The German Connection: Munzer, Behaim, and the Cabot and Columbus voyages

shoreA key element of my book The Race to the New World is how it integrates two marginalized figures of the late 15th century, Jerome Munzer and Martin Behaim, into the narrative of the early-modern European arrival in the Americas. Neither man is unknown to history, but neither man has been properly placed in the story of how Christopher Columbus and John Cabot happened upon the New World.

When I set out to write The Race to the New World, I was most interested in the links waiting to be drawn between John Cabot and Christopher Columbus. Along the way, though, Munzer and Behaim emerged as a compelling bridge between these two leading figures.

I struggled with the decision of what to do with this duo, wondering if I should devote an appendix to the evidence for where they fit into the Columbus-Cabot narrative. But in the end, the mounting evidence surrounding them was so intriguing, and the solutions they proposed to longstanding problems in the Cabot narrative so compelling, that I decided they belonged within the main narrative.

I came upon the Behaim and Munzer connection quite by accident. As an envoy of Maximilian I, King of the Romans (the German states) and the Holy Roman Empire, Nürnberg’s Munzer had made a tour of Spain and Portugal in late 1494 and early 1495. He wrote an account of his travels in Latin, which was never published in his lifetime. It has also never appeared in English. In 2006, however, an annotated scholarly French translation appeared. I read it purely out of interest in what Munzer’s account might convey contextually of cities in Spain and Portugal at the time of Columbus and Cabot. I was surprised and delighted to discover that there was far more to Jerome Munzer’s life than a slightly obscure narrative of a tour of the Iberian peninsula, and that his narrative provided a trove of clues as to how Cabot’s curious career switch from marine infrastructure engineer to explorer may well have been jump-started.

I had to do much more reading than Munzer’s narrative to pull all the pieces together, especially where his friend Martin Behaim was concerned. When I was done, I had worked through the historiography of Behaim, stretching from Herrera (who asserted Columbus and Behaim were friends in Portugal) in 1601, through an overzealous fluorescence in the 19th century that proposed him as the true European “discoverer” of the New World, and on into the 20th century. I examined Portuguese exploration patents transcribed in the Arquivos dos Acores, including Behaim’s almost-certain role in the proposed Dulmo-Estreito voyage of 1486-87; figured out the kinship link of Behaim to the exploring Corte-Reals of the Azores; arranged a fresh translation of a crucial Behaim letter, written in German in 1494; translated the preamble address Munzer had made to Portugal’s Joao II in 1493 in support of Behaim’s lost proposal for what was clearly intended to be a voyage to prove a north Atlantic passage route to Cathay; and examined the overlapping creations in Nürnberg of the Liber chronicarum, one of the great books of the Renaissance, and Behaim’s Nürnberg globe, the world’s oldest extant terrestrial globe.

Where Munzer was concerned, knowing that he had been intimately involved in Behaim’s 1493 proposal for a northerly voyage to Cathay, I found it striking how much of his 1494-95 journey through Spain and Portugal amounted to a fact-finding mission on the Columbus enterprise. He spent an entire week in Seville, headquarters of the Indies enterprise, in November 1494, which was also precisely when Cabot was supposed to be overseeing the construction of a key bit of infrastructure, a fixed bridge link between Seville and its maritime district on the island of Triana in the Guadalquivir. (Munzer’s journal account tells us he encountered indigenous Caribbeans who had been brought back by Columbus and baptized.)

Munzer then headed for Lisbon, if not at the same time then mere weeks before Cabot abandoned the bridge project. According to the Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala, Cabot went to Lisbon himself to seek out people to aid him in mounting a discovery voyage. Munzer was a guest of Joao II for ten days, sharing four dinners with the Portuguese king and engaging in unelaborated conversations about “navigation.” (Munzer, remember, had written the preamble for Behaim’s 1493 pitch to Joao II for a northern discovery voyage.)

