The New World in Renaissance Literature

The New World in Renaissance Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The New World in Renaissance Literature

Introduction

The New World in Renaissance Literature

The revelation of America as a newly-discovered continent challenged fundamental aspects of the Renaissance worldview while introducing a new body of ideas and myths into European thought. Strongly influential in shaping perceptions of the New World were the published diaries and letters of such explorers as Sir Walter Raleigh and Hernán Cortés, which documented the course of exploration voyages and the characteristics of the new land and its inhabitants. The literary outgrowths of these popular writings included the expansion of travel literature, fictional genres including the imaginary voyage and the prose romance, and the imaginary societies depicted in Renaissance Utopian literature.

Contemporary critics have noted that Renaissance exploration chronicles are characterized by the imposition of European images and values onto an unfamiliar world—explorers often recorded only what they expected to see, overlooking or severely altering features of the American landscape and Native American culture for which they had no familiar reference point. The Christian tradition, for example, contributed to the early conception of America as an Edenic land populated by "peaceful and innocent children", free from the corruption of material possessions and government. Conversely, as conflicts arose between Europeans and Natives, Indians were widely regarded as "children of Satan" who symbolized the dangerous implications of a world free of law or religion. The Renaissance idea of progress was also influential in depictions of the New World. Percy G. Adams commented: "Very early in the sixteenth century, the discovery of America became a symbol of discovery and invention in general as well as evidence to historians of the New World that their age had made advances over former ages." Such notions as manifest destiny, which have been formative in shaping the course of American history, find their roots in the earliest European colonization efforts and writings that promoted the myth of a European mandate from God to Christianize and profit from the New World.

Representative Works

Columbus, Christopher
Diario del primer viaje [Journal of the First Voyage] 1492-1493

Cortés, Hernán
Carias de relación de la conquista de Méjico [Letters front Mexico] 1519-1526

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal
Historia Verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España 1632

Gómara, Franciso López
Historia General de las Indias 1552

Hakluyt, Richard
The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation 1599

Harris, John
Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca; or, a Compleat Collection of Voyages and Travels 1705

Las Casas, Bartolomé de
Historia de Las Indias [History of the Indies] c. 1527
Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account] 1552

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de
Essais [*Essays] 1572-80

Raleigh, Sir Walter
The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana 1596

Robertson, William
History of America 1777

Waldseemiiller, Martin
Cosmographiae Introductio 1507

Winthrop, John
A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644 1790

*Montaigne discusses the New World in his essays "Of Cannibals" and "Of Coaches."

J. H. Elliott (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Uncertain Impact," in The Old World and the New: 1492-1650, Cambridge at the University Press, 1970, pp. 1-27.

[In the following essay, Elliott considers the impact of the New World on European thought during the Renaissance, and suggests that "tradition, experience, and expectation were the determinants of vision. "]

Nearly three hundred years after Columbus's first voyage of discovery, the Abbé Raynal, that eager inquirer

after other men's truths, offered a prize for the essay which would best answer the following questions. Has the discovery of America been useful or harmful to mankind? If useful, how can its usefulness be enhanced? If harmful, how can the harm be diminished? Cornelius De Pauw had recently described the discovery of the New World [in Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains, in Œuvres Philosophiques, 1794] as the most calamitous event in human history, and Raynal was taking no chances. 'No event', he had cautiously begun his vast and laborious Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770), 'has been so interesting to mankind in general, and to the inhabitants of Europe in particular, as the discovery of the new world, and the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope.' It took the robust Scottish forthrightness of Adam Smith [in The Wealth of Nations, 1776], whose view of the impact of the discoveries was generally favourable, to turn this non-committal passage into an ex cathedra historical pronouncement, 'the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind'.

But in what, precisely, did their importance lie? As the candidates for Raynal's essay prize soon found out for themselves, this was by no means easy to decide. Of the eight essays which have survived, four took an optimistic view of the consequences of America's discovery, and dwelt at length on the resulting commercial advantages. But optimists and pessimists alike tended to wander uncertainly through three centuries of European history, anxiously searching for pieces of stray ammunition with which to bombard their predetermined targets. In the end, it was perhaps not surprising that standards were considered insufficiently high, and no prize was awarded.

