XLIX The Intellectual Revival of the Europeans

Throughout the twelfth century there were many signs that the European intelligence was recovering courage and leisure, and preparing to take up again the intellectual enterprises of the first Greek scientific enquiries and such speculations as those of the Italian Lucretius. The causes of this revival were many and complex. The suppression of private war, the higher standards of comfort and security that followed the crusades, and the stimulation of men’s minds by the experiences of these expeditions were no doubt necessary preliminary conditions. Trade was reviving; cities were recovering ease and safety; the standard of education was arising in the church and spreading among laymen. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a period of growing, independent or quasi-independent cities; Venice, Florence, Genoa, Lisbon, Paris, Bruges, London, Antwerp, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Novgorod, Wisby and Bergen for example. They were all trading cities with many travellers, and where men trade and travel they talk and think. The polemics of the Popes and princes, the conspicuous savagery and wickedness of the persecution of heretics, were exciting men to doubt the authority of the church and question and discuss fundamental things.

We have seen how the Arabs were the means of restoring Aristotle to Europe, and how such a prince as Frederick II acted as a channel through which Arabic philosophy and science played upon the renascent European mind. Still more influential in the stirring up of men’s ideas were the Jews. Their very existence was a note of interrogation to the claims of the church. And finally the secret, fascinating enquiries of the alchemists were spreading far and wide and setting men to the petty, furtive and yet fruitful resumption of experimental science. And the stir in men’s minds was by no means confined now to the independent and well educated. The mind of the common man was awake in the world as it had never been before in all the experience of mankind. In spite of priest and persecution, Christianity does seem to have carried a mental ferment wherever its teaching reached. It established a direct relation between the conscience of the individual man and the God of Righteousness, so that now if need arose he had the courage to form his own judgment upon prince or prelate or creed.

As early as the eleventh century philosophical discussion had begun again in Europe, and there were great and growing universities at Paris, Oxford, Bologna and other centres. There medieval “schoolmen” took up again and thrashed out a series of questions upon the value and meaning of words that were a necessary preliminary to clear thinking in the scientific age that was to follow. And standing by himself because of his distinctive genius was Roger Bacon (circa 1210 to circa 1293), a Franciscan of Oxford, the father of modern experimental science. His name deserves a prominence in our history second only to that of Aristotle.

His writings are one long tirade against ignorance. He told his age it was ignorant, an incredibly bold thing to do. Nowadays a man may tell the world it is as silly as it is solemn, that all its methods are still infantile and clumsy and its dogmas childish assumptions, without much physical danger; but these peoples of the middle ages when they were not actually being massacred or starving or dying of pestilence, were passionately convinced of the wisdom, the completeness and finality of their beliefs, and disposed to resent any reflections upon them very bitterly. Roger Bacon’s writings were like a flash of light in a profound darkness. He combined his attack upon the ignorance of his times with a wealth of suggestion for the increase of knowledge. In his passionate insistence upon the need of experiment and of collecting knowledge, the spirit of Aristotle lives again in him. “Experiment, experiment,” that is the burthen of Roger Bacon.

Yet of Aristotle himself Roger Bacon fell foul. He fell foul of him because men, instead of facing facts boldly, sat in rooms and pored over the bad Latin translations which were then all that was available of the master. “If I had my way,” he wrote, in his intemperate fashion, “I should burn all the books of Aristotle, for the study of them can only lead to a loss of time, produce error, and increase ignorance,” a sentiment that Aristotle would probably have echoed could he have returned to a world in which his works were not so much read as worshipped – and that, as Roger Bacon showed, in these most abominable translations.

An early printing press — (From an old print)
Throughout his books, a little disguised by the necessity of seeming to square it all with orthodoxy for fear of the prison and worse, Roger Bacon shouted to mankind, “Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities; *look at the world!*” Four chief sources of ignorance he denounced; respect for authority, custom, the sense of the ignorant crowd, and the vain, proud unteachableness of our dispositions. Overcome but these, and a world of power would open to men: —

“Machines for navigating are possible without rowers, so that great ships suited to river or ocean, guided by one man, may be borne with greater speed than if they were full of men. Likewise cars may be made so that without a draught animal they may be moved cum impetu inaestimable, as we deem the scythed chariots to have been from which antiquity fought. And flying machines are possible, so that a man may sit in the middle turning some device by which artificial wings may beat the air in the manner of a flying bird.”