In Lisbon, Munzer was a house guest of Behaim’s prosperous father-in-law, Joss van Huerter, a Flemish merchant from northern Burgundy with a prominent role in the colonization of the Azores. Huerter’s daughter Joana had married Behaim; his son and heir, Joss the younger, married Izabel Corte-Real, sister of the explorers Gaspar and Miguel, who would both disappear on voyages to northeastern North America. Munzer then turned up in Madrid, where he met Pietro Martire (Peter Martyr) a confidante of Columbus who had begun to write a history of the Columbus voyages. Munzer also had the astonishing good fortune to meet at Madrid the papal legate to the Indies, Bernard Buyl, who had returned in late 1494 with scathing criticism of Columbus’s activities.

“He was very intimate with me,” Munzer wrote of Buyl in his journal. “He spoke with me of the islands.” By the time Munzer was back in Nürnberg, he had an exceptional grasp of the precarious state of the Columbus enterprise, and ample evidence in hand for making the case for an effort to prove a northern passage to Cathay.

Given that there is no solid explanation otherwise for how in less than 18 months Cabot managed to rapidly transform himself from a failed Venetian bridge contractor on the lam from powerful citizens and nobles in Seville into an English explorer, the influence if not outright participation of Munzer and Behaim in his voyage scheme bear serious consideration. Some of the issues I address in The Race to the New World are:

•The northern voyage scheme Munzer helped Behaim propose to Portugal’s Joao II in 1493 (to no avail) is the scheme Cabot successfully sold to Henry VII in 1496.

•Behaim had just created the world’s earliest extant globe at Nürnberg, along with a world map to guide its construction by local craftsmen. Behaim more than likely took a copy of the map and a smaller model of the globe to Lisbon to make his voyage pitch to Joao II in late 1493. The so-called Laon globe, for example, appears to have been based on a Behaim globe in Portugal. And as the diplomat Ayala asserted, Cabot went to Lisbon looking for help in mounting a voyage.

•Cabot was observed with a globe and map in London in 1497, after his successful voyage that summer to what he insisted was the Land of the Grand Khan. Cabot in other words had just completed the northern voyage Behaim had hoped to perform for Portugal. We have no idea when or how he managed to create these geographic props, which he likely already possessed when he pitched Henry VII no later than early 1496, after his sojourn in Lisbon.

•Cabot was observed in late 1497 at the court of Henry VII in the company of an enigmatic nameless “Burgundian,” who was so knowledgeable that he confirmed everything Cabot claimed about his discoveries, and was expecting an island in reward with the title of count. It must be kept in mind that while Behaim was from Nürnberg, he had been sent to northern Burgundy as a teenager after the death of his father to trade, had married the daughter of a prominent northern Burgundian, and visited northern Burgundy to trade on his father-in-law’s account. Behaim’s milieu was the Burgundian trade and Azores colonies associated with his Burgundian father-in-law.

•A real curiosity of the northern discovery record is how many figures from the little island of Terceira in the Azores, including the Corte-Reals that were linked through Huerter marriages to Behaim, immediately became involved in the exploration of what proved to be northeastern North America, right after Cabot’s success in 1497 became known. Some of them even became partners of merchants in Bristol, where Cabot’s voyages originated.

•Behaim made an oddball visit to northern Burgundy in early 1494, a journey on which he claimed to have been waylaid in England for several months. His garbled tale of a diplomatic mission gone awry instead invites reading as a deliberate attempt by Behaim to sell his voyage scheme to Henry VII, right after Joao II rejected it, evidently if only because of restrictions that were about to be imposed on Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Behaim’s letter from Lisbon explaining to a cousin what he’d been up to on that star-crossed journey is the last bit of evidence of Behaim’s life. He disappeared from the record after that, only to die impoverished in Lisbon in 1506, leaving behind considerable debts. We have no idea how he managed to vaporize a large inheritance from his mother or squander his prosperous connections to his father-in-law. Nineteenth-century historians suspected he found some financially debilitating role to play in the many ensuing discovery voyages of out England and Portugal after last being heard from in 1494. I feel that suspicion is well worth reinvigorating, especially where Cabot’s voyages are concerned. —Douglas Hunter