The question of More's knowledge of Geography and of what travel literature
he read is one of the most neglected areas of Utopian scholarship, and and
yet it is crucial for a proper understanding of More's libellus. 
Although Utopia is a fictional island, it does not exist in a vacuum, and
it is clearly a response among other things to the European voyages of discovery
and exploration. It is all too often forgotten in relation to Utopia
that there were in fact at least two "New Worlds" in the 16th Century -- not
only the Americas but also sub-Saharan Africa and most of Asia, which were
equally new to Europeans at this time as well. The common assumption that
Utopia is a response to the discovery of the Americas is only marginally
true. Although by the time Utopia was written in 1516 Europeans were
aware that South America was a distinct body of land (not necessarily "a continent")
separate from Asia, nobody prior to the Voyage of Magellan (1519-1522) had
any idea how vast the Pacific Ocean really was. The evidence of contemporary
maps such as the 1507 and 1516 Great Maps produced by Martin Waldseemüller,
as well as Waldseemüller's small globe in the 1507 Cosmographiae introductio,
and the World Map in the 1513 Strasbourg Ptolemy (almost certainly by Waldseemüller)
is clear. The Americas (sometimes only consisting of South America and the
Caribbean islands) are shown as being very close to "India" (Asia) and as
completing the semi-circle of the Mare Indicum (a combined Indian Ocean
and "Pacific Rim").
Besides considering the cartographical evidence I will summarize what can
be reasonably established about More's knowledge of Classical and Medieval
Geography. I will draw my evidence from More's Collected Works and from the
evidence of friends and contemporaries such as More's brother-in-law John
Rastell, who wrote a play about geography entitled The Interlude of the
Four Elements in 1517-1520, shortly after More wrote his Utopia.
Classical and Medieval Geographical Theory
Although More never refers to the Classical Geographers Ptolemy and Strabo
by name, we can assume at least general familiarity with Ptolemy's theories.
Several editions of Ptolemy's Cosmographiae were published in the early
16th century, and Erasmus was to publish the editio princeps of the
Greek in 1533. Though More may never have seen any detailed Ptolemaic maps,
such as the one found in the Ulm 1482 edition of Ptolemy (Figure
1), he certainly was familiar with cruder Ptolemaic maps such as that
found in the 1493 Nuremburg World Chronicle(Figure
2)-- a work we know he owned. 
One geographical work that More almost certainly did own was Sacrobosco's
Tractatus de Sphaera. 
Sacrobosco's Tractatus was the most popular elementary textbook of Astronomy
in use from the 13th to 17th centuries, and survives in numerous manuscripts
and printed editions (25 before 1500, and another 46 between 1500 and 1640).
Since Sacrobosco was required reading for the A.B. at Oxford in the 15th Century
(Sacrobosco 43), More may have read it as early as 1492-1494 when he was a student
at Oxford. Sacrobosco together with the late Classical authors Martianus Capella
and Macrobius were among the most important geographical sources that kept alive
belief in the Middle Ages in the Earth's sphericity, the existence of the Antipodes,
and the theory of climatic zones (Macrobius 20). According to this theory (Macrobius,
Somn. Scip. II.v-ix, pp.200-216; Sacrobosco 129-138) the World was divided
into five zones: The North and South Frigid Zones and the Torrid zone at the
Equator which were considered uninhabitable or barely habitable, and the habitable
North and South Temperate Zones (Figure
3), which in some refinements of the theory, found in Sacrobosco (138-140),
and the Cosmographiae introductio (60-63), were further subdivided into
seven climates (Figure
4). There is a clear reference to this geographical theory in Book I of
Utopia (Seeber, 79-86):
[Torrid Zone] To be sure, under the equator and on both sides
of the line nearly as far as the suns' orbit extends [i.e. Tropics of Cancer
and Capricorn] there lie waste deserts scorched [torridas] with
continual heat. A gloomy and dismal region looms in all directions without
cultivation or attractiveness, inhabited by wild beasts and snakes or, indeed,
men no less savage and harmful than are the beasts. [South Temperate Zone]
But when you have gone a little further, the country gradually assumes a milder
aspect, the climate is less fierce, the ground is covered with a pleasant
green herbage, and the nature of living creatures becomes less wild. At length
you reach peoples, cities, and towns which maintain a continual traffic by
