Friday, 2 June 2023

“Ipse dixit”: The Experienced Pilot

“¿Qué ruta podrán llevar más acertada que por donde guio tan experimentado piloto?
(“What route could be more certain than the one led by such an experienced pilot?)”

This quotation comes from the Spanish book Diálogo sobre la necesidad y obligación y provecho de la oración y divinos loores vocales (Dialogue on the need, duty and benefit of vocal prayer and praises), authored by Fray Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), and published in Salamanca in 1555. While the sentence may initially evoke imagery of maritime routes, its meaning in context differs significantly, as it is part of a broader discourse on seeking spiritual perfection.

The metaphorical essence of the sentence is intriguing, as it employs specific nautical imagery, such as guiding a ship and tracing a route. These associations prove how encounters with the sea were normalized and integrated into various aspects of life, even in unexpected contexts. The author employs the experience of a pilot as an effective means to describe the actions of God in relation to human life, implying a long and arduous journey towards perfection.

Throughout the centuries in which society lived immersed in a reality where the human and the divine, the visible and the invisible, blended seamlessly, oceanic long-distance voyages became embedded in everyday language and permeated European culture. Within this framework, I wanted to draw attention to the indirect testimonies of oceanic pilots, or at least their end applications.

Texts from the 16th century, spanning various genres, abound with expressions related to experienced Iberian pilots. The Jesuit Father José de Acosta, for instance, referred to them as “masters of art” and engaged in fruitful conversations with them. Furthermore, Father Acosta sought to understand the technical aspects of navigation and devoted a substantial portion of his book, Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Sevilla, 1590), to discussing the variation of the needle. He based his explanations on insights provided by an anonymous but highly skilled Portuguese pilot. Similar assertions are given also by the cosmographer Andrés de Céspedes in his Regimiento de navegación (Madrid: 1606) regarding terrestrial magnetism and the northeasting of the needles. His primary sources were pilots, especially the renowned pilot major Vicente Rodrigues. In Céspedes’ words:

“Vicente Rodrigues, a Portuguese pilot who excelled in the India Run and had made fourteen voyages to the Portuguese India, told me that from the moment they passed the Cape of Good Hope until they reached Goa, the compass needle always northeasted with increasing angles. And this is what all the other pilots say.”

While there is no factual confirmation of the specific conversations Father Acosta had with pilots, these affirmations acknowledge, on a deeper level, the commonly accepted reputation of pilots as reliable eyewitnesses. Whether considered as myth, a literary trope, or not, it is likely that many of the keys to the treasure chest of oceanic knowledge were transmitted through informal and unwritten channels. Returning to the initial excerpt, the parallelism between the maritime journey, the spiritual path, and the turbulent waters of life may not have been a novelty, yet the metaphorical power of the skilled pilot’s voyage grew increasingly profound with each passing decade of navigating the vast oceans. [Luana Giurgevich]

Friday, 26 May 2023

Biscuit fot the Navy Fleet II

“Wheat biscuits are the best, because rye and barley are more humid and colder, and their bread takes on more mould and spoils sooner” (F. Oliveira). Prepared with yeast, salt, and a little less water than everyday bread, and kneaded in large quantities with hand- and feet-power, often by slaves, it was rolled out like huge round cookies, with varying diameters, on a measured plate. Before being placed in the oven, it was pricked with a kind of fork or a larger instrument with spikes, to help release gases during cooking. Cooking was repeated to remove as much moisture as possible (one or more times).

The amount to be distributed daily to each sailor would be around half a kilo, the amount with which the loading for the ships was calculated, multiplied by the number of sailors and days foreseen for the trip. Great care was taken with storage in barrels to avoid rodents and insects that could destroy them, and the different diameters adjusted to the curves of the inner shape of the barrels, from the bottom to the top. The word biscuit (biscoito), at the time of the Iberian expansion, in the 15th and 16th centuries, appears attributed to two very different objects: (1) a type of dry food for consumption during sea voyages, and (2) a type of land and stone present in the volcanic islands of the Azores, similar to the slag of forges, and which even today gives names to parishes and places.

