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Gerard Mercator was more than just a mapmaker. Although biographical dictionaries accustomed to single occupations typically treat him as merely a cartographer or a geographer, Mercator distinguished himself at various times as a calligrapher, an engraver, a maker of scientific instruments, and a publisher. No less impressive are his deep interests in mathematics, astronomy, cosmography, terrestrial magnetism, history, philosophy, and theology. Although biographers lament the lack of diaries, account books, and carefully archived personal correspondence, the historical record reveals Mercator as an introspective and energetic chap who was competent in science, honest and well liked, technically savvy and clever with his hands, curious about the world around him, successful as an entrepreneur, and well positioned to make a pair of substantial contributions to mapmaking.
Mercator's first biographer was Walter Ghim, his neighbor in Duisburg, the small German city where he lived from 1552 until his death in 1594. A twelve-term mayor of the town, Ghim contributed a short biography to the 1595 edition of Mercator's Atlas, published posthumously by his youngest son, Rumold. Ghim's essay is more a long obituary than a critical biography. The mayor praises Mercator as a "remarkable and distinguished man," notes his "mild character and honest way of life," and provides dates and other details for key events in the cartographer's career. Thus we learn that Gerard Mercator was born at approximately 6 a.m. on March 5, 1512, in Rupelmonde, Flanders, where his parents Hubert and Emerentiana were visiting Hubert's brother, Gisbert Mercator, "the energetic priest of that city." (Flanders is roughly coincident with the northern part of present-day Belgium, and as figure 3.1 shows, the village of Rupelmonde is about ten miles southwest of Antwerp.) He died "82 years, 37 weeks, and 6 hours" later-a remarkably long life for the sixteenth century-after coping in his final years with partial paralysis and a cerebral hemorrhage. Ghim offers a detailed description of Mercator's failing health and last rites but says little about the mapmaker's early life.
Scholarly interpretations of sixteenth-century Flanders helped historian of calligraphy Arthur Osley paint a richer picture. Although Mercator's parents had little money-his father was a shoemaker and small farmer-Gisbert was at least better connected. Through his uncle's influence, Gerard was enrolled at age fifteen in the distinguished monastic school at 's-Hertogenbosch run by the Brethren of the Common Life, who accepted poor but bright boys willing to train for the priesthood. The brothers specialized in copying sacred texts, and their school excelled at teaching penmanship. In addition to learning Christian theology and Latin, Mercator developed a practical and lasting interest in the elegant italic script in which he engraved place names and interpretative text for his maps. He considered italic lettering more appropriate for scholarly writing than Gothic and other less formal (and often less legible) styles of handwriting, and in 1540 he published Literarum latinarum, quas Italicas cursoriasque vocant, scribendarum ratio (How to Write the Latin Letters Which They Call Italic or Cursive), a short manual that was influential in the adoption of italic lettering in cartography.
Various renderings of Mercator's name invite confusion. Although his German father apparently went by Hubert Cremer, vernacular versions of the family name include de Cremer, Kramer, and Kremer. Krämer (the modern spelling) is the German word for merchant or shopkeeper, Cremer is its Dutch equivalent, and Mercator is the Latin version, which the future mapmaker adopted at 's-Hertogenbosch. (Latin was the language of Europe's educated elite, and young scholars routinely latinized their names.) Although Gerhard Cremer and Gerardus (or Gerhardus) Mercator might be more historically correct, American and British cartographic historians prefer the partly anglicized Gerard Mercator. A reasonable compromise, I'm sure, as an obsessive purist would need to write awkwardly about Gerardus Mercator Rupelmundanus (Gerard Mercator of Rupelmonde), the name under which Mercator enrolled at the University of Louvain in 1530 and published his epic world atlas.
At Louvain Mercator studied humanities and philosophy, attended lectures by the brilliant mathematician and astronomer Gemma Frisius (1508-55), and received a master's degree in 1532. With his religious faith challenged by contradictions between biblical accounts of creation and Aristotle's writings, Mercator occasionally felt stifled at Louvain, where doubt was akin to heresy. He began corresponding with a group of Franciscan preachers living in Antwerp and Mechelen (see fig. 3.1), and visited them several times to discuss theology and science. His confidants included Franciscus Monachus (ca. 1490-1565), a prominent geographer who produced a terrestrial globe around 1520 and is a plausible source of Mercator's knowledge of northern lands. Although his absences from Louvain aroused suspicion, Mercator eventually resolved his concerns over the conflicting interpretations and, according to Osley, "emerged with strong Christian convictions, which remained with him."
