Conquering the Unknown
A journey through the history of scientific exploration in the travel narratives of the Old Library
Conquering the Unknown
The civilised man needs to proportion his knowledge and pleasure to the abilities of his mind and the breadth of his desires. The sailor, as he progresses, discovers new objects that are useful to humanity; he outlines the various points of the globe, and thus secures his route and that of others; he learns to assess his fellow humans by drawing more comparisons. Each progression of his is a new step towards the greater knowledge of man and nature. It is a great and noble pursuit to take such risks and bear such expenses for the necessities of our entire society and for the increase of our true wealth.
In his preface to La Pérouse’s memoirs, Destouff de Milet de Mureau pays tribute to the venture which cost the captain and his crew their lives by underlining how noble and necessary worldwide exploration, which fills Europe with enthusiasm, has become at the end of the 18th century. On the same page, he distinguishes between “expeditions that are guided by ambition and self-interest”, with often harmful results, and “voyages of discoveries, whose aim was to bring benefits to the peoples and to widen the scope of science”.
Of course, only the latter are deemed worthy of the public’s praise and interest, depending on how much they contribute to the progress of universal knowledge. Several centuries after these great expeditions, the way we perceive the exploration of the Earth remains structured around the same distinction. Is the knowledge that European libraries start to gather from the end of the Middle Ages truly the product of pure and disinterested quests?
The curiosity that the Enlightenment considered as a crucial feature of the “civilized man” has a history. It is only once historians of science realised that, throughout the centuries, knowledge has rarely been constructed in isolation — although it is how we envision the dignity of science — that they began to write the history of that curiosity.
Despite their various social identities and motives, the fact that early modern travellers decided to collect and spread information that seemed worthy of interest makes their writings precious means of understanding the reasons and criteria behind their curiosity, and how both evolved.
The act of documenting a far-away region implies that the traveller is, to a certain extent, conscious of what he does not know, and it demonstrates a willingness to turn the unknown into the known. Therefore, every trip that can be termed an exploration is informed by the ways in which the traveller’s society constructs knowledge, and by the boundaries of this knowledge. Here, the scholarship of the authors is less important than the spaces their writings were destined to fill on the shelves of libraries, the information they bring to the largely incomplete maps of the world, and their descriptions to the knowledge, taste and imagination of sedentary readers.
Thanks to its historical collection of remarkable rare books, the Old Library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais offers the opportunity of a journey through space, from the Holy Land to the Coral Sea via the Canadian North, but also through time, as it evokes the various motives and identities of the many travellers, who have, one after the other, played their part in conquering the unknown.
Scholarly pilgrimages: the Holy Land between Biblical times and modernity
The tradition of the great Christian pilgrimage gave rise to stories and descriptions of the Holy Land, a prolific, very codified and even repetitive genre, which for a long time was cited to demonstrate that the mediaeval mentality devoted all its attention to spiritual realities. Contrary to exploratory ventures, which developed in the 15th century, the texts written by pilgrims seemed to corroborate the idea of a sudden and mysterious emergence of a new relationship to the world, associated with the Renaissance. However, this interpretation does not take into account the ways in which the texts linked to pilgrimages nonetheless contributed to the development of descriptive tools and to the emergence of a wide geographical curiosity. In the eyes of contemporaries of the discoveries, the continuity between holy geography and the description of newly discovered territories seemed indeed so obvious that it deserved Montaigne’s criticism that topographers, “because they have the advantage over us, that they have seen Palestine, [...] want to hold the privilege of telling us tell us news of all the rest of the world.”
Indeed, in the 14th and 15th centuries, as the journey to Jerusalem becomes increasingly frequent and standardised, both materially and spiritually, pilgrims’ accounts make more and more room for the description of the different stages of the journey, while the description of the holy city recedes into the background. Some pilgrims are as captivated by Mediterranean cities as they are by the remains of Biblical history. The ventures that encounter the greatest publishing success draw upon typographical innovations to satisfy topographical curiosity, as Bernhard von Breydenbach’s work epitomises (book 1).
Towards the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century, when Catholic spiritual renewal fosters new enthusiasm for pilgrimages, the interest for modern Palestine often overlaps and combines with the quest to find the setting where Biblical miracles took place (book 3). The cohabitation of many cultural and religious communities encourages some, like Eugène Roger (book 2), to develop ethnographical comparisons. The cultural centrality of the Holy Land for the Christian West was therefore not incompatible with the construction of Europe’s scientific knowledge of the world.
