Münster, Sebastian

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Nieder-Ingelheim, Germany, 1489; d. Basel, Switzerland, 26 May 1552)


Münster began his studies at Heidelberg and entered the Minorite order at the age of sixteen.

Early in his career he became fascinated with Hebrew and Greek and mastered both. His first printed work was a Hebrew edition of the Psalms (Basel, 1516). During the lirst part of his life his primary concern was with the publication of Hebrew texts, dictionaries, and grammars; and on the strength of his important contributions he was elected to the chair of Hebrew at Basel in 1527. Münster moved to Basel in 1529, having become a Protestant in the same year, married, and spent most of the rest of his life there, except for extensive travels in Germany and Switzerland.

Münster’s first major contribution to geography dates from 1540, the year of the publication of his Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geography, illustrated with maps of his own design. Having addressed an appeal in 1528 “to all lovers of the joyful art of geography to help him in a true and correct description of the German nation,”he spent fifteen years collecting up-to-date information on Germany and adjacent lands and in 1544 published his most important work, Cosmographei, “a description of the whole world and everything in it.”This book set a new standard in the field, diverging widely from such earlier works as Gregor Reisch’s Margarita philosophica (1496) and following both a regional and an encyclopedic approach. The work ran to 660 pages in the first edition and to nearly twice as many in later editions; its most valuable parts are those dealing with Germany and Central Europe, as well as the illustrations and maps, the latter drawn by Münster himself. Besides the Cosmographei Münster is noted for his common- sense approach to geography: when he asked his German colleagues for information about their districts, he provided them with detailed directions, including a simple plane-table survey, the first of its kind. The Cosmographei was among the most popular treatises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: forty-six editions, in six languages, were published prior to 1650.

Although Münster was celebrated in his lifetime as a Hebraic scholar, his influence was most widely felt through his understanding of the interests of the reading public: he was not at all reluctant to include some choice miraculous happenings in his otherwise sober and factual narrative. Cosmographei may still be consulted with profit by those interested in the humanist world view in the Reformation.


An outstanding facs. of the 1550 Basel ed. of the Cosmographei was published by Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam, 1967), with 910 woodcuts and intro. by Ruthardt Oehme.

For many years the standard source on the life and works of Münster was Victor Hantzsch, “Sebastian Münster—Leben, Werk, wissenschaftliche Bedeutung,”which is Abhandlungen der K. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. kl., 18 , no. 3 (1898). A more recent biography is Karl Heinz Burmeister, Sebastian Münster: Versuch eines biographischen Gesamtbildes, Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft no. 91 (Basel, 1963). The most up-to-date bibliography is Karl Heinz Burmeister, Sebastian Münster—eine Bibliographie (Wies- baden, 1964).

George Kish