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1492 – Martin Behaim’s Globe

September 8, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

June 17: Martin Behaim is at work making a globe of the world in Nuremberg.

Martin Behaim‘s Erdapfel is “the oldest surviving globe in the world” (p. 11), but it’s not a particularly accurate globe. It’s filled with mythical places, like the Isle of St. Brendan.  Cape Verde is misplaced by hundreds of miles. Western Africa is wildly distorted. Most significantly, Japan is a mere 1,500 miles west of Portugal (not the 10,000 miles that actually separates the two nations).

Behaim’s…representation of the world is more important for some of the ways in which it is wrong than for the few things he got right. For many of his errors and assumptions fitted the agenda of an increasingly influential group of geographers in Nuremberg, Florence, Portugal, and Spain, who corresponded with one another and propagated their own, revolutionary way of imagining geography.” (p. 16)

The details of what might lie in the unexplored ocean between Europe and Asia were in dispute, but one shared conclusion stood out. As Christopher Columbus put it, as he contemplated the theories that came out of Nuremberg, Florence, and Lisbon, ‘This world is small.’ A viewer of Martin Behaim’s globe could sense the smallness, cupping the image of the world between his hands, seeing the whole of it with a single spin.” (p. 20)

Martin Behaim's 1492 Globe - That's Japan on the left and Europe on the right with no intervening Americas.

Martin Behaim’s 1492 Globe – That’s Japan on the left and Europe on the right with no intervening Americas.

Behaim, Columbus and their colleagues—and the monarchs like John II of Portugal, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile who employed them—knew the riches that awaited those who gained access to the spice trade of the East. The idea that the world might not be unimaginably large, but rather imaginably small, helped spur the decades-long quest for a passage to Asia.

Europe, which was still a poor and backward corner of Eurasia compared with the rich economies and civilizations of maritime Asia, produced nothing that Asian markets wanted in exchange. Only cash would do.” (p. 18)

“Most of the transforming initiatives that helped to produce modernity came, ultimately, from China. Paper and printing…gunpowder…the blast furnace and the exploitation of coal for energy…paper money…direction-finding and shipbuilding technologies… scientific empiricism (all) had a much longer history in China than in the West. So in science, finance, commerce, communications, and war, the most pervasive of the great revolutions that made the modern world depended on Chinese technologies and ideas. The rise of Western powers to global hegemony was a long-delayed effect of the appropriation of Chinese inventions.” (p. 25)

Other posts in this series:

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From → Books, History

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