Raynal's formulation of his questions no doubt tended to prompt philosophical speculation and dogmatic assertion, rather than rigorous historical inquiry. But this was less easily evaded in 1792, when the Académie Française asked competitors to examine the influence of America on the 'politics, commerce and customs of Europe'. It is difficult not to sympathize with the sentiments of the anonymous prize-winner. 'What a vast and inexhaustible subject', he sighed. 'The more one studies it, the more it grows.' Nevertheless, he succeeded in covering a great deal of ground in his eightysix pages. As might have been expected, he was happier with America's political and economic influence on Europe than with its moral influence, which he regarded as pernicious. But he showed himself aware of the concealed danger in this enterprise—the danger of attributing all the major changes in modern European history to the discovery of America. He also made a genuine attempt, in language which may not sound totally unfamiliar to our own generation, to weigh up the profits and the losses of discovery and settlement. 'If those Europeans who devoted their lives to developing the resources of America had instead been employed in Europe in clearing forests, and building roads, bridges and canals, would not Europe have found in its own bosom the most important objects which it derives from the other world, or their equivalent? And what innumerable products would the soil of Europe not have yielded, if it had been brought to the degree of cultivation of which it is capable?'

In a field where there are so many variables, and where the qualitative and the quantitative are so inextricably interwoven, even the modern arts of econometric history cannot do much to help us assess the relative costs and benefits involved in the discovery and exploitation of America by Europe. Yet the impossibility of precise measurement should not be allowed to act as a deterrent to the study of a subject which has been regarded, at least since the late eighteenth century, as central to the history of Europe and the modern world.

For all the interest and importance of the theme, the historiography of the impact of America on Europe has enjoyed a distinctly chequered career. The eighteenth-century debate was conducted in terms which suggest that the participants were more concerned to confirm and defend their personal prejudices about the nature of man and society than to obtain a careful historical perspective on the contribution of the New World to Europe's economic and cultural development. It was not until Humboldt published his Cosmos in 1845 that the reactions of the first Europeans, and especially of the Spaniards, to the alien environment of America assumed their proper place in a great geographical and historical synthesis, which made some attempt to consider what the revelation of the New World had meant to the Old.

Nineteenth-century historiography did not show any great interest in pursuing Humboldt's more original lines of inquiry. The discovery and settlement of the New World were incorporated into an essentially Europocentric conception of history, where they were depicted as part of that epic process by which the Renaissance European first became conscious of the world and of man, and then by degrees imposed his own dominion over the newly-discovered races of a newly-discovered world. In this particular story of European history—which was all too easily identified with universal history—there was a tendency to place the principal emphasis on the motives, methods and achievements of the explorers and conquerors. The impact of Europe on the world (which was regarded as a transforming, and ultimately beneficial, impact) seemed a subject of greater interest and concern than the impact of the world on Europe.

Twentieth-century European historiography has tended to pursue a similar theme, although from a very different standpoint. The retreat of European imperialism has led to a reassessment—often very harsh—of the European legacy. At the same time the development of anthropology and archaeology has led to a reassessment—sometimes very favourable—of the pre-European past of former colonial societies. Where European historians once wrote with the confidence born of an innate sense of European superiority, they now write burdened with the consciousness of European guilt.

It is no accident that some of the most important historical work of our own age—preoccupied as it is with the problem of European and non-European, of black and white—should have been devoted to the study of the social, demographic and psychological consequences for non-European societies of Europe's overseas expansion. Perhaps future generations will detect in our concern with these themes some affinity between the historians of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. For Raynal and his friends were similarly consumed by guilt and by doubt. Their hesitancy in evaluating the consequences of the discovery and conquest of America sprang precisely from the dilemma involved in attempting to reconcile the record of economic and technical progress since the end of the fifteenth century with the record of the sufferings endured by the defeated societies. The very extent of their preoccupation with the great moral issue of their own times, the issue of slavery, helped to create a situation not without its parallels today. For if their preoccupation stimulated them to ask historical questions, it also tempted them to reply with unhistorical answers.

