Varenius, Bernhardus (Bernhard Varen)

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(b. Hitzacker, in the district of Hannover, Germany, 1622: d. Amsterdam, Holland, 1650)

physical geography.

Son of the court preacher to the duke of Brunswick, Varenius spent his early years at Uelzen, the home of the duke. From 1640 to 1642 he studied in the Gymnasium of Hamburg, and from there he went to the universities at Königsberg (1643–1645) and Leiden (1645–1649), devoting himself to mathematics, medicine, and natural history. He took his medical degree at Leiden in 1649, and settled in Amsterdam with the intention of practicing medicine.

From some remarks in his writing it is evident that Varenius felt he had little future in Hannover, which had been devastated by the Thirty Years’ War. In Amsterdam the recent discoveries of Abel Tasman, Willem Schouten, and other Dutch navigators, and his friendship with Willem Blaeu as well as other geographers led him to concentrate on geography rather than medicine, much to his own economic detriment.

Varenius was a prolific writer, although two of his early works, an academic treatise on motion according to Aristotle, which he wrote at Hamburg in 1642, and a table of universal history written at Amsterdam in 1649, were probably never published and are not now extant. His first significant works were the Descriptio regni Japoniae and the Tractatus de religione Japoniae. These works of special geography are usually regarded as a single book in part because they were published under the title of Descriptio regin Japoniae et Siam, cum brevi informatione de diversis omnium religionibus (Amsterdam, 1649). In actuality, the volume consisted of five separate works–a description of Japan by Varenius, a Latin translation of Jodocus Schouten’s account of Siam, the discourse on religion in Japan by Varenius, excerpts from Leo Africanus in religion in Africa, and a short Dissertatio de Rebuspublica in genere.

The best known of Varenius’ works is his Geographia generalis (Amsterdam, 1650), which established a framework for physical geography capable of including new facts of discovery as they arose. The work became the standard geographic text for more than a century. Varenius believed that there were three ways by which the truth of geographical propositions could be established, first by geometrical, arithmetical, and trigonometrical means; second by astronomical precepts and theorems; and third by experience. In the case of special geography, only celestial properties can be proven, and the remainder must rest on the experience either of the writer or of other observers. His Geographia generalis was divided into three sections. In the first he examined the mathematical facts relating to the earth, including its figure, dimensions, motions, and measurements. In the second part he examined the effect of the sun, stars, climates, and seasons on the earth and the differences of apparent time at various places. In the third part he treated briefly the actual divisions of the surface of the earth and laid down the principles of what is now known as regional geography. Each area was to be classified according to terrestrial information, including longitude, the nature of the terrain, and fertility: by celestial information, including the distance of the place from the pole, the climate, and the length of day and night; and finally by human information, including the status of the inhabitants, and their art, trade, virtues, vices, ceremonies, speech, and religion. Varenius’ work long held the position as the best treatise on scientific and comparative geography. Humboldt and others were much impressed by it, and Newton revised parts of it for an edition published in England.


I. Original Works. Varenius’ Descriptio regni Japoniae et Siam, cum brevi informatione de diversis omnium religionibus went through four editions, the last published in 1673. There was also a German summary of the description of Japan published at Jena in 1670. The brief treatise on religions of the world was included as an appendix in Alexander Ross, Pansebeia (London, 1653).

The Geographia generalis, according to the research of Gottfried Lange, went through fifteen complete and four partial editions in five European languages, plus ten in a summarized French version. There was also a summarized Japanese version published in 1932. Four editions were published by Elzevir in Amsterdam in 1650, 1664, 1671, and 1672. Newton’s revision was published at Cambridge in 1672 and 1681, and at Jena in 1693. Another edition edited by James jurin was published at Cambridge in 1712 and at Naples in 1715. The first English translation was by Richard Blome (London, 1682), and this was reprinted twice before 1693. A second English translation based upon Jurin’s edition, translated by Dugdale and revised by Shaw, went through four editions between 1733 and 1765. A Dutch translation appeared in 1755 and a French translation by Philippe–Florent de Puisieux in that same year. A Russian version was published in Moscow in 1718 and a second one at St. Petersburg in 1790. The ten French summaries by Guillaume Sanson appeared between 1681 and 1743. In addition, Varenius wrote several brief works on human ecology published in Amsterdam in 1650.

II. Secondary Literature. For discussions of Varenius and his work see J. N. L. Baker, “The Geography of Bernhard Varenius,” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 21 (1955), 51– 60; and Gottfried Lange, “Das Werk der Varenius: Eine kritische Gesamtbibliographie,” in Erdkunde, 15 (1961), 10– 18. See also Gottfried Lange, “Varenius üer die Grundfragen der Geographie: Ein Beitrag zur Problem–geschichte der geographischen Wissenschaft,” in Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen, 105 (1961), 274–283 and Hans Offe, “Bernard Varenius (1622–1650),” in Geographisches Taschenbuch und Jahrweiser zur Landeskunde (1960– 1961), 435–438.

The most detailed study of Varenius’ life was done by Siegmund Günther, Varenius (Leipzig, 1905), but his study has been much supplemented by works cited above. The brief biography by F. Ratzel, “Bernard Varenius,” in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, XXXIX (Leipzig, 1895), must now be regarded as somewhat inaccurate.

Vern L. Bullough