Communication, Transportation, and Exploration: Documentary Sources

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1350 - 1600: Communication, Transportation, and Exploration: Documentary Sources

Pierre d'Ailly, Imago mundi (Image of the World, 1410)—French cardinal's early geography claims that a westward voyage from Europe to Asia was possible. Based on Ptolemy's work, as well as biblical and Muslim sources, the text was read by Christopher Columbus. A slightly later work, Compendium Cosmographiae (1414), was written after d'Ailly had read the 1410 translation of Ptolemy's Geography.

João de Barros, Década (1552)—An account of Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the earth.

Ibn Battuta, Rhilah (1353)—The autobiographical adventures of a Muslim from Ceuta, who travelled as far east as China. Many of the stories are obvious exaggerations, but the work offered Europeans information about the history and geography of the Muslim world.

Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (1353)—A collection of short stories providing a lively account of life at the time of the Black Plague. The work is a vernacular example of early Italian humanism.

William Caxton, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1475)—The first book printed in English. In Book III of this text, Caxton tells how he “practised and learnt” to use a printing press after his “pen became worn, his head weary, his eye dimmed” from handcopying so many manuscripts.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (circa 1375-1400)—Modeled on Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), this English work has pilgrims telling stories that address the moral and social ills of the period.

Christopher Columbus, Letter to Luis de Santdngel (1493)—Columbus's account of his first voyage to the Caribbean was modified by royal officials and then published. It circulated widely throughout Europe.

William Langland, Piers Plowman (circa 1372-1386)—Early English criticism of society from the perspective of the peasant.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indies (1527-1559)—A descriptive account of the Americas written by a Dominlean monk known as the “Apostle to the Indians.” Las Casas relied on his own experiences in the Americas as well as firsthand accounts such as Christopher Columbus's own writings and family papers. Las Casas also wrote two scathing attacks on the European treatment of Amerindians: Apologetic History of the Indies (1551), and Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552).

Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Historia de las Indias y conquista de Mexico (1552)—Account of the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs written by Hernán Cortés's secretary.

Sir John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1366)—The author pretends to be an English knight in this geographical romance. The work popularized the existing Prester John myth and supported many of Marco Polo's claims. The immense popularity is evident in the eighty editions published in eight languages between 1478 and 1592.

Facanzano da Montalboddo, Paesi novamente retrovati (1507)—The first great collection of eyewitness descriptions of the early transoceanic voyages. The book contains real and forged accounts including Amerigo Vespucci's voyages to South America.

Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Epitome of the Theater of the Worlde, 1570)—The first atlas in the modern sense of the word, that is, a collection of maps intended to describe the world. Mapmaking in early modern Europe was one of the means that political authorities had of staking and maintaining territorial claims and was therefore an important part of the European expansion and hegemony process.

Luca Pacioli, Summary of Arithmetic (1494)—The volume that popularized the practice of double-entry bookkeeping is an example of the growth in quantitative perception among urban Europeans.

Christophe Plantin, Bibliapolyglotta (Polyglot Bible, 1569-1572)—Written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldaic (ancient Semitic).

Regimento do astrolabio e do quadrante (1509)—King John II of Portugal appointed a committee to draft written tables of declination so navigators could accurately calculate latitude with astrolabes and quadrants.

Erasmus Reinhold, Prutenic Tables (1551)—These astronomical tables, based on Copernicus's mathematical astronomy, are tangible evidence that Copernicus's work was being read and used, even if those who were using it remained unconvinced of the reality of the heliocentric hypothesis.