Drawn half a millennium ago and then swiftly forgotten, one map made us see the world as we know it today… and helped name America. But, as Toby Lester has discovered, the most powerful nation on earth also owes its name to a pun.
Almost exactly 500 years ago, in 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure Germanic scholars based in the mountains of eastern France, made one of the boldest leaps in the history of geographical thought – and indeed in the larger history of ideas.
Near the end of an otherwise plodding treatise titled Introduction to Cosmography, they announced to their readers the astonishing news that the world did not just consist of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the three parts of the world known since antiquity. A previously unknown fourth part of the world had recently been discovered, they declared, by the Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci, and in his honour they had decided to give it a name: America.
What is coming into focus is a document that is far richer, far stranger, and much more historically valuable than had previously been imagined
But that was just the beginning. Waldseemuller and Ringman in fact had written the Introduction to Cosmography merely as a companion volume to their magnum opus: a giant and revolutionary new map of the world. It’s known today as the Waldseemuller map of 1507.
The Waldseemuller map was – and still is – an astonishing sight to behold. Drawn 15 years after Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, and measuring a remarkable 8ft wide by 4½ft high, it introduced Europeans to a fundamentally new understanding of the make-up of the earth.
The map represented a remarkable number of historical firsts. In addition to giving America its name, it was also the first map to portray the New World as a separate continent – even though Columbus, Vespucci, and other early explorers would all insist until their dying day that they had reached the far-eastern limits of Asia.
The map was the first to suggest the existence of what explorer Ferdinand Magellan would later call the Pacific Ocean, a mysterious decision, in that Europeans, according to the standard history of New World discovery, aren’t supposed to have learned about the Pacific until several years later.