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The Western Sea: Atlantic History before Columbus

The Western Sea: Atlantic History before Columbus

Vinson, Donna A.

The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, X, No. 3 (July 2000)

Introduction: The New World was a sudden and startling discovery for Christopher Columbus and his immediate successors, but its portal was not unfamiliar to the mariners of late medieval Europe. The process by which the mysterious and murky “Realm of Ocean” at the western edge of European civilization was transformed into the “western sea” of the late middle ages, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean of Mercator, was gradual and an important but neglected chapter in the developing field of Atlantic history. This process was both less dramatic and less straightforward than the development of the Atlantic system after Columbus, yet it also involved exploration, encounter and exchange, as well as the interplay of geographic perceptions and reality.

Most studies of the “Atlantic World” begin with the era of Columbus, thus presenting his expeditions as the initiation, rather than the continuation or even culmination, of a much longer process.’ This is understandable, given the field’s emphasis on the flow and exchange of commodities, people, institutions and ideas between the Old and New Worlds on either side of the Atlantic, but such a perspective slights the role of the late medieval era in European and world history. Atlantic history emphasizes linkages, but before the Atlantic Ocean linked the eastern and western hemispheres, it connected southern and northern Europe, and their respective Mediterranean and North Atlantic maritime “worlds.” This connection was both crucial to and representative of what Felipe Fernândez-Armesto has called the “discovery of Atlantic space,” a process which involved not only discovery but also definition and diffusion. From the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, the “European Atlantic” was traversed, explored, charted, and consequently defined; in the process the diffusion of navigational, cartographic, and geographic knowledge created an integrated community of European mariners who formed the core of an emerging Atlantic community.

Columbus was part of this multinational, or European, community, and while his “bardic” role is no longer current, the “ocean of print” published in commemoration of the 1992 quincentenary of his first voyage has reinforced his position as the central figure, and 1492 as the key date, of the “Age of Discovery.” This eternal focus on Columbus perpetuates both the Renaissance view of a preceding “dark age” and the nationalist view of European expansion, which emphasizes the roles of state formation and national identity over social, cultural and economic factors. The 1550 map of Pierre Desceliers, with its division of the North Atlantic into the Mer Despaigne and the Mer de France, was the first depiction of the latter perspective, but this was a decidedly post-Columbian world view. For medieval Europeans, there was just one “Ocean Sea,” though its nature and size were constantly changing in response to the diffusion of cultural traditions and the expansion of geographic knowledge. Like Columbus, medieval mariners ventured onto the sea not only because of a combination of cultural and commercial motivations but also because they were the recipients of narratives, images and perceptions of fishing grounds, mystical and material islands, and an increasingly accessible western sea. The formation of the “European Atlantic” constitutes both the opening chapter of Atlantic history and a necessary precondition of the materialization of the Atlantic world.

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