Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Thomas More’s Utopia and the Early Modern Travel Narrative

Jason Gleckman

[1] For all the many different ways in which Thomas More’s Utopia has been interpreted over the centuries, critics have generally agreed that the text constitutes a stellar example of Northern Renaissance humanism. Not only is Utopia accompanied by prefatory letters written by notable European humanists, it contains characters who espouse humanist values, references numerous classical authors (Lucian, Plato, Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero), and is presented in a form well known in classical times, the dialogue. Utopia is also concerned with such humanist themes as forming better people through education, the ‘transformation of social institutions’ (Rebhorn 1976: 140), and the replacement of a medieval cult of nobility by the humanist value of civic virtue, a ‘willingness to labor for the common good’ (Skinner 1987: 143).

[2] This essay focuses on another way in which Utopia demonstrates its humanist priorities, namely through an exploration of a topic dear to humanists: the nature of persuasive rhetoric. More approaches this exploration by considering a genre that, like ‘utopia’ itself, was radically new in the early sixteenth century — namely the ‘early modern’ travel narrative — and which was consequently developing new modes of rhetoric appropriate to its unprecedented aims. For unlike medieval travel narratives, which had been written to entertain a popular readership through the arousal of wonder, this early modern variant was written for a more selective audience and for different purposes. The audience was educated Europeans, especially the sovereigns who were financing exploratory voyages to the New World; the aims were to provide detailed and accurate reports regarding the resources — human, natural, and metallurgical — that could be profitably exploited there. In Utopia, however, More takes issue with the rhetorical devices characterizing this emergent, influential, and popular genre. Specifically, through the use of parody (a technique well-honed by humanists in such texts as The Letters of Obscure Men [1515] and The Praise of Folly [1511]), More critiques the travel narratives of his day by creating an exaggerated representation of one; the effect is to show both the superficial basis of truth claims in sixteenth-century travel narrative and, more subtly, their dangerous implications for both humanist rhetoric and humanist values at the time.

[3] It is easy to underestimate the importance of the early modern travel narrative to Utopia. As Nina Chordas argues in her study of early modern utopias, ‘More could have produced the same text without the benefit of New World narratives, drawing only on what was already available to him through European sources’ (Chordas 2001: 50). Moreover, in 1515–1516, when Utopia was written, the corpus of first-person travel narratives, particularly those relating to the New World, was quite small, and while news of the latest discoveries was avidly sought, it was not necessarily acquired by reading such first-hand accounts directly.[1] Furthermore, neither the Utopian landscape nor the behaviour of its citizens seems to resemble greatly the modes of New World living described in the earliest accounts.

[4] Yet, as Chordas also argues, and as H.W. Donner had outlined as early as 1945, there are sufficient similarities between Thomas More’s Utopia and the exploration narratives attributed to Amerigo Vespucci (which began circulating in Europe in 1504) to merit further consideration. These similar cultural practices include: warriors taking their wives with them into battle; ancestor worship; extraordinary bravery displayed by warriors when captured or killed; Epicureanism; euthanasia; common habitations; periodic, mass movement every seven or eight years to new dwellings; contempt for gold and jewels; no buying or selling; no private property; and no kings or lords (Donner 1945: 27). To this list Chordas adds both specific details — such as the robes of bird feathers worn by Utopian priests (Chordas 2001: 51) — as well as more general inspirations, such as the way in which the nakedness of New World peoples suggests an interchangeability or even conformity that also characterizes Utopian citizens (Chordas 2001: 53). Moreover, there are several specific references to Vespucci within Utopia: More’s work begins by noting that accounts of Vespucci’s voyages are ‘common reading everywhere’ and then provides an obscure detail from Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ (Raphael Hythloday is one of the twenty-four men left behind in Vespucci’s New World fort) to reiterate the intertextuality of the two works (More 1995: 45; Vespucci 1907: 150).[2] In such ways More, right from the start of Utopia, directs his audience not only to the New World itself but also to the textual means that bring that New World to Europe and shape it for European consumption.[3] Given the humanist movement’s overwhelming attentiveness to issues of rhetoric at the time Utopia was written, it is not surprising that an interest in the style, and not merely the subject matter, of travel narrative would mark this early humanist excursion into the New World.

