Unknown Author, historical artefact.—THE EARLY DISCOVERIES

This text is copied from ‘The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book [Odhams Press]’ or ‘The Book of a Million Facts’, seemingly published in 1933. (Authors/editors unknown).I will give more precise details of the reference book I am copying from in future parts of this series of posts. And I will try to discover who was involved in  compiling this book I am studying:



Geographical Science in Mediæval Times.

Even to-day there are people who maintain that the earth is flat, and in the Middle Ages it would have been impious even to suggest that this was not the case. Cosmas, the sixth century Greek who wrote an account of his wanderings known as the “Christian Topography,” was convinced that the earth is perfectly flat, and that the four walls which compose the sky meet overhead in the dome of heaven.

It had been proved that it was possible to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules (or Straits of Gibraltar) and the Northmen had boldly sailed their undecked ships many hundred of miles into unknown seas. There was, nevertheless, great timidity and fear of the unknown in the minds of most mediæval travellers, and they preferred to keep closely to well-known routes lest they might come upon monsters of land and sea, or, worse still, reach the world’s end.

Throughout the middle Ages, geographical science was based on Ptolemy’s atlas (A.D. 159). Many of his ideas were remarkably sound and he was the earliest map-maker to realize that the Caspian is an inland sea. He mapped the near East correctly, but his ideas of India and China and Africa were wrong, for he made Africa run along the southern edge of his map, and up to join China, thus making the Indian Ocean an inland sea.

Mediæval cartographers not only repeated Ptolemy’s errors, they inserted other and stranger ones of their own. Some of the maps were square, others round, and outlying islands such as Britain had to be squeezed and altered so as to fit the shape of the map. Jerusalem, centre of the Christian faith as Mecca was to the Moslems, was often taken as the centre of the world, and many of these “round” maps—though charmingly decorative and full of interesting detail, are horribly distorted.

The Arab geographers (see https://broadhurst.vivaldi.net/1398-2/) were, up to the fourteenth century, far in advance of the Christians, and it was probably from Arab sailors that Europeans learned the use of a compass card. the use of the compass had been known to scientists in the thirteenth century. Roger Bacon, for one, but only in the guise of a magnetized needle floating on a straw. By the beginning of the next century, however, the mariner’s compass was coming into general use, at any rate in Mediterranean shipping. This meant a great advance in science of navigation, for hitherto sailors had been obliged to keep close in shore when neither sun nor stars were visible to give them direction.

Of much more practical use than the elaborate maps, often drawn by monks who had never travelled beyond their convent walls, were the “portolani,” or coast-maps made by sailors and merchant -traders for their own guidance. These showed, bit where unicorns might be found, but the location of shoals and rocks and sheltered harbours, of bays, headlands, and mouths of rivers. The portolani, of which the most famous surviving example is the Laurentian Portolano of 1351, now at Florence, give a remarkably accurate outline of the world as known at that time. They were, however, despised by scholars, who preferred their own fantastic guesses. One of these wildly-imaginative maps was executed as late as 1450; it is known as the Borgian Map, and may be found in the British Museum. The portolani concerned themselves only with the coast-line; they were not meant to be more than mariner’s charts, and this purpose they admirably fulfilled.


Early Explorers

The discoveries of the Northmen have been noticed elsewhere (see https://broadhurst.vivaldi.net/unknown-author-historical-artefact-the-coming-of-the-northmen/ ), but as it seems their explorations were never followed up, men forgot anything they might have heard about “Wineland the Good,” or compared it with the legendary St. Brandan’s Isle off the north-western coast of Ireland.

In Asia, the Friars John Carpini (1245) and William of Rubouck (1252) had made their way across the Persian desert into the dominion of the Great Khan, and the Polo brothers had even reached Peking )(https://broadhurst.vivaldi.net/unknown-author-historical-artefact-mediaeval-trade-and-commerce/). Another Friar, Odoric of Pordenone, has left an amusing and valuable account of his travels in Tibet and China, undertaken between 1316 and 1330. Wars and revolutions cut short communications between East and West by this channel; the risks were too great for traders to make their way overland, and new routes would have to be found if regular communication was to be resumed. To clinch the matter, the Ottoman Turks had possession of Asia Minor, and in 1453 captured Byzantium, where most merchants had made their eastern-western depots.

The Moslems had named the Atlantic “the Green Sea of Darkness,” and had a horror of venturing far out upon its waters, but they had crept round the coast of the Sahara down to the Senegal River, to the country they called “Bilad Ghana” (Land of Wealth). The Genoese, and afterwards the Portuguese, determined that they would push on farther down the coast until they should round the southern point of Africa and then sail due west for the Indies.

There were many difficulties to be overcome, beyond the superstitious terror which made men afraid of the horrible monsters they might see, and the dangers they might meet. It was said that a white man passing Cape Bojador would immediately turn black, and that there was a magnetic mountain in the Indian Ocean which would draw the nails out of passing ships and cause them to fall to pieces and founder. Mediæval ships, too, were clumsy and unseaworthy. They were often undecked, or protected only by tarpaulins, and were nearly round in shape so that they rolled distressingly in any swell. Most of them were single-masted and carried a large square sail. The sail area could be increased in fair weather by lacing on extra “bonnets” of canvas.

In the fifteenth century modification in design and rigging greatly improved shipping, enabling vessels to sail several points closer to the wind, and this had an important effect upon the voyages of the early explorers. The seamen developed a more adventurous spirit and began to sail a bolder course, instead of creeping timorously close in shore.Both these developments owed much to the genius of one man, whose life-work it was to inspire and equip seamen to explore those coasts he was never able to visit himself. This was “Prince Henry the Navigator,” morally the discoverer of the eastward route to the Indies, the genius of the Portuguese explorers, and the unconscious father of the slave-trade.

Office clerk.

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