So Roger Bacon wrote, but three more centuries were to elapse before men began any systematic attempts to explore the hidden stores of power and interest he realized so clearly existed beneath the dull surface of human affairs.

But the Saracenic world not only gave Christendom the stimulus of its philosophers and alchemists; it also gave it paper. It is scarcely too much to say that paper made the intellectual revival of Europe possible. Paper originated in China, where its use probably goes back to the second century B.C. In 751 the Chinese made an attack upon the Arab Moslems in Samarkand; they were repulsed, and among the prisoners taken from them were some skilled papermakers, from whom the art was learnt. Arabic paper manuscripts from the ninth century onward still exist. The manufacture entered Christendom either through Greece or by the capture of Moorish paper-mills during the Christian reconquest of Spain. But under the Christian Spanish the product deteriorated sadly. Good paper was not made in Christian Europe until the end of the thirteenth century, and then it was Italy which led the world. Only by the fourteenth century did the manufacture reach Germany, and not until the end of that century was it abundant and cheap enough for the printing of books to be a practicable business proposition. Thereupon printing followed naturally and necessarily, for printing is the most obvious of inventions, and the intellectual life of the world entered upon a new and far more vigorous phase. It ceased to be a little trickle from mind to mind; it became a broad flood, in which thousands and presently scores and hundreds of thousands of minds participated.

One immediate result of this achievement of printing was the appearance of an abundance of Bibles in the world. Another was a cheapening of school-books. The knowledge of reading spread swiftly. There was not only a great increase of books in the world, but the books that were now made were plainer to read and so easier to understand. Instead of toiling at a crabbed text arid then thinking over its significance, readers now could think unimpeded as they read. With this increase in the facility of reading, the reading public grew. The book ceased to be a highly decorated toy or a scholar’s mystery. People began to write books to be read as well as looked at by ordinary people. They wrote in the ordinary language and not in Latin. With the fourteenth century the real history of the European literature begins.

So far we have been dealing only with the Saracenic share in the European revival. Let us turn now to the influence of the Mongol conquests. They stimulated the geographical imagination of Europe enormously. For a time under the Great Khan, all Asia and Western Europe enjoyed an open intercourse; all the roads were temporarily open, and representatives of every nation appeared at the court of Karakorum. The barriers between Europe and Asia set up by the religious feud of Christianity and Islam were lowered. Great hopes were entertained by the papacy for the conversion of the Mongols to Christianity. Their only religion so far had been Shumanism, a primitive paganism. Envoys of the Pope, Buddhist priests from India, Parisian and Italian and Chinese artificers, Byzantine and Armenian merchants, mingled with Arab officials and Persian and Indian astronomers and mathematicians at the Mongol court. We hear too much in history of the campaigns and massacres of the Mongols, and not enough of their curiosity and desire for learning. Not perhaps as an originative people, but as transmitters of knowledge and method their influence upon the world’s history has been very great. And everything one can learn of the vague and romantic personalities of Jengis or Kublai tends to confirm the impression that these men were at least as understanding and creative monarchs as either that flamboyant but egotistical figure Alexander the Great or that raiser of political ghosts, that energetic but illiterate theologian Charlemagne.

One of the most interesting of these visitors to the Mongol Court was a certain Venetian, Marco Polo, who afterwards set down his story in a book. He went to China about 1272 with his father and uncle, who had already once made the journey. The Great Khan had been deeply impressed by the elder Polos; they were the first men of the “Latin” peoples he had seen; and he sent them back with enquiries for teachers and learned men who could explain Christianity to him, and for various other European things that had aroused his curiosity. Their visit with Marco was their second visit.

