From Prester John to higher mathematics.

Michael Robinson at ‘Time to eat the dogs‘ has a stimulating post on how the, today as myth dismissed, story of a Christian King in the East, Prester John served as a driving force in the wave of European exploration that started in the 15th century. It is a far from trivial fact that this push to explore the world outside of Europe was also a significant factor in the development of the mathematical sciences in the Renaissance.

The surge of exploration started by the Portuguese followed by the Spanish and set forth by the Dutch and finally the English demanded new developments in navigation and cartography, both of which in their turn were major driving forces in the rebirth of mathematical astronomy in the 15th and 16th centuries; all three disciplines required in their growth the use and development of trigonometry. This development was so extensive that Ivor Grattan-Guinness calls the period “The Age of Trigonometry” in his general history of mathematics The Rainbow of Mathematics. The developments in trigonometry led to the invention of logarithms at the end of the 16th century as a tool for astronomers, navigators and cartographers. During the 17th century trigonometrical and logarithmic functions grew out of the two disciplines and became a central element of analysis in the 18th century.

Sometimes the historical heuristics of scientific disciplines are not quite as rational as some would have us believe. Following the twists and turns of those paths of development is the core of my historical endeavours. The main point of the sketch above is that the modern sciences were not, as is often claimed, the product of some sort of anstract intellectual philosophical activity but evolved out of social necessities. The Copernican heliocentricity was an accidental by product of a general movement to produce an improved and more accurate astronomy to serve the needs of the navigators and cartographers, amongst others, who in turn were supplying the needs of the explorers and traders.


Filed under History of science, Renaissance Science

6 responses to “From Prester John to higher mathematics.

  1. I didn’t know that exploration activity served as such an early trigger to mathematics. I know that later folks – such as Newton and Halley were involved with navigation and Cassini etc – but I get the sense from your post that this story starts much earlier. Does Grattan-Guinness pinpoint a certain institution or place during the Age of Discovery when trig is being developed for navigation? I will have to take a look at this.

  2. Maybe it wasn’t Prester John so much as Amadis de Gaul and his innumerable predecessors. The 15th and 16th Century were crazy for knightly daring-do and tales of adventure and exoticism. The explorers and conquistadors found role models in the various heroes of all those romances. For me the classic instance was Coronado, who trudged thousands of miles looking for the Cities of Gold, only to discover Kansas. What Cervantes fictionalized in the Quixote was not just a literary craze but the trajectory of the era of exploration.

    • Michael was reviewing a book about Prester John in his original post and therefore the link. The central point that the historian should not dismiss things that for us are just ridiculous myths but should place himself in the mindset of the age under investigation is an important one. It of course applies to a wide range of mythical aims followed in the age of exploration, my personal favourite is the fairly well established claim that Columbus was actually looking for the Garden of Eden when he set sail across the Atlantic.

  3. The quest to find a tribe of Welsh speaking American Indians in the 18th century is one myth I rather like.

    A very political construction.

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