Europeans Were Less Interested By The New

?Europeans Were Less Interested By The New World Than Their Classical Heritage? Essay, Research Paper The discovery of the Americas in 1492 was a massive challenge to the accepted notions of the world; a world

?Europeans Were Less Interested By The New World Than Their Classical Heritage? Essay, Research Paper

The discovery of the Americas in

1492 was a massive challenge to the accepted notions of the world; a world

which was still viewed by many in Ptolemaic terms, and laid claims against the

accepted wisdom concerning geography, theology, history and the very nature of

man. However, despite the momentous

implications of a new land and, more importantly, its heathen peoples, there

was an apparent slowness to take any real notice of the New World from within

the Old World. This lag

cannot be explained either by slow dissemination of the news, nor by a lack of

understanding of the importance of the discovery. Peter Martyr wrote to the Count of Tendilla and the Archbishop of

Grenada in September 1493 to spread the news, opening with the words ?Raise

your spirits? Hear about the new discovery!?

He talked of the gold Columbus found as well as the important news of

the men they found, who were naked yet fought with bows and staves; men who had

kings competing for power and yet worshipped celestial bodies. The excitement of the initial news was

tremendous, and this was reflected in the demand for literature concerning the

new discovery. Columbus?s first letter

concerning his discovery was reprinted 9 times by the end of 1493 and at least

20 times by 1500. Montalboddo?s voyages

went into print 15 times by 1507 and even in the mid sixteenth century,

Ramusi?s voyages were being republished.

Yet the excitement of discovery was not the only reason for the

excitement. The scale of the discovery

was well-recognised. Guicciardini

praises the Spanish and Portuguese for the ?great and unexpected? discovery. Juan Luis Vires wrote that ?the globe has

been opened up to the human race? and in 1539 the Paduan philosopher Buonamico

claimed that the Americas and the printing press were the two great historical

events that ?could be compared not only to antiquity, but to immortality.? With the obvious exceptions of the

Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Gomara viewed the event as

the greatest ?since the creation of the world.? Although Gomara was writing a half-century after the discovery,

and apparently with great enthusiasm, the fad for Americana soon passed. Although

Guicciardini praised the Spanish and Portuguese for their discovery, he did not

seem aware of Columbus? Italian nationality. When the world?s most famous

sailor died in Vallidolid, the local chronicle did not even mention the

event. Whilst Ramusio and Oviedo

reckoned that his discovery?s conversionary potential would give him almost

saintly status, it was some time before Columbus could even have been sure that

his Christian name would be recorded correctly by writers. Benzoni noted that their classical forebears

would have erected a statue in his honour suggesting a lack of appropriate

monuments to his memory (although Francis Bacon kept a statue of him) and

giving us a hint at a preoccupation with comparing contemporary society to the

classical civilisations. The situation

became so bad that in 1571 his son Hernando was forced to publish a biography

simply in order to keep his name alive for another generation. There was certainly many difficulties for

Europeans wanting to learn about America; difficulties which seem to have

fostered apathy. Difficulties

existed because of the sheer distance between the Americas and Europe and the

time it took to cross the Atlantic, the problems of preconceptions and the

difficulties of language and environment.

These made any information at all difficult to obtain but these were all

overcome simply by exposure to America and by using large fleets to maintain an

American presence, which would explain initial apathy about America. The news of discovery apart, people would

not have been interested by reports with no further developments. Hernando Columbus was fighting a truly

difficult battle, as ?the European reading public displayed no overwhelming

interest in the newly-discovered world of America.[1]?

and it would take generations to overcome such barriers as the problems of

observation, description, dissemination and comprehension. As Humboldt said, ?to see is not to observe;

that is to compare and clarify.?

Unfortunately, the difficulty of comparing and clarifying a land totally

separate in form, ecology, culture and humanity from one?s own in words is

incalculable. The problems of

disseminating new ideas and images until they became the stock-and-trade

furnishings of the mental images of the peoples of Europe concerning the Americas

were enormous. Yet more difficult was

the problem of shifting the mental barriers of both the author, who needed to

try and work to portray a world entirely different from his own, and the

reader, who needed to change their perceptions without seeing the landscapes of

which the author had the benefit when writing. So

great was the problem that most authors chose to wrote of ?experiences? as

opposed to scenery. De Guzman

specifically said in his prologue that he would not try to relate the sights

that he had seen. Some people found themselves able to describe individual

aspects of the American landscape; Verrazeno described the forests of North

America, de Lery described the flora and fauna that he saw whilst Barlowe

described the trees of North America is some detail. However, the greatest problem lay in

describing the peoples of North America. The problem of the weightiness of the

classical ideals often meant that the realities of the New World were hidden,

minimised and concealed by bad comparisons that, instead of relating the

differences and similarities between the Americas and Europe, simply served to

trivialise the fundamental differences between the two zones. For example,

Perez de Oliva?s ?History of the Discovery of the Indies? contains a speech by

an Aztec chieftain with Livian rhetoric in it.

