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Travel and Travel Accounts in World History, Part 2


From Imposter to Imperialist: Ludovico de Varthema's Journey from Italy to India, 1502–1508

Mary Jane Maxwell


     Travel accounts are often the genre of primary source material that world historians first select to illustrate how one culture perceived another. World history instructors often assign portions of travel narratives in the survey course, and scholars use them as evidence to support their research. Yet just like today, rarely are perceptions and views within one particular culture writing about another specific culture uniform. Scholarship of medieval and Renaissance European perceptions of Islam reveals that Europeans held a variety of opinions.1 Merchants, diplomats, missionaries, poets, popes, and kings from the eighth through the sixteenth centuries all expressed their impressions of Saracens, Turks, and Moors in diverse terms including, as Richard Southern described as early as 1962, "the competing possibilities of crusade, conversion, coexistence, and commercial interchange."2 Despite the array of opinions expressed in an assortment of literary genres, key themes nonetheless emerge: "Islam was assessed as the 'sum of all heresies,'" according to Norman Daniel in 1975 in Arabs and Medieval Europe, "and so, we may say, quintessentially wrong; this helped to make Europe feel cozy."3 Daniels then argues that deeply entrenched medieval assumptions served to justify Europe's imperialistic ventures.4 John Hobson supported Daniels claim in 2004 arguing that "Christianity was not invoked purely as a justificatory principle for Portuguese 'imperialism' in the Indies after the event: rather, it fundamentally informed their belief from the outset that this course of action was morally appropriate."5 More recently John Tolan and Suzanne Akbari build upon Daniels and Edward Said's works to explain how and why hostile discourse about Islam in the medieval era served a multitude of ends, including "how denigration of the other can be used to defend one's own construction of the world."6 Ludovico de Varthema's travel account, the Itinerary (1510), serves as an excellent example of the extension of medieval views of Islam into the early modern era. In his narrative one finds the conventional medieval calls for crusade, coexistence, conversion, and commercial interchange in response to Islam coincided with early modern European imperialist incursions into the East. Although literary scholars have assessed the Itinerary as a new literary development—an original advancement toward a modern, secular genre—Varthema's Itinerary remains deeply rooted in medieval crusade ideology.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Map in 1863 translation of Itinerario by Ludivico de Varthema. John Winter Jones (translator) and George Percy badger (notes and Introduction).
Publisher: Hakluyt Society
Year: 1863

     Ludovico de Varthema traveled to South Asia and wrote his Itinerary in the first decade of the sixteenth century.7 He left Venice around 1500 and traveled through Egypt, Syria, Arabia, India, and perhaps Persia and Southeast Asia. He returned in 1508, and with papal support he published his account, the Itinerary of Ludovico de Varthema in 1510. Varthema's Itinerary became enormously successful in Europe. In the sixteenth century alone, thirteen more editions appeared in Italian, six more in Latin, four in Spanish, seven in German, two in Flemish, one in English, and one in French.8 Sixteenth century Europeans considered his widely-read work as an authoritative report of the Portuguese incursion into the East. Scholars have questioned certain parts of the Itinerary, especially his journey beyond the eastern coast of India to the Spice Islands. His literary style, too, suggests that he was prone to exaggeration. Nonetheless, his presence was well-documented by the Portuguese military and his description of Mecca and Medina was precise and accurate.9 In his thorough monograph on Varthema in 1996, Pietro Barozzi concluded that although the eastern limits of Varthema's peregrinations are still open to question, his story was nonetheless plausible. Barozzi's analysis only reveals that Varthema did not report precise identifications to verify his routes.10

     Varthema's writing style was new, according to literary scholars. Joan Pau-Rubiés claims that, "Varthema exemplifies an original development of great consequence for the future of the genre of travel writing during the following four centuries . . .[He] suggests a secular attitude in a more radical way because the Italian traveler is no longer a pilgrim." 11 His work is classified in the category of a "curious traveler" whose work signified a radical break with the medieval tradition of pilgrimage or the political and economic interests of diplomats and merchants.12 True, Varthema never even bothered to visit Christian sites while in the Holy Land. Moreover, a novel jovial and playful spirit makes the Itinerary a delightful literary accomplishment as well as an informative account of the people, religions, merchandise, customs, and geography of the regions he visited. Varthema's skillful observations suggest that he was trained by humanists. He most likely was the first European to get inside Mecca and provide an accurate description of the city as well as Medina and the burial place of Muhammad.13

