Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Writing To the Rhythm of the Tides

As we work on a digital edition of the exceptional Esmeraldo de situ orbis, an early 16th-century work on cosmography and overseas exploration, we would like to record what seems to be a spectacular literary device employed by its author, Duarte Pacheco Pereira. In book 1, chapter 12, speaking of the tides and the relation between compass points and time measurement, Pacheco Pereira writes:

Because the moon in every twenty-four hours, after its conjunction, recedes from the sun one quarter point of the compass, it was fitting that we should explain in the first section of this twelfth chapter why we began to calculate the tides at nine o’clock in the morning when the sun and moon were in conjunction in the southeast; and now having gone through all the points of the compass and explained about the tides, and twenty-four hours having passed since we began this work, and the moon being three-quarters of an hour behind the sun… Because of this it is well that what we have explained should be known and we will end in the southeast where we began.

So, he is not only establishing a relation between the number of the chapter and the theme he is discussing in it, but also relating his work, as if in real time, with the topic of time measurement by the lunar movements. This surprising glimpse into his working process feels like the breaking of the fourth wall in the scenic arts, when the actor suddenly speaks directly to the audience.

Some questions naturally arise upon this, which looks like an impressive feat of literary craftsmanship: had he planned it? Did he deliberately take a given number of hours to complete the section, and did he sleep meanwhile? or is he masterfully taking advantage of a perceived coincidence to throw this flourish at his readership?

In any case, as we confirm time and again working on our rutters and supposedly boring technical literature, there is no dull moment when poring with attention and care over early modern and medieval sources. Reader, you are invited to come and join us in our explorations! [J. Acevedo / S. Munzi]

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Matelotage 1. An Unusual Type of Early Modern Same-Sex Civil Union

In the collective imagination, the world of Early Modern oceanic sailing is still shrouded in an aura of virility and machismo. This perception leaves little room for much more complex and fluid affective and sexual dimensions. Generally, the issue of homosexuality in Renaissance and Early Modern long-range travels is described as a rather widespread but often tolerated transgression. The most common understanding is that homosexual behaviors were merely a diversion from prolonged distance from the female presence. During the 16th and 17th centuries, however, long before civil unions and same-sex marriages became legally accepted, seafarers had created an institution that anticipates these types of unions. It was called matelotage.

Matelotage comes from the French word matelot, meaning sailor or seafarer. It was a type of contract which united two men who decided to share their fate. This included a vast range of things, from battles to booty to the ship’s hammock. The matelotage offered mainly guarantees in case of death of one of the two. The survivor received a share of the booty due to the deceased companion and inherited his property, minus the part due to any of the dead’s relatives. It must be said that the matelotage did not necessarily imply a sexual or love relationship. However, and this is the unexpected thing, especially among pirates, the amorous component was not uncommon.

Why the pirates? If we think about it, compared to sailors aboard military or commercial vessels (although the distinction was often blurred), the lives of pirates offered much less certainty from the point of view of legal guarantees. Certainly their activities were not protected by the comfort of the law, nor did they have families to return (peacefully) at the end of their activities. Among pirates, therefore, there were those who decided to enter into a civil union, celebrated like a marriage, with the exchange of golden rings and promises of fidelity: from that moment on, the two men would share everything, possibly even women. No one was forced to engage in a relationship of this type, even if it often involved somewhat unbalanced couples: an older pirate took under his protection a young man, the matelot, who would inherit his property and in the meantime could enjoy a certain security and have money available.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

On the Importance of Visiting Archives

One would think that, at this point, anything related to historical figures of the caliber of Galileo Galilei is known, studied and rigorously catalogued. I did so, at least, until a small book came into my hands, Galileo ritrovato. La lettera a Castelli del 21 dicembre 1613. I couldn’t help reading a book talking about “the first manifesto on the freedom of science”, could I?

To my great surprise, the authors describe the discovery of an original letter written by Galileo Galilei to his friend Benedetto Castelli, mathematician at the University of Pisa, in 1613. The letter, of which only some copies were known, stayed unnoticed for more than two centuries at the library of the Royal Society in London, until Salvatore Ricciardo found it in 2018, just 3 years ago.