The Académie Française competition of 1792 shows that one of those questions concerned the impact of overseas expansion on Europe itself; and it is not surprising to find a renewed interest in this same question today. As Europe again becomes acutely aware of the ambivalence of its relationship to the outer world, so it also becomes aware of the possibility of seeing itself in a different perspective—as part of a universal community of mankind whose existence has exercised its own subtle and transforming influences on the history of Europe. The awareness is salutary, although it contains an element of narcissism, to which the eighteenth century self-indulgently succumbed. Moreover, where the relationship with America is concerned, this element is likely to be particularly well represented. For this has always been a special relationship, in the sense that America was peculiarly the artefact of Europe, as Asia and Africa were not. America and Europe were for ever inseparable, their destinies interlocked.

The part played by the American myth in the spiritual and intellectual development of Europe has now become a commonplace of historical study. In the early years of this century, the impressive work of Gabriel Chinard on America and the exotic dream in French literature [L'Exotisme Américain dans la Littérature Française au XVIe Siècle, 1911, and L'Amérique et le Rêve Exotique dans la Littérature Française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe Siècle, 1913] revealed in brilliant detail the fluctuating process by which an idealized New World helped to sustain the hopes and aspirations of the Old until the moment when Europe was ready to accept and act upon America's message of renovation and revolution. Chinard's work was complemented and amplified by Geoffrey Atkinson's study of French geographical literature and ideas [Les Nouveaux Horizons de la Renaissance Française, 1935], and, more recently, by Antonello Gerbi's massive survey of the eighteenth-century debate on America as a corrupt or an innocent world [La Disputa del Nuoro Mondo]. One further book stands out amidst the rapidly growing literature on Europe and the American dream—The Invention of America, by the distinguished Mexican philosophical historian, Edmundo O'Gorman, who has ingeniously argued that America was not discovered but invented by sixteenth-century Europeans.

Alongside these contributions to the study of the myth of America in European thought, an increasing amount of attention has been devoted, especially in the Hispanic world, to the writings of the Spanish chroniclers, missionaries and officials, as interpreters of the American scene. A vast amount of close textual study still remains to be undertaken, but enough has already been achieved to confirm the justice of Humboldt's slightly condescending verdict: 'If we carefully examine the original works of the earliest historians of the Conquista, we are astonished at finding in a Spanish author of the sixteenth century, the germs of so many important physical truths.' There are still great opportunities for research into the Spanish texts, as indeed into the general sixteenth-century literature of exploration and discovery. But the most rewarding results of this textual research are likely to come from intelligent attempts to set it into a wider context of information and ideas. The evidence of the texts can tell us much that we still need to know about non-European societies, by providing the essential material for 'ethnohistory', which sets the results of ethnographic study against European historical records. It can also tell us something of interest about European society—about the ideas, attitudes and preconceptions which made up the mental baggage of Early Modern Europeans on their travels through the world. What did they see or fail to see? Why did they react as they did? It is the attempt to suggest answers to some of these questions which makes Margaret Hodgen's recent history of Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries such an important pioneering work.

This select company of books stands out, not only because of their intrinsic excellence, but also because of the particular line of approach adopted by their authors. All of them have sought, in some way, to relate the European response to the non-European world to the general history of European civilization and ideas. It is here that the most promising opportunities are to be found; and here, too, that there is most need for some kind of reassessment and synthesis. For the literature on the discovery and colonization of the New World is now enormous, but it is also in many respects fragmentary and disconnected, as if it formed a special field of historical study on its own.

[J. R. Hale, in Renaissance Exploration, 1968 said that] 'What is lacking in English is an attempt to tie in exploration with European history as a whole'. This lack provides some justification for an attempt to synthesize, in brief compass, the present state of thought about the impact made by the discovery and settlement of America on Early Modern Europe. Any such attempt must clearly lead into several different fields of inquiry, for America impinged on sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Europe at innumerable points. Its discovery had important intellectual consequences, in that it brought Europeans into contact with new lands and peoples, and in so doing challenged a number of traditional European assumptions about geography, theology, history and the nature of man. America also constituted an economic challenge for Europe, in that it proved to be at once a source of supply for produce and for objects for which there existed a European demand, and a promising field for the extension of European business enterprise. Finally, the acquisition by European states of lands and resources in America was bound to have important political repercussions, in that it affected their mutual relations by bringing about changes in the balance of power.

