaus Vogel has commented that over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cosmography began to focus increasingly on what Ptolemy had referred to as ‘geography’, a systematic description of the oikumene: the known, inhabited world (2006, 470). Although the first of the six books of Münster’s Cosmographia is devoted to astronomical calculations derived from Ptolemy that determine latitude and longitude, and in this sense retains the dual focus of earth and heavens, the remaining books exemplify a shift away from the mathematical and astronomical towards the geocentric and humanistic. As a literary genre, Münster’s cosmography encompasses what we would recognize as world and regional geography and also history, biblical history, astronomy and astrology, anthropology, horticulture, and mythology, compiled from classical and modern knowledge. The work’s geographical and topographical range, as well as its inclusion of local information, is announced on the title page. Here, it is advertised, the reader will learn about all the lands, peoples, towns, notable places, government, manners, customs, orders, faiths, sects, and trades throughout the whole world.


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