The Power of Distance: The Transformation of European Perceptions of Self and Other, 1100-1600

in Medieval Encounters


Anthropologists such as Mary Helms have noted a historical linkage between the phenomena of perceived distance and perceived power. In this article I apply this paradigm to the history of European imperial expansion between the twelfth and the sixteenth century. In the Middle Ages, European popes and kings imbued the mythic ruler Prester John with great power in part because he was unseen and believed to live at a great distance. By associating the Mongols, and the Ethiopians after them, with Prester John, both of these peoples became an embodiment of this distance/power paradigm in Western European eyes. Latins hoped that the Mongols or Ethiopians would use their “power” to assist the West in their crusading battles in the Holy Land. When the Portuguese and Spanish began their voyages of expansion, they applied the same paradigm to the peoples they encountered in Asia, Africa and the Americas. When distance between Europe and these other continents was breached, however, the Iberian view of the others’ power diminished. Simultaneously, the Spanish and Portuguese perception of their own power increased as they, not “Prester John”, became the conquerors of distance.

  • 20

    Eric Voegelin, “The Mongol Orders of Submission to European Powers, 1245-1255,” Byzantion 15 (1940-1941), 378-413; The text and its variants can be found in Karl-Ernst Lupprian, “Die Beziehungen der Päpste zu islamischen und mongolischen Herrschen im 13. Jahrhundert anhand ihres Briefwechsels,” Studi e Testi 291 (1981), 182-189. A similar response was subsequently given to two more of Innocent’s ambassadors. See Simon de Saint-Quentin, Histoire des Tartares, ed. Jean Richard, Documents relatifs à l’histoire des croisades (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1965), 32.47-52.

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  • 25

    See David O. Morgan, “The Mongols in Syria, 1260-1300,” in Crusade and Settlement, ed. Peter Edbury (Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1985), 231-235.

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  • 27

    Paul Meyvaert, “An Unknown Letter of Hulagu, Il-Khan of Persia, to King Louis IX of France,” Viator 11 (1980), 245-259.

  • 28

    See Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410 (London: Pearson, 2005), 198.

  • 31

    See Burkhard Roberg, “Die Tartaren auf dem 2.Konzil von Lyon, 1274,” Annuarium Historiae Conciliarum 5 (1973): 241-302. This was followed by an additional embassy under David of Ashby two years later, with yet another arriving in 1277. C. Brunel, “David d’Ashby auteur méconnu des Faits des Tartares,” Romania 79 (1958), 43-45; Amitai-Preiss, Mongols and Mamlûks, 95 n. 82. Concurrently, Abâqâ was exchanging embassies with Charles I of Anjou, the king of Sicily (1266-1282). See I registri della Cancellaria angioina, ed. Riccardo Filangieri, 38 vols, Testi e doc. di storia napoletana (Naples: Accademia Pontaniara, 1950-1964), nos. 173, 185, 456; on this, see Gennaro Maria Monti “I tre primi sovrani angioini e Tartari,” in Da Carlo I a Roberto di Angiò: Richerche e documenti (Trani: Vecchi, 1936), 19-28.

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  • 51

    Alfonso V to Yishaq, May 15, 1428, in MS. Archivo de la Corona de Aragon, reg. 2680, fol. 165, noted in Charles Germain Marie Bourel de La Roncière, Le découverte de l’Afrique au moyen age: cartographes et explorateurs, 3 vols, Mémoires de Société royale de géographie d’Égypte, 5-6, 13 (Cairo, 1925), 2:116 n.4. The offer was sent to Ethiopia via an embassy, with the king’s own Arabic-speaking confessor, and while the return party seems to have died en route, the offers of marriage highlight the seriousness and equality with which Ethiopia was treated in the West as a valuable ally. This is detailed in a later letter, sent in 1450 in Francesco Cerone, “La Politica Orientale di Alfonso di Aragon,” Archivo Storico per la Province Napoletane pubblicato a cura della Società di Storia Patria 27 (1902), 40.

