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Buying Stories: Ancient Tales, Renaissance Travelers, and the Market for the Marvelous

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

Why did Renaissance writers continue to repeat ancient descriptions about the distant places of the world, even after the arrival of new eyewitness accounts from contemporary travelers? Scholars have usually presented the survival of ancient reports as a reactionary clinging to "ancient authority" in the face of "modern experience." However, both ancient and modern descriptions purported to be based on direct observation, supplemented by hearsay, a claim that gave both sources some, but not undisputed, authority. Furthermore, modern explorations, although rendering certain ancient reports increasingly suspect, also provided confirmation about the wonders possible at the edges of the earth. Renaissance writers excluded some ancient and modern claims on the basis of superior understanding and standards of plausibility, but in general tried to include as much information as possible to provide readers with a full (if tentative) geographical picture and satisfy expectations about the existence of the marvelous. The confrontation between "ancient authority" and "modern experience" was manufactured in this period by select writers with a stake in the European expansion, who sought thereby to prove their indispensability.

Affiliations: 1: Washington University in St. Louis


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