Any examination of European history in the light of an external influence upon it, carries with it the temptation to find traces of this influence everywhere. But the absence of influence is often at least as revealing as its presence; and if some fields of thought are still curiously untouched by the experience of America, a hundred years or more after its discovery, this too can tell us something about the character of European civilization. From 1492 the New World was always present in European history, although its presence made itself felt in different ways at different times. It is for this reason that America and Europe should not be subjected to a historiographical divorce, however shadowy their partnership may often appear before the later seventeenth century. Properly, their histories should constitute a continuous interplay of two distinctive themes.

One theme is represented by the attempt of Europe to impose its own image, its own aspirations, and its own values, on a newly-discovered world, together with the consequences for that world of its actions. The other treats of the way in which a growing awareness of the character, the opportunities and the challenges represented by the New World of America helped to shape and transform an Old World which was itself striving to shape and transform the New. The first of these themes has traditionally received more emphasis than the second, although, ultimately, the two are equally important and should remain inseparable. But at this moment the second is in need of more historical attention than the first. From around 1650 the histories of Europe and America have been reasonably well integrated. But for the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the significance of America for Europe still awaits a full assessment.

'It is a striking fact', wrote the Parisian lawyer, Etienne Pasquier, in the early 1560s, 'that our classical authors had no knowledge of all this America, which we call New Lands'. With these words he caught something of the importance of America for the Europe of his day. Here was a totally new phenomenon, quite outside the range of Europe's accumulated experience and of its normal expectation. Europeans knew something, however vaguely and inaccurately, about Africa and Asia. But about America and its inhabitants they knew nothing. It was this which differentiated the response of sixteenth-century Europeans to America from that of the fifteenth-century Portuguese to Africa. The nature of the Africans was known, at least in a general way. That of the Americans was not. The very fact of America's existence, and of its gradual revelation as an entity in its own right, rather than as an extension of Asia, constituted a challenge to a whole body of traditional assumptions, beliefs and attitudes. The sheer immensity of this challenge goes a long way towards explaining one of the most striking features of sixteenth-century intellectual history—the apparent slowness of Europe in making the mental adjustments required to incorporate America within its field of vision.

At first sight, the evidence for the existence of a timelag between the discovery of America and Europe's assimilation of that discovery does not seem entirely clear cut. There is, after all, ample evidence of the excitement provoked in Europe by the news of Columbus's landfall. 'Raise your spirits … Hear about the new discovery!' wrote the Italian humanist Peter Martyr to the count of Tendilla and the archbishop of Granada on 13 September 1493 [in Epistolario de Pedro Már tir de Angleria,]. Christopher Columbus, he reported, 'has returned safe and sound. He says that he has found marvellous things, and he has produced gold as proof of the existence of mines in those regions.' And Martyr then went on to recount how Columbus had found men who went around naked, and lived content with what nature gave them. They had kings; they fought among each other with staves and bows and arrows; although they were naked, they competed for power, and they married. They worshipped the celestial bodies, but the exact nature of their religious beliefs was still unknown.

That Martyr's excitement was widely shared is indicated by the fact that Columbus's first letter was printed and published nine times in 1493 and had reached some twenty editions by 1500. The frequent printing of this letter and of the reports of later explorers and conquistadores; the fifteen editions of Francanzano Montalboddo's collection of voyages, the Paesi Novamente Retrovati, first published at Venice in 1507; the great mid-century compilation of voyages by Ramusio—all this testifies to the great curiosity and interest aroused in sixteenth-century Europe by the news of the discoveries.

Similarly, it is not difficult to find resounding affirmations by individual sixteenth-century writers of the magnitude and significance of the events which were unfolding before their eyes. Guicciardini lavished praise on the Spaniards and Portuguese, and especially on Columbus, for the skill and courage 'which has brought to our age the news of such great and unexpected things'. Juan Luis Vives, who was born in the year of America's discovery, wrote in 1531 in the dedication of his De Disciplinis to John III of Portugal: 'truly, the globe has been opened up to the human race'. Eight years later, in 1539, the Paduan philosopher Lazzaro Buonamico introduced a theme which would be elaborated upon in the 1570s by the French writer Louis Le Roy, and would become a commonplace of European historiography: 'Do not believe that there exists anything more honourable to our or the preceeding age than the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the new world; two things which I always thought could be compared, not only to Antiquity, but to immortality'. And in 1552 Gómara, in the dedication to Charles V of his General History of the Indies, wrote perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most succinct, of all assessments of the significance of 1492: 'The greatest event since the creation of the world (excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it) is the discovery of the Indies.'