     His description was the first to counter the legendary medieval tale that Muhammad's tomb in Mecca levitated miraculously by magnetic force. And in the style of a true Renaissance man, Varthema dedicated his work to one of the leading noble families in Rome and claimed that he traveled solely for the pleasure of learning about new people and places. For these reasons Varthema's narrative has been described as a model for future European secular travel literature—the kind that became especially important in the beginning of the sixteenth century.14 Yet despite these seemingly novel developments, what is far more important is the continuity of medieval perceptions of Islam, especially the notion of Islam as a "false" religion and the continuing justification for crusade, into the work of one of the first early modern imperialists. Far from making a "radical break" with his forerunners, Varthema continues along a well-worn path in two obvious ways. First, he traveled in the same mode as his fifteenth century predecessors into the dar al-Islam, that is, he adopted a Muslim identity and traded goods along the way as a means to fund his travels. And second, he conveyed his observations in conventional medieval religious polemics and literary conventions.

     Europeans passing themselves off as Muslims was typical in medieval times: a Florentine handbook for merchants in 1340 advised Italians heading East to "let your beard grow long, and not shave."15 A few apparently converted to Islam: a Christian priest in the port of Alexandria complained that he saw "many" European converts to Islam who for the sake of commercial expediency "converted through their lips, not their hearts."16 But Varthema did not convert, rather he disguised himself as a Mamluke—a slave-soldier in service of a Muslim caliph or sultan. Islamic law forbid Muslims to enslave other Muslims, so captured or purchased Eastern European Christian boys (and in earlier times earlier, Turks) were frequently enslaved, educated, and trained as Muslim soldiers fiercely loyal to the caliph. So in order to travel with a trade caravan to Mecca, Varthema writes that:

I was desirous of beholding various scenes and not knowing how to set about it, I formed a great friendship with the captain of the Mamlukes of the caravan, who was a Christian renegade, so that he clothed me like a Mamluke and gave me a good horse, and placed me in company with the other Mamlukes.17

Thus like previous fifteenth century Christian travelers in the dar al-Islam, including the merchants Afanasii Nikitin from Russia and Nicolo de Conti from Italy, Varthema formed partnerships with Muslim merchants and traded merchandise such as jewels, cloth, and coral.18 In Aden he befriended a sea captain who agreed to take him to India. In Shiraz he met a merchant that he had previously met in Mecca, Cozazionor, and the two formed a business partnership and set off to rich markets to India.19 Varthema's ability to make friends among Arab and Persian merchants affirms the general notion that maintaining the appearance of a Muslim identity facilitated European merchants in forming profitable alliances with Muslims and, in Varthema's case, such a partnership funded his travels to the Indian Ocean. Therefore the Itinerary represents a continuity of the medieval traveler in the dar al-Islam—Christian merchants adopted the stance of coexistence for the sake of commercial interchange.

     Moreover, Varthema depicted the Mamlukes in a conventional chivalric genre as worthy opponents: "The Mamlukes certainly never lose any time, but are constantly exercising themselves either in arms or in letters, in order that they may acquire excellence."20 Varthema was most likely familiar with and influenced by popular fifteenth century works such as the Florentine Andrea da Barberino's, Guerrino il Meschino. In her essay on Guerrino, Gloria Allaire remarks that this romantic epic "encapsulates medieval attitudes" and that Muslims are depicted in the medieval tradition of the noble Saracen, and "deemed worthy opponents capable of valor in battle."21 Varthema, too, depicted the Mamlukes in this manner. As caravan guards, Varthema fought alongside his new Mamluke companions in the pitched battles with Arabs along the route to Mecca. He wrote that, "We always had to fight with a vast number of Arabs, but they never killed more than one man and one woman, for such is the baseness of their minds that we sixty Mamlukes were sufficient defense against forty or fifty thousand Arabs; for pagans, there are no better people with arms in their hands than are the Mamlukes."22 Yet Varthema reserves this high praise solely for the Mamlukes, whom he acknowledges as renegade Christians and therefore closer to his cultural equal, rather than Arabs and Persians.23

