East-an object far exceeding in importance the conquest of Guinea-^-was evidently within the grasp of Portugal. Ten years elapsed, and a transcendent effort of seamanship had to be made, before actual possession was taken of the prize. Meanwhile, the geographical knowledge attained during these twenty-six years wrought like a ferment in the minds of European observers. It was felt that the little kingdom of Portugal had effected something like a revolution in the intellectual world: and the ideas inspired by this change, while the existence of the New World, called afterwards America, was as yet unsuspected, are admirably expressed in an epistle addressed to Joao II by Angiolo Poliziano, professor of Greek and Latin literature at Florence. The foremost scholar of the Renaissance tenders to the Portuguese King the thanks of cultivated Europe. Not only have the Pillars of Hercules been left behind, and a raging ocean subdued, but the interrupted continuity of the habitable world has been restored, and a continent long abandoned to savagery, representing one-third of the habitable world, has been recovered for Christianity and civilisation. What new commodities and economic advantages, what accessions to knowledge, what confirmations of ancient history, heretofore rejected as incredible, may now be expected! New lands, new seas, new worlds (alii mundi), even new constellations, have been dragged from secular darkness into the light of day. Portugal stands forth the trustee, the guardian, of a second world (mundus alter), holding in the hollow of her hand a vast series of lands, ports, seas, and islands, revealed by the industry of her sons and the enterprise of her Kings. The purpose of Politian's epistle is to suggest that the story of this momentous acquisition should be adequately written while the memorials of it are yet fresh and complete, and to this end he offers his own services. Its significance for ourselves lies in the fact that his admiration is couched in terms which would apply with equal or greater propriety to the impending discovery of the western continent. The existence of America was as yet unsuspected : and the mental fermentation produced in Europe by the Portuguese voyages quickly led to its discovery. To cosmographers this fermentation irresistibly suggested the revival of an idea evolved eighteen hundred years previously by Greek geographers from the consideration of the recently ascertained sphericity of the earth and the approximate dimensions of its known continental areas. A few days1 sail, with a fair wind, it had been long ago contended, would suffice to carry a ship from the shores of Spain, by a westward course, to the eastern shores of Asia. The argument had never been wholly lost sight of; and the revival of science in the thirteenth century had once more brought it into prominence. Roger Bacon had given it a conspicuous place in his speculations as to the distribution of land and ocean over the globe. One is even tempted to think that those adventurous Genoese who in 1281 passed the Straits of Gibraltar with two
Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/54
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