British geographer and author Crane makes his US debut with a weighty biography of the 16th-century cobbler’s son who determined how we view the world.
Born Gerard Kremer of Germanic parents in a Belgian village in 1512, Mercator would have called the trade he virtually invented “cosmography” as opposed to cartography. An uncle sponsored Kremer, by his teens an orphaned pauper, to a formal education. It was the heady time when the humanist movement’s classical revivalism arose in the shadow of larger-than-life figures like Luther and Erasmus to challenge the Catholic Church with Aristotelian science (among other things). Kremer had to struggle to teach himself the necessary mathematics after he decided there was more money in applied science than in philosophy, and his skill in engraving copper plates with cursive script brought him into collaboration with mapmakers. After a seven-month incarceration on suspicion of heresy (or at least associating with known heretics), the man who had latinized his name in the humanist fashion to represent himself as a merchant of books started in earnest on work that would literally change the perception of ordinary citizens, who had been bound since the Middle Ages to a largely imaginary world. Using triangulation to calculate distances brought accuracy and thus reality to maps for the first time. But it would be years before Mercator, who never went to sea and rarely ventured farther from home than the Frankfurt Book Fair, established a method for accurately projecting the surface of a solid globe onto a flat piece paper, a method NASA still uses today to plot details of planets its roving satellites survey. Above all, Crane notes, Mercator’s method created maps that were “practical, accessible and could be precisely overlapped.”
Lucid insights into the arcane processes of cartography, together with a meticulous map of the tenor of the times show humanist genius surviving and thriving amid the death throes of feudalism.