     Varthema also draws upon medieval conventions that refer to Muslims as "pagans" rather than distinguishing Islam as a monotheistic religion.24 Familiarity, in this case, did not breed tolerance or respect. Varthema must have been aware of popular fifteenth century works that hurled accusations against Islam as a false religion as this notion pervades the Itinerary as he repeats the standard refrain that Islam was patently false. When commenting on the Shi'a and Sunni divisions, he states that "this rabble cut each other to pieces, for some wish to act according to the commandments of one, and some of another, and thus they do not know how to make up their minds; and they kill each other like beasts about these heresies, for they are all false."25 In 1991 Albert Hourani argued that, "the most widely held view" in the medieval era depicted Islam as a false religion.26 This notion of Islam circulated throughout medieval Europe and all through the Itinerary Varthema depicts Islam as a hoax. For example, although he accurately locates Muhammad's burial site in Medina rather than Mecca, Varthema also reports that caretakers of the tomb create "certain artificial fires which they had cunningly lighted on the top of the tower to make us believe that they were the lights which issued from the sepulcher of Muhammad," contributing to the opinion that all Muslims are deceitful as well as easily deceived.27 Likewise, while planning his escape from his Muslim companions in Calicut, Varthema pretended to be a Muslim saint or holy man because, "I thought that I could only deceive them by hypocrisy, for the Moors are the most stupid people in the world."28 Thus, established perceptions of Islam as a false religion and Muslims as feared military opponents informed the earliest European military incursions into the Indian Ocean region.

Identifying potential converts to Christianity or allies for Christians against the Muslims are also medieval literary conventions that appear in Varthema's account. Upon his first encounter with the local Gujaratis in Cambay, Varthema compared them to Christians, "Gujarati are a certain race which eats nothing that has blood and never kills any living thing. And these same people are neither Moors nor pagans. It is my opinion that if they were baptized, they would all be saved by virtue of their works, for they never do to others what they would not that others should do unto them . . .and for their goodness the aforesaid Sultan took from them their kingdom."29 Here Varthema suggests that perhaps the Hindus could be potential allies of the European Christians who in the first decade of the sixteenth century were attempting to usurp Muslim commercial power in the region. Moreover, he justified the European incursion into India by suggesting that the indigenous peoples of India were victims of Muslim domination. Perhaps conversion could serve both the Christian God and the European cause.

     In another episode, Varthema recalled a familiar refrain voiced in the late eleventh century during recruitment for the First Crusade: the need to rescue fellow Christians from Muslims. Varthema encountered Nestorian Christians as he rounded the Indian subcontinent and came to Coromandel, located on the eastern coast of India across from Ceylon. There he reported that the Christians in that region were in grave danger, "the poor Christians cannot live here any longer, but are driven away and killed secretly [by the Moors]."30 It seems that Muslim-Christian relations had declined considerably since Marco Polo's account. Polo reported religious syncretism among the Muslims and Christians of the region and noted that both faiths venerated the tomb of St. Thomas.31 Yet Varthema's message, written several hundred years later, is heavily laden with medieval crusader overtones that emphasize historic Christian-Muslim hostilities. Here Varthema invoked historic hatreds in order to justify the current European incursions into India. In fact, Christopher Columbus, too, continued to call for a Crusade against the Muslims overlords of Jerusalem in his first journal stating that he hopes to find enough gold "in so great a quantity that the Sovereigns within three years would undertake and prepare to go and conquer all the Holy Places."32 Viewed from this perspective, the Itinerary represents continuity with medieval portrayals of Islam rather than a new literary genre. It seems that the presence of the Portuguese at the dawn of the sixteenth century incited a renewed vilification of Muslims.