Reluctant to leave Louvain, Mercator pursued an academic apprenticeship centuries before the modern university gave us postgraduate education. In addition to convincing Frisius to instruct him in astronomy and geography, Mercator and his tutor persuaded Gaspar van der Heyden, a local goldsmith and engraver, to let Mercator use his workshop for making globes and scientific instruments. The three apparently collaborated on numerous projects, including maps and surgical instruments-Frisius was also a physician-and the future mapmaker either contributed to or witnessed all phases, from design to marketing. As Osley observes, by age twenty-four Mercator had become "a superb engraver, an outstanding calligrapher, and one of the leading scientific instrument makers of his time." And as his later works attest, skill in engraving gradations and labels on brass and copper instruments proved useful in making printing plates for maps and globe gores.
An energetic learner, Mercator progressed quickly from globes to flat maps and from engraving to full authorship. In 1536 he engraved the italic lettering for Frisius's terrestrial globe, which was assembled by pasting twelve printed gores onto a spherical papier-méché shell nearly 15 inches (37 cm) in diameter. His role expanded from engraver to coauthor with the publication a year later of Frisius's celestial globe, similar in size and manufacture. In 1537 he also authored and published his own map, a 17 by 39 inch (43 by 98 cm) cartographic portrait of Palestine engraved on copper and printed as six sheets, which formed a wall-size map when glued together. Mercator's enduring interest in religion was no doubt a key motivation. Although he cites Jacob Zeigler as his principal source, the small map included with Zeigler's book on the Holy Land, published five years earlier, is comparatively sketchy. Cartographic historian Robert Karrow, who labeled the map a "commercial success," notes that it remained in print for at least four decades and provided the geographic details for Palestine for Mercator's epic world map of 1569.
In 1538 Mercator published a 14 by 21 inch (36 by 55 cm) world map, laid down on the double cordiform (double heart-shaped) projection (fig. 3.2) pioneered in 1531 by the French mathematician Oronce Fine (1494-1555). Although Mercator borrowed the geographic framework from Fine, his map is more similar in content to Frisius's terrestrial globe. As close examination of its features and place names reveals, he consulted additional sources but was the first to identify North and South America as separate continents. Also noteworthy are the suggestion of a Northwest Passage and the separation of Asia and North America, typically attached on early-sixteenth-century world maps. Aware of the uncertainty of some delineations, he scrupulously differentiated known, previously mapped coastlines from their more speculative counterparts in areas largely unexplored.
Mercator's next publication was a detailed 34 by 46 inch (87 by 117 cm) map of Flanders, printed as four sheets in 1540. Prepared at the urging of Flemish merchants, the map was based on precise trigonometric and field surveys. Although some historians attribute the measurements to Mercator, who no doubt engraved the copper plates, others question whether the impoverished artisan had the time and resources for extensive fieldwork during the harsh winters of 1537-38 and 1539-40. A key skeptic is Rolf Kirmse, who observed that the distances portrayed are off by only 3.4 percent on average and that the average error of the angles is a mere 2° 20'. According to Kirmse, the timing of the surveys and their high level of accuracy point to Jacob van Deventer (ca. 1500-1575), a Dutch mapmaker who lived in Mechelen in the late 1530s and later produced a unique collection of town plans of the Netherlands for the king of Spain. Whoever the surveyor, there is no dispute about the map's success and influence. Among the fifteen subsequent editions published between 1555 and 1594 is a smaller adaptation included in the 1570 world atlas by Abraham Ortelius (1527-98), a genial contemporary of Mercator.
In August 1536 Mercator married Barbara Schellekens, and the following year Barbara gave birth to their first son, Arnold. The couple eventually had six children, three boys and three girls. All three sons became mapmakers for a time at least, and Rumold (ca. 1541-1600), their youngest, became his father's representative in England and supervised publication of the first complete edition of the Mercator world atlas.