[5] When considering More’s Utopia from a rhetorical point of view, historiographer Joseph Levine reminds us that the work was composed at a time when fiction and history, the invented and the discovered, were first being distinguished (Levine 1997: 69). Levine, moreover, argues that Utopia itself, by drawing such aggressive attention to its own fictionality, represents a significant intervention in this cultural narrative. Early modern travel writings also participate in this development of separating ‘truth’ from ‘fiction,’ since the carefree intermingling of truth assertions and outrageous impossibilities that characterize medieval travel tales is no longer an acceptable rhetorical strategy in the early age of discovery. On the contrary, the works of early modern explorers must solicit a very high degree of belief since a great deal of manpower and funds are expended on the basis of the information they provide. To establish these necessary truth conditions within their narratives (particularly since these descriptions of a New World are both incredible and witnessed by only a very few people), early explorers must draw upon all the truth conventions available to them as well as to invent others. The result is the creation of a new genre, one that might bear superficial resemblance to the travel narratives that preceded it but is produced for very different reasons and for a different readership, qualities that may have made this genre an interesting subject for the imagination of Thomas More.

[6] Looking at the opening of the ‘Four Voyages’ of 1504, attributed to Amerigo Vespucci, a man who was generally known to have been to the New World, shows the speed with which the medieval travel narrative was replaced by its early modern variant. The work begins:

In the year of Our Lord 1497, on the 20th day of May, we set sail from the harbor of Cadiz in four ships. On our first run, with the wind blowing between the south and the southwest, we made the islands formerly called the Fortunate Islands, but now the Grand Canary, situated at the edge of the inhabited west and within the third climate. At this place, the North Pole rises 27 2/3 degrees above the horizon, the islands themselves being 280 leagues from the city of Lisbon, in which this present pamphlet was written. (Vespucci 1907: 89)

On the one hand, all the basic devices on display here — numerous plausible details, precise measurements of distance and time, a clear ‘transmission’ history showing the route of the text as it passes from lived experience to the production of a written report, a plain and forthright authorial voice insisting vehemently on its truthfulness — can be found in medieval travel texts such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Yet Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is not a medieval travel narrative. Instead (and like many of the travel narratives that were to follow it over the course of the sixteenth century) it is a document written to persuade powerful people in positions of authority to invest their resources into New World expeditions, and to do so quickly.[4] In terms of its rhetoric, Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is equally revolutionary, setting the tone for later sixteenth-century travel narratives that similarly focus on empirically observed and carefully measured data — particularly the subgenre termed the ‘relación’ which involved providing useful information about the New World for the Spanish monarchies, using an impersonal language of fact and detail.[5]

[7] The generic transformation that occurs in moving from the medieval to the early modern travel narrative produces an interesting new narrative type as well, a figure who paradoxically combines extreme arrogance with extreme modesty. This narrator, as exemplified by early modern travel writers such as Columbus, Vespucci, Cortez, Oviedo, and Las Casas, is both a learned explorer and a capable potential administrator of the lands he has discovered and hopes to profit from. Yet to enhance the veracity of his words (and in line with medieval conventions of travel narrative) this narrator is also a supremely simple, plain and truthful man; he has witnessed what he writes about ‘with my own eyes,’ and the senses can no more lie than the travel narrator himself.[6] In such a manner, these early explorers base their authorial value not only on the privileged nature of the information they possess, but also on a rhetoric that promises this information will be transmitted accurately. From the point of view of these early explorers, those who have not actually been to the New World cannot reproduce their achievements; these fake travelers have no secrets to provide, and they are also accused of being professional rhetoricians, their flowery style paradoxically testifying to the falseness of their claims.

[8] Such a philosophy of travel narrative rhetoric, as deliberately and supremely ignorant, can be seen repeatedly in the sixteenth century. Bernal Díaz, writing in 1568, almost fifty years after the events he is recounting, insists he will speak ‘quite plainly … without twisting the facts in any way’ (Diaz 1963: 14). In Germany, Joh. Dryander prefaces Hans Stade(n)’s 1557 account of Brazilian captivity as follows:

I now noways doubt that this Hans Stade writes … not from the statements of other men, but thoroughly and correctly from his own experience without falsehood …
And so he tells his tale in a simple manner, and not with flowery style, or fine words and arguments, this gives me great belief that it is authentic and veritable; nor could he derive any benefit even if he preferred lying to telling the truth. (Stade 1874: 6)

In 1580, Montaigne summarizes this point of view in his famous essay on cannibals:

clever people … cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest (fidelle), or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory (Montaigne 1943: 152).

