[12 February 2010]
In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and his partner Matthias Ringmann produced one of history’s most consequential maps, a map that would marry the traditional perspective of the old world with a radical new depiction of the growing new world, and forever change how humanity perceived its surroundings. It also gave the new world a proper name for the very first time, after the daring explorer whom Waldseemuller and Ringmann believed was responsible for its discovery.
They called it America. It’s this strange new land of America that’s referred to by the title of Toby Lester’s excellent book, The Fourth Part of the World, and this wondrous map serves as its provocative centerpiece.
The Waldseemuller Map showed the true scope of the Earth for the first time, but its value to the modern world is deeper than that. Behind every line and etching on the map lies a fascinating story. It’s the culmination of centuries of innovation that includes not only the bold adventurers who set out on voyages of discovery but also the great thinkers, philosophers, and intellectuals whose efforts helped to focus the human imagination on reality rather than fantasy.
It remains, today, a map to a new world. For its audience of 16th century scholastics, it opened up the globe for their enlightenment. For Lester’s audience of modern readers, it reveals the path to a complex and compelling past that might otherwise seem remote or unfathomable. The map’s power to illuminate is still strong.
The Fourth Part of the World covers a lot of ground, with Lester providing highly detailed narratives of the various elements that laid the groundwork for the Waldseemuller Map. First and foremost, he describes the evolution of geography and cartography and how the design of maps and charts didn’t merely reflect how the people of a particular era perceived their world; it also shaped their perceptions and reinforced their prejudices. He also gives a full portrait of how Europeans viewed the world at the dawn of the Age of Exploration.
Medieval scholars could all agree on a few geographical maxims that were drawn from tradition, fantasy, and theological instruction. They believed that the Earth was divided into three major parts, namely Europe, Asia, and Africa. They also believed that the distant fringes of the map were populated by quasi-human monsters like Sciopods, who shaded themselves with a single, giant foot, or the Panoti, whose elongated ears could be used to glide short distances.
It was the geography of the Bible and religious folklore that held the greatest sway over the medieval mind, however. Legend had it that the Far East contained two great forces that would prove pivotal in the battle at the end of times. The first was the kingdom of Gog and Magog, a race of warriors described in Revelations as the army of the Antichrist. The second was the lost Christian kingdom of Prester John, whom many believed could be enlisted to aid Europe in its crusade against encroaching pagan and Muslim forces. Such concerns were often on the minds of the earliest Christian explorers of Asia, like John of Plano Carpini, a 13th century monk sent out as an envoy to the Mongols, who many believed were actually Gog and Magog.
The rise of humanism, a rational, empirical form of philosophy, played a major role in sweeping away the fantastical elements of early European thought and helped create an international network of learned intellectuals. Along this network, ideas and theories were exchanged and new beliefs were formulated. Lester shows how humanism served as an incubator for modern thought by recovering the wisdom of the ancient world lost after the fall of the Roman Empire and grafting it onto new strains of scientific exploration.
There’s a rich, literary history that begins with Claudius Ptolemy, a 2nd century philosopher whose discourses on geography were startlingly prescient and fueled the humanist pursuit of cosmological certainty. From his early works, Lester is able to trace a consistent path of discovery and depict the flowering of a knowledge in which each step sheds more light on the truth.
Ultimately, though, the driving force for the Age of Exploration was commerce, and that’s where familiar names like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci come into play. The relationship between the two navigators is one of the more intriguing stories contained in The Fourth Part of the World. Though hailed today as the discoverer of the New World, Columbus does not come off as a very thoughtful or even precise explorer. The traditional portrayal of Columbus as defying the wrong-headed beliefs of mainstream European society is pure invention, practically an inversion of the truth. His proposal to sail westward into the Atlantic was not resisted because of a widespread belief the world was flat, but because his projections of distance were wildly inaccurate. Everyone knew the world was spherical. Everyone, it seems, except Columbus.
“I have always read that the world was spherical,” he wrote in 1498. The spherical world was an accepted notion among both learned Europeans, who had read of it in Ptolemy, and common sailors, who could watch ship’s masts in the distance sinking below the horizon. Columbus, however, thought otherwise. “I have found,” he continues, “that it does not have the kind of sphericity described by the authorities, but that it has the shape of a pear.” Lester shows Columbus, warts and all, and it’s clear why the New World never bore his name.
His exploration of the Caribbean was a misadventure, fraught with disastrous failures and confusion. He never entirely realized what he had stumbled upon, and after his royal patrons became fed up with his mismanagement, they had him brought back to Europe in chains. It’s no surprise that in this environment of disgrace, Columbus failed to affix his name to any maps at the time. Columbus and Vespucci were acquaintances, too, adding a pinch of personal drama to the convoluted story of how the continent the former allegedly discovered became named for the latter.
The Fourth Part of the World is an epic story of humanity coming to grips with the globe, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and traversing vast distances in the hopes of better understanding the world in which they lived. Lester’s invaluable history proves that the adventurers and artists who gave shape to globe also gave shape to the course of human progress and that the story is as easy to follow as the lines rendered on a map.