Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Once in History

In Ad Fontes, we discussed how the Renaissance looked backwards and emulated what greatness they perceived in the previous ages. This brought about an increased awareness of language and the situation of the present within the greater scope of history. But when Europe tripped over America on its way to China, they were confronted with something entirely new.  

Here was a world structured unlike anything they had encountered. Columbus, in his first experience with America, wandered up and down the coastline “thinking that I should not fail to find great cities and towns.” When he did not, he sent out scouts, who “traveled three days’ journey and found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance” (25). Not only was their social structure foreign, but their behavior as well. Cabeza de Vaca, stranded in Texas for nine years, recounted a handful of peculiar customs: men not sleeping with their wives for two years after childbirth, and women giving suck to children as old as twelve (33). The literature of the age focused a great deal on these differences.

Differences which, unsurprisingly, sparked a lot of thought. America was the foil character to Europe, and the juxtaposition of the two not only inspired a self-examination by the old world, but enabled it. We cannot know how something is different unless we compare it to something else. From here we gain the ideas presented in Thomas More’s Utopia, the reevaluation of Christian values by Cabeza de Vaca, the hope of independence harbored by the colonists and Shakespeare’s discussion of inheritance and merit in The Tempest.  

I don’t think it’s an experience the world will repeat. We still do a lot of exploring, a lot of introspection and a lot of debating, but we have an idea of how to go about it. We’ve been doing it so long it has eased into the every day. The entire world, with all of its strangeness, is so familiar we do not blink an eye.

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Works Cited

Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar. “From The Relation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.” Trans. Cyclone Covey. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 29-35. Print.

Columbus, Christopher. “From Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage.” Trans. Cecil Jane. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 25-26. Print. 


  1. I totally agree with your conclusion that now we have better ways of exploring and that it has definitely eased into our everyday. I think we are more accepting of differences and I'm glad we've progressed.

  2. First of all, "When Europe tripped over America on its way to China" is how I will henceforth refer to the discovery of the Americas. Secondly, I don't think that we as a species are so aware that we accept foreign cultural differences without blinking an eye. I've seen students become just as angry over practices of head hunting in south east asia, or female genital mutilation in Africa.

  3. I also was fascinated with Montaigne's use of cannibalism to critique society. He hits on a fascinating human reaction to anything foreign. Its hard to take in a social practice without understanding the society. Heriot described how the natives thought they were motherless Gods because no women traveled with them!

  4. Nikkita's got an interesting point -- as tolerant as we in the West style ourselves, we still tend to judge everything based on a Christian system of morality. Are we still, somehow, better than those ancient explorers whose judgment we quickly condemn?

    Another question: suppose, given rapid advances in space technology, that we were able to observe a completely different planet inhabited by a civilization independent of ours. How would we handle differences between us and them? It's incredibly unlikely that they would have developed the same system of ethics and religion as Earth. I suggest that we might be just as shocked and repulsed as the Renaissance explorers.