sea and land not only with each other and their neighbours but also with far
off countries. (CW 4: 53/2-5, 8-9, 11-13)
Though More doesn't mention Macrobius anywhere by name, it is highly likely
he was familiar with Macrobius' Commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio
(See Appendix: More and Macrobius), which he could
also have read as early as his Oxford days and which appeared in ten printed
editions before Utopia was published (Macrobius 61). Prior to the discovery
of the Vatican Palimpsest in 1822 and apart from brief summaries made by the
Church Fathers Lactantius and Augustine, the Dream of Scipio was all
that was known of Cicero's De republica. Almost half of Macrobius'
Commentary deals with questions of an Astronomical or Geographical
nature (Stahl 1942, 232-258). Macrobius's Commentary is perhaps best
known for popularizing the idea of the Antipodes (See Figure
5). In Chapter 6 of Cicero's text, to which Macrobius devotes five chapters
in his commentary (Macrobius, Somn. Scip. II.v-ix, pp.200-216), the
theory of the five zones is summarized as follows:
You see, Scipio, that the inhabited portions on earth are widely
separated and narrow, and that vast wastes lie between these inhabited spots,
as we might call them; the earth's inhabitants are so cut off that there can
be no communication between different groups; moreover, some nations stand
obliquely, some transversely to you and some even diametrically opposite you;
from these of course you can expect no fame. You can also make out certain
belts, so to speak, which encircle the Earth; you observe that the two which
are farthest apart and lie under the poles of the heavens are stiff with cold,
whereas the belt in the middle, the greatest one, is scorched by the heat
of the sun. The two remaining belts are habitable: one, the southern, is inhabited
by men who plant their feet in the opposite direction to yours and have nothing
to do with your people; the other, the northern, is inhabited by you Romans.
(Macrobius, Somn. Scip. II:5.1-3, p.200)
We know in any case that More was clearly familiar with the classical geographical
theories about the Antipodes, because he makes an explicit reference to these
theories in the Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1528 in relation to
Magellan's Circumnavigation of the World in 1522:
Or who would not ween it impossible but if experience had proved
it that the whole Earth hangeth in the air, and men walk foot against foot,
and ships sail bottom against bottom, a thing so strange and seeming so far
against nature and reason, that Lactantius a man right wise and well learned
in his work which he writeth De diuinis institutionibus [III:24]
reckeneth it for impossible, and letteth not [doesn't hesitate] to
laugh at philosophers for affirming of that point, which is now found true
of them that have in less than two years sailed the world round about [Magellan
and Del Cano]. (CW 6: 66/12-22) 
Lactantius is almost certainly alluding to Cicero here. More's "men [that] walk
foot against foot, and ships [that] sail bottom against bottom" translates Cicero's
reference in the Dream of Scipio to "men who plant their feet in the
opposite direction to yours" with the important alteration that whereas for
Cicero and Macrobius there could be no contact between the North and South Temperate
Zones, More now stresses the possibility of mutual commerce between these two
zones. One of More's biographers, Nicholas Harpsfield, writing circa 1557, even
explicitly connected this passage in the Dialogue Concerning Heresies
with the Utopia, indicating that at least some of More's early readers
viewed Utopia in Antipodean terms:
But the Book that beareth the prick and price of all his other Latin
books of witty invention, for prophane matters, is his Utopia . . . . full
prettily and probably devising the said commonwealth to be in the countries
of the newfoundlands declared unto him at Antwerp by Hithlodius, a Portingal,
and one of the Sea companions of Americus Vespusius, that first sought out
and found these lands . . . . And surely this said jolly invention of Sir
Thomas More seemed to bear a good countenance of truth, not only for the credit
Master More was in the world, but even for that about that time many strange
and unknown nations and many conclusions were discovered, such as our forefathers
did neither know nor believe; it was by most certain experience found, especially
by the wonderful navigation of nauis called Victoria [Del Cano's
ship] that sailed the world round about, that ships sail bottom to bottom,
