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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Contact, Resource Menu
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Contact
Text 1. First Impressions
Text 2. Europe's Literary Response
Text 3. Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
Text 4. Atlantic Coast
Text 5. Pacific Coast
Text 6. Indians' Accounts
Text 7. Spanish Conquest

Reading Guide
Illus., Alexander Barclay, The Ship of Fools, 1509, poem
The Ship of Fools
Europe's Literary Response
- German/English: The Ship of Fools, poem, 1509, selection (PDF)
- English: Thomas More, Utopia, fictional narrative, 1516, excerpts (PDF)
- English: John Rastell, Four Elements, play, 1519, selection (PDF)
- German: Albrecht Dürer, journal entry, 1520 (PDF)
- French: Pierre de Ronsard, "The Fortunate Isles," poem, ca. 1560, excerpt (PDF)

For Americans, history seems to pivot on the year 1492. The date inevitably points to the future. The Old World and its history fade as we contemplate the New World and its promise. Yet it is instructive to remember that 1492 fell in what historians consider the late Middle Ages. The people who first heard the news of Columbus's discoveries had more in common with the pilgrims who wended their way to Canterbury than with those who fled to Plymouth.

The texts we offer here suggest how Europeans responded to that news. Just two years after Columbus's first voyage, a German lawyer and poet, Sebastian Brandt, published an allegorical poem entitled Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) that satirized numerous "fools," including gluttons, drunkards, negligent fathers, and, in the excerpt offered here, explorers. Enormously popular in Germany and throughout Europe, Das Narrenschiff was widely translated. Our selection comes from Alexander Barclay's 1509 English version. In typical medieval fashion, Brandt's poem reminds us of human imperfection and its antidote, devotion to and trust in God. For him the desire to "measure and compass" "diverse countries and regions" is folly born of pride that diverts humanity from self-understanding.

This attitude contrasts sharply with those of John Rastell, Thomas More, and Albrecht Dürer. Rastell—a London lawyer, playwright, and trader—organized an aborted voyage to Newfoundland in 1517. Soon after his return he wrote the play Four Elements (partly to vent his frustration at failing to reach the New World). High school teachers should be able to identify with this play. In it the characters Studious Desire and Experience struggle to educate Humanity while Sensual Appetite and Ignorance try to lure him to the nearest party. The play is at once a moral allegory and something of a National Geographic in verse, for it instructs its audience on the new picture of the world that is emerging from the voyages of discovery. In the excerpted selection we see a dawning empiricism as Studious Desire embraces Experience as a fit tutor for humankind.

In the works of More and Dürer we see how early images of the New World reflected European thought and desire. In More's fictional narrative Utopia ("no place"), the narrator Raphael Hythloday, a Portuguese sailor who claims to have voyaged with Amerigo Vespucci, describes an ideal community he has visited. In fact, More may have drawn the details of his utopia from Vespucci's accounts of his voyages to South America. Whatever his sources, he portrays Utopia as such a yielding and congenial place that new, wealthy cities can almost be legislated into existence on "waste and unoccupied ground." That is, of course, if the inhabitants of the "unoccupied" ground can agree on "one fashion of living" with those who want to build the city. Otherwise, the newcomers have every right to dispossess or even kill the natives. If New World riches led More to make a case for war, Mexica (Aztec) treasure led German artist Albrecht Dürer to imagine a place of wonder. In 1521 King Charles of Spain displayed Aztec gold and silver sent him by the conquistador Hernan Cortés in an exhibit that traveled throughout Europe. When Dürer saw it in Brussels, it filled his heart with joy and moved him to marvel "at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands" where even humble bedding was the stuff of fairy tales.

In the spirit of fairy tales and fables, we conclude with the poem "Les Îles Fortunées" ("The Fortunate Isles") by the sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. In ancient mythology the "Fortunate Islands" were the paradise of the gods, located somewhere in the west beyond the ocean. Later the name was given to the Canary and Madeira Islands as they were discovered by European explorers—and then to points farther west as the discoveries enchanted the European imagination. (17 pages total.)

Discussion questions
  1. Characterize the European literary response to the New World as seen in these selections. What is "new"? What "world" entices or threatens Europe?
  2. Why does Brandt consider it folly to seek new lands? Why does Rastell consider it essential?
  3. What is Brandt's opinion of human learning? Rastell's?
  4. How do Dürer and Ronsard idealize the New World?
  5. How would you characterize the medieval mind as the first four authors present it?
  6. What does the New World offer (as image and as reality) to Europeans emerging from the medieval mindset?
  7. Compare the images of the New World presented in these readings with that presented by Columbus and the other early explorers.
  8. Compare the case More makes in the Utopia excerpt with the terms the Spanish set forth in the Requerimiento (see #7, CONQUEST).

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Europeans interpret the "newe fonde londe" upon their first contacts?
  •  How did Indians respond to the Europeans?
  •  How did these initial encounters frame future Indian-European relationships?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1500? in 1550?

The Ship of Fools:  4
Utopia:  3
Four Elements:  7
Dürer, journal entry:  1
"The Fortunate Isles":  2
17 pages
Supplemental Sites
Alexander Barclay, The Ship of Fools, overview and illustrations, from Glasgow University Library

Thomas More, Utopia, background, in Luminarium: 16th-Century English Renaissance Literature, from Anniina Joniken

Thomas More, Utopia, full text, from Bill Uzgalis, Philosophy Dept., Oregon State University

John Rastell, brief biography from the Literary Encyclopedia

John Rastell, Interlude of the Nature of the Four Elements, overview, from

Albrecht Dürer, overview from Artchive

Pierre de Ronsard, overview from Encyclopedia Britannica Online

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

All texts on website of the National Humanities Center.

Image: Alexander Barclay, tr., The Ship of Fools, 1509 (London: Henry Sotheran & Co., 1874), p. 23, illustration accompanying Poem Five, "Of the folysshe descripcion and inquisicion of dyuers contrees and regyons." Digital image by National Humanities Center.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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