  • 54

    Gaston Wiet, “Les Relations Égypto-Abyssines sous les Sultans Mamlouks,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 4 (1938), 129-130; Francesco Suriano, Il Trattato di Terra Santa e dell’Oriente, ed. Girolamo Golubovich (Milan: Artigianelli, 1900), 86. The power to divert the course of the Nile at will was believed in Europe to be a critical power of the Ethiopian negus, and a sign of his temporal power and value as a military ally. On this phenonemenon, which lies somewhat outside the scope of this article, see Tadesse Tamrat, Church and Society, 256 n.3. Despite the Western emphasis on crusade and military alliance, the nägäst held very different expectations for these new diplomatic contacts than did their Western coreligionists. Repeatedly, the Ethiopian desire was not for arms or marital alliance, but for the services of skilled Western craftsmen. These craftsmen who came to represent the Ethiopians in their dealings with Western courts since chief among their requests were more artisans.

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  • 60

    Luís Filipe F.R. Thomaz, “O Projecto Imperial Joanino. (Tentativa de interpretação global da política ultramarina de D. João II),” Congresso internacional Bartolomeu Dias e a sue Época. Actas 1 (Porto, 1989), 93-95.

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  • 62

    Charles-Martial de Witte, “Un projet portugais de reconquête de la Terre-Sainte (1505-1507),” Congresso internacional de história dos descobrimentos. Actas 5.1 (1961), 419.

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  • 72

    Barros, Ásia, 1.6.6; Thomé Lopes, Navegaçao às Indias Orientaes, in O Porto nas navegaçoes e na expansao, ed. Antonio Augusto Ferreira da Cruz (Lisbon, 1983), 196-197; Georg Schurhammer, “Three Letters of Mar Iacob Bishop of Malabar 1503-1550,” Gregorianum 14 (1933): 70; Brown, Indian Christians, 13; Diógo de Couto, Da Asia, in Da Ásia de J. de Barros e D. de Couto . . . decada primeira—undecima, 23 vols (Lisbon, 1777-1788), dec. 12, chapter 5. This submission was restated a year later, when Afonso de Albuquerque was given gifts for Dom Mañuel from the Christians of Quilon. See Afonso da Albuquerque, Commentarios do grande Afonso de Albuquerque, capitão geral que foi das Indias Orientais em tempo do muito poderoso rey d. Manuel, ed. Antonio Baião 4 pts. in 2 vols (Coimbra, 1922-1923), 1:14-15; Schurhammer, “Three letters,” 70; Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 196.

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  • 78

    Sergew Hable-Selassie, “The Ge’ez Letters,” 556, 558.

  • 89

    William D. Phillips, Jr., “Africa and the Atlantic Islands Meet the Garden of Eden: Christopher Columbus’s View of America,” Journal of World History 3 (1992), 160. In the prologue of the journal of his first voyage, Columbus notes (in a clear reference to his reading of Polo) that the Grand Khan’s predecessors “had [often] sent to Rome to ask for men learned in our Holy Faith” and how Fernando and Isabella “enemies of the false doctrine of Mahomet . . . thought of sending me . . . to the said regions of India to see the said princes . . . and to see how their conversion to our Holy Faith might be undertaken.” See Christopher Columbus, “Carta de Colon a los reyes y diario de a bordo de su primer viaje,” Prologue in Colección documental del descubrimiento (1470-1506), 3 vols (Madrid: Real Academia de Historia, 1994), doc. 36 (1:109). For English translation, see Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed./trans. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York, NY: Heritage Press, 1963), 47-48.

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  • 90

    Polo, Il milione, 192-197.

  • 93

    Columbus, “Carta-Relacion del Almirante a los reyes sobre su tercer viaje,” in Colección documental, doc. 405, p. 1116; Flint, Imaginative Landscape, chapter 5; Delno C. West, “Christopher Columbus, Lost Biblical Sites, and the Last Crusade,” Catholic Historical Review 78 (1992), 522f.

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  • 99

    On 27 November 1492, Columbus’s journal notes, “And I say that Your Highnesses ought not to consent that any foreigner do business or set foot here, except Christian Catholics . . . nor should anyone who is not a good Christian come to these parts.” Columbus, Diario, 27 November 1492, in Colección documental, 160.