and that there be Antipodes, that is to say, that walk foot against foot;
which thing Lactantius and others do flatly deny, laughing them to scorn that
did so write. Again, it is certainly found that there is under the Zodiac
(where Aristotle and others say that for the immoderate and excessive heat
is no habitation) most pleasant and temperate dwelling and the most fruitfull
countries in the world. (Harpsfield Life of More 102/18-20, 102/25-103/4,
While the term "Antipodes" was often used loosely for the Southern Hemisphere
as a whole, it was also used in a more restricted sense to describe those
peoples who are diametrically opposite us, who "walk foot against foot" with
us. This gave rise to the division of the World into Four Quarters, the four
"spots" or regions of the Dream of Scipio, derived from the 2nd Century
B.C. Stoic philosopher Crates (Figure
6), the Antoeci, the Antipodes and the Perioeci, which Macrobius comments
on at length in Book II.5:
Then referring to our quarter, indeed, and speaking about those
who are separated from us and from each other, he [Cicero] says, Some
nations stand obliquely, some transversely, and some even stand diametrically
opposite us; hence not only the barriers that separate us from another
people but also the barriers that separate all of them from each other are
intended. They must be divided as follows: those who are separated from us
by the torrid zone, whom the Greeks named antoikoi, the Antoeci; next,
those who live on the underside of the southern hemisphere, the Antipodes,
separated from the Antoeci by the south frigid zone; next, those ['Perioeci']
who are separated from their Antoeci, that is, the inhabitants of the underside
of zone, by their torrid zone; they are in turn separated from us by the north
frigid zone. (Macrobius, Somn. Scip. II:5.32-33, p.206)
More clearly refers to the theory of the Four Quarters in a late reference in
the Dialogue of Comfort (1534), written in the Tower of London, where
in developing the topos of the "Prison of the Earth", he argues paradoxically
that even the Great Turk is in prison: "for he may not go where he will, for
and [if] he might, he would into Portingal, Italy, Spain, France, Almaigne [Germany]
and England, and as far on another quarter to, both Prester John's land
and the Grand Cam's too" (CW 12: 259/23-29).
There are a number of references in Utopia that suggest that More
himself viewed Utopia in Antipodean terms: at the end of Book I, Hythloday
tells us that that the Utopians call Europeans "Ultraequinoctials" (CW
4: 108/1-2), that is those who live on the other side of the equinoctial or
Equatorial belt. And in Book II we are told that Utopia is in the South Temperate
Zone: "But in that new world, which is almost as far removed from ours by
the equator as their life and character are different from ours, there is
no trust in treaties" (CW 4: 196/29-31). Further evidence for Antipodean
thinking can be found in More's references to the "New World." In the Latin
More always refers to "Novus ille orbis" using the demonstrative ille
"that," usually in an oblique case: "in illo novo orbe [in that new
world]," sometimes abbreviated to "in illo" or "in illo novo."
More's usage here exactly parallels Vespucci's "in illo emisperio"
in the Mundus novus (twice in the Latin, once in the Italian ("in
quello emispero"), where Vespucci is clearly referring to the Southern
Hemisphere not to the Americas as a hemisphere (Vespucci, 124-127). The clearest
evidence that More's "New World" was not restricted to or synonymous with
South America, can be found in the "Prefatory Letter to Giles," where More
professes to be completely ignorant of Utopia's location: "We forgot to ask,
and he forgot to say, in what part of [that] new world Utopia lies (qua
in parte noui illius orbis) . . . I am rather ashamed to be ignorant in
what sea lies the island (quo in mari sit insula) of which I am saying
so much" (CW 4: 43/1-5). The Cambridge Edition translates "quo in
mari sit insula" as "the ocean where this island lies" (Thomas More, Utopia
1995, 35). Such ignorance hardly makes any sense if the "New World" is equated
with "South America."
The Cartographical Evidence
A more contemporary account of geographical theory that More probably had
access to was the Cosmographiae introductio, first published in 1507.
It was formerly attributed to Martin Waldseemüller, who was responsible
for the World Map that accompanied the 1507 edition, the first map to bear
the name of "America" on it (Figure
7). The text is now believed to be the work of Matthias Ringmann (Laubenberger
91-113). More never mentions the Cosmographiae introductio by name.
