Authors: Susan Wise Bauer
Tags: #History, #Renaissance
His chances were better there than anywhere else in Europe. The southern half of the peninsula had been in Arab hands for centuries, and the ruling dynasties of Muslim Spain had brought with them thousands of classical texts, translated into Arabic but long lost to the vernacular languages of the West. The libraries of the city of Toledo, in the center of the peninsula, housed scores of these valuable volumes—and Toledo had now been recaptured by one of the Christian kingdoms of the north, meaning that Western scholars could visit it in relative safety.
Gerard found more than he bargained for: not just astronomy texts but classical and Arabic studies of dialectic, geometry, philosophy, and medicine; unknown monographs by Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, and Aristotle; a whole treasury of knowledge. Overwhelmed, he settled into Toledo and set to work learning Arabic. “Regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things,” one of his students wrote, “he learned the Arabic language in order to be able to translate. . . . To the end of his life he continued to transmit to the Latin world (as if to his own beloved heir) whatever books he thought finest, in many subjects, as accurately and as plainly as he could.”
Renaissance had begun.
HIS IS NOT
a history of “the Renaissance.” Rather, it is a history of the
during the period that historians have often (although not universally) associated with a rebirth of interest in classical learning. As Gerard’s story shows, this rebirth began much earlier than the fourteenth century.
One of the first Italians to give a name to the reawakened interest in Greek and Roman learning was the poet Petrarch, who announced early in the 1340s that poets and scholars were ready to lead the cities of Italy back to the glory days of Rome. Classical learning had declined, Petrarch insisted, into darkness and obscurity. Now was the time for that learning to be rediscovered: a rebirth, a
Petrarch was lobbying, in a polite and academic but very pointed way, for the distinction of official Roman Poet Laureate—in that day, something perhaps equivalent to the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award, a public recognition that he was an intellectual whose words should be heeded. As part of his campaign, he was placing himself at the head of an already-existing phenomenon. Since before Gerard of Cremona, Western scholars, many of them Italian, had been working through Arabic libraries, reacquainting themselves with Greek and Roman thinkers. So much of this intellectual groundwork had been laid already that many modern historians now speak of a “Twelfth-Century Renaissance.”
By 1340, in other words, renaissance was so far advanced that it had become visible. Historical eras are never recognizable when they begin; they can only be seen in hindsight. The Renaissance, as the following chapters will show, was rooted in the twelfth century. The twelfth century saw the real beginnings of the struggle between Church hierarchy and Aristotelian logic, a struggle which—reincarnated as a fight between scripture and science, creation and evolution—is still ongoing in the United States in 2013. The twelfth century saw the death of the Crusades, the rise of the Plantagenets, the dominance of the Japanese shoguns,
the journey of Islam into central Africa.
It was a century of renaissances, and that is where my story begins.
HE LAST CHAPTER
of this history tells the story of the Ottoman attack on Constantinople in May of 1453, when the triumph of the Turks brought a final end to the Roman dream.
The cultural phenomenon known as the Italian Renaissance continued well after 1453; I do not go on, in this book, to chronicle some of its better-known accomplishments (the political philosophies of Machiavelli, the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael, the inventions of da Vinci, the observations of Galileo). But in worldwide terms, by the time Constantinople fell, the Renaissance had begun to shade into new eras.
Like the Renaissance itself, those eras were not named by historians until much later. But the ground of the Reformation was seeded and had begun to sprout; the followers of the English scholar John Wycliffe and the Bohemian priest Jan Hus were already organizing against the authority of Rome. And the Age of Exploration was well under way. Twenty years earlier, the Portuguese captain Gil Eannes had finally pushed south past Cape Bojador. A decade after Eannes’s boundary-breaking journey, Prince Henry of Portugal sponsored the first slave market in Europe: a closely orchestrated, carefully publicized event meant to whip up widespread enthusiasm for further explorations into Africa.
The Turkish overthrow of the Byzantine Empire was a world-changer. As the historian Caroline Finkel points out, even the Turks were unsettled by Constantinople’s fall; the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey, the only Turk to describe the final battle, calls it a “veritable precipitation and downpouring of calamities from the heavens, as decreed by God Himself.” The transformation of Constantinople into Istanbul is an end and a beginning, an exclamation point and new paragraph in the punctuation of world events.
But the transition away from Renaissance and towards the next phase of human history is, perhaps, even more apparent in the events of the year before. The Italian pope Nicholas V had just issued a papal bull called
In recognition of the expense and effort that the Portuguese had put into exploring the African coast, the Church gave official approval to the enslavement and sale of Africans by the Portuguese crown—a sanction confirmed again three years later in the charter
Wooing the allegiance and support of the powerful king of Portugal, the pope had transformed slavery into an institution that all Europeans could profit from without guilt. Historians do not normally speak of the Age of Enslavement, but in hindsight we can see that the decrees of the 1450s shaped the futures of three continents and began a whole new story.
