Post-classical history


ALWYN RUDDOCK continues to hold historians spellbound with the claims in her book outline for Exeter Press that survived the posthumous destruction of her papers. A number of her key assertions have already been substantiated by the Cabot Project, including the role of the Florentine House of Bardi in financing Cabot’s English voyages. But her truly extraordinary statements remain unproven, perhaps even improvable. No one yet knows if there was a documentary basis to them or if Ruddock had stitched together a scenario based on highly educated guesses. I remain confident that much of what she asserted was based in fact, in no small part because of the faith of Jeffrey Reed, whose work in transcribing letters between Ruddock and David B. Quinn in Quinn’s papers at the Library of Congress has been so important to furthering the hunt for Ruddock’s sources. After reading her stillborn book’s chapter outline in the 2008 Historical Researchpaper by Evan Jones, “Alwyn Ruddock: ‘John Cabot and the Discovery of America,’” Reed told me, “I was struck by what she claimed. The obvious criticism of the paper was that Ruddock had never published much of her findings, which raised the possibility that her claims were those of a mad old woman. But it was clear to me that she was one of those people who, if she said she had found something, she had found it. Anyone who met Ruddock would quickly realize that she was a real old-fashioned archival scholar. I knew both Alwyn Ruddock and David Quinn, and he took seriously everything she said.”

“I think we’re now well past the stage of wondering whether Ruddock simply made her claims up—which I was asked a lot at the time my first article came out [as a preview online] in 2007,” Jones has told me. “We’ve corroborated too many of her finds now to doubt her on that score. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that everything she said was correct.”

Foremost among Ruddock’s unproven assertions is the scope of the role of Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis in the 1498 Cabot voyage. Ruddock believed Carbonariis and his fellow Augustinian friars had participated with their own ship, theDominus Nobiscum. The Spanish ambassador Ayala had reported in July 1498 that a ship carrying Carbonariis (“another Friar Buil”) was forced into port in Ireland by a storm on the outbound passage, but Ruddock asserted that Carbonariis and his ship made it to Newfoundland. There they established a settlement with a church on Conception Bay, in a location that was preserved through folk memory as Carbonear.

The idea that Carbonear might be linked to Carbonariis did not originate with Ruddock. David O. True, a Miami geographer, posited in 1954 that John and Sebastian Cabot were the discoverers of Florida; at the same time, True found Carbonear resonantly intriguing. As James A. Williamson wrote in 1962 in The Cabot Voyages: “Mr. David O. True very kindly notified me of a point that has attracted his attention, the existence of the old place-name Carbonear on the eastern shore of Newfoundland. Its similarity to the unique personal name de Carbonariis is suggestive. It might be supposed that Antonio de Carbonariis was in some way linked with this place in the voyage of 1498, or equally that he was there in the course of some subsequent expedition.”

Ruddock assuredly was inspired by this observation and fleshed out a scenario involving an actual settlement. The friars overwintered at present-day Carbonear and the next summer made an exploratory voyage up the Labrador coast in theDominus Nobiscum.Ruddock must have been aware of the record of such a ship; she claimed the account of the voyage was passed down through the decades in garbled memories, until the sixteenth-century English historiographer Richard Hakluyt mistakenly turned it into a 1527 Northwest Passage search with a ship he misspelled as Dominicus Noviscum, confusing the voyage’s details with the actual expedition of the Sampson and the Mary of Guildford of that year. Ruddock also appeared to believe that Ilha de Frey Luis (Island of Brother Luis), which appeared on a Portuguese chart from around 1503, referred to a hermit retreat associated with Carbonariis and his friars. Carbonariis in Ruddock’s scenario never returned to England, and we know he was replaced in his proctor’s duties by Polydore Vergil.

There was more. Three of the other four ships in the 1498 Cabot flotilla engaged in fishing, while Cabot struck out on a solo passage to the south, sailing all the way to the Caribbean. Here Ruddock’s thesis merged with the familiar scenario of a supposed encounter with Spaniards. It’s not clear if she actually had fresh evidence in this regard; she may only have been elaborating on the known materials related to the La Cosa map and the expedition of Alonso de Hojeda and Amerigo Vespucci. Nevertheless, her outline for chapter XIII promised: “The arrival in the Caribbean. Columbus in Hispaniola and Hojeda and Vespucci exploring the South American coast. Evidence from Spanish archives and narratives. The encounter with Cabot’s ship at Coquibaçoa and the homeward voyage. Repercussions in Spain.”

