Renaissance Cosmographical Knowledge and Religious Discourse: A ‘Disenchantment of the World’?
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)
Étienne Bourdon, Université Grenoble Alpes
From the second half of the fifteenth century onward, European geographical knowledge greatly expanded thanks to major voyages of discovery to Africa, Asia and America. These discoveries cast doubts on biblical and Christian readings of the world. Sociologists, philosophers and historians have identified a so-called ‘disenchantment of the world’ related to this period. The aim of this essay is to analyse the circulation and transformation of Renaissance cosmographical knowledge as it confronted religious discourse. It will question the relevance of the concepts of ‘disenchantment of the world’ and secularization applied to the geographical field in the history of knowledge in the early modern period. It will endeavour to demonstrate that there was then no such thing as a simple and universal ‘disenchantment of the world’. Indeed, the process was complex and uneven. Rather than an overall ‘disenchantment of the world’, I will argue that there was a resetting: a new composition of the system of enchantment actually took place. The relation between knowledge of the world and the concept of disenchantment needs, therefore, to be analysed on various levels. During the period, a new, more complex and stimulating situation emerged, involving multiple and sometimes contradictory discourses. Max Weber first developed the concept of ‘disenchantment of the world’ in his well-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), and later in Politics as a Vocation (1917–1919). Weber’s theory does not elaborate specifically on the spatial dimension of the world, yet his central argument is that the place of magic in our understanding of the world gradually shrank. This idea plays a key role in Hans Blumenberg’s reflections in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). Marcel Gauchet revisited the concept in two fundamental works, The Disenchantment of the World, a Political History of Religion (1985), and a critique and expansion of this study, Un monde désenchanté? (2004). These three authors, as well as other contemporary writers, defined the ‘disenchantment of the world’ as a general process in the decline of religion in early modern times — a process that resulted in a world deprived of spiritual meaning, potentially reducible to material knowledge (Szerszynski 2005, 7). This ‘exit from religion’, as Marcel Gauchet wrote (1985and 1998), has been a lengthy process. Spreading over several hundred years, it began in the eleventh century, although it was not manifest until the sixteenth century.The role of geography in this changing outlook has not been fully addressed. This is a significant omission, for the space or, more precisely, the territory occupied by a community constitutes one of the core elements of societal formation. From a political standpoint, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of assertion for various states, not only of their spatial identity, but also in the shaping of their national identity (Bradshaw and Roberts 1998; Hampton 2001; Yardeni 2005; Tallon 2007). From a Christian point of view, describing territory was linked to a religious interpretation of the world (Büttner 1974and 1979; Park 1994). Moreover, the close connection between knowledge and power, shown by Michel Foucault (1980), appertains to geography, society and politics. Indeed, the question of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ has been studied by few historians (Brooke 1991; Soergel 1997; Walsham 2008; Balzamo 2010). In the main it has been explored by sociologists, political scientists, philosophers, theologians and epistemologists (Isambert 1986; Cohen 1994; Dews 1995; Monod 2002; Walsham and Ruggiu 2003; Saler 2006; Bergmann 2007; Asprem 2014; Sharpe and Nickelson 2014; Josephson-Storm 2017). Consequently, the debate on disenchantment often lacks a cosmographical or geographical perspective. Geography should be reintroduced into the debate and should be used primarily to question the historical reality of the decrease of religious interpretations in early modern knowledge. Sources considered in this essay are Renaissance cosmographies (Münster 1544; Belleforest 1575; Thevet 1575), brought together with other types of discourse on geographical space, such as travel diaries, cartography and universal histories, mainly published between the mid-fifteenth century and the later part of the seventeenth century. After exploring the gradual disappearance of religious interpretations in cosmography and geography, this article will question the limits of the concept of disenchantment in knowledge before offering a new interpretation of the links between Renaissance, geographical knowledge and the re-enchantment of man.