As is the case for several other scientists mentioned on this blog, Varenius (or Varen) did not start his studies in the field he would become most well-known for, but in medicine. His only medical publication De febri in Genere [on fever in general], submitted at the end of studies at Leiden University, came out in June 1649 mere weeks apart from his first geographical work: Descriptio Regni Japoniae [Description of the Kingdom of Japan]. The following year, he published his magnum opus Geographia Generalis before disappearing from scholarly life – and, indeed, life altogether. [1]

What is so special about the Geographia Generalis?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica summarises the importance of the Geographia Generalis as “not only a systematic geography on a scale not previously attempted but also […] a scheme for special, now know as regional, geography” [2].

These two aspects are particularly important to the field of geography. If cartography was important in Western Europe, at the time right in the middle of the ‘Contact Period’ (also called Age of European expansion, roughly 15th to 18th century), geography was hardly a codified science. Schuchard [1] names several predecessors to Varenius, such as Paul Merula, David Christiani, Bertholomäus Keckermann, or Philipp Clüver. The two latter did produce geographical textbooks, however Keckermann’s was not – as far as we are aware – re-edited, while Clüver’s remained mostly in Latin with a couple of German and French editions. This gives Varenius the important place of first ‘widely translated’ textbook in the field.

As the Encyclopedia Britannica mentions, the Geographia separates ‘general’ and ‘special’ geography – now known as ‘physical’ and ‘regional’ geography. Regional geography, as its name indicates it, focuses on a specific region, and is not explored much in the Geographia. This should not be taken as a sign of disinterest; Varenius’ first geographical work was, after all, a study of a specific country. Nonetheless, the disconnection of the two and lack of treatment of the latter in modern days has sometimes been attributed to this original separation [3]. Baker [4] attributes this to erroneous translations, and to the early passing of Varenius who may have intended to publish more works on special geography.

The organisation of the Geographia in general chapters also allowed future editions to easily expand on each aspect of the book – from dimensions and measurements of the Earth to various aspects of the Ocean, and even a section on the ‘Aether’. As this is primarily a book codifying geography, the reader should expect geometrical models of the Earth rather than maps – which might explains the editor of our copy.

Isaac Newton

Ab Isaaco Newton, Math. Prof. Lucasiano Apud Cantabrigienses. Cantabrigiae, Ex officina Joann. Hayes, Celeberrimae Academiae Typographi. Sumptibus Henrici Dickinson Bibliopolae. MDCLXXII.
Isaac Newton’s name, and printer’s device of the University of Cambridge on the title page.

As a Cambridge library focusing on the history and philosophy of science, Newton tends to come up fairly regularly – including where you do not necessarily expect him. In the early days of his scientific career, the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1672 – incidentally making this year this book’s 350th publishing anniversary), Newton edited this print of the Geographia Generalis.

Warntz [5] theorises that Newton may have been introduced to the Geographia by his academic advisor, Isaac Barrow – first Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, who was also responsible for teaching geography. With the original edition being in short supply, and in need of revision, the newly appointed Newton (he held the chair from 1669 to 1702) took on the task of updating the Geographia.

Warntz [5] also quotes Dugdale’s and Shaw’s English edition (titled A Compleat System of General Geography), where they state that the figures and tables of this edition were authored by Newton himself. Beyond these tables, Newton made extensive corrections and revisions to the Geographia, sometimes rewriting entire portions of the text. He would produce one more edition, in 1681. After him, the ‘Newtonian’ Master of Trinity College Richard Bentley pushed further revisions, leading to James Jurin’s 1712 edition, which drew heavily on the geographical and mathematical advancements of other Newtonians – making the Geographia into an additional instrument of communication for Newtonian science.

The Geographia travels

Several editions followed Jurin’s, including a last Latin edition in 1715, multiple English editions and re-issues (1733, 1734, 1736, 1765), a Dutch one (1750), a French one (1755), and two Russian ones (1718, 1790).

Mayhew [6] notes that the Geographia was an excellent example of print trade networks – with the Latin editions from Cambridge University Press using Dutch typefaces, and being produced for the ‘Republic of Letters’ (p. 186), meaning that they were meant to be read by a wide range of academics from around Europe. This would explain the multiple editions in various languages, and the references to Varenius’ work by later geography scholars, such as the French Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) [7].

Although there is little to no direct mention of Varenius (contrary to the works of Blache), Rebok [8] also notes similarities in methods in the writing of the American Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and the Prussian Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). This may confirm Martin’s [9] analysis that translations of Varenius were studied in New England well into the 18th century.

It is clear that Varenius, despite his very short career, continued to influence geography well-beyond his time. If you would like to see this book in person, feel free to get in touch with us!

Blog post researched, written and produced by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant


STORE 71:2. Bernhardus Varenius, Isaac Newton (ed). Bernhardi Vareni Geographia generalis, in qua affections generals telluris explicantur … aliquot quae desiderabantur aucta & illustrate. Cantabrigiae [Cambridge]: ex officina Joann. Hayes. 1672.


[1] Margret Schuchard (ed.). Bernard Varenius (1622-1650). Leiden: Brill. 2007.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica. Bernhardus Varenius: German geographer. Available at 

[3] James E. Preston. ‘On the Origin and Persistence of Error in Geography’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 57(1), 1-24.

[4] J.N.L. Baker. ‘The Geography of Bernhard Varenius’, Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers), 1955, 21. 51-60.

[5] William Warntz. ‘Newton, the Newtonians, and the Geographia Generalis Varenii’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 79(2), 165-191.

[6] Robert J. Mayhew. ‘Printing Posterity: Editing Varenius and the Construction of Geography’s History’ in Miles Ogborn and Charles W.J. Withers (eds.) Geographies of the book. London: Routledge. 2016.

[7] Paul Vidal de la Blache. ‘Le principe de la géographie générale’, Annales de Géographie 5(20), 129-142.

[8] Sandra Rebok. ‘The influence of Bernhard Varenius in the Geographical works of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt. In Margret Schuchard (ed.). Bernard Varenius (1622-1650). Leiden: Brill. 2007.

[9] Geoffrey J. Martin. ‘The emergence and development of geographic thought in New England’, Economic geography 74(5), 1-13.