Yet against these signs of awareness must be set the no less striking signs of unawareness of the importance both of the discovery of America and of its discoverer. The historical reputation of Columbus is a subject which has not yet received all the attention it deserves; but the treatment of Columbus by sixteenth-century writers indicates something of the difficulty which they encountered in seeing his achievement in any sort of historical perspective. With one or two exceptions they showed little interest in his personality and career, and some of them could not even get his Christian name right. When he died in Valladolid, the city chronicle failed to record the fact. It seemed as though Columbus might be doomed to oblivion, partly perhaps because he failed to conform to the sixteenth-century canon of the hero-figure, and partly because the true significance of his achievement was itself so hard to grasp.

There were, however, always a few spirits, particularly in his native Italy, who were prepared to give Columbus his due. The determination of his son, Hernando, to perpetuate his memory, and the publication in Venice in 1571 of the famous biography [Vida del Almiranta Don Cristóbal Colón], helped to keep his name before the world. When Sir Francis Bacon included a statue of Columbus in the gallery in New Atlantis devoted to the statues of 'all principal inventors', his intended tribute to the discoverer of America was not in fact very original. In his History of the New World, published in 1565, the Italian Benzoni alleged that if Columbus had 'lived in the time of the Greeks or of the Romans, or of any other liberal nation, they would have erected a statue'. The same idea was expressed a few years earlier by another of Columbus's compatriots, Ramusio, who in turn probably lifted it from the History of the Indies, written by his Spanish friend, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Recalling famous statues of classical antiquity, Oviedo insisted that Columbus, 'the first discoverer and finder of these Indies', was even more worthy of commemoration. 'As a brave and wise sailor, and a courageous captain, he showed to us this New World, which is so full of gold that thousands of such statues could have been made out of the gold that is sent to Spain. But he is still more worthy of fame and glory for having brought the Catholic faith to these parts ….'

Gold and conversion—these were the two most immediate and obvious connotations of America, and those most likely to be associated with the name of its discoverer. It was only by slow degrees that Columbus began to acquire the status of a hero. He figured as the central protagonist in a number of Italian epic poems written in the last two decades of the sixteenth century, and in 1614 he at last appeared as the hero of a Spanish drama, with the publication of Lope de Vega's extraordinary play, El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón. Lope shows a genuine historical appreciation of the significance of Columbus's achievement when he puts into the mouth of Ferdinand the Catholic a speech affirming the traditional cosmography of a tripartite globe, and scoffing at the possibility that there might exist a portion of the world still to be discovered. At the same time, his Columbus, as a dreamer mocked by the world, has already started on his career as the romantic hero who becomes the symbol of man's unquenchable spirit of discovery.

There were already intimations of this romanticization of Columbus during the sixteenth century. But more commonly he was set within the framework of a providential interpretation of history, which depicted him as a divinely appointed instrument for the spreading of the gospel—and even here he was likely to find himself relegated to second place by the more obviously heroic figure of Hernán Cortés. But not even the mass-conversion of hitherto unknown peoples was sufficient of itself to ensure a firm place for Columbus, or Cortés, or for the New World, in the European consciousness. In some circles—especially certain humanist and religious circles, and in the merchant communities of some of Europe's leading cities—the interest was intense, although partial, and often specialized, in character. But it seems that the European reading public displayed no overwhelming interest in the newly-discovered world of America.