The strongest evidence that he knew the work is that a Latin translation of
Vespucci's Quattuor navigationes was included with it as an appendix.
The Cosmographiae introductio also included Waldseemüller's gores
for a small globe (Figure
8). Since the 1507 World Map, which only survives in one copy, was not
included in later editions, we can't be certain that More ever owned it. Waldseemüller
also published other world maps later on including the 1513 Strasbourg Ptolemy
and the 1516 Carta marina, published in the same year as Utopia,
which More may have owned. The only evidence is indirect, however. More's
brother-in-law John Rastell had a strong interest in maps and globes. It has
been argued by Richard Axton, the editor of Rastell's Interlude of the
Four Elements, that Rastell used Waldseemüller's 1516 Carta marina
as the basis for his geography lesson in verse (Rastell 131). Rastell also
printed and sold maps himself and after his death 110 unsold maps of Europe
were listed in the inventory of his books and papers (Roberts 35).
One obvious feature of the Waldseemüller maps, together with most
other maps of the period is that South America when it appears on the right
side of world maps is represented as being much closer to Asia than in modern
maps. For one thing the estimated value for the circumference of the Earth
in the early 16th Century was generally about 20%-30% too small. It is instructive
to point out the range of different estimates. Eratosthenes' estimate of 252,000
stades for the size of the Earth's circumference was known through both Macrobius
and Sacrobosco (Macrobius, Somn. Scip. I:xx.21, p.172; Sacrobosco 122-123).
However, according to the Classical scholar K. J. Dover, the Greek stade was
"a somewhat subjective term . . . (rather like 'block' in America)" (Thucydides,
Commentary, 2). Most modern Classical scholars give it a ballpark value of
about 150 to 175 metres,  so that Eratosthenes'
estimate works out to between about 23,500 to 27,000 miles (Macrobius 251-252).
Ptolemy assigned only 500 stades to a degree at the Equator as opposed to
Eratosthenes' 700 (Sacrobosco 16), so that Ptolomy's estimate works out to
between about 17,000 and 19,500 miles for the Earth's circumference. This
was more or less the value that Columbus accepted. 
There were also various intermediary values. The Arab Alfraganus estimated
the Earth's circumference at about 20,400 miles (Sacrobosco 16-17). Caxton
puts it at 20,427 miles (Rastell 126). Rastell in the introduction to the
Interlude of the Four Elements gives the value as above 21,000 miles
(Rastell, FE xix, p.30). The Cosmographiae introductio (77-78)
assigns 60 miles to a degree at the Equator for a total of 21,600 miles. However,
these are Italian or Roman miles, which works out to be equivalent to about
20,000 English statute miles.
Another feature of early 16th Century maps is the exaggerated size of Asia.
On modern maps Asia extends to about 120° East of Greenwich. On Ptolemaic
maps however it extends to at least 180° East. The 1507 Waldseemüller
Map puts the Eastern tip of the Asian mainland at about 220°, and Cipangu
or Japan as far as 250° East. Some of the early 16th Century World maps,
such as the 1506 Contarini (Figure
11), the 1508 Rosselli (Figure
12), and the 1507 Ruysch, included in some copies of the the 1508 edition
of Ptolemy (Figure
13), even extend the tip of Asia to include Newfoundland, and show an
ocean instead land in the location of North America. It seems to be to a map
of this kind, probably the Ruysch Ptolemy map, that Rastell is referring to
when he describes Newfoundland as being a "Lytell paste a thousande myle"
from China (Rastell, FE 860-861, p.52). And his imaginary world traveller
seems to sail right through North America on his return voyage to England.