“They are the living books you need to study”: the rise of missionary knowledge and the Jesuits’ China
The pilgrims’ descriptions reveal that a spiritual voyage can go hand in hand with secular curiosity, but the extraordinary expansion of Christian missions from the 16th century onwards inextricably binds religious proselytising with cognitive methods. The Jesuits were the heirs of mediaeval missionaries, but they developed new practices to study pagan societies, shaping their precise knowledge into a tool for conversion. This is the spirit of Saint Francis Xavier’s entreaty, which is used as a title for this part. Indeed, the geographical exploration and mapping of new lands that are discovered are useful to the material progression of the missions (book 5); the construction of new linguistic knowledge, through the compilation of dictionaries and grammars in the languages of the peoples the missionaries meet, makes adequate communication possible; the ethnographical descriptions provide the cultural codes to which the missionaries must conform, but also lay out the value systems their teaching must be adapted to (book 4). This practical scope, ad majorem Dei gloriam, sharpens the missionaries’ outlook of the foreign natural and human world, and will eventually make their information largely preferable, for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to that of the navigators, even when they are great scholars.
It is probably in the Far East, where they started to travel in the early days of the Company, that the Jesuits acquired the earliest intimate knowledge of societies that were unknown to European civilisation. They remained the main source of information about the region until modern times. In China in particular, they encountered a refined civilization whose wealth of knowledge they appreciated and whose values they adopted, for instance by wearing the attire of Chinese scholars. Their scientific approach and their cultural openness questioned the epistemological limits of European thinking, but they went further by also interrogating its cultural and religious conscience. Because the Jesuits adapted the concepts that are at the heart of Christian monotheism, but also, more importantly, because they took Chinese spiritual traditions into account, Catholic authorities feared a risk of alienation, despite the way in which the Company tried to justify itself in what is commonly called the Chinese Rites controversy (book 6).
Engraving from China illustrata by Athanasius Kircher (1667) representing the Chinese writing technique (modus scribendi).
© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek
The ambassadors’ contribution: the East in the 16th and 17th centuries
At the beginning of the early modern period, the missionaries’ religious project, aimed at humanity as a whole, is one of the sources of both European expansion and a new curiosity for the world. The Old World’s new political ambitions simultaneously fuel the need to understand far-away countries. This is the reason why diplomats sent by European courts also become pioneering figures of exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Diplomatic missions provide the necessary impulse to undertake long and dangerous journeys; they are equipped with a skilled crew, subsidies and the protection now granted to diplomatic missions.
From the 15th century onwards, diplomatic networks develop in Europe, and thus the circle of international relations becomes wider and wider, encompassing increasingly diverse cultures. In the 16th century, these connections extend further than the boundaries of Western Christianity: despite Europe’s outrage, Francis I of France forms an alliance with the Ottoman Empire against Charles V. Shared geopolitical interests seem to be able to transcend religious and cultural differences. Other European powers are eager not to be outdone and also widen their diplomatic horizons, in order to corner their enemy. After the Ottoman Empire (book 7), or rather against it, Western embassies settle in other neighbouring powers: Persia (book 8) and Muscovy (book 9).
Describing the country is already a traditional requirement of the ambassadors’ duties, but in these little-known regions, it takes on a renewed importance: besides assessing the country’s natural resources and geography, the ambassador needs to report on the workings of institutions and political traditions, and even on the rules of public and private morality. This allows them to piece together a rational system, the condition on which every partnership is built. Head to head with otherness, the ambassadors very often choose to go beyond the limits of what they are expected to do: convinced that their experience is significant, they choose, when they return, to publish a description of what they have seen and understood of the countries they have visited. While the success of their missions clears the way for other travellers, merchants or scholars after them, the success of their books paves the way for a new curiosity for the East, where the wealth and strangeness of Constantinople and Isfahan overthrow Jerusalem.
The search for new routes and the Northwest Passage
In addition to military alliances, sending embassies to far-away countries is a way to gain commercial benefits and trade deals, to circumvent monopolies and to allow the nations they represent to benefit from flows of Eastern goods that Europe cannot do without, notably Chinese silk, spices, in particular Indian pepper, and gemstones. The Ottoman expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries in the Western Mediterranean secures the passage of these goods for the Turks, to the detriment of Italian merchants. Therefore, European powers undertake a search for new routes, notably by sea, to circumvent this monopoly.