Ancient bronze figure from Benin, W. Africa — Note evidence in attire of knowledge of early European explorers (British Museum)

The three Polos started by way of Palestine and not by the Crimea, as in their previous expedition. They had with them a gold tablet and other indications from the Great Khan that must have greatly facilitated their journey. The Great Khan had asked for some oil from the lamp that burns in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem; and so thither they first went, and then by way of Cilicia into Armenia. They went thus far north because the Sultan of Egypt was raiding the Mongol domains at this time. Thence they came by way of Mesopotamia to Ormuz on the Persian Gulf, as if they contemplated a sea voyage. At Ormuz they met merchants from India. For some reason they did not take ship, but instead turned northward through the Persian deserts, and so by way of Balkh over the Pamir to Kashgar, and by way of Kotan and the Lob Nor into the Hwang-ho valley and on to Pekin. At Pekin was the Great Khan, and they were hospitably entertained.

Another ancient negro bronze of a European — (British Museum)

Marco particularly pleased Kublai; he was young and clever, and it is clear he had mastered the Tartar language very thoroughly. He was given an official position and sent on several missions, chiefly in south-west China. The tale he had to tell of vast stretches of smiling and prosperous country, “all the way excellent hostelries for travellers,” and “fine vineyards, fields, and gardens,” of “many abbeys” of Buddhist monks, of manufactures of “cloth of silk and gold and many fine taffetas,” a “constant succession of cities and boroughs,” and so on, first roused the incredulity and then fired the imagination of all Europe. He told of Burmah, and of its great armies with hundreds of elephants, and how these animals were defeated by the Mongol bowmen, and also of the Mongol conquest of Pegu. He told of Japan, and greatly exaggerated the amount of gold in that country. For three years Marco ruled the city of Yang-chow as governor, and he probably impressed the Chinese inhabitants as being little more of a foreigner than any Tartar would have been. He may also have been sent on a mission to India. Chinese records mention a certain Polo attached to the imperial council in 1277, a very valuable confirmation of the general truth of the Polo story.

The publication of Marco Polo’s travels produced a profound effect upon the European imagination. The European literature, and especially the European romance of the fifteenth century, echoes with the names in Marco Polo’s story, with Cathay (North China) and Cambulac (Pekin) and the like.

Early Italian engraving of a sailing ship — (British Museum)

Two centuries later, among the readers of the Travels of Marco Polo was a certain Genoese mariner, Christopher Columbus, who conceived the brilliant idea of sailing westward round the world to China. In Seville there is a copy of the Travels with marginal notes by Columbus. There were many reasons why the thought of a Genoese should be turned in this direction. Until its capture by the Turks in 1453 Constantinople had been an impartial trading mart between the Western world and the East, and the Genoese had traded there freely. But the “Latin” Venetians, the bitter rivals of the Genoese, had been the allies and helpers of the Turks against the Greeks, and with the coming of the Turks Constantinople turned an unfriendly face upon Genoese trade. The long forgotten discovery that the world was round had gradually resumed its sway over men’s minds. The idea of going westward to China was therefore a fairly obvious one. It was encouraged by two things. The mariner’s compass had now been invented and men were no longer left to the mercy of a fine night and the stars to determine the direction in which they were sailing, and the Normans, Catalonians and Genoese and Portuguese had already pushed out into the Atlantic as far as the Canary Isles, Madeira and the Azores.

Yet Columbus found many difficulties before he could get ships to put his idea to the test. He went from one European Court to another. Finally at Granada, just won from the Moors, he secured the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and was able to set out across the unknown ocean in three small ships. After a voyage of two months and nine days he came to a land which he believed to be India, but which was really a new continent, whose distinct existence the old world had never hitherto suspected. He returned to Spain with gold, cotton, strange beasts and birds, and two wild- eyed painted Indians to be baptized. They were called Indians because, to the end of his days, he believed that this land he had found was India. Only in the course of several years did men begin to realize that the whole new continent of America was added to the world’s resources.