Although prosperous and comparatively erudite, sixteenth-century Flanders was frequently engulfed in conflict between Protestant reformers and Catholic traditionalists, who in 1544 began a brutal effort to suppress Protestantism. Mercator's letters to the friars in Mechelen as well as his more recent travels attracted the attention of religious extremists, who imprisoned him at Rupelmonde in March 1544. The zealots also held forty-two other suspects, including Joannes Drosius, to whom Mercator had dedicated his 1538 world map. Although protests by the mapmaker's friends, colleagues, town officials, and a local priest won his release seven months later for lack of evidence, four of his fellow detainees were beheaded, burned at the stake, or buried alive.
Mercator's religion remains ambiguous. Some writers consider him a Protestant (possibly a Lutheran convert), while others insist he remained a committed Catholic. Ghim and Osley ignore the mapmaker's church affiliation altogether, Karrow confesses uncertainty, and the late Richard Westfall, who compiled the entry on Mercator for the Catalog of the Scientific Community Web site, emphatically states, "I find it impossible to tell." Mercator was released from his imprisonment into Catholic territory, Westfall notes, but eight years later he left Louvain for Duisburg, in Cleve (a German duchy about fifty miles east of Flanders), which was Protestant. Even so, Catholic patrons continued to sponsor his projects and buy his maps.
Although religious unrest or outright persecution might have precipitated the move, the immediate incentive was a job offer from William, Duke of Cleve, who planned to open a university in Duisburg. Although the duke's academy never developed, royal and commercial patrons continued to underwrite Mercator's globes, maps, and scientific instruments. Especially significant is his 1554 map of Europe, which he started in Louvain. Engraved in copper and printed as fifteen separate sheets, the entire map measures 47 by 58 inches (120 by 147 cm) and, according to the ever enthusiastic Walter Ghim, a revised edition published in 1572 "attracted more praise from scholars everywhere than any similar geographical work which has ever been brought out."
The 1554 edition's portrayal of Britain underscores the difficulty of obtaining accurate geographic information about a country that feared invasion. According to Peter Barber, the British Library's expert in medieval and early modern maps, Mercator relied heavily on existing maps, including a 1546 map of England published in Rome by George Lily, as well as reports from various unnamed correspondents, including the British astronomer-mathematician John Dee, who lived in Louvain from 1538 to 1540. Although his correspondents helped him add place names and refine coastlines, Mercator's treatment does not mirror the markedly more accurate geometry of unpublished British surveys of the late 1540s and early 1550s. More surprising is the omission of several bishoprics that Henry VIII had established after he broke with Rome-surprising because Mercator, now living in Duisburg, had little to fear from church authorities. In Barber's view, the omission reflects either ignorance of the bishoprics or a reluctance to antagonize a generous supporter, Cardinal Grenvelle, to whom Mercator dedicated the map.
More impressively accurate is Mercator's 1564 map of England, Scotland, and Ireland, printed on eight sheets, which compose a 35 by 50 inch (88 by 127 cm) wall map. A curious inscription attributes its content to a prototype mysteriously acquired from an anonymous acquaintance. According to Ghim, "a distinguished friend sent Mercator from England a map of the British Isles, which he had compiled with immense industry and the utmost accuracy, with a request that he should engrave it." Neither Mercator nor Ghim named the source, whose identity sparked the curiosity of map historians who, as Barber tells it, eagerly enlisted in a game of "find the friend." After analyzing place names, shapes, and other details together and carefully assessing information available to plausible informants, Barber attributed the draft to John Elder, a Scottish Catholic who traveled freely between England and mainland Europe. Elder had access to the Royal Library, where he apparently compiled the map from ostensibly top-secret drawings by English surveyors. According to Barber's hypothesis, Elder left England in late 1561, amid growing hostility between the Catholic and Protestant supporters of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, and gave the map to Cardinal de Lorraine, who persuaded Mercator to make the engraving.
Although powerful patrons like the Cardinal no doubt initiated specific projects, serendipitous influences were at least equally important. For example, Mercator's famous 1569 world map, discussed in greater detail in the next chapter, was at least partly encouraged by his appointment to teach mathematics, as a part-time volunteer, in the gymnasium (high school) established by Duisburg's city council in 1559.
Excerpted from Rhumb Lines and Map Wars by Mark Monmonier Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 17, 2012
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