How Ptolemy’s Geography Helped Get a Man Burned at the Stake

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

Last November the Library of Congress’s map blog, Worlds Revealed, published Cynthia Smith’s interesting piece on Michael Servetus, a Renaissance theologian who, in 1553, Calvin had burned at the stake, along with his books, for heresy. One of those books was a 1535 edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, and while that book was not one that got him into trouble in the first place, it was used against him at his trial.

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.” […] 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.

[WMS]

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.