Vespucci also obviously thought the same way, since in his "Letter from Seville"
(1500), describing his 1499 Voyage for the King of Spain, he states that his
destination was: "the headland that Ptolemy calls the Cape of Catigara, which
connects with the Sinus Magnus. In my opinion we were not a great distance
from it" (Pohl, 77). Catigara was the furthermost eastern city in Asia marked
on Ptolemaic maps. Some of the maps, such as the 1516 Waldseemüller Carta
marina, which print South America on the left even indicate following
Columbus, that Cuba is a part of Asia. The 1516 Waldseemüller map reads,
"Terra de Cuba: Asiae partis [The Land of Cuba: A Part of Asia]." Others,
such as the 1508 Rosselli map, portray a fictional continent in the Southern
Hemisphere, labelled "Antarcticus" on the Rosselli map, looking back
at once both to the Macrobian maps of the Antipodes and forward to the later
Terra Australis Incognita of Ortelius and Mercator (Figure
In Utopia, More is extremely vague about Hythloday's Travels. At
the beginning of Book I, when Peter Giles introduces Hythloday to Morus, he
states that Hythloday, eager to see the world,
joined Amerigo Vespucci and was his constant companion in the last
three of those four voyages (Quattuor Navigationes) which are now universally
read of, but on the final voyage he did not return with him. He importuned
and even wrested from Amerigo permission to be one of the twenty-four who
at the farthest point of the voyage were left behind in the fort (Castellum)
. . . . However, when after Vespucci's departure he had traveled through many
countries . . . by strange chance he was carried to Ceylon (Taprabone),
whence he reached Calicut. There he conveniently found some Portuguese ships,
and at length arrived home again, beyond all expectation. (CW 4: 50/4-9,15-19)
In addition, at the end of Book I, Hythloday tells us that he spent "more than
five years" in Utopia (CW 4: 106/15). Also in Book I, Hythloday tells
us that he spent time travelling in Persia, where the Polylerites, the first
of the imaginary peoples described in Book I, are clearly located (CW
4: 74/17-26). All we can say for certain about the location of Utopia is that
it is somewhere between Vespucci's Castellum and Tabrabone. Castellum
is as close as More gets to making a geographical reference to South America,
since he refers to neither America nor Brazil by name. In the 16th century,
Ptolemy's Tabrabone was sometimes identified with Ceylon, and sometimes
with Java or Sumatra. Calicut, on the Malabar cost of India, was in turn at
the time when the Portuguese first arrived in India the major centre of the
Indian spice trade where Arabs traders bought Indian pepper, cinnamon from Ceylon,
and nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas, the spice islands of Indonesia. In
the Quattuor Navigationes Vespucci gives Melacca and Calicut as his ultimate
destinations, so that Hythloday can be said to have completed Vespucci's abortive
When we turn to the maps of the period, we find that they are for the most
part still based on Ptolemaic models. This is especially clear on the 1507
Waldseemüller Map which contains two inset maps above the main map: one
accompanied by the figure of Vespucci, the other that of Ptolemy. However,
by the end of the 15th Century "Ptolemiac" maps, such as the 1489 Martell
15) and the 1492 Behaim Globe (Figure
16), had already been modified to include various features which had been
unknown to Ptolemy, including sub-Saharan Africa, the coastline of China complete
with names from Marco Polo, and the islands of Cipangu (Japan), Madagascar
and the some of the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, especially Java
and Sumatra and sometimes Borneo. There are many major discrepancies between
these maps and our modern ones involving especially the positions of India,
Ceylon, Malaysia and the Indonesian islands, all of which are North of the
Equator or in the Equatorial region. The size, shape, positions and geographical
coordinates of these regions on early 16th maps are wildly inaccurate. The
Malaysian Peninsula, Ptolemy's "Golden Chersonese," which was sometimes confused
with India, is shown as extending to almost 30° South of the Equator on
the 1507 Waldseemüller Map (though Singapore is actually 1° North)
and Indonesia as extending to 40° South (in reality it only extends to
10° South) roughly the positions of modern day Australia and New Zealand.
Clearly, the early 16th Century cartographers had no reliable coordinates
for these features and used their imaginations rather freely. While the names
of these geographical features are real, just about everything else about
them is fictional. In particular, depending on the maps consulted, there are
many islands in the Indo-Pacific Region, the "Pacific Rim," that could have
provided models for Utopia.
