A few hundred years ago, when much of the world was mysterious and unknown, two European humanists came together to produce an extraordinary map of the world.

St-Dié-des-Vosges is a small, leafy town in the Meurthe valley in north-east France. It lies 68km south-west of Strasbourg in France, 93km north-west of Basel in Switzerland and 74km north-west of Freiburg in Germany. Today, due to modern maps and precise methods of measuring longitude and latitude, we can pinpoint exactly where it is on the planet. However, a few hundred years ago, when much of the world was mysterious and unknown, a group of European humanists came together here to produce an extraordinary map of the world – one that differed radically from what came before, and whose effects are still with us today. This town is responsible for giving the entire continent of America its name.

This town is responsible for giving the entire continent of America its name

The map, printed in 1507, measured about 1.4m by 2.4m, a size that matched its grand ambition to portray the world in its entirety. And indeed, it did depict more of the world than ever before. For centuries, Europeans had believed that the world was made up of three landmasses: Asia, Africa and Europe, with Jerusalem at its centre. That’s why Italian explorer and coloniser for Spain, Christopher Columbus, had gone to his deathbed just a year earlier believing that where he had landed in the Americas was just another part of Asia. However, this new map depicted a fourth part of the world for the first time. To the left of Europe, it showed a long, thin version of South America, with a small-sized North America above it. The new continent was surrounded by water, and, on the part that is known today as Brazil, the map-makers placed a name: America.

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This milestone in cartography is known as the Waldseemüller map, after the German humanist who drew it. But Martin Waldseemüller was just one of a group of scholars who Walter Lud, the canon of the church of St-Dié-des-Vosges, brought together in this town. Lud was particularly interested in cosmography – the study of the Earth and its place in the universe – and wanted to create a picture of the world that combined ancient knowledge with the new reports coming in from the voyages that were taking place at the time. To this end, he secured funding from René II, Duke of Lorraine, to set up a printing press called Gymnasium Vosagense and assembled a team that included Waldseemüller and another German humanist, Matthias Ringmann. According to Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name, Ringmann took the lead in writing the book that was printed along with the map and almost certainly coined the name America.

That these two Germans came together to undertake such as project in St-Dié-des-Vosges was not simply a question of money. The location of the town was also significant. As Toby Lester told me, “You had explorers setting off from the Atlantic coast in Spain and Portugal, who were bringing all their information back there, and the Italians who were funding and going on these expeditions, churning through a lot of the information, and the Germans in the middle, doing strong, leading work with printing.” St-Die, near Strasbourg, Basel and Freiburg, was, like other locations that set up printing presses, at a convergence where information could move back and forth easily.

Today, only a few clues point to the medieval history of St-Dié-des-Vosges, which was mostly rebuilt after World War II. An outline of the continent of America is paved on the ground just outside the cathedral in a matching pink sandstone that you might mistake for a decorative pattern; a stone gargoyle of an indigenous person from the continent can be spotted in its cloister; and each year the town hosts an international festival of geography where geography experts and enthusiasts get together to exchange ideas. Perhaps this is why most visitors to the town don’t know about its map-making history, or that they can see a remnant of it by simply making an appointment the bright and modern local library.

I was one of the few visitors to St-Dié-des-Vosges to make the trip down the stairs of the library, past the colourful children’s paintings decorating the walls to the Salle du Trésor, or Treasure Room. Last year, only 664 people came here, compared to the 18,000 who visited the Tourist Office. It is a small, narrow room with wooden display cases that contrasts with the rest of the library’s contemporary feel. Here, among the other old and rare books on display, such as the beautifully illustrated song book Graduel, is an original version of the book that was printed along with the Waldseemüller map in 1507: the Cosmographiae Introductio, or Introduction to Cosmography.

These words were the cause of contention for centuries to come

The tome, written entirely in Latin, clearly states its purpose: as an “introduction to the world that we have depicted on a globe and on a flat surface”. The ‘flat surface’ refers to the Waldseemüller map, which was printed on 12 separate sheets of paper to be pieced together on a flat surface, while the ‘globe’ refers to a smaller version of the map that was designed to be cut out and pasted onto a ball – making it history’s first ever commercially printed globe and demonstrating, contrary to popular belief, that medieval Europeans knew perfectly well that the world was spherical rather than flat. Significantly, the text also explains the reason behind the naming of the continent, which it claims was discovered by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Since other continent names were feminine in Latin – Europa, Africa, Asia – the author reasoned that the name of this new land should also be feminised, into “America, after its discoverer”.

