Sites of mediation

Perception and representation of the sea around 1600

Dissertation project by Franziska Hilfiker, lic. phil.

Sub-project in Research Module 3
Site of Intellection – The Sea. Experience, perception and representation around 1600
Adviser: Dr. Susanna Burghartz



Inspired by spatial theories and the current interest in the sea in the social and cultural sciences, which have coined the term oceanic turn and treat the sea as a dynamic connective space and hybrid contact zone on the one hand, and as a space of imagination and knowledge on the other, the dissertation explores the perception and representation of various maritime spaces in the context of the expansive movements and colonial rivalries of the period 1570–1630.

The focus will be on English and Dutch travel accounts and log books; this source material will be supplemented by additional documents from the nautical world, such as hydrographic texts, expedition instructions, engravings and maps. The thesis will inquire into the way in which travellers processed what they experienced at sea in various media. Particular attention will be devoted to the interplay between practical experience and empirical accounts of the sea and the projected and imaginary construction of maritime spaces. Collections of travelogues as well as cartographic and nautical documents represent and reflect upon the process of European overseas expansion in words and images.

A central finding of the project is that ‘the sea’ should not be understood and analysed as a generalised, one-dimensional ocean surface, but rather as a mosaic-like space of diverse sea spots with varying qualities. Sea spots, which attained a special presence and importance in the context of European expansion and colonial competition, in the process of being intensively sought out, navigated and experienced, were recorded and treated in various media and in this way became maritime semantic spaces.

The dissertation project is situated at the intersection of internationally debated and extraordinarily dynamic research fields, and takes up new discussions on the sea as a space of representation, a space that oscillates between experience and imagination, and makes an innovative contribution, especially for German-language scholarship, to a ‘history of the seas’ as well as to the history of perception and knowledge.