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Stock# 86722

The Wagenseil Münster—A True First Edition of Münster’s Geographia, One of the Most Important Cartographic Works of the Sixteenth Century

A stunning example, in full original hand-color, of one of the most important and rarest atlases of the sixteenth century: a true first edition of Sebastian Münster's Geographia printed in Basel in 1540.

Münster's Geographia deserves many plaudits. First, it established the convention that a world atlas should include world and continental maps. To that end, it was the first atlas to include specific maps of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Geographia was the first printed work to render latitude and longitude in their now-standard degree-minute-second form. It was also the book that ushered in a series of "modern"-style world atlases, culminating in Abraham Ortelius’ seminal Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570).

The Sources of Münster's Geographia

First compiled by Greek polymath Claudius Ptolemaeus in the second century AD, the original Geographia was a gazetteer of the geographical and cartographical knowledge of the Roman Empire. It was almost entirely erased from European intellectual thought in the Medieval period. Thankfully, however, it was kept in manuscript form, by Arab scholars. In the thirteenth century it was copied into Greek by the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and thus reintroduced to the West.

Münster's text originates in the Latin translation of Ptolemy by Willibald Pirckheimer, who in turn relied on the notes of Johannes Regiomontanus. Pirckheimer's translation was first printed in the 1525 edition of Ptolemy by Lorenz Fries. The text for the Fries Ptolemy was substantially corrected by Michael Villanovanus (Servetus) in 1535, and it is that corrected edition from which Münster took much of his text.

Münster's 1540 rendition of Ptolemy's Geography continues the tradition of map-illustrated printed Ptolemy atlases that began in Bologna in 1477. In the sixteenth century, that tradition was advanced by the 1507-08 Rome Ptolemy and the woodcut-illustrated atlases of Bernardus Sylvanus (1511), Martin Waldseemuller (1513 and 1520), and the aforementioned Lorenz Fries (1522, 1525, 1535, and 1541), all of whom augmented the ancient cartography of Ptolemy with modern maps. Münster continued this practice and extended it further, publishing for the first time a set of continental maps, including a specific map of the Americas—the first such printed map.

The woodcut borders on the verso text on some of the maps have been attributed to Hans Holbein, while two are signed with Adam Petri's monogram.

The influential legacy of Münster's Geographia

Writing in Imago Mundi in 1962, Harold L. Ruland had the following to say of Münster:

When the name Sebastian Münster (1489-1552) is mentioned in cartographical writings, it is frequently connected with some superlative, such as:

1. The first to introduce a separate map for each of the four then known continents, Europe, Asia, Africa, America,
2. The first separately printed map of England,
3. The earliest map of Africa available,
4. The quaintest map of America of the 16th Century,
5. The oldest woodcut obtainable of Scandinavia,
6. The first to quote his authorities for the "modern" maps,
7. The first cartographer to copy the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus,
8. Münster, Mercator, and Ortelius, three of the greatest cartographers of a great age

Leaving aside the redundancy and subjectivity of some of Ruland's statements, the broad thrust is true, and even incomplete.

Münster's 1540 Geographia also contains the first appearance of a fundamental cartographical convention in print; namely, the use of minutes and seconds to denote fractional degrees of latitude and longitude. Nordenskiold (Facsimile Atlas, pg. 24) provides the following commentary on that issue:

In his introduction Münster further declares that he changed the old Ptolemaic manner of denoting geographical latitude and longitude, so far as to replace the fractions of degrees by minutes and seconds; as for instance 40°½ or 38°½ ⅓, by 40° 30' and 38° 50'. This very useful reform had already been introduced for astronomical data in manuscripts of the Almagest; but so far as I know, it is first employed for the indication of geographical latitudes longitudes in the text to the map of Scandinavia of 1427 by Claudius Clavus.

Interestingly, Münster did not include latitude and longitude graduations on many of his new modern maps (latitude is rendered on some but not all), an oversight which was briefly and crudely remedied in the 1552 edition of the Geographia.

Münster's Geographia and, from 1544, his Cosmographia dominated the cartographic landscape of Northern Europe into the 1570s. It reshaped how other publishers and mapmakers thought about constructing an atlas. In Italy, the format pioneered by Münster was taken up by Giacomo Gastaldi, in his La Geografia di Claudio Ptolemeo (1548) (which acknowledges Münster in the title), and Ruscelli. In the Low Countries, the atlases of Mercator and Ortelius owe much to Münster's Geographia.