It is possible to visit the archaeological remains of the biscuit ovens in Vale do Zebro (Palhais, Barreiro), today located inside the Escola de Fuzileiros do Vale do Zebro (Fuzileiro Museum), on the banks of the Coina river. Construction of the Lisbon fleets started and was completed there, with the loading of stones (Seixal), cannons, and other pieces for life on board such as plates, bowls and lamps or moulds for sugar and biscuits, produced in the pottery of Mata da Machada (Barreiro), where wood was cut for construction and for the ovens, as well as a tide mill to manufacture flour. The river here was for centuries a large and sheltered port where the preparation of the ships of the 1497 Indian fleet was completed; Paulo da Gama, brother of Vasco da Gama, accompanied the last preparations from his nearby Quinta in Arrentela (Seixal).

Today, small “biscuits” (some are even called “marinheiras”—the “little sailors”), in unrestricted quantity and rarely kept in barrels, are a landlubber’s treat, especially accompanied with jelly or jams. [José Madruga Carvalho]

Friday, 19 May 2023

Biscuit for the Navy Fleet I

An earthquake and a devastating mudslide engulfed Vila Franca do Campo, the “capital” of the Island of São Miguel, from 21st to 22nd October 1522. Nine days later, some men were still found alive among the rubble who told of how they survived by eating “biscuit they had made for the sea voyage” and drinking “water that dripped from the mud and collected in a pan, which they mixed with a little wine they had in a barrel, almost already turned into vinegar” (G. Frutuoso).

This episode brings to our attention a well-known recipe associated with long sea voyages since antiquity. Biscoito (English biscuit, with variants in Portuguese: bizcoito, bizcoyto, biscouto), is a word of Latin origin - bis + coctus - which simply means "twice baked" - like the "sailor's bread" that Pliny already speaks of (Historia Naturalis); there is an example found in the city of Pompeii, also devastated by an earthquake and lava in 79 AD.

More than 700 years ago, the contract signed between King Dom Dinis and Admiral Manuel Pessanha, who established the Portuguese navy, already provided for the supply of “bread, biscuits and water” (Santarém, 1.2.1317). Its use as dry food for the fleets is mentioned in the time of King Fernando (Chronicle) when the Portuguese galleys blocked the exit to the sea of the Castilian fleet anchored in Seville, closing the mouth of the Guadalquivir River opposite Barrameda (in 1370) and were supplied by ships sent by the king with “biscuits that were made in the Algarve and Lisbon.”

Its manufacture could be carried out by private millers, as ordered by King Dom João I to the millers of Porto, but supplying the fleet quickly became an activity under the authority of the king, who was able to have his own ovens, “the first modern industry in the kingdom” (O. Marques). In 1408 the king ordered a biscuit oven in Tavira for three lifetimes (confirmed by king Dom Duarte) and created a biscuit warehouse with a warehouse for its safekeeping. By the end of the 15th century, there were already at least two royal biscuit manufacturers, each with its own storekeeper and warehouses: one in Vale do Zebro (Barreiro) and one in Porta da Cruz, in Lisbon. In Lisbon, in 1482, we find Jácome Dias, squire of the queen Dona Leonor de Lencastre, confirmed by the bailiff of the biscuit ovens. But this story goes on, so stay tuned for more on (nautical) biscuits in our next post! [José Madruga Carvalho]

Friday, 12 May 2023

Wind Patterns in the Indian Ocean

Winds are one of the most basic elements for navigation practice. The right time for a particular voyage to take place, or the right rhumb to follow at a particular time of the day would often depend on the winds that would be blowing at that time. Such was the case in 16th-century navigation practice all around the world.

