Thevet. Cosmographie

André Thevet. Cosmographie de Levant.

André Thevet (1516?-1592)


(Click on the call number to view the digital facsimile of the book.)

Gordon 1554 .T54

Cosmographie de Levant, par F. André Thevet d'Angoulesme

Lyon : Ian de Tournes et Guil. Gazeau, 1554.

Thevet. Singularitez

André Thevet. Singularitez de la France Antarctique

Gordon 1558 .T54

Singularitez de la France Antarctique, autrement nommee Amerique, & de plusieurs terres & isles decouvertes de nostre temps: par F. Andr Thevet, natif d'Angoulesme.

Anvers : Christophle Plantin, 1558.

André Thevet traveled extensively and wrote prolifically. Few sixteenth-century writers covered more territory or wrote more ambitiously. While serious doubt exists as to whether some of the writing published under his name was really his, Thevet remains an important figure in early geographical writing.

Born in Angoulême around 1516, Thevet’s early education was apparently limited; we know little of his early life. Thevet became a Franciscan friar, and his first excursion into the world occurred in about 1550, when he accompanied the Cardinal Jean de Lorraine on travels into Italy and the Mediterranean basin. Shortly thereafter, Thevet published his Cosmographie de Levant (Gordon 1554 .T54), a compendium of facts about the people, places, flora and fauna of the area. The section on the Nile, for example, includes a woodcut depiction of a crocodile (p. 138), something contemporary readers would most likely never have seen. The intriguing illustrations have been attributed to Bernard Salomon.

Thevet. Singularitez, p.83 verso

André Thevet. Singularitez de la France Antarctique, p.83 verso

Women crying for joy in a traditional ritual to welcome a visitor. (leaf 83v)

Gordon 1558 .T54

Thevet's experience as a traveler attracted the attention of Nicolas Durand, Chevalier de Villegagnon, who was preparing to found a colony in what is today Brazil. He asked Thevet to accompany the expedition as its confessor. Thevet fell ill during the voyage and had to return to France after only ten weeks in Brazil. Using his own observations, however, combined with information gained from other travelers, Thevet quickly produced his Singularitez de la France Antarctique (Gordon 1558 .T54). The first edition was published in Paris in 1557.

Thevet’s Singularitez combine extensive description of the New World with scholarly comparisons with authors of classical antiquity. Questions arose about the authorship. Shortly after its publication, a scribe sued Thevet, saying that he—not Thevet—was actually responsible for the writing, particularly the erudite references. The settlement of the suit indicates that it had some basis.

After the publication of the Singularitez, Thevet received royal recognition and eventually became cosmographer of the Valois court. He began his most ambitious work, the Cosmographie universelle, which described and defined every part of the known world. Once again, an angry collaborator caused problems for Thevet. François de Belleforest, who wrote in praise of Thevet in the Singularitez, apparently quarreled with Thevet and left his employ, publishing his own Cosmographie, a translation of Sebastian Munster's Cosmographia, in 1572.


Thevet. Singularitez, p.75 verso

André Thevet. Singularitez de la France Antarctique, p.75 verso

New World Cannibalism: "Comme ces barbar es font mourir leurs ennemis qu'ils ont pris en guerre, et les mangent." (Ch.XL)

Gordon 1558 .T54

Thevet claimed that much of Belleforest's new material was stolen. Certainly Belleforest stole Thevet's thunder, and the 1575 publication of Thevet's 2,000-page Cosmographie was not very successful. However, the work's anti-Protestant polemic did attract the attention of Huguenot Jean de Léry, who had traveled to Brazil after Thevet. In 1578, Léry published his version of events in Brazil, the Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil. His work criticized Thevet on numerous occasions. Both Léry and Thevet included a chapter on new world cannibals that undoubtedly influenced Montaigne’s well-known essay on cannibalism the first book of his Essais.

Thevet's last published work, his Vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres, appeared in 1584. The collection of biographies of famous men (and three women) accompanied by portraits, played on the interest in biography evidenced by Jacques Amyot's translation of Plutarch's Lives. The work also signaled Thevet's continued interest in the religious conflicts of France, strongly supporting the Guise family's position and criticizing Protestants, notably Léry. The book failed commercially, perhaps because of Thevet's diminished reputation.

Thevet continued to write of travels real and imagined. He left behind two manuscripts at his death in 1592, the Grand Insulaire, an almanac of islands around the world, and the Histoire de deux voyages, a probably exaggerated account of his travels that had him visiting the New World not once but twice.

While today Thevet is seen largely as a compiler and editor of experiences that belonged to others, his work on Brazil remains useful to those studying the first French encounters with the New World. His other works, with their extensive descriptions and lavish illustrations, give a broad picture of the historical and geographical knowledge of the sixteenth century.

Further Reading

Jeanneret, Michel. "Léry et Thevet: comment parler d'un monde nouveau?" Mélanges à la mémoire de Franco Simone IV: Tradition et originalité dans la création littéraire. Geneva: Slatkine, 1984. 227-45.

Lestringant, Frank. André Thevet, Cosmographe des derniers Valois. Geneva: Droz, 1991.

---. L'Atelier du cosmographe. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991.

Schlesinger, Roger and Arthur P. Stabler. André Thevet's North America: A Sixteenth Century View. Kingstone, Ont.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986.

Whatley, Janet. "Savage Hierarchies: French Catholic Observers of the New World." Sixteenth Century Journal. 17 (1986): 319-30.

Materials on this page were generously contributed by Elsa Conrad.