Post-classical history


WHEN CABOT’S bridge project collapsed in December 1494, the councilor Fernando d’Esquivel saw no reason to continue it without him. Indeed, the breakdown-prone Puente de Barca would endure until 1852. The fact that there was no urgent call to replace it with a more robust and reliable structure suggests that the councilors were responding to the reality that the trading bonanza Columbus had promised was not materializing. Friar Buyl had just returned from Española in November 1494 with his damning news, and any further investment in public works related to the Indies trade surely would have seemed like so many maravedis tossed into the Guadalquivir.

Cabot left the greater Indies enterprise less than gracefully, but he had abandoned what must have seemed like a ship that was leaking badly if not actually sinking. As Columbus struggled to keep his head above water, the Venetian marine engineer struck out for fresh opportunities even as he fled his latest troubles with powerful men. That he was able to get himself to sea with another monarch’s generous blessing just eighteen months after the bridge project debacle is one of the wonders of the annals of exploration.

It seems that like some Pied Piper of oceanic opportunity, Jerome Münzer had paused in Seville long enough to capture Cabot in the eddies of his wake. Münzer had earned his medical degree in the Ligurian city of Pavia in 1479 and had traveled to Rome in 1484; presumably no language barrier separated this German envoy from a Venetian bridge contractor who probably was born somewhere between Liguria and Naples. As the crisis with the bridge project proved, Cabot’s work associated him with some of the most powerful citizens and nobles of Seville, even of Castile, and Münzer was accustomed to meeting with the political and social elite during this diplomatic pilgrimage. Münzer’s and Cabot’s lives would have had ample opportunity to intersect, before Cabot’s own relations with Seville’s elite imploded in December.

And after their time in Seville in late 1494, both Münzer and Cabot turned up in Lisbon.

ON JULY 25, 1498, Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish ambassador to the court of Scotland who had relocated to London, wrote Fernando and Isabel with news of John Cabot’s third voyage for Henry VII, which had already departed Bristol. He had only just heard of Cabot, whom he said “has been in Seville and at Lisbon seeking to obtain persons to aid him in this discovery.”

It made sense for Cabot, in fleeing Seville—and Spain—in late 1494, to have crossed over into Portugal, regardless of his relationship with Münzer. His travel options otherwise were narrow. Unless he had satisfied the demands of his Venetian creditors with misappropriated bridge funds, he could not have risked showing his face in the Rialto plaza. And while sea lanes still would have been open, the land route back toward Venice through northern Italy was so fraught with peril as to be mad to consider for himself, his wife, and three sons.

France’s Charles VIII had begun massing his troops at Lyon in June 1494 for his march on Naples, determined to lay claim to the throne that in his mind became available with the death of its king, Ferdinand, that January. Once Naples was rightfully his, the young king imagined a crusade against the Ottoman Turks to retake Constantinople. Charles’s army was through the Alps and at Asti, just outside Genoa, on September 9. A naval force had already secured Genoa as a logistics base. For five months, Charles’s army moved up and down northwestern Italy with speed and terror: Lorenzo de Medici handed over Florence on November 25, French forces reached Rome on December 31 (a week after the Sevillan councilors met to decide what to do about Cabot and his wayward bridge project), and Naples was finally entered on February 22. The glorious crusade for Constantinople was forgotten. Diplomats were hastening to shape the Holy League, a multistate alliance determined to drive Charles out of Italy altogether.

By necessity as well as design, then, Cabot had turned west for Lisbon. Where Columbus had once fled Portugal for Spain, Cabot now fled Spain for Portugal.

Cabot must have been in the Portuguese capital soon after Münzer, who after his ten days at Évora was in Lisbon from November 26 to December 2 (and in nearby Santarém on December 3 and 4). The Venetian would have needed time to pursue voyage opportunities there and then reach England with enough time to secure an audience with Henry VII and have his activities at court noticed by the Spanish ambassador Roderigo de Puebla in January 1496.