In the case of the Indian Ocean, winds were perceived to follow a constant pattern every year, dividing the year into two long seasons. The northwest monsoon would take place from November to March and would be a favourable period to travel from southwest Asia to East Africa. Soon after it, between March and May, would start the southwest monsoon, giving rise to heavy precipitations. As Eric Staples put it in his Maritime Lexicon, this period is often considered “closed” for navigation, especially in the southwest and southeast Asia.

The type of winds within each monsoon varies also depending on the region and the time. The Arabic nautical rutters of the 16th century often offer alternatives depending on the kind wind that is blowing – “if the strong winds hit you,” they would say, “follow this direction, but if the wind is light, then, follow that.”

With the winds having such a strong influence on navigation, it is only natural that pilots themselves wondered at the origin and causes of such a geographical phenomenon. One of the famous pilots of the Indian Ocean, Sulaymān al-Mahrī (d. ca. 1550), dealt with this question in a small treatise called Tuḥfat al-Fuḥul (The Worthy Men’s Gift), written sometime between 1511 and 1554.

“Know” – he said – “that winds originate from air, for when the air moves there is an agitation.” One of the origins of such an agitation was coldness, and for that, al-Mahrī argued, there were many indications. One of them was that “if we are – for example – moving with a strong western wind, then rainy clous would originate from a direction other than west, and if the clouds come close to us and its cold reaches us, the first wind becomes calm – that is, the western wind – and a [second] wind comes from them (the clouds).”

Another indication, according to al-Mahrī, was that the land wind would only come at night, while the sea wind would come during the day. “And this is because of the coldness of the land at night and the heat of the sea in that time; and the oposite during the day, that is, the coldness of the sea and the heat of the land.”

Such was the theory of winds of al-Mahrī, full of echoes from and engaging in conversation with antiquity and medieval natural sciences. [Inês Bénard]

Friday, 28 April 2023

Jane Squire, Lady Longitude

Among the many candidates who applied for the longitude prize announced in 1714 by the British government were, as far as is known, at least two women: Jane Squire (1686-1743) and Elizabeth Johnson (1721-1800). The latter did so much later, towards the end of the eighteenth century, but Squire developed her proposal during the 1730s and gave it to the press in 1742 under the title A Proposal to Determine our Longitude (a second edition appeared in 1743). The work collects several letters exchanged between Squire and the “Board of Longitude”, in which the mathematician complains of discriminatory treatment because she was a woman. One of them, written on January 16, 1742, reads as follows:

To the Honorable the Board of Commissioners for discovering the Longitude. […] I sent a Copy of this Table of Longitude to Sir Charles Wager, as first commissioner, in 1732: but as I have reason given me to apprehend, that (coming from a Woman) it is either thrown away, or given away; I send another, with this form.

Her discouragements in this regard were shared with Sir Thomas Hanmer (1677-1746), one of the Board’s commissioners, who replied as follows:

All I can say to the Disappointments you meet with when you address yourself to the Commissioners for the Longitude is this, that your good sense I am sure will tell you that you are expected to lie under some Prejudice upon account of your Sex. Man, arrogant man, assumes to himself the Prerogative of Science, and when a Woman offers to teach them in any of the abstruse Parts of it, they are apt to turn a disdainful Ear. To this arrogance therefore, I believe you are to impute their Want of Attention to you upon this occasion, and I have long despaired of finding the Cure of their Faults…

Squire’s proposal mixed religious and astronomical elements, and consisted, roughly speaking, in the fragmentation of the firmament into more than a million fractions that could be easily distinguished by sailors, from which they could calculate their position in longitude. Although impractical, Squire’s audacity in bringing her proposal to the “Board” and into print has, in recent times, allowed her work and her figure to be studied with the attention it deserves. If you want to know more about her, I recommend you to take a look at Alexi Baker’s works. [José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Abreast of the Times

The stereotype of an (Early Modern) historian at work is someone spending day after day in the silence of a library, surrounded by ancient, dusty manuscripts—and perhaps this is true in most cases, except for the dust. However, while ancient manuscripts are still the main source for generating new knowledge, the way historians approach them has changed enormously thanks to evolving technology.