And there is in fact one further clue in the parerga to Utopia
that suggests this very possibility. It occurs in Peter Giles' "Letter to
Jerome Busleiden": "As for the difficulty that the name of this island is
to be found nowhere in the cosmographers, that was well explained by Hythlodaeus
himself. It was possible, he said, either that the name used by the ancients
had afterward been changed or that this island had even escaped their notice,
just as nowadays we find very many lands cropping up which were unknown to
the ancient geographers" (CW 4: 24/4-8). If we consider the possibility
of a name change and consult the Cosmographiae introductio, we will
find a list of islands whose names have changed or which were unknown in ancient
The sea, as we have said before, is full of islands, of which the
largest and the most important, according to Ptolemy, are the following: Taprabone
(modern Ceylon), in the Indian Ocean under the Equator; Albion, also called
Britain and England . . .Cyprus. Unknown to Ptolemy: Madagascar, in the Prasodes
Sea; Zanzibar; Java, in the East Indian Ocean; Angama; Peuta, in the Indian
Ocean; Seula; and Zipangri (Japan), in the Western Ocean. (Cosmographiae
Among the islands known to Ptolemy but whose names had changed were "Taprabone,"
usually identified with Ceylon in the 16th Century, and "Albion" or Great Britain.
Among those "unknown to the ancient geographers" were Madagascar, Java, Sumatra
and Japan. While it would be naive to identify Utopia with any one of these
geographical features, it is important to note there are plenty of islands in
the Indo-Pacific Region that could have served as prototypes for Utopia.
Ceylon and Java are two of the best candidates. I have already dealt with
the case of Ceylon elsewhere.  I will conclude
by considering the case of Java here. On modern-day maps Java, of course,
is located just south of the Equator, but on certain 16th Century maps, including
both the Waldseemüller 1507 and 1516 Carta marina world maps,
Java is located almost 40° South of the Equator. In addition, the Cosmographiae
introductio clearly locates Java in the same region:
In the sixth climate toward the antarctic [40° to 48°
South?] there are situated the farthest part of Africa recently discovered,
the islands Zanzibar, the lesser Java, and Seula (Sumatra?), and the fourth
part of the earth, which, because Amerigo discovered it, we may call Amerige,
the land of Amerigo, so to speak, or America. It was of these southern climates
that these words of Pomponius Mela, the geographer, must be understood, when
he says: "The habitable zones have the same seasons, but at different times
of the year. The Antichthones inhabit the one, and we the other. The situation
of the former zone being unknown to us on account of the heat of the intervening
zone, I can speak only of the situation of the latter."
(Cosmographiae introductio 62-63)
Pomponius Mela was another Classical Geographer who postulated the existence
of southern continents (See Figure
17), -- the Antichthones being similar to Cicero's and Macrobius' Antipodes.
Java is here clearly linked with South America, which is in turn portrayed strikingly
in Antipodean terms. If we then turn from the Cosmographiae introductio
(and the 1507 Waldseemüller World Map) to Waldseemüller's 1516 Carta
marina (See Figure
10), which is made up of 12 plates (the total map being about 4 by 8 feet),
it will be found that the 12th plate, which is in the bottom right hand corner
of the composite map in Figure 10, consists of a map of Java minor and a large
table listing all the spices sold in Calicut and their prices -- providing at
least a symbolic link between Java and the final destination of Hythloday's
Appendix: More and Macrobius
The following direct and indirect evidence can be presented in favour of
More's knowledge of Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, at
the time of writing Utopia. Firstly, More's friend Erasmus was certainly
familiar with Macrobius, and mentions him in a number of early letters in
1497-1500. Secondly, according to R. Monsuez
(1967, 54-55), there are a number of rare late classical words in Utopia,
that occur only in Macrobius and a handful of other late authors.
Thirdly, More was very probably familiar with Macrobius' Saturnalia,
to which the Yale editors have found a couple of allusions in More's Collected
Works. Fourthly, there are some striking parallels,
overlooked by the Yale Editors, between the cosmological world view of Macrobius'
Commentary and one of More's early Latin epigrams. This remarkable
Latin epigram, composed in 1509 to celebrate Henry VIII's Coronation and included
in a presentation manuscript given to the king,
almost certainly contains an echo of Macrobius:
Cuncta Plato cecinit tempus quae proferat ullum
Saepe fuisse olim, aliquando
Ver fugit ut celeri, celerique reuertitur anno,
Bruma pari ut spacio quae fuit
Sic, inquit, rapidi post longa uolumina coeli
Cuncta per innumera sunt reditura
Aurea prima sata est aetas, argentea post hanc.