     Varthema maintained conventional medieval discourse on the falsity of Islam and the enthusiasm for the crusade movement in order to please his European audience who were justifying their penetration and colonization of new markets. So although he provided a more accurate description of people, places and events for the purpose of private reading, all in the contemporary spirit of the humanist's quest for secular knowledge, it does not mean that the Itinerary broke with its medieval precedents. Even the Italian humanists reconciled the new learning with deeply held religious convictions, including the possibility of a successful crusade.33 For example, in Varthema's chapter on the "Manner of the Sacrifices in Mecca" at the end of Ramadan in 1503, he did not conflate Islamic practices with any fondness for the religion or people. Although he claims that he writes from a secular, humanist perspective, he nonetheless maintained the medieval literary conventions in order to serve the new imperialistic needs of his audience.34

     Varthema's travels coincided with the arrival of Mediterranean style trade which included weapons and soldiers. Armed trade, after several centuries of sustained effort, resulted in European domination of regional trade and the colonization and subjugation of India. Varthema's Itinerary reflected these early imperialist concepts as deeply rooted in crusade ideology. For example, after several years of depending on Muslim hospitality and commercial trade networks, in 1506 Varthema shed his skin of the medieval merchant/traveler and joined the Portuguese army. In the last portions of the Itinerary, Varthema focuses exclusively on his military prowess as he fought the Arabs in Calicut. On March 17, 1506, he participated in a battle in which he claims eleven Portuguese ships decimated the Calicut fleet of 206 ships: "It was a beautiful sight to see the gallant deeds of a very valiant captain, Jose Serrao, who, with a galley, made such a slaughter of the Moors as it is impossible to describe."35 He later received a title for his role during the siege of Cannonore: "Now you shall understand what the Christian faith is and what sort of men the Portuguese are . . .and we remained and fought with these dogs [the Moors]."36 His prose becomes monotonous and tedious as he related the superiority, valor, and faith of the Portuguese over the Moors.

     It has been argued that Varthema's Itinerary makes a "radical break" from its medieval precedents because he abandoned the medieval mode of travel as pilgrimage.37 In his 2000 publication on travel and ethnology in the Renaissance, historian Joan-Pau Rubiés argues that Varthema "is not primarily a merchant, an ambassador, a spy, a conquer, a mercenary, a pilgrim, or missionary, but rather an independent character self-defined by a desire to know other lands and peoples, and to report back on them to his own community of origin.38 Yet during his travels Varthema served in each of these roles. He earned his living as a merchant and traveled in the company of merchants. He related his story to the Venetian Senate (for a price) and he attempted to make his Itinerary useful to European military strategists and entrepreneurial merchants. He reported in great detail the size and condition of regional armies, and he identified the seafaring Arab merchants as the military obstacle to Europe's commercial goals in India. He also identified potential converts to the Christian faith. As a Mamluke he earned his living as a mercenary, and by joining the Portuguese army he became a conqueror. And lastly, Varthema may not have entered the dar al-Islam as a pilgrim, but he left as one. He reported on how the Portuguese priest prepared the soldier-merchants for battle with the Arab traders of Calicut:

"O sirs, O brothers, now is the day that we must remember the Passion of Christ, and how much pain He endured to redeem us sinners. Now is the day that when all our sins will be blotted out. For this I beesech you that we determine to go vigorously against these dogs; for I hope that God will give us the victory, and will not choose that His faith should fail." And then the spiritual father stood upon the ship of the said captain, with the crucifix in his hand, and delivered a beautiful discourse to all, exhorting us to do that which we were bound to do. Then he granted us a plenary indulgence and said, "Now, my sons, let us all go willingly, for God will be with us."39

The crusades were, of course, nothing short of an armed pilgrimage. And like their medieval predecessors, these new crusaders received the promise of forgiveness for all their sins if they died in battle, in the same manner that Pope Urban II promised complete penance for the first Crusaders at his speech in Clermont in 1095. The historian of the later Crusades Norman Housley is correct when he remarks that, "the idea of proliferating contacts with the Turks, and the travel literature which resulted from them, eroded what remained of Christian animosity towards the Muslims is an erroneous one."40 Sadly in this case, knowledge of the Other does not necessarily breed tolerance. Although Varthema did not call for a crusade against the Ottomans—a popular call throughout the fifteenth century—he nonetheless resorted to utilizing crusade ideology and rhetoric in order to justify the actions of the Portuguese in India. Furthermore, his account was widely translated and read because it justified and encouraged broader European armed commercial activity in South Asia.