Cabot may not have had the opportunity, much less the means, to secure an introduction to João II in early 1495 before racing on to England; in any event, no evidence survives for such an audience with the Portuguese king. But if Ayala’s intelligence was correct, Cabot had only sought “persons to aid him in discovery” in Lisbon. This suggests that he was trying to contact individuals who could be of practical assistance rather than attempting to secure royal favor. Besides, anyone from Seville with the slightest knowledge of Columbus’s Indies enterprise and Tordesillas would have known that Portugal was a doubtful option as a sponsor of a westward voyage. Cabot’s Lisbon sojourn instead would have entailed making contact with the Huerter-Behaim circle, with or without a personal introduction from Münzer, whom he would have so recently met in Seville between November 4 and 11. We otherwise have no idea whom he would have known in Lisbon, to welcome him and his family and aid him in his radical career change.

Cabot’s apparent appropriation of Münzer’s and Behaim’s northern passage concept could have been a case of the Venetian becoming aware of it as it gained circulation in Seville through Münzer’s appearance there. But the circumstantial evidence asks us to take seriously the likelihood of an actual relationship among Cabot, Münzer, and Behaim. Throughout the northern passage-making gambit, Münzer was a facilitator for Behaim. Cabot, as an insider of the Columbus enterprise who was again on the lam and desperate for another fresh start after his serious misadventures with leading nobles of Spain, was a suitable candidate for the role Behaim needed fulfilled in England: a partner, a front man, a Columbus doppelgänger. Behaim himself apparently had already tried and failed spectacularly to make the northern passage pitch to Henry VII himself after being rebuffed by João II.

REJECTED BY JOÃO II, Martin Behaim was not prepared to give up on his vision of a westward route to Asia’s riches and leave all the glory to his old friend Columbus, who by most accounts was making a hash of profiting from the Toscanelli scheme. Behaim was back at sea before the end of 1493, departing Lisbon on a strange voyage to the Burgundian Netherlands that landed him for three months in England in early 1494—the very place John Cabot would soon turn up, trying to persuade Henry VII to sanction a westward voyage of his own in northern waters.

On March 11, 1494, Martin Behaim wrote his cousin Michael in Nürnberg, trying to explain to this long-suffering relative what had become of him since departing Nürnberg for Lisbon in the latter half of 1493. Behaim had resurfaced in the county Brabant and was probably in Antwerp. He offered a terribly confused tale of alleged diplomacy gone awry.

The letter (in German) read: “Now in this year I was again sent by the King here in Flanders, to the King’s son. On this journey by sea I was captured and transferred to England and kept for three months with all my servants and money for provisions that easily came to 160 Gulden, because of the young King from England who is now with the roman King because he has a hearth and home there.”

Behaim was claiming he had left Lisbon for the Burgundian Netherlands under a commission from Maximilian I (“the king here in Flanders”) to confer with Philip, Archduke of Burgundy (“the King’s son”), who was at Bruges. Although the purpose of the diplomatic mission wasn’t explained, Behaim had already gone to Portugal, bearing the Münzer letter, as a special envoy of Maximilian, and he had long-standing family and business connections in the Burgundian Netherlands. The fact that he was captured and held against his will in England for three months was consistent with someone traveling under diplomatic credentials of Maximilian: Relations between Henry VII’s England and Maximilian’s Holy Roman Empire, including Burgundy, were positively venal.

The reason for the poor relations (and Behaim’s detention) was the matter of “the young King from England who is now with the roman King.” Behaim was referring to the notorious pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck, whose support by the dowager duchess Margaret of Burgundy and her son-in-law Maximilian, King of the Romans, was bringing Henry and Maximilian to the brink of war.

The issue of the pretender Warbeck was a central crisis of European relations in the 1490s. John Cabot’s strange transformation from marine engineer in Spain to English explorer may never have happened without it. Cabot’s exploration career ultimately was a by-product of vexatious matters of trade, diplomacy, and war that had nothing to do with finding a continent no one suspected even existed.