First and last page of the letter from Galilei to Castelli

I won’t discuss the historical significance and implications of this discovery, but I’m using this example to highlight the importance of archival search. Libraries, archives, and all other repositories of books and documents are treasure chests hiding key elements to understand and interpret history correctly.

Leaving aside secret archives and forbidden texts, there are precious pieces of information which can be hidden due to misdating, incomplete annotations, and wrong cataloging of documents, or, more trivially, to the lack of personnel with the expertise and the time needed to explore large documental bodies.

The RUTTER team, aware of the importance of this task, is eager, after two years of discontinuous and limited trips to archives, to spend time among rutters and manuscripts. A post from around one year ago showed our enthusiasm for “starting to dive into the past”, but travel conditions are still far from optimal and kilometers of material, literally, are still waiting to be read.

Document digitization has proved a powerful tool to access bibliographical resources on maritime literature, and to overcome the pandemic limitations to a certain extent, as shown by the creation of the RUTTER Virtual Library “A Sea of Books”. However, we are sure that only with in-person search we will be able to find our “lettera a Castelli”. [Silvana Munzi]

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Flags in the Oceans, Stars in the Heavens

The air was filled with excitement and fear in Belém, on the 8th of July, 1497. A light breeze flowed by the Tagus River, through the hope in the sailor’s eyes, the sorrow of the women saying goodbye to their husbands and sons, and the criticism of old men against the voyage about to begin. This is how the departure of Vasco da Gama and his fleet to India is literarily depicted by the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões in his opus magnum The Lusiads (1578).

A major milestone in transoceanic travelling, Da Gama’s voyage produced one of the most famous Early Modern literary episodes. However proficiently this episode has been studied, a detail in this transfiguration of the ships São Gabriel, São Rafael and Bérrio departing Lisbon comes as a surprise, and one that history of science should not breeze over:

“On strong ships the soft winds
Undulate the aerial flags.
These vessels promise, while they observe the open seas,
To be stars in Olympus, like that of Argo.”
(Canto IV, stanza 85)

This image of the ships’ flags blowing in the wind while the crowd waved farewell establishes a fresh association of the technical, technological and scientific dominion over nature—inherent to the oceanic voyages—with fame and glory, as we briefly outlined in our previous post “A Shipyard of Science and Empire”.

A high point in the ships, these flags are made symbols of fame when combined with the amazing humanization of these vessels, which are capable of observing and promising, like a true character; they are also given prominence by the comparison between Da Gama’s fleet and Argo, the mythological ship of Jason and the Argonauts, which gave the name to the Argo navis constellation on the southern celestial hemisphere.

This humanization of technology is quite a remarkable trope for such a classical epic poem, displaying the newness that oceanic travelling brought to human thought over technological artifacts; and the comparison between the three Portuguese ships and Argo is very fitting. Both ascend symbolically to the heavenly spheres after their astonishing voyages: Argo shines in the southern sky that the Portuguese sailors saw beyond the Equator, as São Gabriel, São Rafael and Bérrio radiate a new synonymy between technology and fame in the glistening waters. [Joana Lima]

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Beware, Avalanche!

Previous posts have emphasized the value of rutters as a documentary source for the study of the Early Modern natural world. Today I wanted to call attention to a very concrete example, reported by Juan Ladrillero in the rutter of his 1558 voyage through the Strait of Magellan:

“But they should be warned [...] if they see snowy mountains, that [...] they should stay away from them, because in many parts of them there is so much snow that the mountains have five, and six, and seven, and eight, and ten fathoms of snow, and more and less. And it seems that it must have been accumulated for a long time, and when the mountains are heavily loaded with it, the snow breaks and comes rolling down, breaking into pieces [...]. And it comes with a great noise, like a thunder, crashing down the mountains; and hits the channel broken into many pieces the size of ships or houses, and almost as big as plots of land [...], and they hit the water and are as hard as a rock, so hard that there would be no fortress or other building that would not be thrown to the ground or to the seabed. And since the channels are very deep, many times the ships go close to the land, where great damage could come to them [...]. Those masses [of snow/ice] were on top of the water, like islands, some of which had three or four stades under the water, and others the same [dimension] on top of them [...].”

