In the early part of 1544, Gerardus Mercator found himself in a cold, dark prison cell. He felt he was facing certain death. Why did this happen to the greatest cartographer of the 16th century? To find out, let us first take a closer look at his life and times.
MERCATOR was born in 1512 in Rupelmonde, a small port near Antwerp, Belgium. He received his education at the University of Louvain.
After graduating, he studied the teachings of Aristotle, and before long, he was troubled by his inability to reconcile the views of Aristotle with the teachings of the Bible.
Mercator wrote: "When I saw that Moses' version of the Genesis of the world did not fit sufficiently in many ways with Aristotle and the rest of the philosophers, I began to have doubts about the truth of all philosophers and started to investigate the secrets of nature."
Since he did not want to become a philosopher, Mercator gave up further university studies. However, his quest to find evidence to uphold the Biblical creation account occupied his mind for the rest of his life.
Turning to Geography
In 1534, Mercator began to study mathematics, astronomy, and geography under the mathematician Gemma Frisius. Furthermore, Mercator may have learned the art of engraving from Gaspar Van der Heyden, an engraver and globe maker.
At the beginning of the 16th century, cartographers used heavy Gothic, or black-letter, type, which limited the space available for written information on maps. However, Mercator adopted a new style of cursive writing from Italy called italic, which proved to be beneficial in globe making.
In 1536, Mercator worked as an engraver with Frisius and Van der Heyden in the production of a terrestrial globe. Mercator's beautiful cursive handwriting contributed to the success of the project.
Nicholas Crane, a modern biographer of Mercator, writes that while another cartographer "had managed to fit fifty American locations onto a wall-map as wide as a man was tall, Mercator reduced sixty onto a sphere whose diameter was two hand spans"!
A Cartographer Is Born
By 1537, Mercator made his first "solo production"-a map of the Holy Land, which he made to contribute to a "better understanding of both testaments." In the 16th century, maps of the Holy Land were hopelessly inaccurate, some with fewer than 30 place-names-and many of them in the wrong location.
Mercator's map, however, identified more than 400 places! Further, it showed the route followed by the Israelites on their journey through the desert after the Exodus. Because of its accuracy, the map was much admired by many of Mercator's contemporaries.
Encouraged by his success, Mercator published a world map in 1538. Before that time, mapmakers knew little about North America, calling it the Unknown Distant Land. Although the geographical name "America" already existed, Mercator was the first to apply that name to both North and South America.
Mercator lived at a time when the world's oceans were being explored and many new lands were being discovered. Sailors passed on contradictory information, making the task of mapmaking almost impossible, as cartographers had to fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, in 1541, Mercator achieved his goal of making "a more complete globe than [had] been done so far."
Accused of Heresy
In Louvain, where Mercator lived, there were many Lutherans. By 1536, Mercator sympathized with Lutheranism, and it appears that his wife later became a Lutheran. In February 1544, Mercator was arrested together with 42 other citizens of Louvain on the accusation of writing "suspicious letters."
However, it may also have been because the publication of his map on the Holy Land had aroused the suspicion of Tapper and Latomus, two theologians from the university in Louvain. Both men had presided at the trial of Bible translator William Tyndale, who had been executed in Belgium in 1536.
Perhaps Tapper and Latomus were concerned that Mercator's map of the Holy Land, like Tyndale's translation of the Bible, encouraged Bible reading. In any case, Mercator was imprisoned in the castle of Rupelmonde, his hometown.
Antoinette Van Roesmaels, one of the other people on trial, testified that Mercator had never attended private Protestant Bible readings. However, because she herself had attended such readings, Antoinette was buried alive, to die slowly of suffocation.
Mercator was released after seven months of imprisonment, but all his belongings were confiscated. In 1552, Mercator moved to Duisburg, Germany, where he found a more tolerant religious climate.
The First Atlas
Mercator continued to defend the Biblical account of creation. He devoted most of his life to making a synthesis, or overview, of the entire creation "of heaven and earth, from the beginning of times to the present," as he put it. This work contained both chronological and geographical information.
In 1569, Mercator published a list of the most important historical events from the creation onward-the first part of his synthesis, entitled Chronologia.
His aim was to help his readers understand their place in time and history. However, because Mercator had included in his book Luther's protest against indulgences in 1517, Chronologia was put on the Catholic Church's index of prohibited books.
In the years that followed, Mercator devoted much time to drawing and engraving the plates for the maps of his new geography. In 1590, Mercator suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak and paralyzed his left side, making it extremely difficult for him to continue his work.
He was, however, determined not to leave his life's work unfinished, and he continued with it until he died in 1594 at the age of 82. Mercator's son Rumold completed five unfinished maps. The complete collection of Mercator's maps was published in 1595. It was the very first collection of maps to bear the name atlas.
Mercator's Atlas contained a study of the first chapter of Genesis, in which the authenticity of God's Word was defended in the face of opposition from philosophers. Mercator called this study "the goal of all my labor."