- Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic by Peter C. Mancall
In recent years an active research topic on the early modern era has been the intersection of human beings and the natural world (or "nature"). From all sides have come significant works investigating the science of describing natural history and the invention of exoticism and the endemic or the indigenous. Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic explores the natural world as conceived in the sixteenth-century Atlantic basin. With footings in both history and anthropology, Peter C. Mancall is well positioned to plumb the topic—and the result, which started as the Mellon Distinguished Lectures in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, proves the adage that good things can and at times do come in small packages. The author regards this work as an "extended essay" (p. x). With a core text of 137 pages, generous spacing and margins, and engaging illustrations (including twelve color plates), it delights as it enlightens at every turn.
Nature and Culture in the Early Modern Atlantic consists of three chapters, a postscript, and a note on sources. Mancall states that he has drawn on images, printed texts, folklore, and oral history for his analysis. In fact, the first two are clearly of paramount importance, and images are both central to and a great strength of this work. In the first chapter, Mancall pushes the frontiers of the other-than-natural world, both to establish the boundaries of the natural world and to address how people at the time knew what they knew. His answers pertain principally to the Europeans, as we see (and read about) both monstra marina on oceanic maps and curious beings, human or not (such as bipedal creatures with faces on their chests), on continental maps. Mancall wonders if the Europeans really believed in such boundary-bursting creatures, but he also notes that in 1500 the wondrous categories of indigenous people were not that different. But as the sixteenth century unfolded, the wonders in European cultural conceptions yielded to newer methodologies of description and explanation embedded increasingly in an encyclopedic and, in citations, authoritative science.
The second chapter explores what Mancall calls a "new ecology," drawing extensively on the extraordinary visual evidence in maps linked to Nicolas [End Page 412] Vallard of Dieppe and António de Holanda—including the Atlas Miller (1519) and in the Histoire Naturelle des Indes (circa 1590s). The maps, for example, contrast fully clothed, city-dwelling Europeans with naked, forest-dwelling native people of the New World and Africa. They reflect strong interests in commodification and trade. They depict not just strange people, some feathered in their wear (and others cannibals—a common trope), but also novel mammals and birds. The maps and other materials also contrast the deforested lands and cities of Europe with the forested lands and architecturally simpler living spaces of Africa and the Western Hemisphere. That change was coming to the latter, however, is reflected in images of commodification and of the cutting of valuable trees in the New World; a portent, ominous or not, of the future as well as a symbol of the broader Columbian exchange of plants with dietary or medicinal value and other commodities.
Chapter 3, "The Landscape of History," is a case study of the manipulation by the English of an imagery of landscape and people originally conceived with what we would now call ethnographic intent, in order that it might be reconciled with their understanding of their claim on Indian lands as legitimate. Mancall draws on depictions of Algonquians on the Carolina coast—John White's watercolors, Thomas Harriot's text, Richard Hakluyt's editions, and Theodor de Bry's engravings—to discuss processes of selection and alteration from painting to engraving that benefited the promoters in England and not the Native people in Carolina. Again, analysis of the visual materials deeply informs the discussion.
The postscript, "The Theater of Insects," draws its title...