folklore, history, history of europe, history of nature and science, science and technology, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Peter Mancall, Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), Pp. 197.

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Much has been said by historians and scientists about the history of knowledge production in the United States and how that knowledge relates to the world at large. But most of those documents, that have something to say, are usually that of colonial rule. For Peter Mancall this isn’t necessarily the case. Mancall calls upon a plethora of differential source material. Using not only what he notes as “traditional sources,” but he also uses visual and oral histories as well (x). In doing so Mancall sets out to discuss “humans and nature in the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin” in a nuanced way (ix).  Mancall is arguing for an expansive more epistemological framework, within analysis, history, and knowledge production of the Atlantic basin in the sixteenth-century. Furthermore, Mancall looks at motivations and contextual circumstances to illustrate intentions for knowledge production in the first place. Using plenty of differing sources Mancall notes that economic, political, and technological motivations drove knowledge within the sixteenth-century to be constructed in a very particular way (xii). Methodologically, Mancall calls upon many different sources. Working a bit backwards, in favor of discussing methodology, the section entitled “Notes On Sources” discusses particularly how and why historians can use a more intersectional approach in utilizing sources. Mancall states, “The chapters in this book focus not on brad environmental changes but instead on specific relationships between nature and culture in the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin…[revealing] there was not a single moment of transition but instead myriad encounters” (140).

Chapter one entitled, “The Boundaries of Nature,” discusses “monsters.” What constituted a monster? What made a monster real rather than fake? Mancall notes monsters “were part of the real world, even if they were invisible or existed only in the stories told from an alleged eyewitness to credulous listeners” (6).  Mancall unearths the legacy of knowledge on monster in the region of Fréjus. It is here where the stories of monsters come to be. Out of painted panels Mancall notes, “Many panels feature iconography common across the continents in the late Middle Ages…A whole catalog of exotic beasts roamed above the heads of late medieval congregants” (7).  Dragons and mythical beasts were just some of the painted monstrosities on these panels that aided in a knowledge of non-human nature. Mancall discusses the influence of Mandevill’s work. In the fourteenth-century, Mandevill’s writing on monsters not only spread across Europe but one person in particular grabbed ahold of it…Christopher Columbus. Mancall speculates if Columbus may have been moved to write about monsters and men due to the exposure of  Mandevill’s work (13).  With literature, travel guides, and scientists in Europe producing the discourse of monsters it is safe to say that the New World was not the only place with supernatural understandings.

Just like the New World the Old World had their own set of monsters, but each place had their own relationship with “monsters.” Mancall notes, “While Europeans tried to understand monsters and demons in their own communities…Americans were not obviously concerned with how monstrous entities came to be” (27).  The obsession to know and control seemed relegated to the European documentation of monsters and demons. For Mancall, the Native communities possessed more knowledge to grow and work towards incorporating the spirit and material worlds. For example, Mancall discusses the Mandan cosmology in relation to North American beliefs about spirituality and the supernatural (29). Cosmology of the spirit world created the landscape and aided in explanations on ecology. Mancall does note, briefly, the stereotype of the Native environmentalist troupe, by discussing more of the “good relations with the deities” that Natives wanted to have for their own economic gains rather than the “conservationists” stereotypes that have become relegated to the Native body. Very similarly Europeans wanted to understand monsters to conquer or dispel them just as much as Natives wanted to understand the spirit world to avoid disrespecting and gain relations to it.

Chapter two entitled, “A New Ecology,” discusses the ways in which cartography aided in mobilizing knowledge production and depicted the ways in which maps “provide clues about the new ecology of the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin” (47).  Mancall discusses the ways in which map making was infused with not only the map makers ideas but also the political climate of the map makers time. This is the problematic feature of maps for Mancall. This theme also highlights the historical aspect of anxieties that played a part in European expansionist projects. Mancall states, “Maps, then, reflected their makers’ understanding of what they knew and imaginary depictions of what they did not. They also revealed what was important to their patrons” (55).  “Bountiful” is one of the narratives that comes out of the storytelling attributes of the map. Another narrative is the theological aspects and the stakes of body and soul saving. This is particularly true of the Spanish exploration and “conquest.” But for Europeans, Mancall notes, the New World was much more interested in projects of knowing, exploring, acquiring, and owning. This is indicative of a picture, that Mancall calls upon, wherein a man on a boat is in a body of water. The scene is portrayed as a bountiful and cornucopia of different fish in the waters around them and are all ripe for captured on his boat for a plentiful harvest (62). These illustrative narratives provided specific narratives about the New World to the Old world. This narrative was major theme at the heart of many of these map making motivations. The idea of the utopian landscape of abundance and bounty had to mobilize itself and what better way then maps.

Chapter Three entitled, “The Landscape of History,” notes the mass migration across the Atlantic Ocean from 1492-1600 (85).  This was impart to Europeans thinking that they had divine rights over the Americas. The example of John Winthrop illuminates this point in full. Mancall states, “English Puritan John Winthrop, shortly before sailing across the ocean where he would become the governor of Massachusetts, argued that the English has a legitimate right to settle where Natives lived” (86).  This claim to “legitimacy” would become the main argument for not only exploration and migration but as well as settlement and civilization. This is the start of European entitlement, for Mancall, not only for land but of people, nature, and knowledge. This chapter discusses more of the critical analysis in why Theodor de Bry depicted Natives and the Americas differently. The European gaze fell onto the objects with fascination and the spectacle in de By’s engravings read—bountiful/abundant. Mancall discusses this at length in the critique of the image labeled, “The manner of their fishing,” in which more of everything was added to add to the fantastical pictorial narrative of abundance. Mancall states, “Each revision of the images by de Bry’s workshop constituted a manipulation of the eyewitness visual information about coastal Carolina” (101).  What is clearly problematic is the natural history of the Americas and its representation. These images became more important than the authors realized. They would be representative “picture[s] of a haunted place whose inhabitants would soon succumb to the invisible bullets of European newcomers” (119).

Lastly the postscript entitled, “The Theater of Insects” discusses the English naturalist and physician Thomas Moffet’s work. This last section, of Mancalls monograph, discussed the importance of Moffet’s work as “spectacle” and its interpretations (121).  This work is important because it signified knowledge that was directed at specific peoples. Moffet’s book is written in Latin, originally, and was for European scholars. But the performative piece is much more interesting in the analysis of Moffet’s work by Mancall. Mancall discusses the ways in which nature is personified to have its own class and culture. For example the perforative element of transformation, or more specifically metamorphosis, becomes representative of  narratives in the possibilities of nature. Mancall discusses this by articulating on the ways metal becomes a vessel of these narratives (126).  Mancall demonstrates how Moffet’s work tantalizes the European mind towards explorative narratives of progress and expansion by way of science and discovery. In this way, insects would become linked not to monsters but to divinity. This brings Mancalls premies of this monograph full circle.  Mancall notes the ways in which “insects revealed the wondrous powers and infinite potential of God” for Moffet (128).  Insects would become economic producers in this sense and have their own labor to Europeans. This short but provocative narrative, on the illustrative powers of sixteenth-century work in the Atlantic basin, showcases the ways in which not only travel logs promoted ideology but so did pictures. Mancall also highlights how nature and humans were now in a state of hierarchy and categorical control by the ideological and pictorial construction.  Mancall brings up many interesting points that others have not in the field or history: science and nature. By illuminating different motivations and interpretations of nature, such as the “Theater of Insects” by Moffet, Mancall added a little something extra to the historiography on science and nature! I would recommend this to historians, scientists, and those interested in the transformation of fantastical narratives.