Alonso de Zuazo looked at the Mexicans he met as chivalric barbarians,

whilst Verrazano saw the Indians of Rhode Island as dark-haired, bronzed and

black-eyed, but described their bodies in terms best suited to describing

classical sculptures. The problem was

to be tackled by the employment of painters, but European painters were not

really used to making portraits of people outside of the classical mould. In any case, even when painters gave their

etchers material to use, the poor etching technology often made any

characteristics indistinguishable, and etchers often chose to turn their

subjects into Greek and Roman ideals.

Worse still, some publishers simply used images of Turks that they

happened to have in stock at the time instead of commissioning new

etchings. The

lack of interest in the Americas is thus partly the result of a 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[2];

a tendency which made America sound like a simple extension of the European

mainland and thus diminished its novelty and interest value. This obsessive

clinging onto the mighty past was driven forward by the printing press, which

had turned to publishing classics almost immediately that it needed secular

matter. The philosophy of Humanism, which predominated above all in Florence

from the time of Petrarch until around 1475, had been originally dedicated

above all else to the promulgation of classical languages and literature, which

they thought to be more rational.

Burckhardt noted that the Florentines made ?antiquarian interests one of

the chief objectives of their lives.?

What they referred to as studia humanitas was strongly centred on

philology and it was this study that first discovered a definitive and

impassable distance between past and present, whereas before, there had been no

awareness of a break. This new awareness

gave rise to a need to define oneself in relation to the past, to build anew on

the past, but differently from the past.

The Romans, it was argued, had built their Republic on foundations of

virtue, whilst their empire was on foundations of tyranny. The philosophy, a

result of Florence?s republican fervour, could have developed in no other

environment, and the defeat of the Visconti tyranny in Milan, was an exhibition

from the most Republican of cities (the city had been founded by Sulla), and of

its self-conscious study of the Roman republican world. Humanism

was the frame into which the news of the discovery was placed; a frame of

devotion to Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Xenophon and the newly discovered

Tacitus. Bruni?s second dialogue saw

the classical past as something with which the newly disassociated present can

compete and outdo, as opposed an irreplaceably lost golden age. In 1435, the exiled Roman Curia, which

included Bruni, held a debate about whether the vernacular languages of Europe

could ever attain the perfection of Latin or Greek, and concluded that one must

be willing to employ the ancient model as a guide in building a new literature

in a new nation, but that one must do it in a new language. This is indicative of the obsessive

comparisons between the Early-Modern and Classical eras, that the Roman Curia

should compare their languages; this is more bizarre still when one is dealing

in the era after Dante, one of Bruni?s ?Three Crowns of Florence? and a

vernacular poet. Dante was a recognised

talent and he was defended to the hilt by Florentine Humanists even when his

placement of Caesar in purgatory and his assassins in a lower circle of hell

suggested sympathy with tyranny. That

one should consider faulting Dante for his use of Italian and not High Latin

suggests compulsiveness as regards the Classics. With European

arrogance about what defined society (Europe), Bodin declined to use the

information that he had available about the New World in his writings whilst

cosmographers and social philosophers, with so much to take in, just decided to

circumvent the problems caused by America by ignoring the continent. This is perhaps unsurprising given the

responses of Medieval Christendom to Islam, where once again prejudice,

puzzlement and indifference reigned.

The reorganisation of ideas to incorporate the New World meant the

abandonment of many of their inherited founding principles and preconceptions,

so many chose to avoid making the ?agonising? decision[3]

to take on board the new lessons of the New World, especially when arguments

concerning the Old World were so prevalent and complex. New

World culture was never close to being assimilated, and no Eueopean would ever

have considered any assimiliation of anything non-European. In 1528 Hernan Perez de Oiva wrote of giving

?those strange lands the form of our own.?

The Aztec Empire was seen as the background to conversion, as the Roman

Empire had been the background to European conversion. Las Casas? ?Apologetica Historia? assessed Aztecs, Incas, Greeks,

Romans, Gauls, Egyptians and Britons as examples of pre-Christian societies

(and came up very much in favour of the potential of the South Americans) thus

bringing the Indians into sociological parity with the Europeans, and Cicero?s

claim that men are defined by their rationality led many to see the Indians as

equal; a decision made finally with a papal bull authenticating their humanity.


theologians and philosophers were debating what makes men into men, Philip III

of Spain used ?Politics? by Aristotle to justify the slave status of the

Americans, whilst even Cortes called them ?Barbarians? in spite of the

condemnation in Corinthians I of the term ?Barbarians?. Cicero?s claim that men are rational also

meant that the Europeans had no qualms about imposing a ?rational? government

onto the Americans, replacing their ?irrational? lifestyles, again despite

Corinthians I. This placement of

Aristotle on a par with St. Paul is perhaps incredible from the grandson of

Charles V, but indicative of the sway held by the classics outside of the

republican sphere. In the decades after the fall of

Constantinople and the establishment of fortress Europe, when the system of Tuerkeglocken

warning bells ran from Vienna to Gibraltar to call the Christians to defend

the east against Turkish intruders, the unbreakable Christian continent, under

the Habsburg marshalship, was coming to be viewed as not just the cradle of

civilisation, but also the divinely appointed centre of humanity. The idea of accepting ideas from the New

World where the inhabitants had not yet even acquired shame about their

nakedness was preposterous to Europeans who knew themselves to be right in

every way. This

idea of divine guidance for the Godly continent was supported by the growth of

the influence of the ?classic? texts.