Aerea post illam, ferrea nuper
Aurea te, princeps, redierunt principe secla.
O possit uates hactenus esse
Plato predicted that all things that any period may produce
Often existed in the past, and would again at some future time.
"As spring flees away, and returns with the year's swift turning,
As midwinter comes back in a constant space as it was before,
So," he said, "after long revolutions of the whirling heavens
All things through innumerable alternations will recur again."
The Golden Age was brought forth first, after that the Silver;
Next came the Bronze, and recently there was the Age of Iron.
The Golden Age, O Prince, has returned with you as our sovereign.
May Plato as far as this is concerned be proved a true prophet.
In Bradner and Lynch's 1953 Edition (Thomas More, Latin Epigrams #3,
p.23), there is a note to the English translation as follows: "It is hardly
possible that Plato ever made such a statement. More's thought here is a compound
made in ancient times of three parts: (1) the poetical four ages of man; (2)
the astronomical concept of the perfect or great, or cyclic, or cosmic (in later
times 'golden') year (Plato Timaeus 39D); and (3) the Pythagorean and
Stoic doctrine of Palingenesia" (Ibid p.144). In the Yale Edition (CW
3/2: #21, pp.112-115), which is essentially a revision of Bradner and Lynch
combined with a massive commentary, Clarence Miller, whose commentary sounds
rather strained here, points to parallels with the Stoic philosophers (being
attributed to Plato with a certain poetic licence) and with Vergil's Fourth
Eclogue, and suggests Ficino's Commentary on Book VIII of Plato's Republic
and Servius' Commentary on Vergil's Eclogues as possible sources (CW
However, all the key elements of More's epigram, mentioned in Bradner and
Lynch's note, can be found strikingly combined in Book II of Macrobius' Commentary
on the Dream of Scipio. The poetical four ages of man, found in many sources,
including Vergil's Fourth Eclogue and in Ovid's Metamorphoses,
Book I (line 8 of More's epigram is a quote from Met. I.89), are dealt
with in Macrobius, Somn. Scip. II.x.6,15 (pp.217,219). The Stoic/Pythagorean
doctine of palingenesia is the subject of Macrobius, Somn. Scip.
II.x.7-16 (pp.217-219), while the concept of the "great year" or world-year,
first mentioned in Plato's Timaeus (39D), is the theme of Macrobius,
Somn. Scip. II.xi.1-16 (pp.220-222). These two chapters follow immediately
upon Macrobius' discussion of classical geographical theory (Somn. Scip.
II.iv-ix, pp.200-216), and the parallels adduced here provide almost conclusive
evidence that More had read Macrobius' Commentary (or at least Book
II) by 1509, well before he started composing Utopia.
In this regard it is perhaps significant to point out that the last Platonic
reference that occurs in More's Collected Works (CW 12: 207/26-208/2)
is to the doctrine of the World Soul in the Timaeus (34A-37C),
which occurs in the section of the Timaeus immediately preceding the
treatment of the concept of the "great year". It seems likely that the Timaeus
was also the first Platonic work that More ever read. He could have read it
as early as his Oxford days (c1492-1494), even before he started studying
Greek, in the partial Latin translation and
commentary of Macrobius' contemporary Chalcidius, who together with Macrobius
and Martianus Capella, provided "the sources from which such knowledge of
Greek science as they had was derived by medieval students in the West" (Macrobius
Although More often quoted from memory and was sometimes careless, that
can hardly be the case in this epigram. While the young Henry VIII was probably
educated enough to know who "Macrobius" was, the name hardly had the same
cachet as that of Plato's. More is almost certainly employing poetic licence
in using the name of "Plato" loosely to stand for the whole Platonic and neo-Platonic
tradition down to and including Macrobius.
1. An earlier version of this paper
was given at the Renaissance Society of America Meeting in Los Angeles,
on 26th March 1999. All the significant published articles on Utopian Geography
prior to 1993 are listed in my online Utopia
Bibliography in EMLS 1.2 (Aug. 1995). All the maps referred
to in this article are to be found on the Cartographic
Images Home Page, courtesy of Jim Seibold, who compiled them, and of
the Henry-Davis Consulting Company <http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/>.