These words were the cause of contention for centuries to come. From the Spanish friar Bartolomé de la Casas, who in first half of the 16th Century said that it was an “injury and injustice” to Columbus, whose voyages to the Americas predated Vespucci’s, to American writer Washington Irving, who in 1809 wrote of the “crafty wiles” by which the Florentines stole the glory of Columbus. But although Columbus’ four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean started in 1492, when he encountered the islands of the Caribbean, he only touched continental soil on his third journey in 1498. Contrarily, according to a letter dated 1504 from Vespucci to Duke Renè that was reprinted in Introduction to Cosmography and describes his four voyages from 1497 to 1504, he reached the mainland a year earlier than Columbus. Historians have called the authenticity of this letter into doubt, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann took Vespucci’s letter at face value, basing their naming of the new continent on its contents.

The name of the new continent was not the only debate surrounding the map. Much was made of the fact that the new continent was shown to be surrounded by water. How did the map-makers in St-Dié-des-Vosges know, in 1507, that there was water on the other side of the land that Columbus and Vespucci had come across? According to records, the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean was Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who saw it from a mountain top in Panama six years later, in 1513. Was it guesswork, or did the map-makers have access to information from alleged Portuguese voyages to the other side of the continent, kept secret because they crossed over into Spanish waters? (In 1494, the Spanish and the Portuguese decided to divide the entire world west of Europe between them in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Everything beyond what is today known as Brazil was Spanish territory, which is why Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America.)

Another mystery concerned the very existence of the map. Although 1,000 copies of the Waldseemüller map were printed in 1507, they all soon disappeared. Unlike the book, which was preserved in libraries, the maps were displayed in educational institutions and didn't last as long. Map enthusiasts spent centuries searching for and trying to reconstruct the Waldseemüller map based on the descriptions in the Introduction to Cosmography. Eventually, one remaining map was discovered in 1901 by Father Joseph Fischer, a professor in history and geography, in Wolfegg Castle, Germany. It was this map, sometimes referred to as ‘the birth certificate of America’ that was bought by the US Library of Congress in 2003 for an astounding $10 million.

However, the value of the Waldseemüller map is not simply its depiction and naming of America. As Lester explained, “The map is like a Wikipedia entry, combining and editing a lot of different people’s information. Yes, it is a geographical map, but it is not just about space, it is about time.”

It is not just about space, it is about time

This idea is represented by the two images at the top of the map: one of the Greek geographer Ptolemy, who represents the old way of looking at the world and an entire ancient body of knowledge; and the other of Vespucci, who represents a new way of looking at the world, fuelled by modern learning and discovery. The juxtaposition of these two different ages can be seen in the cartography itself; for example, the way Europe is depicted is not technically accurate — not because Waldseeüller did not have a more refined idea of the geography of Europe, but because, as Lester writes, he decided “he would depict the known world exactly as Ptolemy has mapped it more than 1,000 years earlier.”

Additionally, showing two men at the top of the map instead of God, as was common, also conveyed a powerful message: “Previously it was only God who could look down upon the world, but now we can show you everything at once. And that leads to this idea of empire, because if we can map and own the whole world, we can preside over the whole world.” Lester said.

Ultimately, the Waldseemüller map reminds us that all maps are political. By putting north at the top of the map, whereas the previous convention was to place east at the top, and placing Europe at the middle, makes it literally Eurocentric. The decision of the map-makers to name an entire, inhabited continent after a European man who went there, privileges the European perspective and demonstrates the European attitude and ambition of the time. It is an outlook that predicts the way in which the Europeans would continue to take possession of lands, resources and people, erasing cultures and killing millions.

As Lester summarises in his book, “It’s a birth certificate for the world that came into being in 1492 – and it’s a death warrant for the one that was there before.”

Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.

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