HENRY VII’S CLAIM to the English throne was achieved by the sword, through his victory at Bosworth Hill over the usurper Richard III in 1485. Henry’s claim to royal blood, however—a link to Edward III through the house of Lancaster courtesy of his mother, Margaret, Countess of Richmond—was dodgy. Henry tried to quell dissent and unite the Yorkists and Lancastrians by wedding Elizabeth of York, eldest child of Edward IV, who was the elder brother of Richard III. The plan of 1489 to have Henry’s heir, Arthur, eventually marry Fernando and Isabel’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, was another strategic move to legitimize the Tudor claim on the throne: Catherine’s namesake was her great-grandmother on her mother Isabel’s side, Catherine of Lancaster, who was a granddaughter of Edward III.

The reign of Henry VII was under constant threat from Yorkist forces—the White Roses of the War of the Roses—that used intrigues of pretenders in an attempt to overthrow him. The inspiration for these pretenders was the (still) unknown fate of two brothers of Henry’s wife, the princes Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Placed by their uncle, Richard III, in the Tower of London in 1483 as he seized power, no one had seen the boys since. It remains uncertain when and how they died, and whose hands were bloody.

The first imposter, a child of about ten named (we think) Lambert Simnel, was marketed by conspirators as Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, a simpleminded son of Richard III who was in fact being held in the Tower of London by Henry VII. Simnel was defeated and captured at the Battle of Stoke Field in Lancaster in June 1487. Henry treated the hapless pretender kindly. The child was given a job in the royal kitchen and then promoted to falconer.

Perkin Warbeck was less straightforward to deflect. He surfaced in 1490 in Burgundy, where Margaret, the dowager duchess of Burgundy, who was a sister of Edward IV and Richard III, embraced him as her missing nephew Richard, Duke of York. Margaret of Burgundy had already funded some fifteen hundred German mercenaries for the Simnel misadventure. She surely knew that Warbeck was an imposter, and in a confession eventually wrested from him, he purportedly admitted he was a Burgundian Fleming, the son of a French official in Tournai.

Maximilian I was Warbeck’s most blatant supporter, after Margaret of Burgundy. His first wife was the dowager duchess’s stepdaughter, Mary, who had become Duchess of Burgundy on the death in battle in January 1477 of her father, Charles the Bold. When Mary died in 1482 after breaking her back in a horse-riding accident, Burgundy was to be ruled by Maximilian as protector of their child, the duke in waiting, Philip. This went over very badly with the largest cities (or states-general) of the Low Countries, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, which rejected Philip’s governorship and signed the Treaty of Arras with France’s Louis XI in December 1482. The treaty turned over Maximilian and Mary’s daughter, Margaret, to Louis XI, along with a portfolio of territories that included Artois and Franche-Comté; she was to be raised at the French court and eventually marry the dauphin, the future Charles VIII. So poorly did Maximilian fare in his power struggle with the states-general that although he was made King of the Romans in 1486 at his father Frederick III’s behest, he was imprisoned by the citizens of Bruges in 1488 and cut off from both his children.

Maximilian managed to extricate himself from his imprisonment in 1489 and by 1492 was able to regain control over his Burgundian affairs. The French dauphin meanwhile had shunned Maximilian’s daughter Margaret and instead wed Anne de Bretagne, Duchess of Brittany, in 1491. Outraged, Maximilian sent an army in December 1492 into Franche-Comté.

The dauphin, who had assumed power that year as Charles VIII, had already been rattled by an invasion by Henry VII in October. Henry wanted to press a claim to Brittany, which had been given over to France by the marriage of Charles and Anne de Bretagne, and to express his displeasure that France was harboring the pretender Warbeck. Henry’s bold aggression alarmed the twenty-two-year-old Charles into suing for peace. By the Treaty of Étaples, in exchange for Henry relinquishing any claim of his own to Brittany, Charles agreed to evict Warbeck and to pay Henry 745,000 crowns in semiannual installments of 25,000 crowns.

