Munster was born in Nierder-Ingelheim a small town of the Rhenish Palatinate, on the Rhine between Mainz and Bingen, on 20th January 1488, the son of Andreas Munster. From 1503 to 1508 studied arts and theology at Heidelberg, where he entered the Franciscan Order in 1505. His truly formative years were those from 1509-1518 (or later), when he pursued his studies first under the versatile humanist Konrad Pellikan and subsequently under the Swabian mathematician Johann Stoffler. From 1509 to 1514 or 15, at the monastery of St. Katherina in Rufach in the upper Alsace, and then at Pforzheim, Pellikan, who used the Margarita philosophica of Gregor Reisch as a text-book, was Munster's instructor in Hebrew and Greek, cosmography and mathematics, in fact in almost the whole range of studies to which his mature life was dedicated.
From 1514 or 1515, as Stoffler's pupil at Tubingen, Munster deepened and broadened his knowledge of mathematical geography and cartography; this was Stoffler's special field of interest, and he had himself written a commentary on Ptolemy's Geographia. Munster was allowed to transcribe Stoffler's geographical notes and collections, and from this period dates the Kollegienbuch or lecture-notebook, which throws much light on Munster's early geographical studies, on the source-materials at his disposal, and on his later evolution as a cartographer. The Munster's lecture note book contains extracts from various publications, with Munster's commentary, but also
contains a series of 44 maps drawn by Munster. Of them, 43 are derivative of existing printed materials but one, of the Rhine from Basle to Neuss appears to be
an original drawing by Munster himself.
The years 1518-1529 form an interlude, incompletely documented, in Munster's life. This was nevertheless a period of strenuous intellectual activity, expressed in numerous publications in hebraistics and by his earliest printed works on cosmography, geography and applied mathematics. In 1524 he was appointed to teach the Hebrew language at the University of Heidelberg; this appointment was ill paid, and it was evidently with no reluctance that Munster accepted an invitation to the chair of Hebrew at the university of Basel, whither he moved in 1529. At Basel he was to spend the rest of his life until his death from plague in 1552. Most of Munster's earlier Hebraistic publications came from the press of Johann Froben, Erasmus's printer; Munster also worked as press-corrector for Adam Pteri, who in 1520 printed his German translation of Luther's Wittenberg theses. In 1529, soon after his move to Basel, he left Franciscan Order and adhered to Lutheranism; and in the following year he married Adam Petri's widow, thus gaining for himself a measure of financial security and the services of the substantial printing-house of his stepson Heinrich Petri, who was to produce, sometimes in collaboration with Michael Isingrin, most of his later works. The Basel period, uneventful save for incessant study and publication, an immense correspondence (of which only 50 letters survive), and numerous journeys, saw Munster's emergence as the leading German geographer of his day. As his most recent biographer (Burmeister 1963) points out, his contemporaries thought of Munster as a Hebraist; there is no evidence that he taught geography or the mathematical sciences at Heidelberg or Basel; and he attained the peak of his reputation as a geographer only with the definitive edition of the Cosmographia published in 1550, very near the end of his life.
In 1540, Munster's edition of Ptolemy appeared, illustrated with 48 woodcut maps, the standard Ptolemaic corpus supplemented by a number of new maps, of great significance for the mapping of Europe. It is probably impossible to exaggerate the influence that these maps, his published texts and broadsheet maps had on his successors. Essentially, Munster laid down a challenge: "here is what I know, do you know better ?"
Having completed the Geographia, Munster returned to his pet project, the description of Germany. In 1544, he published the first edition of the
Cosmographia, a summary both of Munster's own geographical researches and those of his many correspondents.
For the 1550 edition additions included a large number of town prospects. The 1550 edition of the Cosmographia was the final flowering of Munster's work. Both the Geographia and Cosmographia were reprinted in 1552, but they had taken on their final shape. In the middle of 1550, on 26th May, Munster died of plague, bringing to the end the career of this gifted and energetic geographer.
Heinrich Petri, his successor continued to publish new edition of the Cosmographia, as did Heinrich's son
Sebastian Henri Petri. Munster's text was much reprinted by other publishers, most notably by Francois de Belleforest, although the maps and plans used to
illustrate this edition were taken from more modern sources - Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), and Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates
Orbis Terrarum, published from 1572 onwards. Indeed, for the 1588 edition of the Cosmographia, Sebastian Henricpetri substituted new maps taken from
Ortelius, but using woodcuts cut in emulation of the copperplate style of Ortelius's maps.