Powerful tools are revolutionizing the discipline and ushering the era of digital humanities. A main consequence is the easiness with which we can now access the textual corpora: digital archives like RUTTER’s “A Sea of Books” allow us to reach with a click manuscripts preserved thousands of miles away, and devices like the ScanTents available at the BnF turn the long waits and excessive prices required by libraries scanning services obsolete and unnecessary. But the groundbreaking achievements were made in the way of collecting and elaborating data, such as the possibility to automate demanding processes like manuscript transcriptions. We can thus thank the Transkribus team if, for example, in June 2023 the first Portuguese model for automatic transcription of manuscripts will be presented.

Unfortunately, for a long time the supervision required by digital work was not available to students willing to walk this path, and still today some institutions are not well equipped in this sense. This gap has been partially filled by alternative training opportunities like workshops, where students and researchers can acquire new skills.

The first workshops on computational skills applied to history seem to date to the period 1974-1982 at the Newberry Library in Chicago, as reported by Adam Crymble in his book Technology and the historian: transformations in the digital age. Since then, the initiatives have multiplied, nationally and internationally, including courses and summer schools, discussion groups and, currently, a large variety of online resources.

Inspired by the desire to learn and share this new knowledge, the RUTTER training school “The Long Life of Manuscripts: From Material to Immaterial Texts” has been planned to take place in Lisbon in September 2023. This course will provide a thorough overview of multidisciplinary approaches to early modern scientific writing practices, and registrations are open. Going over crucial moments of historical research, the participants will gain familiarity with a great variety of written texts, sources and case studies, as well as general competencies of the digital tools applied to historical research. All these core skills will help researchers to use historical knowledge to demystify simplistic ideas and interpret scientific phenomena in a new way. If you are interested, do let us know! Registrations are now open here. [Silvana Munzi]

Friday, 14 April 2023

Wiki Musings

Two weeks ago we had our first RUTTER/CIUHCT Wikipedia edit-a-thon at the Faculty of Sciences, with colleagues from several projects and sub-disciplines joining to edit specific articles on History of Science, mostly dealing with navigation, but also calendars and globes. We contributed contents to the English, German, Spanish and Portuguese Wikipedias, and even to correct a related blip on Wikidata. We had time to discuss not only the practicalities, dos and don’ts of editing the Wikis, but also interesting conversations about the general principles and intent of the Wikimedia movement, and its relations to academia.

Incidentally, the following day was the first of the annual Portuguese Wikimedia convention, this year with the explicit aim of “bringing the Wikimedia closer to the academic, scientific and cultural domains.” The contagious and energetic enthusiasm of this small community made me reflect further on how and why these two worlds, that of the academic institutions and that of free and open knowledge communities may or should intersect and interact.

On a practical level, it might seem obvious that the Wiki world has a technical know-how that can help the diffusion of a contents held by academia—but in practice there is much overlap here, and this instrumental relation is far from clear cut.

More essentially, what these worlds have in common is dialogue. Dialogue does not mean a conversation between two people (that would be a duologue), but a word, or simply language (logos) that moves through (dia), that is communicated. More specifically, dialogue means discursive thought in motion, an articulated body of language that moves like a wind, anywhere it wants to go. It is in the nature of knowledge to flow, or fly, or flash around. From a human subjective point of view, the basic requirement for this is a will to share, the sheer pleasure and selfless act of sharing knowledge, of contributing to an ever-imperfect, and yet ever-perfecting body of knowledge.

Wikipedia has many shortcomings, and the academic world has many shortcomings—it cannot be otherwise, because the sum of human knowledge is imperfect. The thrill and the reward of science is in the making, in the sharing, and for that, we look forward to future sessions, and we wish success to our colleagues of both worlds. [Juan Acevedo]