The success of Columbus stimulated overseas enterprise enormously. In 1497 the Portuguese sailed round Africa to India, and in 1515 there were Portuguese ships in Java. In 1519 Magellan, a Portuguese sailor in Spanish employment, sailed out of Seville westward with five ships, of which one, the Vittoria, came back up the river to Seville in 1522, the first ship that had ever circumnavigated the world. Thirty-one men were aboard her, survivors of two-hundred-and- eighty who had started. Magellan himself had been killed in the Philippine Isles.

Printed paper books, a new realization of the round world as a thing altogether attainable, a new vision of strange lands, strange animals and plants, strange manners and customs, discoveries overseas and in the skies and in the ways and materials of life burst upon the European mind. The Greek classics, buried and forgotten for so long, were speedily being printed and studied, and were colouring men’s thoughts with the dreams of Plato and the traditions of an age of republican freedom and dignity. The Roman dominion had first brought law and order to Western Europe, and the Latin Church had restored it; but under both Pagan and Catholic Rome curiosity and innovation were subordinate to and restrained by organization. The reign of the Latin mind was now drawing to an end. Between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century the European Aryans, thanks to the stimulating influence of Semite and Mongol and the rediscovery of the Greek classics, broke away from the Latin tradition and rose again to the intellectual and material leadership of mankind.

L The Reformation of the Latin Church

The Latin Church itself was enormously affected by this mental rebirth. It was dismembered; and even the portion that survived was extensively renewed.

We have told how nearly the church came to the autocratic leadership of all Christendom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and how in the fourteenth and fifteenth its power over men’s minds and affairs declined. We have described how popular religious enthusiasm which had in earlier ages been its support and power was turned against it by its pride, persecutions and centralization, and how the insidious scepticism of Frederick II bore fruit in a growing insubordination of the princes. The Great Schism had reduced its religious and political prestige to negligible proportions. The forces of insurrection struck it now from both sides.

The teachings of the Englishman Wycliffe spread widely throughout Europe. In 1398 a learned Czech, John Huss, delivered a series of lectures upon Wycliffe’s teachings in the university of Prague. This teaching spread rapidly beyond the educated class and aroused great popular enthusiasm. In 1414–18 a Council of the whole church was held at Constance to settle the Great Schism. Huss was invited to this Council under promise of a safe conduct from the emperor, seized, put on trial for heresy and burnt alive (1415). So far from tranquillizing the Bohemian people, this led to an insurrection of the Hussites in that country, the first of a series of religious wars that inaugurated the break-up of Latin Christendom. Against this insurrection Pope Martin V, the Pope specially elected at Constance as the head of a reunited Christendom, preached a Crusade.

Five Crusades in all were launched upon this sturdy little people and all of them failed. All the unemployed ruffianism of Europe was turned upon Bohemia in the fifteenth century, just as in the thirteenth it had been turned upon the Waldenses. But the Bohemian Czechs, unlike the Waldenses, believed in armed resistance. The Bohemian Crusade dissolved and streamed away from the battlefield at the sound of the Hussites’ waggons and the distant chanting of their troops; it did not even wait to fight (battle of Domazlice, 1431). In 1436 an agreement was patched up with the Hussites by a new Council of the church at Basle in which many of the special objections to Latin practice were conceded.

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk — (Early German engraving by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1520; British Museum)

In the fifteenth century a great pestilence had produced much social disorganization throughout Europe. There had been extreme misery and discontent among the common people, and peasant risings against the landlords and the wealthy in England and France. After the Hussite Wars these peasant insurrections increased in gravity in Germany and took on a religious character. Printing came in as an influence upon this development. By the middle of the fifteenth century there were printers at work with movable type in Holland and the Rhineland. The art spread to Italy and England, where Caxton was printing in Westminster in 1477. The immediate consequence was a great increase and distribution of Bibles, and greatly increased facilities for widespread popular controversies. The European world became a world of readers, to an extent that had never happened to any community in the past. And this sudden irrigation of the general mind with clearer ideas and more accessible information occurred just at a time when the church was confused and divided and not in a position to defend itself effectively, and when many princes were looking for means to weaken its hold upon the vast wealth it claimed in their dominions.