     Like the reports of Christian merchants who traveled to India in the fifteenth century, Nicolo de Conti, Afanasii Nikitin, and Girolamo da Santo Stefano, Varthema depended on the good-will and business astuteness of the Muslim traders who possessed the most extensive and sophisticated commercial network in the Indian Ocean. He needed them for his day-to-day survival. Yet at the end of his journey, Varthema became intensely aware of the new role that Europe was about to play in the region, and his Itinerary reveals that new posture and utilizes centuries old conflicts and stereotypes to justify its position. As enemies of the faith, Muslim trade networks could, and must, be legitimately destroyed by force and replaced with Christian ones. As for the Hindu Indian merchants and population, Varthema depicted them as potential converts and, more importantly, potential allies for the Christian cause. This idea reflected the medieval notion that allies in the East existed and may someday help the Christians stamp out the Muslim threat.

     Due to its literary style, Varthema's Itinerary is often used to illustrate the end of the Medieval Era in European history and the onset of the Early Modern Era. It would be a mistake, however, to view it as an original venture into a new, secular literary genre of the Early Modern Era without considering its underlying assumptions: centuries of fear, hatred, and hostilities informed the earliest Europeans on their initial voyages to the East. These perceptions fueled their new found sense of cultural superiority and eventually the beliefs were transformed and embedded in their colonial enterprise and, to a large extent, continue in a variety of manifestations to this day. Students, instructors, and scholars alike must not only carefully read travel accounts within their proper historical context, but also compare their selections to similar accounts of the time and, moreover, follow up with secondary source analysis for a richer understanding.

Mary Jane Maxwell is Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Green Mountain College and specializes in pre-modern cross-cultural encounters, travel history and world religions. She published the travel account of a Russian merchant, "Afanasii Nikitin: A Russian Orthodox's Spiritual Voyage into the Dar al-Islam" in the Journal of World History in 2006. Her forthcoming monograph with M.E. Sharpe is titled Women and Mysticism in World History, 800–1200: An Era of Divine Love and is due for release in early 2014. She can be contacted at


1 See David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto, eds., Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); John Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Suzanne Akbari, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 11001450 (Ithaca, Cornell Press, 2009); John Tolan ed., Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam (New York and London: Routledge, 1996); John Tolan, Europe and the Islamic World: A History, Chapter Two (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013); Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2001); Norman Housley, Chapter 13, "Catholic Society and the Crusade" in The Later Crusades 12741580 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); less recent, yet nonetheless important, see Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1958) and The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London: Longman, 1975); and Richard Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).

2 Richard Southern, Western Views of Islam, 3. In 2013, John Tolan supports this view in Europe and the Islamic World: A History by pointing out how "religion was often a posteriori explanation for a conflict that had many other causes," and that "Christians often allied themselves with Muslims and vice-versa, facing adversaries that were themselves mixed. Yet religion was both an important motivation and essential justification for war in the Middle Ages." Tolan, Europe and the Islamic World, 27.

3 Norman Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London: Longman Group, 1975), 323. More recently, John Tolan repeats this view in Chapter Two of Europe and the Islamic World: A History (Princeton University Press, 2013), 27.

4 Ibid.

5 John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137.

6 Quote from Tolan, Saracens, xxiii. See also John Tolan, Europe and the Islamic World and Suzanne Akbari, Idols in the East. These works convey popular European images of Muslims as polytheistic idolaters, Muhammad as a "false prophet," and Islam as a Christian heresy.