[9] Such approaches are visible even in the style of well-trained humanist rhetoricians. Bartolomé de las Casas and his nemesis Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo both claim, in their respective histories of the Indies, that the significance of their writing depends less on their humanist credentials than on the veracity of their words; moreover, such veracity is most appropriately rendered in a simple prose style. Las Casas claims that his text’s ‘poverty of vocabulary, humanity of the style, and lack of eloquence’ are among its most valuable assets (qtd. in Pagden 1993: 78). Oviedo similarly asserts that will not use ‘rhetoric to enhance the truth’ and that he ‘speaks in plain and simple language of the wealth of the Indies’; he goes on to note that even ‘the most flowery of historians, even the incomparable Tullius Cicero could not find words to express the everyday reality I have touched and seen with my own eyes’ (Carrillo 2000: 41). When it comes to travel narrative, in other words, the simple prose of the honest man is preferable to the eloquence of the humanist.

[10] Yet despite the pervasiveness of this ‘simple’ model of exploratory narration, other possibilities do exist in the sixteenth century, Thomas Harriot, for example, does not endorse Montaigne’s prescription for severing travel narrative from learned humanist rhetoric. Mary C. Fuller discusses Harriot’s complaints in 1588 that some reports from Virginia are based on empirical evidence but are nonetheless unreliable: ‘[t]he cause of their ignorance was, in that they were…neuer out of the Iland where wee were seated, or not farre, or at the leastwise in few places els’ (Fuller 1995: 52). Humphrey Gilbert, writing in 1566, is even more confrontational:

the diversity between brute beasts and men, or between the wise and the simple, is that the one judgeth by sense only, and gathereth no surety of any thing that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted, or smelled: And the other not so only, but also findeth the certaintie of things by reason, before they happen to be tried (Fuller 1995: 21).

As Fuller explains, Gilbert encourages more latitude for imagination within travel narrative not only to solicit funds for an unproven project lacking empirical verification (his hope to discover a northwest passage), but also to re-make the genre itself along lines more compatible with Renaissance humanism, a humanism that similarly seeks, in Fuller’s words, ‘to imagine the shape of a world not yet known’ (Fuller 1995: 21). For Harriot and Gilbert, in other words, narratives of discovery, exploration, and eventual colonization are not to be approached merely as modes of literal transcriptions of exotic locations. As Gilbert puts it, perhaps overdramatically, such a rhetoric is appropriate only to ‘brute beasts’ who focus merely on acquiring sense impressions and local knowledge; ‘men’ in contrast have more far-ranging and visionary approaches to mastering the ever-expanding world. And certainly the narratives of exploration and discovery such men produce will be superior to the cruder travel narratives of their opponents.

[11] Looking back from the end of the sixteenth century to its beginning, we can detect, in Thomas More’s Utopia, a similar tension between humanist and travel narrative modes of rhetoric. The latter approach, one More detected in the writings attributed to Vespucci and Columbus, stresses such things as the equation of truth with the empirical evidence of the senses, the consequent rejection of a Ciceronian rhetorical style, and the presentation of the ideal author as a supremely simple figure. Yet this is not an approach endorsed by Utopia, and the text goes to considerable effort to make clear what is at stake in the gap between these two approaches, both in stylistic and ideological terms.

[12] Book One of Utopia opens by mocking the content of the popular travel narratives of More’s day. In questioning Raphael Hythloday about his journeys, More ‘made no inquiries…about monsters, for nothing is less new or strange than they are’ (More 1995: 49). In one sense, More is critiquing a genre humanists mocked elsewhere: medieval romances, largely coextensive with medieval travel narratives, that shamelessly resituated the less plausible aspects of famous classical adventure set-pieces — ‘Scyllas, ravenous Celaenos, man-eating Laestrygonians’ — into a supposedly real-world framework (More 1995: 49).[7] In such a context, More might be expressing a hope that the new genre of travel narrative will be an improvement on the old, de-emphasizing romance and adventure in favour of political and moral philosophy, focusing on such things as ‘ill-considered usages in these new-found nations’ and ‘other customs from which our own cities, nations, races and kingdoms might take lessons in order to correct their errors’ (More 1995: 48). Yet unfortunately these ‘new’ travel narratives — specifically those of Vespucci — contain plenty of ‘monsters’; both ‘The Four Voyages’ and the ‘Mundus Novus’ include implausible references to cannibals and giants that echo accounts in Homer, Virgil, and Mandeville. More even coins the word ‘populivoros’ to describe these cannibals; translated by the Utopia editors as ‘people-eating,’ ‘on the analogy of “carnivorous”’, the word may also be a pun, ‘populivoros’ meaning ‘popularly devoured’ and referring to a reading public who voraciously absorbs only the most sensationalistic material from the New World (More 1995: 48-49).[8]