Charles made peace with Maximilian through the Treaty of Senlis of 1493, by which the jilted Margaret was returned to her father, along with the dowry that included Artois and Franche-Comté. It was further agreed that Philip would assume his powers as Archduke of Burgundy when he turned sixteen in July 1494. Following the death of his father, Frederick III, in 1493, Maximilian was confirmed as Holy Roman Emperor by the unwieldy assortment of nobles and civic and religious authorities that comprised the empire’s electoral diet.

Having settled his outstanding grievances with France, Maximilian immediately sullied his relationship with England’s Henry VII, as Perkin Warbeck was able to find fresh shelter in Burgundy under the dowager duchess. Maximilian then invited Warbeck to his father’s funeral in the autumn of 1493, going so far as to recognize him as Richard IV, the English king in exile. That Behaim, writing from Brabant in early 1494, so unquestioningly called Warbeck “the young King from England” showed how readily his legitimacy was accepted in the Burgundian Netherlands, from which Warbeck actually happened to hail.

Behaim had departed Lisbon for the Burgundian Netherlands sometime in late 1493. The mission presumably had something to do with the imminent ascent of Philip, who was at Bruges, to the dukedom of Burgundy. Maximilian had not set foot in the rebellious Low Countries since freeing himself from Bruges in 1489 and would not reappear there until August 1494. Still, Behaim did not explain why Maximilian would have expected him to travel all the way from Lisbon to confer with Philip at Bruges on the king’s behalf, when Maximilian easily could have sent someone overland from his own court to do so.

Behaim moreover was traveling in the midst of the most aggravated relations between Henry VII and Maximilian I because of the Warbeck threat. Henry retaliated against Maximilian’s and the dowager duchess’s support of Warbeck by shutting down shipments of English wool to Burgundy: On September 21, 1493, the English merchant adventurers were ordered by Henry to relocate their staple, or designated market for wool and other goods, from Antwerp to Calais, England’s remaining stronghold on the French coast of the English Channel. Back in England, Flemish merchants were deported and their property was seized. For at least two years, trade between England and the Low Countries of Burgundy fairly dried up.

It was in the midst of this sometimes-violent economic war that Behaim—possibly traveling on a Flemish vessel and in any event with papers from Maximilian, and also intending to conduct business for his Flemish father-in-law in the Burgundian Netherlands—was detained in England.

Behaim complained of a fever so severe while being held in England that he twice “took the candle in hand to await Extreme Unction.” He had then made his escape with the aid of a French pirate—or alternately had been abducted by a French pirate while sailing from England, forcing him to secure his freedom by paying his own ransom. The letter wasn’t at all clear on this point. The fever had almost passed in Brabant, and he was waiting to conclude a sugar contract for his father-in-law before returning to Portugal, by the Pentecost, he hoped. He advised that anyone wishing to write him in Lisbon should address the missive to the Portuguese factor in Bruges or Antwerp.

But before Behaim could send the letter, his plans abruptly changed. He was hurrying by sea back to Lisbon, where the letter would finally be sent with a postscript. He offered no explanation for the rapid about-face, but he must have taken fair measure of the severity of the trade war and beat a hasty retreat. As the postscript revealed, Behaim was now happily in the Lisbon home of Huerter, where he would stay until the Pentecost. He planned next to be in Genoa, then would return to Lisbon before moving on to Madeira and finally to the Azores.

“Doctor Jeronimus will not fail to give you my news,” Behaim advised. Whatever news Behaim imparted to the good doctor Münzer to share with his family in Nürnberg is lost to us, but the advice indicated that the two friends were in close contact.

Behaim’s letter was so ambiguous on so many levels that he seemed to be fudging the truth of what actually had happened. A deliberate visit to England to seek support for the voyage plan that João II had just rejected made as much if not more sense than the cockeyed tale of diplomacy, captivity, and piracy that Behaim spun for a relative who would have hoped he had been productively engaged in commerce. Given that Behaim had in mind a northern passage scheme, it made sense for him to have attempted to pitch it next to the English crown, which also enjoyed long and amicable relations with Portugal.