2. For Rastell's Interlude of
the Four Elements, see my "Geography and the More Circle: John Rastell,
Thomas More and the 'New World,'" forthcoming in Renaissance
3. More cites Hartmann von Schedel's
Cronicarum twice in his Collected Works: CW 7: 255/25 (n. on
p. 390); and CW 10: 114/21 (n. on p.283). See also R. J. Schoeck,
"The Chronica Cronicarum" (371), and "The Price of 'A Goodly Auncyent
Prynted Boke'" (84-86).
4. In the Confutation of Tyndale's
Answer (1533), More tells a merry tale, often intepreted autobiographically,
about a certain husband who tried to give his wife a lesson in physical
geography based on the "treatise of the spere" (CW 8: 604/18, gloss
to 604/19, and n. on pp.1618-1619), involving a "thought experiment" in
which a millstone is dropped through the centre of the Earth. The Yale
editors suggest that either Sacrobosco or Proclus' Sphaera is meant
here, though the actual source seems to be Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum
Naturale Book VI.vi-vii, going back ultimately to Aristotle's De
Caelo (308a-311a). Since The Commentary of Robertus Anglicus
(Sacrobosco 210), also mentioned a demonstration of the force of gravity
using a millstone, it is likely that More, who often seems to have quoted
from memory, conflated the two texts.
5. For a possible echo of this passage,
see More's Confutation of Tyndale's Answer: "For so he [Tyndale]
may translate the world into a football if he join therewith certain circumstances,
and say this round rolling football that men walk upon and ships sail upon,
in the people whereof there is no rest nor stability, and so forth a great
long tale . . ." (CW 8 166/1-5).
6. I am indebted to Professor Phillip
Harding of the Classics Department, UBC, for this figure. Dover (ibid.)
gives an even wider range of "130 to 170 metres" for the length of the
stade in Thucydides.
7. In fact, in Columbus' account
of his "Fourth Voyage", he accepts the figure of 56 and 2/3 miles derived
from Marinus of Tyre for the length of a degree at the Equator (Columbus
220, 288-289), the same figure accepted by Alfraganus (Sacrobosco 16),
for a total circumference of 20,400 Italian or Roman miles, or approximately
19,000 English statute miles.
8. The case for India and Ceylon
as models for Utopia has been argued in my "Geography and the More
Circle" (see note 2).
9. See Pomponius Mela 1.1.4,
10. In Erasmi Epistolae #61
(CWE 1: 128/146-150), #121 (248/4-9) and #126 (260/119, 265/252-253).
11. They are: Interstitium (CW
4: 110/18), found in Macrobius (Somn. Scip. 1.6) and Martianus Capella
(6.600 and 601; 8.837); Famulitium (CW 4: 130/4, 156/29), found
in Apulius and Macrobius (Sat. 1.7); Putredo (CW 4: 138/19),
found in Apulius (Met. 9.13) and Macrobius (Sat. 1.17); and the
verb Astruo (CW 4: 220/4), found in Macrobius (Sat. 1.18.7)
and Capella (2.113). According to the Perseus
Project (<www.perseus.tufts.edu>) Interstitium and Astruo
are also found in Servius' Commentaries on Vergil.
12. In the Four Last Things
(1522) and the Historia Richardi Tertii (probably before 1518):
1: 159/12-17 (n. on p.267); and CW 15: 458/23-24 (n. on p.628).
13. It was also published in the
first editions of More's Epigrammata (Basle, 1518 and 1520). In
the manuscript the title reads: "de aureo seclo per eum redeunte epigramma
[An Epigram on the Return of the Golden Age]". The translation of the epigram
given here is my own.
14. In the Dialogue of Comfort
(1534), written while More was in the Tower of London (CW 12: 207/26-208/2,
n. on pp. 414-415). The Yale editors point out that: "Despite the reference
to Plato, More uses the idea in a popular sense." However, this fits in
perfectly with the tone of More's dialogue and in all likelihood More didn't
have a copy of Plato with him in the Tower to check.
15. More started studying Greek
some time in the 1490's. By the time Erasmus came to England in 1499 for
the first time, More seems to have been already proficient in the language,
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to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.