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A “Heretical” Atlas

The following post is by Cynthia Smith, reference specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

Within the Geography and Map Division’s collections are 42 versions of Ptolemy’s Geography, which is a landmark atlas and treatise on geographic knowledge from the 2nd century, and an influential work in the study of geography and cartography thereafter. These versions are atlases published in the 15th and 16th centuries based off of Ptolemy’s original work from around 150 AD. One of these atlases in particular recently caught my attention: the 1535 edition of Ptolemy’s Geography edited by Michael Servetus. Denounced as a heretic in 1553, Servetus was burned at the stake along with many copies of his atlas. This copy is a rare edition that survived the widespread destruction of his works.

Cover page of Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini Geographicae enarrationis libri octo. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Cover page of Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini Geographicae enarrationis libri octo. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Michael Servetus was born in Spain. The year of his birth is unknown, though it is thought to be between 1509 and 1511. He studied medicine in Paris and became a respected and admired physician. He was the first physician in Europe to describe pulmonary circulation. In addition to his work as a physician, he was also knowledgeable in geography, as well as many other sciences.

Michael Servetus. Engraving from Historia Michaelis Serveti qvam praeside by Johann Mosheim, 1728. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Michael Servetus, from engraving in Historia Michaelis Serveti qvam praeside. Johann Mosheim, 1728. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

In 1531, Servetus published a treatise titled “On the Errors of the Trinity.” He was considered a heretic by Christian religious authorities because of his denial of the existence of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). John Calvin, a French theologian and major figure in the Protestant Reformation, considered him an enemy and the two men often exchanged letters voicing their opposing theological views.

In 1535, Servetus published his atlas using the pseudonym Michel de Villeneuve. The atlas holds 50 woodcut maps, 35 of which have descriptions on the back. A map of the Holy Land is shown on Plate 41, seen below, while the text on the verso, below the map, describes it as an “inhospitable and barren land,” which was considered by the religious authorities to be blasphemous. Servetus was arrested and underwent trial in Geneva for his other religious writings but this text was used as evidence at his trial. Calvin asserted that the text had contradicted the description of the Holy Land in the Book of Exodus as a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

Map of Holy Land in Servetus atlas. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Map of the Holy Land in Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini Geographicae enarrationis libri octo. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Text Accompanying Map of the Holy Land in Servetus Atlas. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Text Accompanying Map of the Holy Land in Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini Geographicae enarrationis libri octo. Michael Servetus, 1535. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Servetus was convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake with his books. Ironically, the controversial passage was not original to Servetus but was simply copied by him from previous editions of Ptolemy’s Geography which were published in 1522 and 1525 by another physician named Laurent Fries.

The atlas held in the Geography and Map Division has water damage as well as black marks on many of the pages. My imagination led me to wonder if the black marks were possibly the results of a fire! However, my theory was disproved upon an inspection by Katherine Kelly, a conservator from the Preservation Directorate of the Library’s Conservation Division. She stated that the dark spots on the pages are from ink, printer error, a dirty printing plate, grime from handling and mold and water stains, but it shows no evidence that this Geography and Map Division copy was in a fire. Nevertheless, I was fascinated to discover the story behind this atlas and the controversies of its creator.

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