Unless Ruddock had stumbled on fresh evidence in Spanish archives, Cabot’s encounter with Hojeda and Vespucci at Coquibaçoa is the most speculative of her unpublished ideas. Her assertions about Carbonariis are more promising; her work sifting through unindexed materials in British archives apparently yielded a number of additional insights that researchers are chasing down. Among them are clues to previously unknown relationships within the Cabot enterprise.

Ruddock’s outline for “Chapter XII (Preparations for the Voyage of 1498)” avowed that Henry VII loaned money to the “Esterfield family” and Thomas Bradley. She also asserted links between the Thirkill family of London and the Bristol community. Bradley we know had a ship pressed by Cabot for the 1498 voyage, as did Launcelot Thirkill. Ruddock appeared to be following the lead of C. Raymond Beasley, who in his 1898 volume on the Cabots qualified the king’s payment of twenty pounds to Thirkill in the March 17–22 day books entries of 1498 not as a payment for a ship press, but as a “loan;” Beasley also called a subsequent payment to Thirkill and Bradley of thirty pounds in the April 1–3 entries a “loan.” While Beasley was mistaken in not recognizing that ships were pressed from these men, Ruddock had revisited these archival records and concluded that Henry VII was indeed financing these men as voyage participants. The Cabot Project has discovered the initiation of legal proceedings against Launcelot Thirkill and Thomas Bradley in June 1500 for nonpayment of a loan the king had advanced them in 1498 for going to the “new isle.”

As for Ruddock’s assertion that Henry loaned money to the Esterfield family for the 1498 voyage: We know of John Esterfeld from the suit he filed against William Weston, for which Henry VII issued a stay of proceedings in March 1499 so Weston could make an exploration voyage on the king’s behalf. If all of Ruddock’s assertions with respect to these families and individuals and the 1498 Cabot voyage prove correct, they will significantly enhance—and complicate—our picture of the dynamics of the relationships among the king, Cabot, and the Bristol and London merchant communities.

Confirmation of John Esterfeld’s involvement in Cabot’s 1498 voyage would not come as a surprise, as he was one of Bristol’s most prominent citizens and merchants. Esterfeld traded mainly with France’s Gascony region and the Atlantic ports of Spain and Portugal. He dominated Bristol trade there in cloth, according to customs records in the late 1480s, but also dealt in woad, wine, sugar, cloth, hides, calfskins and oil. For the Trinity voyage of 1480–81 to Andalusia that called at Columbus’s haunt of La Rábida, Esterfeld secured the ship’s purser, John Balsall, as his agent in trading in cloth. No records connect him directly with the Bristol search for Brasil under way at the time, but Esterfeld certainly knew the men involved.

Like William Weston’s late father-in-law, John Foster, Esterfeld held the usual public offices of a leading citizen: sheriff, bailiff, and mayor (in 1487 and 1494–95), and represented Bristol in Parliament in 1485–86 and 1487, immediately before Foster became the city’s member of Parliament. He also invested in land with Weston in 1493. In 1495, Esterfeld was commissioned to execute the office of Admiral of England for the city and county of Bristol, a post that was renewed in 1498. Who knows what Esterfeld might have thought of Cabot being styled the “Great Admiral” on his return in 1497?

If any Bristol merchant had the means to invest in Cabot’s 1498 voyage, it was Esterfeld, who was also well known and loyal to Henry VII. Why the king would have felt obligated to lend money to Esterfeld for the 1498 voyage is another issue. And how Esterfeld managed to become entangled in a bitter legal fight with Weston—with whom he had invested in real estate and who was an apparent associate of Cabot who had already been compensated by Henry in January 1498—is a true conundrum. Esterfeld may have had no choice as executor of the Foster will but to initiate the chancery petition against the Westons, but the ongoing action threatened to toss Foster’s daughter and son-in-law out on the street and put Esterfeld at odds with the king’s interests.

