This article explores both the actual (or physical) and figurative vulnerabilities expressed and enacted by three early modern Iberian travellers: one Jewish (Benjamin of Tudela, twelfth century, died in 1173), one Christian (Pero Tafur, 1410– 1484), and one Muslim (al-Hassan al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus, 1486/ 88– 1554?) who engaged in long voyages throughout Europe, Asia and the Maghreb and wrote in detail about their experiences. In these three writers, vulnerability is inextricably connected not only to their travels but also to their geographical origins and their particular historical circumstances.
Keywords: Benjamin of Tudela, Sefer ha-Massa’ot, Pero Tafur, vulnerability, Iberian travelers, Leo Africanus, Geography of Africa, Ahmad al-Wazzan
ON THE MARGINS of what doubly constitutes the fourteenth century known world and its physical or pictorial rendering, the magnificent Cresques or Catalan Atlas, the attentive viewer can set eyes on a fragile vessel displaying an Aragonese flag, whose sail is strongly swollen by a favourable wind. One of its four occupants is Jaucme Ferrer or Ferrar, a sailor-merchant very actively involved in trade during the period who is now, presumably, in search of gold. The rubric displayed right below the illumination describes it thus: “The ship of Jaume Ferrer departed for the River of Gold on the 10th of August of 1350, feast of St. Lawrence.”
Poised precariously at the edge of our field of vision, right above the line where the parchment and, thus, the world ends this miniature manages to manifestly allude to Jaucme Ferrer's mysterious vanishing from the historical record since neither the intrepid traveller nor his “coca” (merchant trading vessel) came back from the trip. The illumination serves to tellingly illustrate the dangers and vicissitudes of travelling and exploring in the early modern period.
The Mediterranean was a world in constant motion during that era and the motif of travel was ubiquitous in the medieval and early modern imaginary but travel was also a very unpredictable and dangerous endeavour, which could render the traveller vulnerable to violence, abuse, warfare and misfortune, among other perils.