In Germany the attack upon the church gathered round the personality of an ex-monk, Martin Luther (1483–1546), who appeared in Wittenberg in 1517 offering disputations against various orthodox doctrines and practices. At first he disputed in Latin in the fashion of the Schoolmen. Then he took up the new weapon of the printed word and scattered his views far and wide in German addressed to the ordinary people. An attempt was made to suppress him as Huss had been suppressed, but the printing press had changed conditions and he had too many open and secret friends among the German princes for this fate to overtake him.

For now in this age of multiplying ideas and weakened faith there were many rulers who saw their advantage in breaking the religious ties between their people and Rome. They sought to make themselves in person the heads of a more nationalized religion. England, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, North Germany and Bohemia, one after another, separated themselves from the Roman Communion. They have remained separated ever since.

A majolica dish painted in colours — An allegory of the Church triumphant over heretics and infidels. Italian (Urbino), dated 1543 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The various princes concerned cared very little for the moral and intellectual freedom of their subjects. They used the religious doubts and insurgence of their peoples to strengthen them against Rome, but they tried to keep a grip upon the popular movement as soon as that rupture was achieved and a national church set up under the control of the crown. But there has always been a curious vitality in the teaching of Jesus, a direct appeal to righteousness and a man’s self-respect over every loyalty and every subordination, lay or ecclesiastical. None of these princely churches broke off without also breaking off a number of fragmentary sects that would admit the intervention of neither prince nor Pope between a man and his God. In England and Scotland, for example, there was a number of sects who now held firmly to the Bible as their one guide in life and belief. They refused the disciplines of a state church. In England these dissentients were the Non- conformists, who played a very large part in the polities of that country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In England they carried their objection to a princely head to the church so far as to decapitate King Charles I (1649), and for eleven prosperous years England was a republic under Non- conformist rule.

The breaking away of this large section of Northern Europe from Latin Christendom is what is generally spoken of as the Reformation. But the shock and stress of these losses produced changes perhaps as profound in the Roman Church itself. The church was reorganized and a new spirit came into its life. One of the dominant figures in this revival was a young Spanish soldier, Inigo Lopez de Recalde, better known to the world as St. Ignatius of Loyola. After some romantic beginnings he became a priest (1538) and was permitted to found the Society of Jesus, a direct attempt to bring the generous and chivalrous traditions of military discipline into the service of religion. This Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, became one of the greatest teaching and missionary societies the world has ever seen. It carried Christianity to India, China and America. It arrested the rapid disintegration of the Roman Church. It raised the standard of education throughout the whole Catholic world; it raised the level of Catholic intelligence and quickened the Catholic conscience everywhere; it stimulated Protestant Europe to competitive educational efforts. The vigorous and aggressive Roman Catholic Church we know to-day is largely the product of this Jesuit revival.

LI The Emperor Charles V

The Holy Roman Empire came to a sort of climax in the reign of the Emperor Charles V. He was one of the most extraordinary monarchs that Europe has ever seen. For a time he had the air of being the greatest monarch since Charlemagne.

His greatness was not of his own making. It was largely the creation of his grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian I (1459- 1519). Some families have fought, others have intrigued their way to world power; the Habsburgs married their way. Maximilian began his career with Austria, Styria, part of Alsace and other districts, the original Habsburg patrimony; he married – the lady’s name scarcely matters to us – the Netherlands and Burgundy. Most of Burgundy slipped from him after his first wife’s death, but the Netherlands he held. Then he tried unsuccessfully to marry Brittany. He became Emperor in succession to his father, Frederick III, in 1493, and married the duchy of Milan. Finally he married his son to the weak-minded daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus, who not only reigned over a freshly united Spain and over Sardinia and the kingdom of the two Sicilies, but over all America west of Brazil. So it was that this Charles V, his grandson, inherited most of the American continent and between a third and a half of what the Turks had left of Europe. He succeeded to the Netherlands in 1506. When his grandfather Ferdinand died in 1516, he became practically king of the Spanish dominions, his mother being imbecile; and his grandfather Maximilian dying in 1519, he was in 1520 elected Emperor at the still comparatively tender age of twenty.

