René Descartes considered that ‘travelling is almost the same as conversing with people from other centuries’. This quote underlines the extent to which an enterprise of discovery of new lands is a historical endeavour as much as it is a geographical one. Indeed, to discover a place which is distant in space seldom fails to amount for explorers to searching for a place that is also distant in time. This causes them to expect an encounter with a more ‘primitive’ culture by the standards of their own, or allot (more or less consciously) a new location to myths and legends of otherness pertaining to their own culture. Compared with and brought back to a better-known cultural reference, alterity can thereby be explained, classified and ultimately appropriated by travellers who view it, not with innocent eyes, but with selective ones, looking out for a confirmation of the beliefs and expectations with which they had set out on their journey. Likewise, armchair travellers reading their accounts back home often nurse the same double expectation vis-à-vis the narratives which they ‘explore’, insofar as they look both for the pleasure of novelty and a place for such novelty in their own framework of cultural assumptions.
In this chapter, we intend to focus on names and naming as a locus for this encounter between selfhood and difference in early modern narratives of exploration. After a general introduction on the moral background of medieval taxonomy and its incidences on early discoveries, we will concentrate on the case studies of one narrative of American exploration, followed by one of African exploration.
To the extent that culture can be defined as ‘an organized system of differences’, taxonomy and naming play a decisive role in any experience of apprehending otherness. The Adamic assumption that the name is the key to the nature of things and beings presides over much of the pseudo-geographic and pre-ethnographic writings of the Middle Ages, of which Isidore of Seville's Etymologies is a good example.