[13] To make fun of such readers and texts and the attitudes they encourage, More resorts first to parody. This is a mode of humour early sixteenth-century humanists felt comfortable using in texts contemporaneous with Utopia such as the 1515 epistolary parody collection, The Letters of Obscure Men (which More praised to his friends), and of course, in 1511, The Praise of Folly — Erasmus’s example of both a paradoxical encomium and a parodic sermon, dedicated to Thomas More. It is not difficult to think of Utopia as emerging from, among other things, More’s effort to out-do even his famous friend Erasmus in the genre of parody, and a parody of the techniques of travel narrative may have occurred to him as he perused his Vespucci letters.

[14] In terms of the intersection of parody and travel narrative, an even more specific inspiration for Utopia than The Praise of Folly can be found in Lucian’s ‘A True Story’, written in Greek in the second century. Lucian was very popular among the early humanists, and More and Erasmus published their translations of him in 1506.[9] ‘A True Story’ begins by identifying itself generically as a parody of the ‘fabulous tall stories’ of yore, and the text’s parody commences with what could be taken as a passage from Vespucci:

For a day and a night we sailed before a wind that was favourable but not strong enough to carry us out of sight of land. At dawn of the following day, however, the wind made up, the sea began to run, and the sky grew dark. There wasn’t even time to take in sail … For the next seventy-nine days we were driven along by a furious storm. Suddenly, on the eightieth, the sun broke through and we saw, fairly near, a hilly island covered with forest. (Lucian 1962: 15)

As the text continues, additional elements of conventional travel narratives are imitated and mocked, particularly as they relate to the construction of ‘truth’. Lucian’s travelogue contains such devices as adamant assertions of the teller’s truthfulness, a repeated concern about maintaining his reputation as a trustworthy witness, the continual inclusion of specific numerical details, and the citation of material evidence, inevitably lost, that would confirm the tale’s truth. In Utopia, More copies many of these parodic techniques and moreover utilizes them to the same end: critiquing the alluring truth constructions of travel narrative.

[15] One essential element of truth construction in travel narrative that is highlighted by Utopia is the phenomenon of witnessing. This is a medieval travel narrative trope (‘you may not believe me but I saw it with my own eyes’) and also a fundamental component of medieval and early modern approaches to the law; reliable witnesses were crucial to legal proceedings (Shapiro 2000: 13-21). In the early modern travel narratives of Thomas More’s time, however, it is the increasing conjunction of these two previously distinct modalities that enables the creation of that new figure we have already glimpsed: the travel narrator as witness, an explorer whose very sense impressions carry legal weight. Vespucci’s more famous contemporary, Columbus, shows this process in action, in a letter widely distributed across Europe:

I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me. To the first island which I found, I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it ‘Guanahani.’ To the second I gave the name Isla de Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabella; to the fifth, Isla Juana, and so to each one I gave a new name (Columbus 1930: i.2).

In this short passage, the confluence of eyewitnessing, truth telling, and factuality that we saw earlier in Vespucci has suddenly become far more powerful. As Columbus makes his proclamations, formally naming each island he has landed upon and claiming it for his sovereigns, he quickly transforms the language of discovery into the language of legal possession, via the dual nature of the term witnessing.[10]

[16] The idea that witnessing in travel narrative can accomplish such grand aims, that it can be, in effect, an act of political power, is a concept Thomas More satirizes in Utopia. He stresses that all the members of his humanist circle have a stupendous power of witnessing and then applies that power to make his narrative seem more truthful. Raphael Hythloday is described by Peter Giles in his prefatory letter as having seen and heard about Utopia first-hand, rather than through others:

it was perfectly plain that he wasn’t just repeating what he had heard from other people but was describing exactly what he had seen close at hand with his own eyes and experienced in his own person, over a long period of time. (More 1995: 25)

