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Travel writing and humanistic culture: A blunted impact?

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

An influential historiographical tradition has opposed the accounts of extra-European worlds produced by sixteenth-century travel writers to the concerns of humanists and other European men of learning, even detecting a 'blunted impact' up until the eighteenth century, when the figure of the philosophical traveller was proclaimed by Rousseau and others. It is my argument that this approach is misleading and that we need to take account of the full influence of travel writing upon humanistic culture in order to understand how the Renaissance eventually led to the Enlightenment. A first step consists in analysing the collective impact of accounts of America, Africa and Asia, rather than opposing the 'New World' to other areas. Moreover, whilst quantitative estimates offer a route for the assessment of 'impact', it is the qualitative aspect which is most clearly central to the cultural history of the period. Even 'popular' observers were often subtly influenced by concepts and strategies formulated by the intellectual elites. Under close scrutiny, it appears that humanists—and here I adopt a broad definition—had a crucial role in the production and consumption of travel accounts, as editors and travel collectors, as historians and cosmographers, and eventually—from the turn of the seventeenth century—as 'philosophical travellers'. The article seeks to illustrate these roles with reference to some examples from the first phase of the encounter. In particular, the early accounts of the Columbian expeditions by Nicolaus Scyllacus and Peter Martyr of Anghiera can be shown to have elaborated Columbian material more faithfully than is usually understood to be the case. Similarly, the historiography of conquest published after the middle of the sixteenth century reveals the widespread application of humanist standards to the literature of encounter produced in the previous sixty years.


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