Home > History > Bernhard Varenius (1622-1650)

Bernhard Varenius (1622-1650)

  • ISBN 10: 9004163638
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: 2007-11-15
  • Pages: 343
  • Format: PDF

Bernhard Varenius’ books influenced the history of science in such a way that Isaac Newton, Alexander von Humboldt and Tsar Peter the Great all referred to him. Varenius wrote the first comprehensive description of Japan (Descriptio regni Japoniae, 1649) from a European perspective based on a diversity of sources, without visiting the land himself. But the impact of his Geographia Generalis (1650) explains his ranking among the founding fathers of geography as a science. He called ‘general’ geography a branch of (applied) mathematics which does not deal with regional specifics. The contributions in this book focus on his multi-faceted work, the influence of his books and the tragically short life of this young polymath from Germany who benefited from the intellectually stimulating milieu of Leiden and Amsterdam.

This book is dedicated to Bernhard Varenius, whose geographical books influenced the history of the discipline to such a degree that Isaac Newton, Alexander von Humboldt, Tsar Peter the Great and many North American universities referred to him. A research project of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis called itself after Varenius in 1997.

Varenius achieved this renown as a result of his Descriptio regni Japoniae,1649, the first comprehensive description of Japan from a European perspective (which was published as one of the ‘republics’ by Elzevier in Amsterdam). But his real influence derives from his general geography (Geographia Generalis, 1650) in which he describes geography as such, without special regional features. He classifies it as a mathematical science and gives geography a theoretical foundation as a discipline in its own right with a systematic and methodological approach of its own. The contributions in this book originated in a symposium at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and were extended by further articles. Thus a multifaceted view of Varenius studies describes the young scholar in the context of his time and suggests the enduring effects of his works. Each German article is prefaced by an abstract in English (and vice versa).

In the first part of the book the focus is on biographical studies along with Varenius’ education and family history as well as the theological framework in the era of confessional disputes. Varenius’ book on Japan is discussed in the second part. Here the emphasis is on the transmission of knowledge acquired without any personal acquaintance with the country described and exclusively based on a diversity of sources. His critical use of source materials and the literary form of his presentation are remarkable. The third part is devoted to his main work, Geographia Generalis of 1650. The author’s attitude toward Aristotelianism and Cartesianism as well as his terminology are examined. The final articles show how his work was distributed and how it spread to other European countries and beyond to North America.

Ernst-Christian Volkmann, the German translator (1974) of Descriptio regni Japoniae, very kindly contributed his translation of Varenius’ dedication and chapter 1 of Geographia Generalis, now printed for the first time in the Appendix. It is juxtaposed with the Latin text taken from the 1650 edition. A final word of special thanks is addressed to my friend, Kathleen Rabl, lector of English at the University of Munich. She gave invaluable help with translations at the Wolfenbüttel conference and then very graciously brought her editing expertise to bear on English texts written by non-native speakers. I am immensely grateful for her unfailing sense of style and the meticulous care and sensitivity with which she worked.

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