He was a fair young man with a not very intelligent face, a thick upper lip and a long clumsy chin. He found himself in a world of young and vigorous personalities. It was an age of brilliant young monarchs. Francis I had succeeded to the French throne in 1515 at the age of twenty-one, Henry VIII had become King of England in 1509 at eighteen. It was the age of Baber in India (1526–1530) and Suleiman the Magnificent in Turkey (1520), both exceptionally capable monarchs, and the Pope Leo X (1513) was also a very distinguished Pope. The Pope and Francis I attempted to prevent the election of Charles as Emperor because they dreaded the concentration of so much power in the hands of one man. Both Francis I and Henry VIII offered themselves to the imperial electors. But there was now a long established tradition of Habsburg Emperors (since 1273), and some energetic bribery secured the election for Charles.

At first the young man was very much a magnificent puppet in the hands of his ministers. Then slowly he began to assert himself and take control. He began to realize something of the threatening complexities of his exalted position. It was a position as unsound as it was splendid.

From the very outset of his reign he was faced by the situation created by Luther’s agitations in Germany. The Emperor had one reason for siding with the reformers in the opposition of the Pope to his election. But he had been brought up in Spain, that most Catholic of countries, and he decided against Luther. So he came into conflict with the Protestant princes and particularly the Elector of Saxony. He found himself in the presence of an opening rift that was to split the outworn fabric of Christendom into two contending camps. His attempts to close that rift were strenuous and honest and ineffective. There was an extensive peasant revolt in Germany which interwove with the general political and religious disturbance. And these internal troubles were complicated by attacks upon the Empire from east and west alike. On the west of Charles was his spirited rival, Francis I; to the east was the ever advancing Turk, who was now in Hungary, in alliance with Francis and clamouring for certain arrears of tribute from the Austrian dominions. Charles had the money and army of Spain at his disposal, but it was extremely difficult to get any effective support in money from Germany. His social and political troubles were complicated by financial distresses. He was forced to ruinous borrowing.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles V at Mühlberg — Titian, 1548 (oil on canvas, 335 × 283 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid)

On the whole, Charles, in alliance with Henry VIII, was successful against Francis I and the Turk. Their chief battlefield was North Italy; the generalship was dull on both sides; their advances and retreats depended mainly on the arrival of reinforcements. The German army invaded France, failed to take Marseilles, fell back into Italy, lost Milan, and was besieged in Pavia. Francis I made a long and unsuccessful siege of Pavia, was caught by fresh German forces, defeated, wounded and taken prisoner. But thereupon the Pope and Henry VIII, still haunted by the fear of his attaining excessive power, turned against Charles. The German troops in Milan, under the Constable of Bourbon, being unpaid, forced rather than followed their commander into a raid upon Rome. They stormed the city and pillaged it (1527). The Pope took refuge in the Castle of St. Angelo while the looting and slaughter went on. He bought off the German troops at last by the payment of four hundred thousand ducats. Ten years of such confused fighting impoverished all Europe. At last the Emperor found himself triumphant in Italy. In 1530, he was crowned by the Pope—he was the last German Emperor to be so crowned—at Bologna.

