Upon viewing this map, which is generally considered to be the earliest existing map of the entire African continent, it is difficult not to become fixated on the large, one-eyed figure seated in the centre. For a sixteenth-century European audience, textual and visual descriptions of ‘monstrous races’ would have been familiar from works by ancient scholars, like Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and Strabo (64-24 BCE) and newly published cosmographies, natural histories, and world chronicles, like the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493 CE). While myths of the Monoculi (Cyclops), or one-eyed people, shift between sources, the Monoculi are consistently characterized as violent, cave-dwelling, cannibalistic giants.
Münster exaggerates the features of the one-eyed figure in order to make it clear to the viewer that the Monoculi were giants with traits distinctly different from humans. The figure appears colossal in comparison with the trees, mountains, and even a nearby elephant. While the Monoculi were used as examples of unnatural bodies and physical monstrosity, the physical characteristics of this tribe appear to be overwhelmingly human. The figure blurs physical traits of monstrosity and humanness, echoing European anxieties about what it meant to be human in the wake of encounters with different cultures and bodies. Were the Monoculi people fundamentally different from humans? Were they identified as humans, monsters, or hybrids? Were there entire peoples or nations with monstrous traits, or were there only individual instances of monstrous bodies? Münster’s map does not provide clear answers to any of these questions. However, the inclusion of the figure’s naked body in a seated position was a hierarchical strategy for visually distinguishing the Monoculi from ‘civilized’ audiences in Europe. Thick black lines on the figure’s ankles appear as if shackles, furthering Münster’s attempt to show the Monoculi as inferior and submissive to Europeans.
As a telling example of shifting definitions of humanness and human diversity, the map also reveals that such concepts were intricately tied to changing models of the world. In cartographic contexts, mythical tribes were most often found occupying the edges of the world, although there are some exceptions to this trend. Occasionally, they did not occupy a place on the map at all, rather appeared in small bordering pictures, which as proto-ethnographic images, served to accentuate their distance from the civilized world. A fantastic example of this is in the mappa mundi in the Nuremburg Chronicle, which you can see and find information about in the ‘Archived Objects’ under ‘October 2017’.
Both medieval mappa mundi and Ptolemaic maps typically show only half of the African continent, as it was believed impossible to travel beyond the torrid zone. The Monoculi figure, which is pictured centrally in Münster’s map, would have previously occupied a positioned along the periphery of the world image. As previously unknown lands became more familiar through exploration, Claudius Ptolemy’s long-standing model of the world was rendered insufficient. What did it mean that the Monoculi no longer occupy a position at the edge of the world in Münster’s updated world model? Interestingly, while Münster challenges the authority of Claudius Ptolemy’s ancient geographical source by completing the continental image of Africa, he upholds Pliny’s ancient natural philosophy by including the one-eyed figure. Münster’s map is revealing of the destabilization and reassessment of classical paradigms of knowledge, and it illustrates anxieties of shifting early modern bodies and worlds.
Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
David Woodward, ed., The History of Cartography: Cartography of the European Renaissance, Volume 3, Part 1 and 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).