Geographical Knowledge at the Time of the Cabot Voyages
During the late 15th century, Europe was on the verge of
geographical expansion. Motives for exploration in the medieval era were
|An exchange of navigational knowledge between scholars and mariners.
From Willem Janszoon Blaeu, The Light of Navigation (Amsterdam:
William Iohnson, 1622) frontispiece. Found in A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave,
A short-title-catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of
English books printed abroad, 1475-1640 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1976-1991).
STC reference # 3112, reel # 1127. Copy courtesy of the microfilm at the Queen Elizabeth
II Library, St. John's, Newfoundland. Original housed in The Folger Shakespeare Library,
Washington, D.C., USA.
Some believe pressures on the spice trade routes forced
Europe to seek other possibilities for importing these goods,
others invoke personal initiative as the basic engine of European
exploration. Restrictions upon diet and meat consumption by the
Catholic Church was also an important factor in finding new
fishing grounds and this in itself is held by many as the
underlying reason for the exploration of the North Atlantic. No
matter what the specific motives were, the principal force for
exploration was an economic one.
It is hard to determine what European mariners of this era
knew of the North Atlantic. We can only guess at specifics by
studying contemporary maps. We also don't know if many Europeans
had knowledge of Norse explorations and settlements from
Greenland to Vinland. Papal knowledge of Greenland seems to have
extended to the late 15th century, but the settlements had met
with failure and the island-colony had faded away from the
Mythical islands in the North Atlantic were plentiful: the
islands of Saint-Brendan, Hy-Brazil, the islands of Seven Cities
and Frisland to name a few.
||Late 16th century world map based on Icelandic writings.
The mythical island of 'Frisland' (Frifland) is situated north of the compass
rose and just below Iceland (Ifland).
Reproduction of Sigurd Stefánsson's 16th century map, published in 1706 by Torfæus from 'Gronlandia Antiqua.' From Jónas Kristjánsson, Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts (Reykjavik, Iceland: Saga Publishing Co., ©1970) 16.
These islands are held by some as being rooted
in a long forgotten discovery of North America by Irish monks.
Other mythical or phantom islands may have been added to maps
because of optical illusions, icebergs drifting in the distance,
or just pure legend.
Some ethnic minorities of Western Europe argue that their
forefathers were the first to discover North America, long before
any official exploration schemes were undertaken, but that the
knowledge of such voyages was kept a secret for commercial
reasons. Such is the case with the Basque and Bretons whose
claims are taken more seriously than others. However, little
factual evidence is available to support their argument. What is
known is that these peoples were among the first to harvest the
riches of the Oceans of the New World.
A commonly held 20th century misconception alleges that the
people of the 15th century believed the earth was flat, and that
geographical knowledge of the era was rudimentary. According to
this view, Columbus was a visionary who proved the earth was a
sphere. In fact, map-making was much more advanced and
sophisticated than once believed, and the belief that the earth
was spherical was held by most prominent intellectuals and
educated people of the time. Progress in navigational skills,
geography, technology and shipbuilding were the major
achievements that made European expansion possible, regardless of
|A page from a 15th century book entitled Imago Mundi
(Image of the World).
This book was written in 1410 by French scholar Pierre d'Ailly and published in 1480.
From the annotations which appear in the margins of this page, it is known that
Christopher Columbus read this copy before embarking on his 1492 voyage.
From Richard Humble and the editors of Time-Life Books, The Explorers
(Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books Inc., ©1979) 56. Courtesy of the Biblioteca
Colombina, Institución Colombina, Seville, Spain.
The idea of transatlantic voyages was first presented to
Western European monarchs during this era by Paolo del Pozzo
Toscanelli, a Florentine intellectual, as early as 1474. He held
many ideas regarding the possibility of transatlantic voyages and
actually combined his knowledge of cartography and mathematics to
create a theoretical map of the Atlantic. The decisive moment
came when the idea of a westward trip to Asia seemed feasible and
profitable. We must not forget that from Cabot to Cartier, all
initially thought they had found a passage to Cathay and Cipango:
China and Japan.
||Reproduction of Toscanelli's Map, 1474.
From Lawrence J. Burpee, An Historical Atlas of Canada, (Toronto:
Thomas Nelson and Son Limited, 1927) 4. Map by John Bartholomew and Son, Ltd., Edinburgh
Mapmaking during the late 15th century, although considered
rudimentary by today's standards, was in fact quite advanced. One
of the oldest globes, created by Martin Behaim, dates from the
same year Columbus reached the New World, and we know that this
globe and its author had little connection with Christopher
Columbus. Advances in science and navigation, such as a wider and
generalized use of the mariner's compass, helped to make
mapping from direct observation possible. Traditional medieval
mapping practices were gradually being abandoned and replaced
with a more scientific and mathematical approach.
What is very likely is that the discoveries of new lands by
Columbus, Cabot, Corte-Real, Verrazano and other explorers kept
the ongoing revolution in cartography alive. This large amount of
new knowledge, being acquired in a relatively short time, not
only fostered a greater desire to incorporate new data in charts
but also accelerated the evolution of techniques used to gather
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