The witnesses to Raphael’s testimony are equally sensation-oriented and equally reliable. More verifies Raphael’s account and Peter Giles corroborates More’s, ‘for I was present at his discourse quite as much as More himself’ (More 1995: 25). The French humanist Guillaume Budé takes the joke further in his own prefatory letter, first attesting boldly to Peter Giles’s truthfulness (‘I am bound to give [More] full credit on the word of Peter Giles of Antwerp’) and then dryly commenting that he has not actually ever met Giles but nonetheless places total trust in him since he is ‘the sworn and intimate friend of Erasmus’ (More 1995: 17). Conjuring the name of Erasmus, Europe’s pre-eminent humanist, is the finishing touch in this demonstration of how textual truth is established through a chain of accurate witnesses. More’s skill in eliding the difference between eye-witnessing (that of Hythloday in relation to Utopia) and character witnessing (that practiced by Budé in relation to Erasmus and More) by pretending the two are identical, interchangeable aspects of the same overall, infallible truth system underscores how the concept of ‘witnesses’ can create potent links, even equivalences, between what are actually very different types of evidence.

[17] Utopia’s parody of travel narrative extends also to the qualities in the witnessing voice itself, a persona characterized by extreme and excessive simplicity. In the letter from Thomas More to Peter Giles that prefaces the text’s first edition (More 1995: 31-39), More insists on the truthfulness of his writing (‘Truth in fact is the only thing at which I should aim and do aim in writing this book’ [More 1995: 31) and boasts of his memory as his most valuable asset (‘I wish my judgment and learning were up to my memory, which isn’t too bad’ [More 1995: 33]). He reinforces this sense of simplicity by lavishing, like other rustic travel tellers, the most attention on the least relevant details (the prolonged dispute about the length of the Anyder bridge [More 1995: 35]). He readily admits his lack of rhetorical skill (‘if the matter had to be set forth with eloquence, not just factually, there is no way I could have done that, however hard I worked, for however long a time’ [More 1995: 31, 33]), but presents this limitation as further evidence of his authorial worthiness — the conduit for truths that should lie entirely outside the self if they are to be believed.

[18] Such a conception of rhetoric, one that excludes both imagination and intellect from the truth-construction process, not only points in the direction of early modern travel narrative, but is also considerably anti-humanistic. Going beyond standard displays of Renaissance modesty, the ‘Letter to Giles’ reduces the author’s role to that of amanuensis (existing merely to ‘repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ [More 1995: 31) and even repudiates, repeatedly, the value of labor, and even the power of thought, in crafting written prose.[12] Such qualities as ‘talent and learning’, ‘eloquence’, and ‘thinking through this topic,’ (More 1995: 31) are dispensed with and even presented as counter-productive. To ‘labour over the style’ (More 1995: 31) of a narrative would only detract from its truth, which, it is implied, is the sole reason for producing it. More’s humanist friends are likewise drawn into this disturbing definition of what it means to be a praiseworthy writer. Not only is More himself described as a very simple man, one whose aim is to ‘simply write down what I had heard’ (More 1995: 33), but Hythloday too speaks with a ‘casual simplicity’ that enables his words to approach ‘nearer the truth’ (More 1995: 31). Peter Giles likewise is a man without ‘fucus’ (More 1995: 42) or the red dye that would cover over his straightforward plainness; as Ralph Robinson puts it in his 1551 translation of Utopia: ‘no man vseth lesse simulation or dissimulation, in no man is more prudent simplicitie’ (More 1906: 28). Robinson’s oxymoronic phrasing stresses the alternative options for travel narration highlighted in Utopia: the genre can be seen as a simple one that emphasizes truthfulness above all else — but it can also be viewed, in a more humanist fashion, as a rhetorical construct to be approached, as all speech and writing should be, with ‘prudent’ care and skepticism.[13]

[19] Numerous critics have written about the power of early modern travel narratives to evoke the sense of primal truthfulness that Utopia interrogates. Mary C. Fuller explains how in early modern travel narratives, ‘the reliable report emerges at the end of an unbroken line from writing, to the memory of experience, to the experience of a particular thing, to the thing itself’ (Fuller 1993: 225).[14] Michel de Certeau has written similarly about how these texts aim to recreate, through recourse to both the senses and the body, the ‘real that was lost by language,’ the things the traveler’s body has been through and seen and not merely the other travel narratives he has read (de Certeau 1986: 74). As we have seen, Utopia parodies this simplistic logic on several levels — mocking both the ease with which ‘truth’ is perceived as the mere transcription of memories and also the ideal, simple personalities of the people best suited to convey such truths.

