Today is the birthday of Martin Behaim who was born in Bohemia or possibly Nuremberg in either 1459 or 1456. He built the earliest surviving terrestrial globe. I don’t know very much about his life. He was once accused of dancing at a Jewish wedding during Lent. On the other hand he was also knighted. So I can conclude that Martin’s life, much like anyone else’s had it’s ups and downs. He worked first for a cloth merchant in Flanders then later moved to Lisbon in Portugal. There he became interested in the work of navigators, cosmographers and explorers. It’s likely he would have met the famous explorers Columbus and Magellan there. In 1485, he joined an expedition to explore the coast of West Africa and lived on one of the islands of the Azores for a few years before returning to Nuremberg in 1490.
It was here, between 1491 and 1493 that he worked with artist Georg Glockendon to build his globe. He named it ‘Erdapfel’ which means ‘Earth Apple’. This has made it rather hard to google as ‘erdapfel’ also means ‘potato’. It turns out that the internet is more interested in potatoes than it is in globes. Behaim’s erdapfel is historically important, not only because it is the oldest surviving example but because it shows us a lot about how much Western Europeans knew about the world. Also there is a lot of writing on it that also tells us what they thought about it.
The globe was made before Columbus returned from his voyage of discovery, so there is no America. Instead, Japan looks to be within a tempting sailing distance of the Canaries. The Atlantic is full of mythical islands, including the Isle of Saint Brendan, which was supposedly discovered by the saint in the sixth century. If there is any truth in the legend, it could be that the land Brendan actually reached was North America. We know that there were other globes in existence before this one that have not survived. Columbus had one with him on his voyage. If it was anything like the erdapfel, it’s easy to understand how he imagined that he had reached the east when he arrived in the Caribbean. Behaim’s globe is somewhat influenced by the work of Ptolemy back in the second century but he has tried to incorporate more recent discoveries such as information from the voyages of Marco Polo to the Far East.
The writing on the globe tells us, among other things, that the people of Iceland sell there dogs at a high price but give away their children to foreign merchants. Obviously, they didn’t do that. It was a story invented by pirates who had kidnapped their children and sold them into slavery. It tells us that on the Island of Ceylon there is a ruby that is one and a half feet long and that in Java, when someone is about to die, they suffocate them, cook them and eat them. It also warns us of the Magnetic Islands, a group of ten islands which should be avoided by any ships containing iron. Sailors were very worried about them, because if you sailed too near, all the nails might fly out of your ship and it would fall to pieces.
Behaim’s erdapfel is a very lovely object and we are lucky it has survived. It was almost thrown out in the early sixteenth century because it was so inaccurate. Fortunately it was rescued by his family. If you wanted to make your own erdapfel, you could probably use the template here.