The growth of printing lent greater authority to the classic texts and

led to a more slavish interpretation of the classics. Authority staked fresh claims against experience as the lessons

of the New World came to be seen as being incredible or at best,

irrelevant. In an era when great,

spiritual, intellectual and political problems[4]

were rending the continent apart, the New World was not perceived as a land of

hope, but as a potential cause of new problems, which may explain the

dedication of those who chose to ignore it.

In the seventh century, as J.H. Elliott notes, the Chinese T?ang

dynasty?s discovery of Nam-Viet had a similar influence, as the mainland

Chinese came to impose their will on the indigenous population, and decided not

to take in the lessons that could be learnt there. The influence of

the classical past is clear in the approach taken to the histories made of the

Americas. Using Pliny?s ?Natural

History? as a guide, Monardes? ?Medicinal Plants of America? and de Acosta?s

?Natural & Moral History of the Indies? were the first books to catalogue

and classify any aspects of the American world. The history was based on recordings of the oral traditions ? a

source that was only credited with anything more than the most dubious of

provenances once Herodotus? usage of the oral tradition was cited as a

precedent.The issue of whether Europeans

were more interested by their heritage or by their own generations? discovery

is easier to answer by geographical region.

Atkinson?s survey of geographical literature shows four times as many

books published in France concerning Africa and Asia as the Americas, although

this may be symptomatic of the exploration of the Africas and Asia by the

Portuguese; a factor that led to geographical information being available for

these regions which was unavailable for the Americas. However, this explanation does not explain an apparent waning in

the rate of publication of books about the Americas throughout the period, before

it finally plummeted in the last decades of the sixteenth century. This would suggest a New World apathy in

France; a country whose role in the discovery and exploration of the continent

was minimal. Meanwhile, in

Poland, 39 16th and 17th centuries volumes contain a

total of 60 American references, all of which imply either the exotic, or the

church triumphant; none implying anything more or anything more important to

Europeans themselves, nor showing a knowledge of the Americas beyond the

Americas as converted area and as a faraway source of gold. Comparative

interest in the New World seems to vary with national involvement with the

discovery and exploration. In Italy,

interest was intense until the 1520s when Italian involvement ended and Italian

sources ceased to be produced. The

number of translations of foreign works did seem to make up this shortfall from

the 1550s and is indicative of a prolonged interest from the Italians. The Italian epic poems of the 1580s and

1590s about the discovery and the 1614 Spanish drama, ?El Nuevo Mundo

descubierto par Cristobal Colon? by de Vega were the exceptions in so far as

that they were focussed works concerning the New World, although it should be

remembered that in these works, the Indians speak in tones more suited to a

debate in a Roman forum than a South American rainforest. Spain?s public

showed little interest in the New World, and Ercilla?s ?Aruacana? was the first

epic about the Indies. This may be

because the conquistadors were not ?epic hero? material, although a large

corpus of professional materials, for use by doctors, philosophers, sailors and

theologians was produced. This may have

depreciated public appreciation for the New World, but the extent of Spanish

interest in Portugal?s great discovery becomes clear when looking at

England. In England, the discovery was

hailed with apathy before the Spanish connection of the 1550s stimulated a

limited degree of interest. Although it is

tempting to see the Atlantic as the binding factor governing interest, the

examples of England, France and Italy, where interest runs counter to this

trend would suggest that the Atlantic?s presence was simply the stimulus to

explore that led to involvement in the New World in the first place. On the issue of the role of the classical

world?s hold on Europe, the rise of Humanism, Platonism and Neoplatonism, meant

that the Old World had just risen to its climax of relevance as the New World

was discovered and was on the wane. The

increase in translations in Italy throughout the 1550s coincides with the end

of the Neoplatonic era, which would suggest a shift in focus at around this

time. The coincidence of the Spanish

connection in the 1550s and the end of Neoplatonism would explain the interest

in England for the New World from this time. The increase in importance of the

New World at the Spanish court grew massively at this time. The Spanish took

just 300 toneladas of silver in 1504, 10,000 toneladas by 1520, 20,000

toneladas by 1545 and 32,355 toneladas by 1554. The coincidence with the death

of Neoplatonism would foster a look westward by the Spanish at this time. This is easiest to spot in the appearance of

poetry, plays and so on, but also in the use of questionnaires in Castile; a

technique honed in the New World. Thus,

greater interest in the New World was reliant on disentrenchment of the

classical ideals that had been made fashionable by the successes in Italy of

humanist Florence. [1] p. 12 JHE [2] p. 14 [3] p. 15 [4] p. 16