Music-making, Hakluyt and Early Modern Travel Knowledge

Presenting a different perspective on early-modern knowledge of travel and trade, Dr Katie Bank highlights how descriptions of exploration, new lands, and luxury goods could be mediated to audiences through music and song. Her work sheds fascinating new light on the transfer of knowledge about far away lands, exotic explorations, and the use of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations as a source for musical content.


Thomas Weelkes’s (1576-1623) anonymously-authored bipartite madrigal for six voices, “Thule, the period of cosmographie” (1600), paints a scene of strange spectacle complete with merchants from far off places, ‘flying fishes’, treasures and goods from abroad, foreign islands, exotic volcanoes and other wonders of exploration of the known world

Thule, the period of Cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen Clime, and thaw the Skie;
Trinacrian Ætna’s flames ascend not higher:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose hart with feare doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian Merchant, that returnes
Laden with cutchinele and China dishes,
Reports in Spaine how strangely Fogo burnes
Amidst an Ocean full of flying fishes:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose hart with feare doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Thomas Weelkes, Madrigals of 5. And 6. Parts apt for viols and voices
(London, 1600), sig. D2r.
thule CANTUS
Fig.1 Weelkes’s “Thule, the period of cosmographie” (1600), Cantus

Music and music making were a daily part of life for early modern English people. One can imagine that in the household of Weelkes’s patron, Sir George Brooke (1586-1603), recreational music would have been played and sung alongside political chat, literary discussion, games, exchange about current events, wine drinking, and general banter. Brooke’s close social and familial circles included important courtly figures, like politician Robert Cecil (1563-1612) and Walter Raleigh (c.1562-1618), who may have been included in these types of evening entertainments.

I believe that the inspiration for Weelkes’s song text is Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, as every image described in the text is accounted for in Hakluyt’s edition. Hecla and Ætna are mentioned dozens of times individually within Hakluyt’s greater work, but this passage makes a direct comparison between the two volcanoes: “[t]here is Hecla a mountaine in Island, which burneth like unto Ætna at certain seasons” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 1598-1600, sig.Aaa6v). The equivalent section in Latin states that Ætna is in Sicily. Hecla is described as having a “frozen top, and the firie bottome” and the author remarks that it is “no marvelle that fire lurking so deep in the roots of a mountaine, and never breaking forth except it be very seldome, should not be able continually to melt the snow covering the toppe of the sayd mountayne” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, sig.Aaa3r). Another writer mentioned Hecla and described Icelanders as inhabiting “frozen clime” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, sig.Ccc3v).

Naturally, Hakluyt’s collection mentions “Andaluzia” many times as a busy port and discusses the activities of Spanish merchants thoroughly. Another of Hakluyt’s accounts describes the capture of a foreign ship that had recently returned from the New World: “[t]his ship was of some three or foure hundred tunnes, and had in her … sixe chests of Cochinell, every chest houlding one hundred pound weight, and every pound worth sixe and twentie shillings and eight pence, and certaine chests of Sugar and China dishes, with some plate and silver” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, sig.Ooo4v).

Similarly, in an account of volcano ‘Fogo, so called, because it casteth continually flames of fire and smoake out of the top thereof, all the whole island being one high mountaine’, the writer also describes nearby sea life on the same page:

Here we saw flying fishes in great abundance, some a foote long, some lesse. Their fynnes wherewith they flye be as long as their bodies. They be greatly pursued by the Dolphine and Bonitoes, whom as soone as the flying fishes espie, immediatly they mount out of the sea in great numbers, and fly as long as their fynnes continue moyst: and when they bee dry, they fall downe into the sea againe.

Hakluyt, Principal Navigations (1599-1600), sig.Rrr2v.

In both Fogo/flying fish and with cochineal/China dishes, it is the proximity of the images on the page that make Hakluyt a convincing possible source for the poem’s imagery.

In his dedication to Robert Cecil, Hakluyt wrote that the “sweet studie of the historie of Cosmographie,” was the current limit of the mappable universe. Yet as Seneca predicted, one day the known world would expand, and the “yle of Thule would no more be the uttermost limite of the earth” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, sig.A2r-A3v). In a sense, this madrigal’s text and setting fulfils Seneca’s prediction by redirecting wondrous exploration of the external world towards the mysterious frontier of selfhood with the repeated couplet at the end of each stanza. By exploring the reaches of the earth, we are forced to explore ourselves and our place in it.


Dr. Katie Bank is a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar at the Newberry Library and early career researcher in musicology.