7 Ludivico wrote his account in Italian, and the best English translation is John Winter Jones (translator) and Introduction by Lincoln Davis Hammond in Travelers in Disguise: Narratives of Eastern Travel by Poggio Bracciolini and Ludivico de Varthema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

8 Pietro Barozzi, Ludovico de Varthema e il suo Itinerario (Roma: Societa Geografica Italiana, 1996), 51.

9 Barozzi quotes F. Lopez Castenheda as "confirmation that what is narrated in the Itinerary is substantially true." He writes, "Castenheda wrote that in the month of February 1506 a man presented himself to dom Lourenço de Almeida. The latter was in Cannanore: 'a white man dressed like a Moor who knelt at the feet of dom Lourenço, embraced them and begged his mercy. He said he was Christian and asked to have a secret meeting because he came from Calicut. Dom Laurenço allowed him in his room, where the man confessed his name, Luis Patricio, born and raised in Rome where he had left some years before with the ambition to explore the world.'" Barozzi, 199.

10 "The conclusion is that Varthema narrates a credible but not absolute truth." Barozzi, 184.

11 Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance, South India Through European Eyes 12501625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 131.

12 Rubies, 131–147; See also Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, s.v. "Varthema, Lodovico de." Here the author describes Varthema's work as "the best example of a new literary tradition" that liberated "the genre of travel-writing from its ties to pilgrims and traders."

13 Johann Schiltberger may also have entered Medina and Mecca in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. He accurately placed Muhammad's tomb at "Madina" rather than the popular and inaccurate European notion of his day that Muhammad was buried in Mecca. Johann Schiltberger, The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396–1427, translated by J. Tefler (London: Hakluyt Society, 1879), 71.

14 Rubiés, 139; Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, s.v. "Varthema, Ludovico de.". Lance Lazar in the Encyclopedia remarks that "Varthema's lasting legacy is to elevate the role of the traveler to that of the independent and skillful observer, and to liberate the genre of travel writing from its ties to pilgrims and merchants."

15 The merchant Francis Balducci Pegolotti, in service of the Bardi Family of Florence, offered this advice in Practica della Mercatura reprinted in H. Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither vol 3 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1914), 137.

16 Girolamo Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell'Oriente francescano, "Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis et Hugomis illuminatoris" vol. 3, 256.

17 Ludivico de Varthema, The Itinerary of Ludivico de Varthema in Travelers in Disguise, John Winter Jones (trans) with an Introduction by Lincoln David Hammond. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 63.

18 Hieronimo di Santo Stefano relied on the hospitality of Muslim merchants in 1495–1496 in order to secure a safe return home to Genoa; Afanasii Nikitin formed partnerships with Muslims during his journey from Russia to India 466–1472; and Nicolo de Conti also traveled in Muslim circles in the Indian Ocean during his long stay in the region from 1419–1444; and the Frenchman Bertrandon de la Broquiere disguised himself as a Mamluke in order to travel with a Meccan trade caravan from Syria into Ottoman territory 1432–1433.

19 The name "Cozazionor" can be translated as Khadja Giauer, khadja meaning "master" in Persian This implied that Cozazionor belonged to the upper class of Persian society, and could greatly facilitate Varthema's travel plans with knowledge and, perhaps, financial backing. Pietro Barozzi also notes that Giauer may refer to a derogative term, djaur, which the Turks addressed non-Islamic names. In this context, Varthema might be implying to his European audience that he did not respect his Muslim friend and as a result distance him from his renegade status. Barozzi, 49.