More to the point, England was not a party to the Treaty of Tordesillas, negotiations for which were concluding. Its terms had quashed any idea of João II supporting Behaim’s voyage plan. While Spain and Portugal imagined the treaty cleaving the world between them along a meridian drawn pole to pole, Henry could not be considered beholden to it. As a faithful son of the church, Henry would have had excellent reason to believe that he was limited in his actions only by how Inter cetera of 1493 arguably modified Aeterni Regis of 1481 and so only divided the southern waters of the Ocean Sea, below the Canaries. Inter cetera had no bearing on navigation and discoveries in northern latitudes.

But any effort by Behaim to secure an audience with Henry was a traumatic failure. He probably had departed Lisbon before word arrived of Henry’s opening salvo in the trade war of September 21, 1493. By the time he reached England, political and economic relations with Maximilian’s realm were approaching their nadir over the Warbeck crisis. Behaim would have been treated harshly as an enemy alien, a subject of Maximilian who had been doing business in the politically explosive Burgundian Netherlands since the age of sixteen, was married to the daughter of a prominent Fleming noble, and was planning to serve in the Low Countries as a commercial agent for his father-in-law on this journey. Behaim would have been swept up in the detention of Flemings, seizure of their property, and deportation to the Burgundian Netherlands—in his case, with or without the aid of a French smuggler.

The strange letter of March 11, 1494, with its Lisbon postscript, is the last shred of evidence of the life and career of the man who should have been Columbus. He died in poverty in Lisbon in 1506, leaving behind debts for which creditors were still seeking redemption from his son in 1519. Behaim somehow had vaporized a substantial inheritance from his mother and squandered whatever advantages he had enjoyed from his personal and commercial relationship with his prosperous father-in-law.

The standard denouement of Behaim’s story is that he retreated to the Azores, as an inscription on the Erdapfel stated that it was his plan to retire there. But there is no proof that he did so. It is hard to believe that the ambitious, vainglorious Behaim did nothing worth mentioning with his life after the March 1494 letter, as westward exploration soon experienced a boom in Spain, Portugal, and England; there also had to be an explanation for how he ended up in a pauper’s grave. Something had consumed his time, his passion, and all of his money.

BEYOND THE ESSENTIAL SIMILARITY between Cabot’s voyage plan and the proposal Behaim had made to João II with Jerome Münzer’s help, foremost among the issues that suggested Behaim became directly, even intimately involved with Cabot in the English voyages was a December 1497 report from London by the Milanese diplomat Raimundo di Raimundis that placed a globe in Cabot’s hands.

Raimundis encountered Cabot several months after the Venetian’s return in August 1497 from his first successful voyage for Henry VII. “This Messer Zoane has the description of the world in a map, and also in a solid sphere, which he has made, and shows where he has been.” Raimundis thus believed Cabot had fashioned the map and globe after completing the 1497 voyage, to illustrate his discoveries.

Cabot’s marine engineering project at Valencia indicated he could draw detailed plans, so we cannot dismiss the possibility that he was capable of creating a globe from scratch. But other aspects of the Raimundis report would give ample cause to question Cabot’s truthfulness (and for us to admire the Milanese ambassador’s sheer credulousness on matters of exploration and trade with Asia). Cabot was perfectly capable of passing off the map and globe as his own handiwork.

It didn’t seem possible that Cabot had the time to craft a globe after his return from the 1497 voyage in August and before Raimundis encountered him at court that December. His days would have been a whirlwind of audiences and preparations for an ambitious, multiship follow-up voyage, with travels between Bristol and London. He probably merely updated the geographical props he already possessed when seeking the letters patent from Henry VII in 1495–96. The Great Chronicle of London, an early-sixteenth-century work attributed to Robert Fabyan, would state how Cabot had used “a caart [chart]& other demonstracions Reasonable” to persuade the king to support his explorations.

Cabot still would have had to know how to fabricate a globe in 1495. It is highly questionable that he could have done so, at least not without expert advice. To appreciate the sheer challenge of making one, bear in mind that England’s first domestically produced globe would not appear for another century; this landmark Molyneux globe, completed in 1593, was a team effort involving some of the finest navigational minds and cartographic experts in what had become a significant maritime power with burgeoning exploration experience.

