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Pierre Senges: La réfutation majeure (The Major Refutation)

Antonio de Guevara was a Franciscan monk, active in the early sixteenth century. He travelled much, held various court positions and also wrote a lot. He is particularly known for his Reloj de príncipes [Clock of Princes], allegedly about Marcus Aurelius, and intended as a guide to monarchs. He even claimed that it was based on a manuscript found in Florence. He also allegedly wrote a work Refutatio Major, for which no manuscript has ever been found. (Interestingly enough, this fact is mentioned in the French Wikipedia article but not in the English one linked to above.). This book is the French version of this almost certainly non-existent manuscript, in other words a work of fiction.

As is normal in works on found (fictitious) manuscripts, the introduction gives us a potted history of what might or might not have happened to it. However, here we have it. It starts off with the usual formula of the author dedicating it to Charles I of Ghent, i.e. the man we know as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and explaining what he is writing and why.

De Guevara states that he was one of the first to accept the idea of a new world located to the West, even if it were a paltry land. Initially, he was inclined to believe the travellers with their tales but gradually he became highly sceptical. The eponymous refutation is a refutation of the idea that there is a land to the West. (Note that he is (allegedly) writing some twenty-thirty years after Columbus first discovered the Americas, when Columbus has already been followed by Cabot, Cabral, Magellan, Ponce de León, Cortés, da Verrazzano and others.)

He gives various arguments against the idea. The first is the idea of vested interests. Everybody seems to have a vested interest in there being such a land. These include (but are certainly not limited to) military men, who look forward to military adventures and promotions, the priests, who see it as the possibility of finding paradise on earth, investors, who hope to make a killing on their investments, princes, for whom it is a distraction from European adventures and wars and the ordinary people, for whom it is something to gossip about.

Humans, he states, are inclined to exaggerate. A small reef, a handful of rocks become an island, an archipelago, and soon become a major land mass. Cartographers and missionaries have soon made it a continent. He argues that, if indeed such a land did exist, someone would have discovered it before and we would already have thousands of ships sailing to and from it. He even tells us who could have discovered it and how.

The idea of a new land to the West is not new. There are countless old tales about such lands and these have been embellished (with a bit of casual nudity thrown in as, of course, the female savages are always naked) to titillate the potential audience. We have the legends of Atlantis, Saint Brendan’s Island, Antillia/Isle of Seven Cities, Brasil and many others (see Wikipedia list for other phantom islands).

Our scribe is not impressed with the imagination of these (in his view) pseudo-travellers and their tales. All they seem able to come up with are a few minor islands, starving natives and, as he says, a few vegetables. Christine de Pizan did a much better job without leaving her room (he is presumably referring to her The Book of the City of Ladies). Cosmas Indicopleustes did not stick to the rather conventional view that the world was spherical but, rather, that it was shaped like a tabernacle. In short, these pseudo-travellers could have done a better job and he gives examples of what they could have dreamed up.

All this is, from Senges’ point if view, told tongue-in-cheek. He mentions John de Holywood, better known under his Latin name of Johannes de Sacrobosco who in his Opusculum de sphera mundi, mentions Native Americans who are blue with square heads. Though Holywood did exist and did write this, I cannot help but think that Senges was making a reference to Hollywood and a cartoon character. This is not his only joke.

De Guevara continues to give numerous reasons for why the continent to the West does not exist. He damns all the explorers, particularly Columbus, both for their lies about their discoveries as well as for their characters. He has, of course, met several of them and is not impressed. Many of these discoveries were made by the Spanish or, at least, sponsored by the Spanish and he is not terribly impressed with the Spanish, giving us a long outline of their various weaknesses. (Not surprisingly, neither this nor any of his others works have been translated into Spanish.)

These exaggerations are not limited to the Spanish, however. Bayezid II, alchemists, the Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Marco Polo and various poets and artists have all contributed to these lies, according to our author. However, his main venom is reserved for some of the famous explorers, such as Columbus, Vespucci and Cortés, whom he damns for their lies and damns them as human beings. He is happy to explain where the various finds from the Americas come (Africa, Asia).

There are many more arguments he uses. He also has an appendix about the book itself. Did De Guevara write it or was it written by someone else? Joanna of Castile aka Joanna The Mad (daughter of Isabella I and Ferdinand II) is one candidate. There are others.

This is a brilliant book. It can be seen as the ultimate conspiracy theory, even if it is clearly told tongue-in-cheek. It can be seen as Senges simply being contrarian. It can be seen as a very funny joke taken to (and beyond) the limits. It is certainly a very learned book, as few readers will have heard of all his sources. I certainly had not. Indeed, I learned a lot about phantom islands, most of which I knew little or nothing about. It has taken twelve years to appear in English, thanks to Contra Mundum Press, publishers of the interesting Hungarian writer, Miklós Szentkuthy and The letters of Otto Dix whose works you can see at Tate Liverpool till 15 October 2017.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Verticales
First English publication by Contra Mundum Press in 2016