Between 1100 and 1122,
the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of England both defy the pope,
and an archbishop makes use of Aristotle
had just ended—and with it, an age.
Eight hundred years after the Roman emperor Constantine led his army against his own people under the sign of the cross, Christian warriors crossed the Bosphorus Strait as a unified army of faith, roused by the supreme leader of the one Christian church to fight against Turks advancing from the east. No sooner had the Crusade succeeded than the victorious Christian knights sacrificed their allegiance to the one true faith and claimed another membership. They were, first and foremost, not sons of the church but sovereigns of their own private kingdoms.
Among the many meanings of what it meant to be
, one would govern the next four and a half centuries: to be a man of God meant
of the First Crusade spread out from Syria, in a widening circle that lapped both east and west.
In England, the wrong king inherited the throne. William II, king of the realm since 1087, was out hunting when his companion—an experienced hunter named Walter Tyrrell—drew his bow at a stag and instead hit the king. William collapsed onto the arrow and died on the spot. Rather than sticking around and explaining what had happened, Walter (according to the English historian William of Malmesbury) “leapt hastily on his horse, and with good help from his spurs got clean away. Nor indeed was there any pursuit.” Instead, the rest of the hunting party, which included William II’s younger brother Henry, went back to London and crowned Henry king of England. The date was August 5, 1100.
In fact, Henry wasn’t William’s heir. The English throne should have gone to Henry’s older brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, but he was still on his way back from the First Crusade. Before he could claim his crown, Henry invaded Normandy.
The two brothers met in battle near the Norman village Tinchebray; the Duke of Normandy’s army was defeated, and Robert was captured and imprisoned for the rest of his very long life. He died in his eighties, still under guard. As for Henry I, he took the title of Normandy for himself, becoming (like his father the Conqueror) both king of England and Duke of Normandy.
His reign, which had begun through force and usurpation, now took a turn towards law. As one of his very first acts, he issued a new declaration: the Charter of Liberties. The first article promised that the “holy church of God” would remain free from royal control, its lands from royal confiscation. But the remaining thirteen articles were all directed towards his people—particularly towards the barons of England.
The barons: the newborn aristocracy of England. William the Conqueror had rewarded his Norman knights by dividing the newly conquered land up into parcels and handing it out. The Anglo-Saxon nobles—the
, or “thanes”—had once been second only to the royal family in power and influence. The wars of the Conquest had already thinned their ranks. Now, those who had survived found themselves deprived of their lands, left with only tiny private holdings of their own.
Unlike the thanes, the Norman barons did not consider themselves landowners, only land
. William the Conqueror brought into England a new kind of kingship. As monarch, he claimed to own the entire kingdom: all English land, all Norman land, was the possession of the king. The barons were his “tenants in chief,” and in return for their new estates, they owed the king a certain number of armed men for his use: the
This system was rooted in tenth-century Francia, where chaos and lawlessness had led the poor to serve their wealthier neighbors in exchange for protection. It became known as feudalism: an order in which service and payments (both money and crops) were exchanged for the right to live on, farm, hold a particular piece of land. In England, the feudal lords and their holdings were set down, by William the Conqueror’s scribes, in a vast two-volume record known as the
: a ridiculously ambitious attempt to record the condition and ownership of every piece of English land. Among the names of the feudal lords, barely one percent are Anglo-Saxon. The rest had come to England in William’s service.
These barons now owed the
to Henry. But they remained fiercely protective of their own aristocratic privileges, and the Charter of Liberties assured them that the new king would not extort additional payments from them, or prevent them from disposing of their own possessions as they wished.
It was an odd thing for a Norman-born king to limit his own powers—a recognition that twelfth-century England was at the beginning of a new era. But the Charter of Liberties was in reality a canny strengthening of Henry’s hold on the throne. “Know that by the mercy of God,” it began, “and by the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England, I have been crowned king.” Henry was a usurper, crowned only with the support of the barons, and the Charter was designed to guard his power by keeping them on his side.
In fact, Henry intended to exercise as much authority as his people would allow. And, as soon became clear, more authority than the pope was inclined to grant him.
Like his predecessors, Pope Paschal II insisted on the papal right of
—the power to appoint bishops throughout Christendom. Investiture was no small matter. The bishop of a city had authority over all of its ecclesiastical resources—land, money, and men. He had as much power as any secular count or nobleman to build, collect revenue, hire private soldiers, and generally empire-build within the monarch’s own land. But unlike a count or nobleman, a bishop could not marry and pass his estate to his son; each bishop’s death presented another opportunity for either pope or king to jockey into place a loyalist who would put those massive (and ever-growing) resources at the disposal of his master. Henry, claiming his rights as God-ordained, God-appointed, God-approved monarch of England, refused to give up this privilege.