The evidence for this assertion unfortunately lacks the firm statistical foundation which it should properly possess. At present, the most comprehensive information about sixteenth-century reading tastes comes from France, where Atkinson's survey of geographical literature indicates that between 1480 and 1609 four times as many books were devoted to the Turks and Asia as to America, and that the proportion of books on Asia actually increased in the final decade of his chosen period. For other parts of Europe, conclusions remain impressionistic. In England, there is little sign of literary interest before the 1550s, when the new Anglo-Spanish connection provided a belated stimulus. In Italy, the very considerable interest during the opening phase of the discoveries does not appear to have been maintained beyond the ending of active Italian participation around 1520; but a spate of translations of foreign accounts suggests that it revived sharply after 1550. Except for those with a professional interest in the subject, Spanish authors in the century following the discovery were strangely reticent about the New World. Until the publication in 1569 of the first part of Ercilla's Araucana, epic poems recounted the feats of Spanish arms in Italy and Africa, but ignored—to the chagrin of Bernal Díaz—the no less heroic feats of Spanish arms in the Indies. This neglect, in the nation where it is least to be expected, is not easily explained. It may be that neither conquistadores of relatively humble origins, nor their barbarian opponents, measured up to the high standards required of epic heroes.

But even if more statistical studies existed, it would not be easy to interpret their conclusions. This is a field in which the attempt to draw qualitative conclusions from quantitative data is more than usually dangerous. A recent investigation has uncovered at least sixty references to America in thirty-nine Polish books and manuscripts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The number is not unimpressive, but on closer inspection it transpires that the New World constantly reappears in a limited number of contexts—either as a symbol of the exotic, or as a testimonal to the achievements of the church triumphant—and that sixteenth-century Poles were not much interested in America. Conversely, it could be argued that the qualitative changes introduced into European thought by accounts of the New World and its peoples, far outweigh the quantity of information at the disposal of the reader. Montaigne was dependent on Gómara's History of the Indies for much of his information; but his reading of this one book, in the 1584 edition of the French translation, had profound consequences for his whole approach to the question of conquest and colonization.

In spite of this, it is difficult not to be impressed by the strange lacunae and the resounding silences in many places where references to the New World could reasonably be expected. How are we to explain the absence of any mention of the New World in so many memoirs and chronicles, including the memoirs of Charles V himself? How are we to explain the continuing determination, right up to the last two or three decades of the sixteenth century, to describe the world as if it were still the world as known to Strabo, Ptolemy and Pomponius Mela? How are we to explain the persistent reprinting by publishers, and the continuing use by schools, of classical cosmographies which were known to be outdated by the discoveries? How are we to explain that a man as widely read and as curious as Bodin should have made so little use of the considerable information available to him about the peoples of the New World in the writing of his political and social philosophy?

The reluctance of cosmographers or of social philosophers to incorporate into their work the new information made available to them by the discovery of America provides an example of the wider problem arising from the revelation of the New World to the Old. Whether it is a question of the geography of America, its flora and fauna, or the nature of its inhabitants, the same kind of pattern seems constantly to recur in the European response. It is as if, at a certain point, the mental shutters come down; as if, with so much to see and absorb and understand, the effort suddenly becomes too much for them, and Europeans retreat to the half-light of their traditional mental world.

There is nothing very novel about the form of this sixteenth-century response. Medieval Europe had found it supremely difficult to comprehend and come to terms with the phenomenon of Islam; and the story of the attempt at understanding is an intricate story of the interplay of prejudice, puzzlement and indifference, where there is no clear linear progression, but rather a series of advances and retreats. Nor is this a matter for surprise, for the attempt of one society to comprehend another inevitably forces it to reappraise itself. In his essay on 'Understanding a Primitive Society', Professor Peter Winch writes: 'Seriously to study another way of life is necessarily to seek to extend our own—not simply to bring the other way within the already existing boundaries of our own, because the point about the latter in their present form, is that they ex hypothesi exclude that other.' This process is bound to be an agonizing one, involving the jettisoning of many traditional preconceptions and inherited ideas. It is hardly surprising, then, if sixteenth-century Europeans either ignored the challenge or baulked at the attempt. There was, after all, an easier way out, neatly epitomized in 1528 by the Spanish humanist, Hernán Pérez de Oliva, when he wrote [in Historia de la Invención de las Indias] that Columbus set out on his second voyage 'to unite the world and give to those strange lands the form of our own'.

'Give to those strange lands the form of our own.' Here, surely, is revealed that innate sense of superiority which has always been the worst enemy of understanding. How can we expect a Europe so conscious of its own infallibility—of its unique status and position in God's providential design—even to make the effort to come to terms with a world other than its own? But this Europe was not the closed Europe of an 'age of ignorance'. Instead, it was Renaissance Europe—the Europe of 'the discovery of the world and of man'. If Renaissance ideas and attitudes played an important part—however elusive it may be to determine exactly what part—in prompting Europeans to set out on voyages of discovery and to extend their mental as well as their geographical horizons, might we not expect a new kind of readiness to respond to fresh information and fresh stimuli from a newly-discovered world?