  • 103

    Cardinal Cisneros noted in 1517, for example, that Judaism and Islam were both being practiced in the Spanish Caribbean. See Cisneros grant (22 July 1517) of inquisitorial authority to the bishops of the Indies in J.T. Medina, La primitiva inquisición americana (1493-1569), 2 vols (Santiago de Chile, 1914), 2:3-5. This was possible in the case of Islam. The number of “Moriscos” who successfully evaded detection and practiced their faith in the New World is unknown. But as late as 1621 in Puebla, a reference to the Moriscos was made in a sermon by Father Juan de Grijalva. See Robert Ricard, “Les Morisques et leur expulsion vus de Mexique,” Bulletin Hispanique 33 (1931), 252-254. Eight to ten percent of the fairly small African slave population in Spanish America in the first half of the century were of the Islamicized Malinke from the Gambia River valley. See Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 97-98. The Malinke, converted to Islam in previous centuries, continued the practice of their religion following their capture and enslavement by the Spanish. On Muslim Malinke in Brazil, see Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology on the Interpenetration of Civilizations, trans. Helen Sebba (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 46. Charles V’s 1522 restrictive immigration legislation requiring recent converts to obtain the acquisition of a royal license before traveling to the Indies, applied to Jews as well as to Muslims. Other, later rulings, were specifically designed to limit Islamic immigration in the persons of African Muslim slaves. See Recopilación de leyes de los Reynos de las Indias, mandadas imprimer y publicar por le Magestad Católica del Rey don Carlos II, ed. Juan Manzano Manzano, 4 vols (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1973), 9.26, 15 (3:312). A prime example of this type of ordinance was that issued by Charles in 1530, in which he ruled that any slave found to be a Muslim was to be returned to Africa, and anyone who was found to be importing Morisco slaves was to be heavily fined. See Guevara-Bazan, “Muslim Immigration,” 179-180. The 1522 and 1530 ordinances were reflected in the 1531 decree of Isabella of Portugal, Charles’s wife and regent in Spain, which ruled that Berber slaves could only be brought to the Americas with a special license. See Cedulario indiano, compil. Diego de Encinas, ed. Alfonso Garcia Gallo, 5 vols (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1945-1946), 4:383. The Emperor renewed the ban against the immigration of conversos in 1539. See “R. Provisión que no pasen a Indias ni esten en ellas hijos ni nietos de quemado reconcilando Judias as Moro, ni converso ninguno, 3 October 1539,” in Colección de documentos, 1:192-193. And throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century, numerous minor signals were sent to show that the issue of Muslim infiltration was still in the minds of the Spanish monarchs. Vigilance against “prohibidos” is called for by Charles V in 1556 and again by Philip II in 1559, the same year in which the Holy Inquisition was established in Mexico, a further attempt to insure the religious “purity” of the Spaniard’s new world. See documents in Cedulario indiano, 1:454-455; 4:374, 381-384.

  • 104

    On this generally, see Max Harris, Aztecs, Moors and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000); Robert Ricard, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523-1572, trans. Lesley Byrd Simpson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), chapter 12; Robert Richard, “Contribution à l’étude des fêtes de ‘Moros y Cristianos’ au Mexique,” Journal de la société des Américanistes, n.s. 24 (1932), 51-84; Robert Richard, “Encore les fêtes de ‘Moros y Cristianos’ au Mexique,” Journal de la société des Américanistes 29 (1937), 220-227. See, too, Carlos René García Escobar, El Español: danzas de moros y cristianos en Guatemala (Guatemala, 1990); La danzas de conquista, ed. Jesús Jáuregui and Carlo Bonfigliuli (Mexico, 1996-); and Ma. Soledad Carrasco Urgoiti, El moro retador y el moro amigo: estudios sobre fiestas y comedias de moros y cristianos, Biblioteca de bolsillo, 21 (Granada, 1996).

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  • 108

    Pagden, European Encounters, 21-24.

  • 110

    Yates, Astraea, 23; Roy C. Strong, Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals, 1450-1650 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1984), 76.

  • 118

    See also James Lockhart, “Some Nahua Concepts in Postconquest Guise,” History of European Ideas 6 (1985), 466-467.

  • 125

    Ricard, Spiritual Conquest, 33-35.

  • 127

    See Andrew C. Hess, “The Battle of Lepanto and its Place in Mediterranean History,” Past and Present 57 (1972), 53-73.

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