Mapping the Americas in 1540

The Geographia includes three maps depicting the Americas:

  1. the modern world map (Shirley 77, first state)
  2. "Schonlandia XIII Nova Tabula" (the map of Scandinavia showing "Terra nova sive de Bacalhos" seemingly extending from the top of Norway westwards)
  3. "Novae Insulae XVII Nova Tabula" (Burden 12, first state), the earliest known map to show the Americas as a separate continent; on the recto is an account of Columbus' discoveries.


An original color first edition Munster is not only a superlative example of the early mapmaker's art, but it is also a rarity of the first order.

While later editions of the Cosmographia and Geographia appear with some regularity, the 1540 edition is very rare to see. In an uncolored format, no example has passed at auction in eight years.

In full original color, the 1540 edition is stunningly rare. Rare book hub lists no original color examples offered for sale. We are unaware of any being offered for public sale since this book was last sold in 1986. Institutional copies are exceedingly uncommon


A sixteenth- or seventeenth-century manuscript beginning "Crisstoff..." is mounted on back pastedown, evidently from an earlier binding.

The engraved bookplate of Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633-1705) is on the front pastedown. Wagenseil (styled Wagenseilius on the ex-libris) was a noted German historian, Orientalist, jurist, and Christian Hebraist. He was a significant scholar in the latter half of the seventeenth century and held numerous positions at German universities during this time. It should be noted that Münster, like Wagenseil, was a Christian Hebraist. In 1681, Wagenseil published the first printed version of a significant Hebrew text that had been rediscovered by Münster and Buxtorf in the sixteenth century.

The blue ink stamp of Hachette & Cie is on the title page.

W. Graham Arader III, his catalog No. 62, from June of 1986, Atlases A Selection of Fine Atlases, item 5 (illustrated). "This is an extraordinarily fine example of this classic sixteenth century book, with each of the maps in full original color of the highest quality." (original emphasis).

Private American collection.

Condition Description
Quarto. 19th-century blind-tooled calf in 16th-century style, metal clasps possibly from the 16th century. 48 double-page woodcut maps (including 27 ancient maps and 21 modern). aa4, *6, a6, b6, c5, [blank], A-N6, 48 double-page woodcut maps, Aa6, Bb6, Cc8 (i.e., complete). (Two edges tears to leaf a, and one edge tear to leaf a6, in both cases repaired with somewhat stained tape. Split in bookblock between gatherings Bb and Cc, but the gatherings and binding holding.) All maps in rich original hand-color, in some cases with oxidation, but the paper stable throughout.
Adams P-2224; Alden & Landis 540/22; Burden 12 (first state); Burmeister 155; JCB (3) I:127; Nordenskiold 2:210; Phillips Atlases 365; Sabin 66484; Shirley, British Library T.PTOL-8a; Shirley 77; Ruland, Harold "A Survey of the Double-page Maps in Thirty-Five Editions of the Comographia Universalis 1544-1628 of Sebastian Munster and in his Editions of Ptolemy's Geographia 1540-1552" Imago Mundi, Volume 16, (1962).
Sebastian Munster Biography

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a cosmographer and professor of Hebrew who taught at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions.

As a young man, Münster joined the Franciscan order, in which he became a priest. He then studied geography at Tübingen, graduating in 1518. He moved to Basel, where he published a Hebrew grammar, one of the first books in Hebrew published in Germany. In 1521 Münster moved again, to Heidelberg, where he continued to publish Hebrew texts and the first German-produced books in Aramaic. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at Basel, where he published his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament with a Latin translation.

Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, in 1525. Three years later, he released a treatise on sundials. In 1540, he published Geographia universalis vetus et nova, an updated edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. In addition to the Ptolemaic maps, Münster added 21 modern maps. One of Münster’s innovations was to include one map for each continent, a concept that would influence Ortelius and other early atlas makers. The Geographia was reprinted in 1542, 1545, and 1552.  

He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. It was the first German-language description of the world and contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes. Many of the maps were taken from the Geographia and modified over time. The Cosmographia was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The text, woodcuts, and maps all influenced geographical thought for generations.