Eastward Voyages And the Late Medieval European Worldview
By Ivan Ignatov
Master’s Thesis, University of Canterbury, 2013
Abstract: This thesis explores the nature of the late medieval European worldview in the context of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century European journeys to Asia. It aims to determine the precise influence of these journeys on the wider European Weltbild. In lending equal weight to the accounts of the eastward travellers and the sources authored by their counterparts in Europe, who did not travel to Asia, the present study draws together two related strands in medieval historiography: the study of medieval European cosmology and worldview, and the study of medieval travel and travel literature. It also explores the transmission of information and ideas from travellers to their European contemporaries, suggesting that the peculiar textual culture of the Middle Ages complicated this process greatly and so minimised the transfer of ‘intact’ perceptions as the travellers originally formed them. The study contends instead that the eastward journeys shaped the late medieval European world picture in a different way, without overturning the concepts that underpinned it. Rather, this thesis argues, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century eastward voyages subtly altered how Europeans were inclined to understand these underpinning concepts. It suggests that the journeys intensified and made the concepts more immediate in Europeans’ minds and that they ‘normalised’ travel itself to the point where it became an essential part of the way Europeans could most readily make sense of the vast and kaleidoscopic world around them.
Introduction: In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of Latin Christians undertook eastward journeys of unprecedented scale. These men were explorers, in the sense that they journeyed where their compatriots had never set foot before. But the lands they visited were not ‘unknown’ as such. Between early antiquity and the commencement of the great eastward journeys, Europeans had accrued a substantial body of lore on Asia. This ‘knowledge’ was important to the way medieval Europeans conceived of the world around them and the way they perceived its various parts; it formed part of their distinctive worldview, or Weltbild. This worldview, though complex and varied, had a cohesiveness throughout the medieval West.
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw a culmination of a general European ‘expansion’, as J.R.S. Phillips puts it, which had had its genesis in eleventh-century economic and social developments. Beginning in earnest with the First Crusade, this expansion resulted not only in military conquest in the Near East, but also in a sustained broadening of geographic horizons beyond the European continent and its immediate surroundings. A push even further afield would begin in the sixteenth century, following the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and the discovery of the Americas in the late fifteenth. But, because Mongol incursions had destroyed the Islamic polities that had presented a barrier to Christendom since the seventh century, it was in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that medieval Europeans first realised just how vast the world was.