20 Varthema, 61.

21 Allaire, 250.

22 Varthema, 65.

23 Varthema also did not use the older term saraini and demonstrated that he could at least distinguish between various Muslim ethnicities and identities. Cruder and earlier medieval depictions of Islam referred to the Saracans as one group monolithic group and as "enemies of the faith." Also, although literary scholars rightly point out that humanist influences were moving European travel accounts and Renaissance epics in a less-polemical and secular direction that, according to one scholar, "have no sense of European racial superiority over Turks and Arabs," (Glorai Allaire quotes Donnley in, "Portrayal of Muslims" in Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam, 246.) Varthema's Itinerary, on the other hand, suggests just the opposite. In many instances in the Itinerary Varthema depicts himself as "irresistible" to foreign women namely because he was a white man and, therefore, of an ethnically superior race. A racist at this time differed from the modern connotation and was instead an implicit feature of a sixteenth century Christian-European. Humankind was divided into God's people: the European Christians (including schismatic Orthodox, Copts, and later Lutherans), "renegades" (Muslims whose faith was rooted in Hebraic tradition but who took the wrong path by denying the divinity of Christ), and "pagans" who faced little hope for evangelism and salvation. Europeans felt superior to those who refused Christianity and who lived outside the classical ecumene. In Varthema's chapter titled, "The Desire of the Women of Arabia Felix for White Men" he hyperbolized the Sultana of Aden's uncontrollable desire for white men saying, "O, God, you have created this man white like the sun, you have created my husband black, my sun is also black, and I am black. Would to God that this man was my husband." This picaresque prose reoccurs throughout his journey and serves to entertain his audience as well as to transmit the essence of Varthema's personality: a reckless adventurer with a thirst for seeing and knowing, mischievous, playful, jovial, and quick-witted. Yet it also displays another characteristic: an overwhelming confidence of the European Christian's superior intelligence, faith, and race over the Muslims and Hindus.

24 Although rare, "occasionally the spiritual kinship was acknowledged" by medieval Christians toward Muslims. Consider the letter written by Pope Gregory VII to a Muslim prince in Algeria, "there is a charity which we owe each other more than to other peoples, because we recognize and confess one sole God, although in different ways, and we praise and worship Him every day as creator and ruler of the world." Hourani, 9. Orthodox Russians in the fifteenth century, on the other hand, more readily distinguished the difference between pagans and Muslims. Afanasii Nikitin, a fifteenth century Russian merchant who traveled to India, states that, "As for the true faith, God alone knows it. And the true faith is to believe in one God." Thus he sought spiritual comfort in Islam and Islamic prayer habits while surrounded by the "pagan" Hindus.

25 Varthema, 70

26 "Allah is not God, Muhammad was not a prophet; Islam was invented by men whose motives and character were to be deplored, and propagated by the sword." Albert Hourani, Islam in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 10.

27 Varthema, 72.

28 Varthema, 202

29 Varthema, 116.

30 Varthema, 164.

31 Marco Polo (Ronald Latham, translator), The Travels (London: Penguin Books, 1958), 274.

32 Tzvetan Todorov (translated from the French by Richard Howard), The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (The University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 11.

33 Norman Housley adamantly warns late medieval historians in his chapter on "Catholic Society and the Crusade" that despite the fact that "dissent and debate" ensued throughout the fifteenth century with respect to a the crusade movement, and that although "enthusiasm for the crusade varied enormously from country to country . . .and waxed and waned over the generations," the crusade remained a relevant and popular idea throughout Europe among all social groups. Among the Italian humanists, the "exhortatoria mark a new departure in crusading literature . . .based on the principles of oratory in the Classical World, and had three sections. The justice and necessity of the proposed crusade was pinpointed; there followed a reassuring section on the expedition's viability ('ease'), in which Turkish weaknesses were lavishly depicted; and the orator concluded with an account of the profit, spiritual and material, which the crusade would bring to its participants." Housley, 384–385.

34 Varthema, 78. A better example of the secular genre towards information gathering about non-Christians in distant lands might have been the humanist Poggio Bracciolini's narrative of the travels of Nicolo de Conti. Although written as penance for converting to Islam (apparently a forgivable necessity according to the Pope Eugene IV in 1448), Conti and/or Bracciolini refrained from polemical abuse against both Muslims and Hindus. The papal secretary simply wanted information about far-away lands and, indeed, Conti's descriptions proved useful for cartographers and merchants.

35 Varthema, 217.

36 Varthema, 220–221.

37 Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance, 141.

38 Ibid., 131–132.

39 Varthema, 215.

40 Housley, 382–383.


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