[20] Utopia’s parodic efforts go further still, extending to the use of autobiographical and biographical generic techniques; these are brought in to show how the plausibility of a traveler’s ‘real-world’ identity can lend credence to the less plausible events he encounters in a ‘new’ world. Vespucci, More’s immediate model, reminds his readers of his pedigree as an educated man and the confidant of sovereigns before launching into his adventures.[15] In the opening of Utopia, Thomas More follows Vespucci’s lead by painting a detailed, extremely accurate portrait of himself and the trade mission he was involved in at the time Utopia was composed. The account marks More as doubly truthful in the typical travel narrative mode: he is both a real person (associated with the truths of ‘fact’) and a trustworthy person (associated with the truths that emerge from his ‘honest’ and ‘honourable’ personality, as testified in the parerga). The signatures that open and close Utopia (‘the noted Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of Britain, London’ and ‘the most distinguished and learned man, Master Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of London.’ [More 1995: 41, 249]) emphasize further how drawing on one’s reputation can lend weight to the truth claims of a text even when that text is a lie.

[21] More may have in fact seen this technique at work in Vespucci’s own Quatuor Navigationes. Since he read Vespucci’s narrative as it was printed in the Cosmographiae Introductio of Martin Waldseemüller, he might also have noticed that the work’s fulsome dedication to Renaud [René] II, the French duke of Lorraine, was peculiar given the nationality of either Vespucci or his patrons. The dedication’s reference to Vespucci and duke René being ‘fellow-students’ in their youth (Vespucci 1907: 85) is clearly not possible. In fact, the name of the original dedicatee, Piero Soderini (the dedication to whom may have been forged as well), was simply changed to suit Waldseemüller’s own patron when Vespucci texts (probably forgeries) were being translated from Italian to French and then Latin (Fischer and Wieser 1907: 11-13). Whatever duke René may have thought of this re-writing of an author’s identity to turn him into the dedicatee’s boyhood friend, the association of this joke with the insistent claims of the truthfulness of the Vespucci accounts contained in the Waldseemüller volume must have inspired Thomas More to create a utopian genre that is similarly based on the insistence that possible fabrications are absolutely true.

[22] The ability of ‘facts’ such as an author’s identity to cast their light of truthfulness upon other textual elements — such as an author’s capacity for honest witnessing and the value of his words, is a quality Utopia demonstrates on many levels, including that of print. This new technology, whose growth parallels the growth of travel narrative, promises, like travel narrative, an imminent epoch of refinement in human knowledge, largely predicated on the correction of past errors. In 1508, Erasmus lauds the ability of a good printer to ‘trace out what lies hid, to dig up what is buried, to call back the dead, to repair what is mutilated, to correct what is corrupted in so many ways’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 109). By 1526, however, Erasmus’s optimism is dampened; in oft-noted comments added to his 1508 adage, ‘Festina Lente,’ he attacks printers: ‘… how little is the damage done by a careless or ignorant scribe, if you compare him with a printer!’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 110). Thomas More is apparently aware, earlier on, of how well-intentioned technology can go awry. As with the example of a misused compass in Book One of Utopia (and recall, in this context, the swift use More’s early Protestant enemies made of the printing press), human foolishness will hardly be diminished by human invention; with the advent of the printing press, More wryly notes, Raphael Hythloday’s discourse, ‘hitherto known to but few’ will somehow appear the more truthful as further editions of Utopia are published, distributed, and read (More 1995: 249). Even the concept of ‘errata,’ that developing printer’s tool which suggests the ultimate perfectibility of a printed text, is the subject of a joke in Utopia, the one about providing that absolutely ‘correct’ figure for the length of the Utopian bridge at Amaurot.

[23] Thomas More’s exploration of the effects of print on the nature of truth in writing is also reflected in such visual elements of Utopia as the presentation of the Utopian alphabet and a sample of poetry written in it. Also noteworthy is the woodcut provided of the island of Utopia, an image that is new to cartography: part map, part illustration. Particularly in its original, 1516 version, this image echoes the woodcut accompanying early editions of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Letter to Santangel’; in both cases, as in travel narrative generally, the simplicity of the topography creates a new form of verisimilitude: basic, direct, and like the travel narrator’s prose, less at risk from contamination by the imaginations of fiction.

