When we talk about the history of mathematics one thing that often gets forgotten is that from its beginnings right up to the latter part of the Early Modern Period almost all mathematics was developed to serve a particular practical function. For example, according to Greek legend geometry was first developed by the ancient Egyptians to measure (…metry) plots of land (geo…) following the annual Nile floods. Trade has always played a very central role in the development of mathematics, the weights and measures used to quantify the goods traded, the conversion rates of different currencies used by long distance traders, the calculation of final prices, taxes, surcharges etc. etc. A good historical example of this is the Islamic adoption of the Hindu place value decimal number system together with the associated arithmetic and algebra for use in trade, mirrored by the same adoption some time later by the Europeans through the trader Leonardo Pisano. In what follows I want to sketch the indirect impact that the spice trade had on the evolution of the mathematical sciences in Europe during the Renaissance.
The spice trade does not begin in the Renaissance and in fact had a long prehistory going back into antiquity. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Romans had extensive trade in spices from India and the Spice Islands, as indeed the ancient Chinese also did coming from the other direction.
Throughout history spice meant a much wider range of edible, medicinal, ritual and cosmetic products than our current usage and this trade was high volume and financially very rewarding. The Romans brought spices from India across the Indian Ocean themselves but by the Middle Ages that trade was dominated by the Arabs who brought the spices to the east coast of Africa and to the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, known as the Levant; a second trade route existed overland from China to the Levant, the much fabled Silk Road. The Republic of Venice dominated the transfer of spices from the Levant into Europe, shipping them along the Mediterranean.
Here I go local because it was Nürnberg, almost literally at the centre of Europe, whose traders collected the spices in Venice and distributed them throughout Europe. As Europe’s premier spice traders the Nürnberger Patrizier (from the Latin patrician), as they called themselves, grew very rich and looking for other investment possibilities bought up the metal ore mines in central Europe. In a short period of time they went from selling metal ore, to smelting the ore themselves and selling the metal, to working the metal and selling the finished products; each step producing more profit. They quite literally produced anything that could be made of metal from sewing needles to suits of armour. Scientific and mathematical instruments are also largely made of metal and so Nürnberg became Europe’s main centre for the manufacture of mathematical instruments in the Renaissance. The line from spice to mathematical instruments in Nürnberg is a straight one.
By the middle of the fifteenth century the Levant had become a part of the Ottoman Empire, which now effectively controlled the flow of spices into Europe and put the screws on the prices. The Europeans needed to find an alternative way to acquire the much-desired products of India and the Spice Islands, cutting out the middlemen. This need led to the so-called age of discovery, which might more appropriately be called the age of international sea trade. The most desirable and profitable trade goods being those spices.
The Portuguese set out navigating their way down the west coast of Africa and in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias succeeded in rounding the southern most tip of Africa and entering the Indian Ocean.
This showed that contrary to the Ptolemaic world maps the Indian Ocean was not an inland sea but that it could be entered from the south opening up a direct sea route to India and the Spice Islands.
In 1497 Vasco da Gama took that advantage of this new knowledge and sailed around the Cape, up the east coast of Africa and then crossing the Indian Ocean to Goa; the final part of the journey only being made possible with the assistance of an Arab navigator.
Famously, Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed that it would be simpler to sail west across, what he thought was, an open ocean to Japan and from there to the Spice Islands. So, as we all learn in school, he set out to do just that in 1492.
In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
The distance was of course much greater than he had calculated and when, what is now called, America had not been in the way he and his crews would almost certainly have all died of hunger somewhere out on the open seas.
The Portuguese would go on over the next two decades to conquer the Spice Islands setting up a period of extreme wealth for themselves. Meanwhile, the Spanish after the initial disappointment of realising that they had after all not reached Asia and the source of the spices began to exploit the gold and silver of South America, as well as the new, previously unknown spices, most famously chilli, that they found there. In the following centuries, eager also to cash in on the spice wealth, the English and French pushed out the Portuguese in India and the Dutch did the same in the Spice Islands themselves. The efforts to establish sea borne trading routes to Asia did not stop there. Much time, effort and money was expended by the Europeans in attempts to find the North West and North East Passages around the north of Canada and the north of Russia respectively; these efforts often failed spectacularly.
So, you might by now be asking, what does all this have to do with the evolution of the mathematical science as announced in the title? When those first Portuguese and Spanish expedition set out their knowledge of navigation and cartography was to say the least very rudimentary. These various attempts to reach Asia and the subsequent exploration of the Americas led to an increased effort to improve just those two areas of knowledge both of which are heavily based on mathematics. This had the knock on effect of attempts to improve astronomy on which both navigation and cartography depend. It is not chance or coincidence that the so-called age of discovery is also the period in which modern astronomy, navigation and cartography came of age. Long distance sea trading drove the developments in those mathematically based disciplines.
This is not something that happened overnight but there is a steady curve of improvement in this disciplines that can be observed over the two plus centuries that followed Dias’ first rounding of the Cape. New instruments to help determine latitude and later longitude such as mariners’ astrolabe (which is not really an astrolabe, around 1500) the backstaff (John Davis, 1594) and the Hadley quadrant (later sextant, 1731) were developed. The Gunter Scale or Gunter Rule, a straight edge with various logarithmic and trigonometrical scales, which together with a pair of compasses was used for cartographical calculations (Edmund Gunter, early seventeenth century). William Oughtred would go on to lay two Gunter Scales on each other and invent the slide rule, also used by navigators and cartographers to make calculations.
New surveying instruments such as the surveyor’s chain (also Edmund Gunter), the theodolite (Gregorius Reisch and Martin Waldseemüller independently of each other but both in 1512) and the plane table (various possible inventors, middle of the sixteenth century). Perhaps the most important development in both surveying and cartography being triangulation, first described in print by Gemma Frisius in 1533.
Cartography developed steadily throughout the sixteenth century with cartographers adding the new discoveries and new knowledge to their world maps (for example the legendary Waldseemüller world map naming America) and searching for new ways to project the three-dimensional earth globe onto two-dimensional maps. An early example being the Stabius-Werner cordiform projection used by Peter Apian, Oronce Fine and Mercator.
This development eventually leading to the Mercator-Wright projection, a projection specifically designed for marine navigators based on Pedro Nunes discovery that a path of constant bearing is not a great circle but a spiral, known as a loxodrome or rhumb line. Nunes is just one example of a mathematical practitioner, who was appointed to an official position to develop and teach new methods of navigation and cartography to mariners, others were John Dee and Thomas Harriot.
To outline all of the developments in astronomy, navigation and cartography that were driven by the demands the so-called age of discovery, itself triggered by the European demand for Asian spices would turn this blog post into a book but I will just mention one last thing. In his one volume history of mathematics, Ivor Grattan-Guinness calls this period the age of trigonometry. The period saw a strong development in the use of trigonometry because this is the mathematical discipline most necessary for astronomy, navigation and cartography. One could say a demand for spices led to a demand for geometrical angles.