It is a well-known fact that Christopher Columbus, when he set sail to travel westwards, was attempting to reach the Indies. By following another route that had already be partly outlined by Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco de Gama ensures that it is the Portuguese who succeed in reaching the Indies by sailing around Africa. Their aim is to keep the route and its commercial benefits to themselves; they therefore defend it in the Indian Ocean against the Ottomans, who are eager to keep their monopoly. The hopes and competitive spirit of the other Western European powers focus on the search for a new and more direct route via the North: the first geographical expeditions financed by states are set up in this aim.
As early as 1497, when, following advances in South America, Europe realises how great an obstacle the continent actually is, King Henri VIII of England sends explorer John Cabot to find a passage in the Northwest. The exploration of the river Saint-Laurent, in Quebec, is the first possibility they envisage, and French sailors, like Jacques Cartier or Jean Alfonse (book 10) compete for a while with the English. Then, at the beginning of the 17th century, hopes crystallise around the Hudson Bay, until Luke Foxe, having gone around it, concludes that the ice leaves no passage (book 11). Efforts resume in the 18th century from the west coast of the American continent, driven by the rise of commercial exchanges between the lands of the North Pacific (book 12). The passage is only crossed at the beginning of the 20th century and this will confirm that it is of no use for trading. However, the unrelenting search for this route in the preceding centuries decisively influenced the ethnographical study of Arctic populations, and fostered the progress of cartography and of the science of navigation.
“In the name of humanity, arts and sciences”: the great expeditions in the time of La Pérouse
It is while he, too, was looking for the Northwest Passage that Captain James Cook died, killed by the inhabitants of Hawaii during his third voyage in 1779. By that time, sea voyages of exploration had changed in scale and contributed to the rise of new scientific approaches. The great scientific expeditions of the 18th century, as they are known, are accompanied by a public discourse which places value in travellers’ disinterest and the purity of their curiosity.
By doing so, this kind of discourse claims that nations compete for the scientific prestige to be gained from discoveries that could benefit humanity as a whole, rather than for the practical scopes of exploration. For instance, the goal of the first great collective expeditions of France, of which the Académie des Sciences is a patron, like that of Maupertuis in Laponia and La Condamine in Peru during the 1730s and 1740s, is to settle the theoretical debate about the shape of the globe. However, the great expeditions financed by European governments did not do away with all practical concerns and were keen to combine them with other preoccupations, all the while invoking a thorough curiosity for the natural and human world. Before his attempt in the Northwest, Cook’s first voyage united several objectives: one was the discovery of the Terra Australis, which whet the appetite of maritime powers, while the other was the astronomical observation of the transit of Venus, in coordination with other scientists across the world, and the description of the fauna and flora of the Pacific.
To match Cook’s achievements, from the point of view of scientific prestige as well as the concrete advantages his discoveries secured for England, a large-scale expedition is organised in 1783. It is financed by the King of France, endowed with unprecedented human and material means, and Count La Pérouse is entrusted with the task of leading it (book 13). The planning of this expedition causes a stir in Europe, as rival powers do not want to be outdone by France. In 1785, Catherine II of Russia, for instance, tasks Captain Billings with a large-scale expedition in the North Pacific (book 15). The international competition that arises after the disappearance of La Pérouse’s ships in 1788 is most representative of the way voyages of this period contributed to the construction of a boundless scientific field and community. The numerous expeditions launched to find La Pérouse fuel the legend surrounding his expedition until 1827, when Peter Dillon, an Irish captain, discovers the place where he ran aground (book 14).
In the second half of the 18th century, the written discourse surrounding the great scientific expeditions advocated the disinterest of scientific approaches, and in particular of the geographical, ethnographical and biological exploration of the world. The commendable emulation between European institutions and scientists seemed to conceal the concrete goals of competing powers, outlining the possibility of a public science, whose reach is collectively extended. Although the colonial division of the world in the next century bitterly belied it, this vision of science and exploration continually influenced the history of scientific travels. In the great narrative of the achievements reached thanks to Europe’s thirst to understand the world, the processes that explicitly linked exploration to other goals were completely forgotten. The religious origins of the ethnographic curiosity and methods of the 15th and 16th centuries, in particular, were written out, as was the key role played by the pursuit of political and commercial benefits in the 17th century. Browsing through a collection as valuable as that of the Old Library allows us to reconstruct how important these evolutions were, both in the history of exploration and in that of the reception of scientific accounts, to shape the relationship to the unknown in the early modern era.
Scientific direction: Ladislas Latoch
PhD student in Early Modern History, Sorbonne Université
Research Fellow, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève
Photographs by Damien Boisson-Berçu
This exhibition is presented in partnership with the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as part of the 2022 thematic year on scientific travels.