[24] It might be possible to see in Utopia even further indications of the power of travel narrative methodology; its conventions and premises not only facilitate audience responses of belief and trust, they also promote a powerful ideology of colonization — and indeed travel writings served as an important adjunct to early modern colonization projects. Utopia reveals how not only the content but also the rhetoric of those narratives can encourage the same naiveté in intercultural contexts as can be seen in approaches to the nature of truth.

[25] The career of Christopher Columbus provides an example. As we have seen, when he sets foot on a new territory, he names it, thereby establishing it in a new relationship with the Europe he represents. This relationship is of course one of possession and ownership, a master-slave dichotomy presumably perceived by Columbus as reflecting a divine natural order. ‘Come and see the people from heaven’ is how Columbus (1930: 10) imagines the Americans to be greeting him. He believes indigenous languages to be as unadorned as the bodies of those who speak them and as easily mastered. In such ways, the excited rhetoric of Columbus the adventurous travel narrator who encounters an amazing people who worship him like a god is quickly and unthinkingly transformed into the rhetoric of Columbus, the cruel and inept colonial administrator. The latter imagines establishing a profitable colony will be as easy as conveying his impressions of its ways of life.

[26] Utopia however mocks such a Columbian approach to intercultural contact, stressing the foolishness (and also the danger) of believing one can quickly grasp the cultural practices of other peoples. When the Anemolian ambassadors visit Utopia, they, like Columbus, imagine themselves ‘as the very gods’ aiming to ‘dazzle the eyes of the poor Utopians with the splendor of their garb’ (More 1995: 151). However, these visitors misread both the local customs (which don’t value gold) and more significantly the local value system which actively discourages both social hierarchy and pride. It is significant that the first thing we learn about Utopia is how well defended it is from outside invasion; more to the point, Utopia implies that such invasion seems to be expected primarily from Europeans.[16] It is they who were trying to seduce New World peoples both with their material goods, their shiny beads and trinkets and, more cunningly, with their rhetoric, which included extensive sermonizing. New World Utopians, however, recognize and prevent such dangers as readily as they can deter physical threats. They are immune to the lure of material possessions, and they take a dim view of those who refuse in engage in dialogue or have similarly non-humanistic approaches to rhetoric. Thus Utopia’s overzealous missionary, preaching that non-Christians are ‘impious and sacrilegious’ and suffer ‘the hell-fires they richly deserved’ (More 1995: 221), is deported; similarly, those who believe a treaty ‘can be made so strong and explicit that a government will not be able to worm out of it’ (More 1995: 199) are presented as unsuitable inhabitants of this humanist-oriented environment; as More puts it, ‘in that new world … nobody trusts treaties’[17]

[27] In the end, the very style and structure of Utopia offer a mode of travel narration to counter the sorts of travel narratives produced by Vespucci and Columbus as well as the effects those narratives produce. Humanists after all had been encouraging Europeans for over a century to develop greater respect for the cultures of antiquity; there is no reason to assume such responses would be out of place in relation to the New World. Moreover, since such true cultural contact always begins with language, Hythloday’s narrative is presented in a language mode that could be termed proto-ethnographic or proto-anthropological and which decisively rejects the standard medieval travel tropes of the grotesque, the monstrous, and the marvelous.[18] Unfortunately, the New World was not carefully explored with the anthropological mentality that Raphael displays; instead, its subsequent history is, to an extent, the legacy of a powerful competing mode of travel narrative — one which even now asserts itself in the form of claiming to profess truths that are so transparent they need not be examined.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


[1] Rudolf Hirsch (1976) presents a full list, year by year, of travel narratives published in the early age of discovery. By 1515, when Utopia is written, there are available numerous editions of Vespucci texts (mainly in Latin and German but also in French and Italian) as well as Columbus’s first letter announcing the discovery of the New World. The first of Peter Martyr’s Decades and the popular travel narrative collection, Paesi Novamente Ritrovati, were also available by 1515. See especially Appendix II. [back to text]

[2] We know that, in the process of writing Utopia, Thomas More read this particular text attributed to Vespucci since the much shorter Mundus Novus, also so attributed, does not contain this detail.[back to text]

