European Scholarship and the Exploration of the New World

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European Scholarship and the Exploration of the New World


The Renaissance. After Europe recovered from the blight of plague, different commercial routes to Asia opened; new centralized political states formed; and disgruntled subjects began to challenge the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. As scholars, governors, kings, and clergy grappled to understand the changes they witnessed around them, they together produced an intellectual, artistic, and cultural movement called the Renaissance which first started in the thirteenth century in the prosperous commercial city-states of the Italian peninsula. Today the vibrancy of this important movement can be seen in the artwork of Michelangelo, the inventiveness of Galileo, and the literary work of Dante.

Scholarship. Two distinct intellectual traditions battled for the minds of Europeans during the Renaissance. Scholastics and humanists argued about the central questions that preoccupied the professors at Europes leading universities. Above all, they debated the relationship between humans and God and about how religion and reason coexisted to make humans rational and spiritual beings. By the early 1500s the humanists had won the battle for the European mind, and they turned their attention to the New World that Columbus and others had explored.

Writing about America. Writing about North America typically involved translating, transcribing, and editing the accounts of explorers. Building on the humanists tradition of criticism of sources, Peter Martyr, Francisco Lopez de Gómara, Richard Eden, and André Thevet put their scholarship into print and created some of the first best-sellers. The New World posed serious problems for scholars. Clergy and professors wondered if the biblical flood had reached North America, puzzled over Adams relationship to Native Americans, and debated the Indians humanity. Others, such as Lucas de Heere, used a study of reports on Indians to piece together what ancient Europeans might have been like. But before 1600 the New World had only made a dent in European historiography. It would not be until the late 1600s and early 1700s that the early questions generated by the discovery of America sparked systematic thought and study. In the words of one writer in 1512, the opening of the New World matters not at all or very little to the knowledge of ... [our] History.

Spain. When Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros founded the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1498, humanists established a strong grip on education in Spain, and the university played an important role in the publication of research about the New World. One scholar, Martyr, who worked in the service of the duke of Milan, had interviewed several Spaniards involved with the exploration and settlement of the American Southeast and wrote an account of the ill-fated Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón colony in present-day South Carolina. Although Martyr questioned his sources, he unwittingly perpetuated many of the original lies and exaggerations about the wealth of the region made by Ayllón when he had persuaded the king to approve the founding of the colony. In effect Martyr popularized the myth of Chicora, a tale of the fabulous wealth and bounty that other explorers who read Martyrs account also hoped to find in the American South. In 1530 the university published Martyrs notes with his writings on Christopher Columbuss and Amerigo Vespuccis voyages as De Orbe Novo (The New World). The book went through several translations and new editions and inspired French and English attempts to settle the South. Despite Spains considerable success in colonizing and in publicizing the New World, however, Spanish authors made only a small contribution to the growing body of printed material on the New World. Gómara was by far the most famous native-born scholar. His book, Historia general (General History), was published in 1530 as the first comprehensive Spanish account of Spains activities in North and South America. The book sold widely and influenced later explorers initial impressions of North America.

Scholasticism and Humanism

The Renaissance transformed European thinking. During the Middle Ages scholasticism was the dominant mode of religious scholarship. It emphasized the rationality of the individual, and its practitioners sought to understand how faith and rationality could coexist. By questioning the Bible and other religious texts, scholastics attempted to render in systematic ways rational justifications for faith in God. Humanism, which arose in the fourteenth century, challenged scholasticism. To humanists faith did not need to be justified because it was an inherent part of an individuals makeup. Humanists such as Petrarch in Italy and Desiderius Erasmus in northern Europe sought to understand the innate qualities of people by collecting, translating, criticizing, and publishing works of Greek and Roman antiquity as well as Christian religious texts. By comparing sources they hoped to reproduce ancient texts in a pristine form that would enable them to get closer to the spirit and intellect of the ancient Classical world which they took for their inspiration.

Source: Alistair E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993).

France. A late entry in the race for America was France. Giovanni da Verrazanos voyage in 1524 along the coast of eastern North America marked the countrys first attempt to gain information about the New World. In 1556 the Italian author Giovanni Bautista Ramusio published Navigationi et Viaggi (Navigations and Voyages), which collected documents related to Verrazzanos voyage and subsequent report to the French king Francis I. One year later André Thevets La France Antarctique (Antarctic France) appeared and marked the first major French contribution to the growing body of scholarship about America. Thevet had visited various spots along the east coast on a return trip to France from Brazil. By reporting his own rather than others findings Thevet established a French claim to the land that other powers had to at least acknowledge if not respect. The optimistic report he gave of the southeastern coast in particular dovetailed with Martyrs and Gómaras work on the same area and also influenced the choice that the Huguenot

leader Jean Ribault made to locate his Protestant colony near present-day Jacksonville, Florida.

England. Like the French, the English in the sixteenth century were intermittent colonizers at best, and several of the nations leading scholars hoped that through their published work they could stimulate the Crown to devote more money and energy to the exploration and settlement of the New World. Richard Edens Decades of the Newe Worlde (1555), a version of Martyrs book that drew on Gómara as well, provided a well-rounded picture of North America. Unlike the other two authors, however, Eden focused a good deal of his attention on the northern sea and the great fisheries off present-day Newfoundland. Eden had hoped to build on the pioneering legacy of John and Sebastian Cabot, the father and son who had explored the area four decades before the books publication, but his book failed to spark English interest in the New World. In the 1580s Richard Hakluyt resumed Edens project. As a humanist Hakluyt compiled a variety records related to various explorations and published them in two books: Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America (1582) and Principal! Navigations... of the English Nation (1589). By highlighting the various English voyages of exploration, Hakluyt created the impression that England had exerted an important influence in the creation of the New World and hoped that his message would spur Queen Elizabeth I to action.


Jacob Ernest Cooke, ed., Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, 3 volumes (New York: Scribners, 1993);

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed., America in European Consciousness, 14931750 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

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European Scholarship and the Exploration of the New World

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European Scholarship and the Exploration of the New World