Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Building Roads: Land vs. Ocean

Building a land road is a complex task. Extensive preparation work and the participation of professionals from various fields is required. But in spite of this, the difficulties involved in connecting point “A” with point “B” can be overcome relatively easily. The existence of constant references, for example, makes the mission much easier.

But an “oceanic road” is another story. At the beginning of the Modern Age the ocean was an empty space that needed a reference system to become a reliable environment, suitable for the construction of safe transoceanic routes. In addition, new professionals and social agents were needed to shape and consolidate these routes. Thus, the ways of the sea, compared to those of the land, did not seem easy to tame. Few words illustrate so well this maritime-terrestrial dichotomy as those collected by Martín Cortés de Albácar in his Breve compendio de la Sphera y de la Arte de Navegar, of 1551 (fol. 61v):
I say that sailing is nothing more than walking on water from one place to another. [...] This way differs from the way of the earth in three things: that of the earth is firm, this way is flexible; that of the earth remains, this way is movable, and that of the earth is marked and that of the sea is unknown. And if the ways of the earth are steep and rough, the sea matches them with dead calms (serenas) and storms. Being such a difficult path, it would be difficult to put it into words, or to write it down with a pen.
Portrait of Martín Cortés. In Breve compendio de la Sphera y de la Arte de Navegar,
by Martín Cortés de Albácar (1556). Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid).

Despite the challenging nature of the problem, the Iberian empires of the sixteenth century managed to criss-cross the entire world through multiple transoceanic routes. The scale of the globe had changed completely. Point “A” could still be Lisbon or Seville, but point “B” was no longer a handful of miles away, but several thousand, in Goa, New Spain, or Malacca.
[José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Nautical Knowledge Exchanges in the Indian Ocean in the Renaissance

During the sixteenth century the Indian Ocean was a place of exchange of nautical knowledge between different traditions: first, between Arabic and Portuguese, and later between Portuguese, Dutch and English. The last process had a key-figure: Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who, in 1596, published the Itinerario with the main Portuguese rutters to and within Asia.

Ever since the beginning of the sixteenth century, Lisbon, as one of the global cities of the Renaissance, was a place for scientific and nautical espionage. There are multiple known-cases: the Italian ambassador Cantino, in 1502; Jean Nicot, ambassador of France, in the 1560s; Juan Baptista Gesio scientific espionage in the 1570s at the orders of the Spanish ambassador; the Dutch Houtman brothers spy-mission in 1592. By the end of this century, the major Spanish scientific and cosmographical works, and with them much of the Portuguese nautical knowledge, were already translated into English and Dutch, almost by the same time that Linschoten’s book was printed. In the Itinerario, Linschoten reports nautical exchanges in the Indian Ocean. He not only reports how the Portuguese used to hire Arabic pilots: he also depicted it as can be seen below.
The figure shows a fusta, a light ship used by the Portuguese to sail in the Indian Ocean. In this depiction, Linschoten singles out the Portuguese captain and pilot, with a sombreiro to signal their status, but also an Asian crew from Malabar. These crews were usually recruited by Arab officers hired by the Portuguese. Linschoten also drew this officer (the mocadão) standing on the left corner of the ship. The mocadão was the link between the crew and the Portuguese officers. This drawing intended to inform how Portuguese ships in Asia were essentially composed by Asiatic crews. But it is also an example of how, by the end of the sixteenth century, exchanges of nautical knowledge between the Portuguese and the Arabs were still taking place, on the eve of the arrival to Asia of the Dutch and the English. Both cases of knowledge transfer are poorly studied and need to fully addressed.
[Nuno Vila-Santa]

Friday, 12 June 2020

Get Involved in the RUTTER Project

There are many ways to contribute to a project, all of them rewarding and enriching experiences. Of course, we all dream of being the Principal Investigator of an ERC project, but if you are still not in the position to candidate for or be granted one, participation in an ongoing project is a good opportunity to pave the way for it.

Would you like to experience the thrill of cutting-edge historical research? Get involved and be part of the team of the ERC Project RUTTER!
The RUTTER team welcomes students and researchers of any level willing to contribute to the project, both through remote collaborations or working at our location, at the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon. While the main focus of research is the history of science, the team is multi-disciplinary and related disciplines can be considered for an internship. From working with archival materials and editing documents, to digital humanities and the setting up of databases, we have a bit of everything. If you have some special linguistic skills (Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin), we are even more interested. We offer an informal, international, and very dynamic environment, where senior and junior researchers will support visiting researchers developing their work.

Although the cooperation is on a voluntary basis, some funding opportunities exist like the Erasmus program, COST short-term scientific missions and the “Visit to ERC grantee” Fellowship Programmes 2020. We’ll be glad to help potential applicants to explore these possibilities.

To express you interest, please contact us at

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Geographical Literacy in the Renaissance

Despite historians having long ago debunked this narrative, it is still widely believed that European education between the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Age was dominated by an obscurantist and anti-scientific Catholic Church. Even today, when writing about the relationship between science and faith, scholars feel the need to state that it was not necessarily conflictual.

One of the areas where this prejudice remains strongest is geography. And yet, if we look at what was taught about the world and its shape between the Renaissance and the early modern age (roughly between the 15th and 17th centuries), we see that the schools of this period were at the forefront of geographical literacy, especially the schools of religious orders, such as the Jesuits.

The most influential treatise on cosmography in this period was John Holywood’s Tractatus de Sphaera, probably written at the beginning of the 13th century. Among its central teachings we find the sphericity of the Earth and the Universe, and concepts such as the equator, the tropics and polar circles, constellations, and planets. Based on this Tractatus, other cosmographic texts were made for Renaissance schools, such as the brief La Sfera, by the Florentine humanists Leonardo and Gregorio Dati (early 15th century), and especially the important commentary written by the German Jesuit Cristoph Clavius (mid-16th century).

Clavius’ character summarizes all the entanglements and relevance of early modern geographical teaching. He had studied at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, the leading country in the world’s oceanic exploration. He later became professor of maths at the Roman College, contributing decisively to the most important rule for at least three centuries to come, the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum (1599). Thanks to him, cosmographical books would reach every Jesuit college library, even in the most remote villages of continental Europe, introducing students to the new geographical discoveries and emancipating the discipline from the previous Aristotelian-Ptolemaic conceptual framework.

Thus, through the Society of Jesus, geography developed gradually as independent from cosmography and entered massively into the schools, to the point that 17th century Jesuit colleges had maps on their walls, not unlike today’s classrooms. [David Salomoni]