Foster had died in 1492, and a house he owned on Corn Street in Bristol was left to the use of his daughter Agnes during her lifetime, on condition that she honored a number of financial stipulations. It was a rather begrudging bequest, and apart from ensuring that he continued to have a roof over his head, Agnes’s husband, William Weston, could not benefit from it. Esterfeld had launched the prosecution because William and Agnes Weston had not kept up with the quit-rent and had barred him from entering the property to ensure it was being maintained in accordance with the will, which Esterfeld said it was not. The Westons were on the verge of being evicted when the king stepped in so that William Weston could make the exploration voyage.

The recent emergence of Weston as an explorer in his own right raises many questions about Cabot’s status with Henry around the time of the 1498 voyage and about the English perception of what had been found. The suit involving Esterfeld and Weston layers on additional intrigue. The history of Bristol’s late fifteenth-­century maritime community, and its role in the early exploration of North America, is suddenly alive with unanswered questions and fresh lines of inquiry.

WHERE JOHN CABOT’S STORY promises the recovery of a lost history, Martin Behaim’s may be destined to remain an intriguing riddle. Between his strange letter of March 1494 to his cousin Michael and his impoverished death in Lisbon in 1506 lie twelve yawning years of documentary silence, at a most conspicuous time in exploration history. The nineteenth-century historian John G. Morris summed up well the enduring mystery, and the possible solution: “The years between 1494 and 1506 were rich in expeditions to the west and east, and we can only conjecture how Behaim was employed during that period. We do not certainly know whether he took part in any of them, but this is certain that he became poor, and for this we cannot account, for he brought a considerable sum with him from Nürnberg.”

Something had consumed the time, energy, ambition—and money—of a man who, after being denied his opportunity to strike westward with Dulmo and Estreito in 1487, had devoted himself to creating the world’s earliest extant terrestrial globe and had then unquestionably used that project as a springboard for crafting with Jerome Münzer the 1493 proposal to João II for a northern passage to Cathay that was pitched to the wrong monarch at the wrong time. Nothing of interest occurred in the life of his friend Münzer after his four dinners with João II and his remarkable series of encounters with leading figures in the Columbus enterprise. After Münzer concluded his eventful tour of Spain and Portugal in the spring of 1495, he evidently never again left Nürnberg and died there in 1508. But the parallel dozen-year silence of Behaim should not necessarily stand as a similar case of idle retirement, which in Behaim’s case would have involved a distressing bleeding of an inherited fortune.

Morris could not help but suspect that Behaim went to sea with someone. “It may be that Behaim lost his fortune in some unsuccessful private expedition, for we can hardly suppose that such an adventurous, restless spirit as he would be content with the inactive life of a plain citizen. He may have joined one of those numerous expeditions of the day, and like many other bold adventurers before him and since, paid the price of his rashness by the loss of his fortune.”

It is hoped that the reassessment of the historical record in this book encourages a fresh consideration of this long-discounted or marginalized figure. Behaim emerges as a bridge among the careers of Columbus, Cabot, and the Portuguese voyagers of little Terceira, including the celebrated Corte-Reals. His actual participation in the Cabot voyages is plausible yet ultimately circumstantial. Raimundo di Raimundis may have caught a glimpse of him at Henry VII’s court in December 1497, the nameless Burgundian who could vouch for everything that Cabot, the Columbus doppelgänger, said and who expected to be made a count with an island to his own name on the next voyage. One can well imagine that the misadventure that broke the back of Behaim’s fortune was the 1498 Cabot expedition, although a debilitating insistence on helping bankroll the fruitless Terceiran ventures, including those of the luckless Corte-Real brothers, cannot be discounted.

The circumstantial nature of Behaim’s career and his ultimate fate is typical of early exploration history. Rare are the figures as copiously documented as Columbus, but for all the paperwork his career produced, there are enough holes in the record that people continue to bitterly debate something as basic as where he was born, which is fundamental to the issue of who Columbus was. We continue to find fresh questions to pose about his character, his motivations, and his world, which extended to the orbe novo he refused to believe he had discovered.

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