The southern latitude of the Strait fascinated Europeans with geographies and natural phenomena that did not exist in the Old Continent. In this case, Ladrillero describes in detail the snow avalanches that, from the high peaks of the Fuegian region, rushed over the waters of the channel. A testimony to equal parts of admiration and fear in the face of the unbridled force of nature. [José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Travelling Cosmographical Knowledge between Elizabethan England and Valois France

In 1562, the Huguenot pilot Jean Ribault (1520-1565) departed from France to Florida. He was ordered by the French admiral Gaspard de Coligny to explore the area. Shortly after mapping the region, Ribault laid a French claim to Florida by placing landmarks with the Valois coat-of-arms.

Later, when the explorer René de Laudonniére arrived, Ribault returned to France to purchase more reinforcements. Returning to his hometown, Dieppe, Ribault found it besieged. As a consequence, he fled to England, where he petitioned Elisabeth I for an expedition to the Americas.

In the meantime, since Anglo-French relations were complicated due to the English takeover of French Le Havre, Ribault was jailed under suspicion of being a French spy. As soon as admiral Coligny heard of Ribault’s entering English service, he immediately started negotiations to release him. Ribault’s first attempt at escaping failed, but a second one proved successful. Coligny then sent Ribault back to Florida in 1565. However, Ribault was caught and executed by the Spanish Pedro Menéndez de Aviléz. Aviléz even wrote to Philip II a self-praising letter mentioning that he had executed the “famous” Ribault. But what did really motivate Ribault’s death?

During his time in the tower of London, Ribault wrote a report on his 1562 expedition to Florida, which is today held at the British Museum. This account had an enormous impact on the English plans for colonizing North America from the 1560s onwards. But it also impacted Spain, as Ribault became known as a dangerous pilot that knew all the secrets of the Atlantic routes and could easily use his knowledge to attack Spanish interests. Aware of this and of Ribault’s Protestantism, Spain considered him a dangerous threat that needed to be eliminated, as it happened in 1565.

Still, Ribault's story is a good example of how it was impossible for cosmographical knowledge to be kept hidden or in secrecy, even between open maritime rivals. Despite Coligny’s, Elisabeth I’s and Philip II’s attempts, they were unable to prevent Ribault from circulating with his rutters, maps and accounts, and to influence directly English, French and Spanish plans for maritime expansion. Although Ribault’s story fades against a backdrop of similar 16th-century cases, it also suggests the historiographical importance of studying the circulation of cosmographical knowledge between open rivals. [Nuno Vila-Santa]

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

A Shipyard of Science and Empire

To think of Early Modern oceanic voyages is to think of astronomy, seamanship, instruments, cartography, rutters, and shipbuilding. It is to acknowledge that this nautical enterprise would not have been without intellectual concepts, technological artifacts, and scientific practices institutionally organized. It is also to perceive that these achievements are directly connected to the birth of European maritime empires.

While the connection between science and empire is a hot topic in nowadays History of Science, it is possible to trace back to the sixteenth-century some reflection on the scientific, technical and technological rule over nature as the foundation of an empire’s wealth and glory. An example of this perception can be found in the Portuguese tragicomedy Nau d’Amores (1527), by Gil Vicente, where a Prince of Normandy, in love with the idea of fame, arrives in Lisbon asking for a licence to build a ship in Ribeira das Naus, then the most notorious shipyard in Portugal and possibly Europe:

“As a remedy for my sorrow
Give me a full license
To build a Ship of Love
Here in your Ribeira
Where the best vessels are built.”

The Prince’s desire to build a ship to search for glory in the deep blue sea tells us of what must have been a pervasive notion of oceanic voyages as the carriers of fame and richness to the kingdom of Portugal, as well as the international prestige of Ribeira das Naus, which he characterizes as “worth more than all of Paris”, due to the technology and know-how contained there. Despite the hyperbolic tone, Gil Vicente uses this character to state quite modern ideas – that successfully sailing the world is related to having the best shipbuilding techniques, and that the act of gaining fame and wealth is a consequence of having control over the ocean. And, while doing so, this forefather of Portuguese theatre sets the scene for historians of science to look at Early Modern literary texts as documents where the connection between science and empire is already being built. [Joana Lima]