As noted, sources like the Toscanelli letter and Las Casas indicate that a select few terrestrial globes existed in Europe in the late fifteenth century and that Columbus himself at some point possessed one. But the only person in Europe at the time of the Cabot voyages that we can unequivocally say had supervised the complex task of making a globe—which included drawing a world map from which a globe could be made—was Martin Behaim. And he was able to do so only with aid from the expert team of craftsmen he assembled in Nürnberg, a Renaissance center renowned for its mathematics and precision instruments. The Cabot globe was such a novelty that Raimundis couldn’t come up with a term for it beyond “solid sphere.”

Cabot’s globe would not have been as lavishly illustrated as the Nürnberg Erdapfel of 1492, but it still would have been a daunting technical challenge to create. To begin, a perfect sphere had to be fashioned. The Nürnberg craftsmen began by creating a clay ball about twenty inches in diameter, over which linen was laminated. This linen shell was then cut in two, the clay form removed, and the hemispheres rejoined with a wooden band. A parchment skin was then applied, and on top of that they glued a layer of paper in six segments with two caps for the polar regions. Simply creating the hollow sphere had been a substantial undertaking by German craftsmen who knew their materials and methods.

As with the Nürnberg Erdapfel, there was an obvious and necessary link in the Cabot case between the two-dimensional world map and the three-dimensional globe: The first determined the second. Transferring a map drawn in two dimensions to a spherical surface—which is to say, drawing a map so that it can be transferred to a sphere—is a feat of geometry, as it raises significant headaches in cartographic projection. And cartographic projection was so new that an example of a chart displaying latitude (let alone longitude) isn’t known before 1502. Translating a surface between two and three dimensions invites a command of spherical trigonometry, a then-abstruse brand of mathematics that would not enjoy the benefit of logarithms until John Napier invented them in 1594. A globe capable of impressing a monarch and his court, in short, was not a project that anyone could slap together in a quiet corner of a rented house.

Cabot’s globe and map may well have come to him ready-made, directly or indirectly, from Behaim. They would have been artifacts of Behaim’s efforts to work out the tenaciously difficult task of converting a two-dimensional world map on the Toscanelli model into a three-dimensional illustrative surface applied in eight pieces for the Erdapfel. Behaim would have taken them with him to Lisbon, to use in his 1493 northern voyage pitch to João II, as the so-called Laon globe appears to have been modeled on an example Behaim brought to Portugal that year. As Cabot was about to pitch Henry VII on a voyage scheme that originated with Behaim and Münzer, he could do worse than use Behaim’s own props. The globe and map together thus could have been acquired by Cabot while he was in Lisbon or copied directly from Behaim’s examples. We also know from Behaim’s March 1494 letter from Lisbon that he was planning to be in and out of Lisbon for the next while, between visits to Genoa and Madeira.

What is more, the actual creator of the “world in a map” and “solid sphere” that Raimundis saw Cabot flaunting at the English court in December 1497 may have been standing right next to Cabot: a mysterious unnamed Burgundian companion noted by Raimundis alone.

For someone like Raimundis, it would have been easy to identify Behaim (whose name he evidently did not catch) as a Burgundian, as since his teens Behaim had spent so much of his life and business activity in the Burgundian Netherlands and was married to the daughter of a prominent Flemish Burgundian. This Burgundian had sailed with Cabot on the triumphant 1497 voyage, for as Raimundis noted: “He wants to go back.” And this Burgundian wanted to go back because Cabot “has given him an island.” He was also so knowledgeable that Raimundis corroborated with him everything Cabot said.

This Burgundian, then, was not some common sailor. He was allied with Cabot with high expectations of personal reward—a cut of the privileges at the level of nobility, as according to Raimundis, he was already fancying himself a count. By equipping Cabot with the theories, props, and intelligence that could secure a patent from Henry VII, Behaim would be able to match and even exceed the rewards that Columbus, his old friend from Portugal, had secured through the Spanish crown.

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