Meanwhile the Turks were making great headway in Hungary. They had defeated and killed the king of Hungary in 1526, they held Buda-Pesth, and in 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent very nearly took Vienna. The Emperor was greatly concerned by these advances, and did his utmost to drive back the Turks, but he found the greatest difficulty in getting the German princes to unite even with this formidable enemy upon their very borders. Francis I remained implacable for a time, and there was a new French war; but in 1538 Charles won his rival over to a more friendly attitude after ravaging the south of France. Francis and Charles then formed an alliance against the Turk. But the Protestant princes, the German princes who were resolved to break away from Rome, had formed a league, the Schmalkaldic League, against the Emperor, and in the place of a great campaign to recover Hungary for Christendom Charles had to turn his mind to the gathering internal struggle in Germany. Of that struggle he saw only the opening war. It was a struggle, a sanguinary irrational bickering of princes, for ascendancy, now flaming into war and destruction, now sinking back to intrigues and diplomacies; it was a snake’s sack of princely policies that was to go on writhing incurably right into the nineteenth century and to waste and desolate Central Europe again and again.

The Emperor never seems to have grasped the true forces at work in these gathering troubles. He was for his time and station an exceptionally worthy man, and he seems to have taken the religious dissensions that were tearing Europe into warring fragments as genuine theological differences. He gathered diets and councils in futile attempts at reconciliation. Formulae and confessions were tried over. The student of German history must struggle with the details of the Religious Peace of Nuremberg, the settlement at the Diet of Ratisbon, the Interim of Augsburg, and the like. Here we do but mention them as details in the worried life of this culminating Emperor. As a matter of fact, hardly one of the multifarious princes and rulers in Europe seems to have been acting in good faith. The widespread religious trouble of the world, the desire of the common people for truth and social righteousness, the spreading knowledge of the time, all those things were merely counters in the imaginations of princely diplomacy. Henry VIII of England, who had begun his career with a book against heresy, and who had been rewarded by the Pope with the title of “Defender of the Faith,” being anxious to divorce his first wife in favour of a young lady named Anne Boleyn, and wishing also to loot the vast wealth of the church in England, joined the company of Protestant princes in 1530. Sweden, Denmark and Norway had already gone over to the Protestant side.

The German religious war began in 1546, a few months after the death of Martin Luther. We need not trouble about the incidents of the campaign. The Protestant Saxon army was badly beaten at Lochau. By something very like a breach of faith Philip of Hesse, the Emperor’s chief remaining antagonist, was caught and imprisoned, and the Turks were bought off by the promise of an annual tribute. In 1547, to the great relief of the Emperor, Francis I died. So by 1547 Charles got to a kind of settlement, and made his last efforts to effect peace where there was no peace. In 1552 all Germany was at war again, only a precipitate flight from Innsbruck saved Charles from capture, and in 1552, with the treaty of Passau, came another unstable equilibrium ….

Such is the brief outline of the politics of the Empire for thirty-two years. It is interesting to note how entirely the European mind was concentrated upon the struggle for European ascendancy. Neither Turks, French, English nor Germans had yet discovered any political interest in the great continent of America, nor any significance in the new sea routes to Asia. Great things were happening in America; Cortez with a mere handful of men had conquered the great Neolithic empire of Mexico for Spain, Pizarro had crossed the Isthmus of Panama (1530) and subjugated another wonder-land, Peru. But as yet these events meant no more to Europe than a useful and stimulating influx of silver to the Spanish treasury.

It was after the treaty of Passau that Charles began to display his distinctive originality of mind. He was now entirely bored and disillusioned by his imperial greatness. A sense of the intolerable futility of these European rivalries came upon him. He had never been of a very sound constitution, he was naturally indolent and he was suffering greatly from gout. He abdicated. He made over all his sovereign rights in Germany to his brother Ferdinand, and Spain and the Netherlands he resigned to his son Philip. Then in a sort of magnificent dudgeon he retired to a monastery at Yuste, among the oak and chestnut forests in the hills to the north of the Tagus valley. There he died in 1558.

Much has been written in a sentimental vein of this retirement, this renunciation of the world by this tired majestic Titan, world-weary, seeking in an austere solitude his peace with God. But his retreat was neither solitary nor austere; he had with him nearly a hundred and fifty attendants: his establishment had all the splendour and indulgences without the fatigues or a court, and Philip II was a dutiful son to whom his father’s advice was a command.

Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome, showing the high altar

And if Charles had lost his living interest in the administration of European affairs, there were other motives of a more immediate sort to stir him. Says Prescott: “In the almost daily correspondence between Quixada, or Gaztelu, and the Secretary of State at Valladolid, there is scarcely a letter that does not turn more or less on the Emperor’s eating or his illness. The one seems naturally to follow, like a running commentary, on the other. It is rare that such topics have formed the burden of communications with the department of state. It must have been no easy matter for the secretary to preserve his gravity in the perusal of despatches in which politics and gastronomy were so strangely mixed together. The courier from Valladolid to Lisbon was ordered to make a detour, so as to take Jarandilla in his route, and bring supplies to the royal table. On Thursdays he was to bring fish to serve for the jour maigre that was to follow. The trout in the neighbourhood Charles thought too small, so others of a larger size were to be sent from Valladolid. Fish of every kind was to his taste, as, indeed, was anything that in its nature or habits at all approached to fish. Eels, frogs, oysters, occupied an important place in the royal bill of fare. Potted fish, especially anchovies, found great favour with him; and he regretted that he had not brought a better supply of these from the Low Countries. On an eel-pasty he particularly doted.” … Prescott’s Appendix to Robertson’s History of Charles V. In 1554 Charles had obtained a bull from Pope Julius III granting him a dispensation from fasting, and allowing him to break his fast early in the morning even when he was to take the sacrament.

Eating and doctoring! it was a return to elemental things. He had never acquired the habit of reading, but he would be read aloud to at meals after the fashion of Charlemagne, and would make what one narrator describes as a “sweet and heavenly commentary.” He also amused himself with mechanical toys, by listening to music or sermons, and by attending to the imperial business that still came drifting in to him. The death of the Empress, to whom he was greatly attached, had turned his mind towards religion, which in his case took a punctilious and ceremonial form; every Friday in Lent he scourged himself with the rest of the monks with such good will as to draw blood. These exercises and the gout released a bigotry in Charles that had hitherto been restrained by considerations of policy. The appearance of Protestant teaching close at hand in Valladolid roused him to fury. “Tell the grand inquisitor and his council from me to be at their posts, and to lay the axe at the root of the evil before it spreads further.”... He expressed a doubt whether it would not be well, in so black an affair, to dispense with the ordinary course of justice, and to show no mercy; “lest the criminal, if pardoned, should have the opportunity of repeating his crime.” He recommended, as an example, his own mode or proceeding in the Netherlands, “where all who remained obstinate in their errors were burned alive, and those who were admitted to penitence were beheaded.”

And almost symbolical of his place and role in history was his preoccupation with funerals. He seems to have had an intuition that something great was dead in Europe and sorely needed burial, that there was a need to write Finis, overdue. He not only attended every actual funeral that was celebrated at Yuste, but he had services conducted for the absent dead, he held a funeral service in memory of his wife on the anniversary of her death, and finally he celebrated his own obsequies.

“The chapel was hung with black, and the blaze of hundreds of wax-lights was scarcely sufficient to dispel the darkness. The brethren in their conventual dress, and all the Emperor’s household clad in deep mourning, gathered round a huge catafalque, shrouded also in black, which had been raised in the centre of the chapel. The service for the burial of the dead was then performed; and, amidst the dismal wail of the monks, the prayers ascended for the departed spirit, that it might be received into the mansions of the blessed. The sorrowful attendants were melted to tears, as the image of their master’s death was presented to their minds – or they were touched, it may be, with compassion by this pitiable display of weakness. Charles, muffled in a dark mantle, and bearing a lighted candle in his hand, mingled with his household, the spectator of his own obsequies; and the doleful ceremony was concluded by his placing the taper in the hands of the priest, in sign of his surrendering up his soul to the Almighty.”

Within two months of this masquerade he was dead. And the brief greatness of the Holy Roman Empire died with him. His realm was already divided between his brother and his son. The Holy Roman Empire struggled on indeed to the days of Napoleon I but as an invalid and dying thing. To this day its unburied tradition still poisons the political air.