[3] Two additional useful essays on the relationship of Utopia to the New World discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci are those by Christoph Strosetzki and Peter C. Herman.[back to text]

[4] The 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera had already justified Spain’s New World claims on the explicit basis of Christopher Columbus’s actions there (Alexander VI 1984: 1.272); the title of Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ suggests a desire on the part of Vespucci (or more likely his Portuguese patrons), to compete with these more established four voyages of Columbus (Gerbi 1975: 45).[back to text]

[5] For a discussion of the genre of the ‘Relación,’ see Mignolo 1982. In addition to being a text that reflects the new imperatives of European expansionism, the ‘Four Voyages’ also differs from medieval travel texts through its proto-scientific presentation, a facet particularly noticeable in the Waldseemüller Cosmographiae Introductio where Vespucci’s accounts are preceded by the ‘Cosmography’ itself — a brief but efficient summary of early sixteenth-century cosmological knowledge, replete with maps and diagrams relating to such topics pertinent to discovery as parallels, climates, and winds. The tenor of this document (the one that first placed the New World on a map) establishes a similar context — one of facts, definitions and precision — for the Vespucci narratives that follow. [back to text]

[6] See Pagden 1993, especially chapter two, 51-88, on the importance of the visual or ‘autoptic imagination’ in this era.[back to text]

[7] For a sample of scornful humanist commentary on the absurdities of medieval romance, see Goodman 1998: 15-16.[back to text]

[8] More’s Latin, ‘nusquam fere non invenias’/‘no place where you will not find’ monsters refers to Nusquama, the original title of Utopia, thereby stressing that in this new mode of travel reporting, there is no place for such things. [back to text]

[9] For Lucian’s popularity and influence in the Renaissance, see Marsh 1998. [back to text]

[10] Columbus’s diary entries recounting these landings emphasize the importance he placed upon ‘witnessing’ as a mode of possessing: ‘The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others…and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords …’ (Columbus 1989: 63-65).[back to text]

[11] In her study of the institutionalization of Northern Renaissance humanism, Lisa Jardine (1993) shows how Erasmus and his humanist circle used the techniques that More uses in Utopia’s parerga — mutual praise and diligent cross-referencing — to build up their own reputations and humanism generally. More can use this practice himself even as he satirizes it.[back to text]

[12] As the Cambridge editors note, when ‘More’ writes to Giles that ‘I faced no problem in finding my materials, and had no reason to ponder the arrangement of them. All I had to do was repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ he is actually referring to the ‘three steps of literary composition [inventio, dispositio, elocutio] as… treated in the classical textbooks of rhetoric and their medieval and Renaissance successors’ (More 1995: 31). Yet More refers to these practices only to stress their irrelevance to the composition of Utopia.[back to text]

[13] Adrian Johns has written of the power of print to imply such qualities as ‘fixity’ even in the perceptions of some modern historians who should be more alert to the way meanings are culturally constructed; as Johns argues, all ‘texts, printed or not, cannot compel readers to react in specific ways, but … must be interpreted in cultural spaces the character of which helps to decide what counts as a proper reading’ (Johns 1998: 20). It is the aim of Utopia to clarify the implications of two such alternative ‘cultural spaces’ (humanistic or travel narrative oriented) in which readings of early modern travel narratives can occur. [back to text]

[14] Fuller’s essay on Sir Walter Raleigh (1993) describes how he was executed in 1618 precisely on the grounds of being a weak link in the chain of narrative truth extending from the New World to Europe. [back to text]

[15] Christopher Columbus, notoriously, goes even further, insisting, especially in his later writings, that he was directed by God to discover the New World. [back to text]

[16] Bartolomé de Las Casas had already published, in 1516, his Memorial de Remedios Para Las Indias (1995), outlining exploitation in the Americas and suggesting solutions. [back to text]

[17] Hanan Yoran has pointed out the sophistication of Utopian approaches to rhetoric; Utopians for instance are highly capable of comprehending the ‘sign systems’ of their enemies and of using those languages against them, through such measures as offering rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Yoran 2005: 21). [back to text]

[18] For a discussion of these various tropes in medieval and early modern travel narratives and the way they contribute to creating an overall discourse of ‘wonder,’ see Greenblatt (1991) and Sell (2006). [back to text]


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