Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gavin Menzies' "1434: The Year a Magnificent..."

I'd like to touch on a few things from Gavin Menzies latest book, 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance published in June, 2008. This is not meant to be a review of the book but mainly to focus on the "Eastern ambassador" and his connection with the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, something I have discussed previously.

While I have some fundamental disagreements with Menzies, again, he has done a service by bringing out things that rankle the herds of Eurocentric scholarship, who use double standards when playing the game of cultural-technological diffusion.

The origins of the Renaissance are complex, and I probably should steer away from this part of his book, but I can't resist making a few comments that will come later on.

On the important point of the Eastern ambassador, on which Menzies whole thesis lies, it is difficult to understand why he does not mention what should be considered the "official" account of this envoy. That is, the account of Poggio Bracciolini, the papal secretary at the time of the visit to Florence.

Now, Menzies claims that this ambassador came from China and was brought by a squadron from Zheng He's great treasure fleet.

Menzies source is a letter from Paolo Toscanelli to Christopher Columbus, a document whose authenticity has been disputed by some scholars. Having read all the arguments, I believe that Toscanelli's letter is authentic, but that still does not excuse Menzies from at least discussing Poggio's account.

The two documents differ in that Poggio describes the envoy as coming from a Nestorian Christian kingdom in "Upper India" located a few weeks journey from "Cathay," the old name for northern China. Toscanelli seems to think that this kingdom is linked with the 'Great Khan,' i.e. the old Mongol ruler of China.

At the time, the Mongols had already been replaced by the Ming Dynasty in China, and Toscanelli's confusion seems to center on the mention of Nestorian Christians. There existed old accounts, related to Prester John, that the Great Khan had become a Nestorian Christian. It seems that upon hearing about a far eastern Nestorian kingdom, Toscanelli connected the envoy's account with these old legends that equated the Great Khan with Prester John.

Now earlier I have mentioned that "Upper India" during this period generally meant Southeast Asia, although it was also used at times for South China. The mention of a Nestorian kingdom this far east is nothing but code for the old Prester John of the Indies.

In an earlier post, I discussed the letter of Ferdinand and Isabella given to Columbus with the space for the addressee left blank. This letter was meant for any Eastern potentate including Prester John and the Great Khan, that Columbus happened to encounter. The letter mentions the Spanish monarchs having heard reports from the East about a desire to learn about the Christian kingdoms of Europe.

Ferdinand and Isabella are certainly referring to the Eastern ambassador in Florence, who was the last envoy mentioned coming from the areas that Columbus was heading toward on his fateful journey. According to Menzies, this ambassador arrived in 1434, although it can also be argued that he came in 1441.

Rather than arriving with a Chinese squadron though it seems that the ambassador arrived with Nicolo di Conti along with the rest of the entourage of papal envoy Alberto de Sarteano.

One could hardly imagine that the Quatracento writers would have missed something as spectacular as the visit of a Chinese naval force composed of ships unlike anything seen in Europe of the time. Yet, the history of the period is silent about any such maritime event.

Prester John's envoy

According to Pero Tafur, Nicolo di Conti stayed under the protection of Prester John of the Indies during most of his time in the East. Di Conti himself mentions Nestorians near Cathay when interviewed by Poggio Bracciolini.

Tafur's account states that Prester John was interested in learning more about Europe -- mirroring the desire of the foreign potentates mentioned in Ferdinand and Isabella's letter. Furthermore, di Conti claimed, according to Tafur, that Prester John had sent envoys to the West, apparently on unsuccessful missions.

Therefore, when di Conti returned to Europe it would make sense that Prester John would send along an envoy with him i.e. Menzies' Eastern ambassador. This would tie in the Nestorians mentioned by di Conti to Poggio, and the Nestorian kingdom that the latter assigns to the Eastern ambassador. That Nestorian kingdom, of course, is the kingdom of Prester John!

Indeed, Pope Eugenius IV actually addresses a letter to this eastern king addressing him though as "Emperor Thomas of the Indians," since the Portuguese had earlier convinced the Vatican to address the Ethiopian emperor as "Emperor Prester John of Ethiopia."

Apparently the Eastern ambassador made enough of a friendly impression that when Columbus set sail on his epochal voyage, he headed directly toward the location he thought the kingdom was located, i.e., the East Indies. That Columbus was headed for the Indies is proven by his ultimate destination during his multiple voyages and by the name by which the new land became to be known.