The conclusion does not necessarily follow. In some respects the Renaissance involved, at least in its earlier stages, a closing rather than an opening of the mind. The veneration of antiquity became more slavish; authority staked fresh claims against experience. Both the boundaries and the content of traditional disciplines such as cosmography or social philosophy had been clearly determined by reference to the texts of classical antiquity, which acquired an extra degree of definitiveness when for the first time they were fixed on the printed page. Fresh information from alien sources was therefore liable to seem at worst incredible, at best irrelevant, when set against the accumulated knowledge of the centuries. Given this deference to authority, there was unlikely to be any undue precipitation, least of all in academic circles, to accept the New World into consciousness.

It is also possible that a society which is wrestling—as late medieval Christendom was wrestling—with great spiritual, intellectual and political problems, is too preoccupied with its internal upheavals to devote more than fitful attention to phenomena located on the periphery of its interests. It may be too much to expect such a society to make a further radical adjustment—and one which this time involves the assimilation of an entirely new range of alien experiences. Against this, however, it could be argued that a society which is in movement, and displays symptoms of dissatisfaction, is more likely to show itself capable of absorbing new impressions and experiences than a static society, satisfied with itself, and secure in the assurance of its own superiority.

The degree of success or failure in sixteenth-century Europe's response to the Indies can to some extent be measured by reference to another response in a not dissimilar situation—the response of the Chinese of the T'ang dynasty to the reconquered tropical southern lands of Nam-Viet, which has recently been examined by Professor Edward Schafer, in his remarkable book, The Vermilion Bird. His findings suggest that the difficulties confronting colonial officials of seventh-century China and of sixteenth-century Spain in assessing and describing an alien environment were by no means dissimilar, and that the nature of their response was much the same. The Chinese, like the Spaniards, observed and assiduously wrote down their observations, but they were, in Professor Schafer's words, the 'prisoners of their ecological lexicons'. Their minds and imaginations were preconditioned, so that they saw what they expected to see, and ignored or rejected those features of life in the southern lands for which they were mentally unprepared. They found (because they expected to find) the inhabitants barbarian and apelike, and the tropical landscape unalluring. No doubt the tendency to think in clichés is the eternal hallmark of the official mind; but it was only slowly that the unfamiliar environment widened the perceptions of some of the Chinese in the southern lands, and enriched their literature and thought.

There was no European equivalent...

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Utopia Vs. Terror In The New World

Howard Mumford Jones (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Anti-Image," in O Strange New World: American Culture: the Formative Years, The Viking Press, 1964, pp. 35-70.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the opposing idealized and terrifying visions of the New World that characterized Renaissance thought.]

The concept that the New World is the peculiar abode of felicity lingered for centuries in the European imagination and, like the youth of America, is one of its oldest traditions. Virginia, wrote Michael Drayton in his famous poem of 1606, is earth's "onely paradise," and Goethe not long before his death declared: "Amerika, du hast es...

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New World Explorers And Native Americans

J. H. Elliott (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Great American Debate," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXII, No. 8, May 15, 1975, pp. 3-6.

[In the following excerpt, Elliott discusses the debate surrounding exploration and colonization of America during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, which is the subject of Antonello Gerbi's critical study The Dispute of the New World. He then considers the "double vision" which "proved to be of critical importance for the evolution of European attitudes to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. "]

Anyone who is bothered by the marked absence of elephants from the woods and forests of...

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Further Reading

Criticism

"Elizabethan Explorers." The Church Quarterly Preview XXXIII, No. LXV (October, 1891): 216-35.

Offers a historical overview of the most influential exploration voyages and chronicles of the Elizabethan period.

Cressy, David. "Elizabethan America: 'God's Own Latitude?'" History Today, 36. (July 1986): 44-50.

Provides an overview of "what the English wanted from America during the first Elizabethan period, and what they achieved."

Edwards, Philip, ed. Last Voyages: Cavendish, Hudson, Ralegh: The Original Narratives....

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