The Spanish considered the Americas as part of the "Indias," from which the indigenous peoples became known as "Indios" (Indians).

"India" here meant the East Indies, the source of the spices like nutmeg and cloves and also, Columbus thought, the gold of biblical Ophir.

The admiral was heading, thus, to "Upper India," to the friendly Nestorian Christian kingdom of the Eastern ambassador, or so he thought. Magellan also was apparently seeking the same friendly contact for both men navigated toward the same latitudes that would have brought them to the "East Indies" i.e., modern insular Southeast Asia. For it was here apparently that the ambassador, and possibly also di Conti, had located the fabled kingdom in their accounts to Poggio (and the ambassador's account to Toscanelli).

Dawn of the Renaissance

Menzies claims that the Eastern ambassador brought with him "distinguished men of great learning,"and some important Chinese documents including the Nung Shu, an agricultural manual; a Chinese astronomical calendar and Chinese world maps. He asserts that the founders of the Renaissance copied directly from these works sparking a great awakening in art and learning.

Indeed, the explosion of humanism, art and invention that typically is associated with the Renaissance began at about the middle of the 15th century. There were, of course, some 'proto-Renaissance' developments earlier, but nothing that stood out so much from what was happening elsewhere.

So Menzies timing is not off. There may have been many factors that led to the Renaissance including the wealth and slave labor afforded by the Venetian and Genoan maritime trade networks. These factors allowed the elite of northern Italy more leisure time for intellectual and artistic pursuits - something that was supported also by the patronage of the House of Medici.

However, one could still ask why Tuscany and its center of Florence, the birth place of the Renaissance, rather than say Venice or Genoa? And why at that specific period in the mid-15th century?

Menzies suggests the Chinese works, but how likely is it that the Florentines had actual treatises like the Nung Shu? If they did, such a document would be a great artifact for study not only of its technical content, but of the Chinese language itself. We would expect that such documents would be mentioned, and illustrated, in Renaissance works.

One can admit that many new inventions spring up suddenly during this period and some of these are very similar, but usually not exactly similar to earlier Chinese inventions. But not all are related to Chinese technology. For example, one of Menzies' sources, Lynne White, suggests that the concept of the windmill actually derives from the Tibetan prayer wheel.

Both White and Menzies mention the many "Tartar" slaves, mostly young women, that were brought into northern Italy at the time by Genoan and Venetian merchants. One invention that Menzies mentions -- the piston and/or chain pump -- is specifically called a "Tartar" pump by writers of that time. Some scholars suggest that these Tartars came from the region between Tibet and China, and thus would have been exposed to technologies like the Tibetan prayer wheel.

So it appears that there were many streams of information flowing into Florence during the mid-15th century, but that much of these idea were probably flowing through word-of-mouth rather than via exchange of documents.

Could it be that the great foreign host brought to the Council of Florence by Sarteano, including probably di Conti and the Eastern ambassador, contributed in no small way to this influx of ideas?

If the Eastern ambassador was accompanied by "distinguished men of great learning" as suggested by the letter of Toscanelli, it appears that the information was transmitted orally, thus accounting for the inexactness in the relationship of the technologies in the widely-separated areas involved.

While many of these inventions could certainly have been developed in China, where there is much documentation, the ideas did not necessarily have to be transmitted by any particular ethnic group.

Interestingly, many of the new ideas mentioned by Menzies relate quite directly to the problem of maritime navigation. I have argued that the Eastern king, known in the West as "Prester John," had attempted for some time to encourage Europe to become involved in the maritime spice trade in order to counterbalance Muslim expansion. This included the possible transfer of sea charts like the ones mentioned by Marco Polo, who links them with the navigators of the "Sea of Chin" and the "Isles of India." These navigators told Polo of golden Cipango and the 7,000+ islands that existed in that eastern sea.

In a nutshell, I enjoyed Menzies book even if I disagreed with some key points. Great reading to get a new perspective on all the factors that contributed to the European Renaissance. However, one should follow up on any of the more controversial proposals made by the author.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Menzies, Gavin. 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. New York: William Morrow, 2008.

White, Lynn, Jr. " Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Mediaeval Technology," American Historical Review, 54, 1960.

__. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford. 1962