The reader must not suppose that the destructive criticism of the Catholic Church and of Catholic Christianity, and the printing and study of the Bible, were the only or even the most important of the intellectual activities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That was merely the popular and most conspicuous aspect of the intellectual revival of the time. Behind this conspicuous and popular awakening to thought and discussion, other less immediately striking but ultimately more important mental developments were in progress. Of the trend of these developments we must now give some brief indications. They had begun long before books, were printed, but it was printing that released them from obscurity.
We have already told something of the first appearance of the free intelligence, the spirit of inquiry and plain statement, in human affairs. One name is central in the record of that first attempt at systematic knowledge, the name of Aristotle. We have noted also the brief phase of scientific work at Alexandria. From that time onward the complicated economic and political and religious conflicts of Europe and Western Asia impeded further intellectual progress. These regions, as we have seen, fell for long ages under the sway of the Oriental type of monarchy and of Oriental religious traditions. Rome tried and abandoned a slave system of industry. The first great capitalistic system developed and fell into chaos through its own inherent rottenness. Europe relapsed into universal insecurity. The Semite rose against the Aryan, and replaced Hellenic civilization throughout Western Asia, and Egypt by an Arabic culture. All Western Asia and half of Europe fell under Mongolian rule. It is only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that we find the Nordic intelligence struggling through again to expression.
We then find in the growing universities of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna an increasing amount of philosophical discussion going on. In form it is chiefly a discussion of logical questions. As the basis of this discussion we find part of the teachings of Aristotle, not the whole mass of writings he left behind him, but big logic only. Later on his work became better known through the Latin translations of the Arabic edition annotated by Averroes. Except for these translations of Aristotle, and they were abominably bad translations, very little of the Greek philosophical literature was read in Western Europe until the fifteenth century. The creative Plato-as distinguished from the scientific Aristotle-was almost unknown. Europe had the Greek criticism without the Greek impulse. Some neo-Platonic writers were known, but neo-Platonism had much the same relation to Plato that Christian Science has to Christ.
It has been the practice of recent writers to decry the philosophical discussion of the mediaeval «schoolmen» as tedious and futile. It was nothing of the sort. It had to retain a severely technical form because the dignitaries of the church, ignorant and intolerant, were on the watch for heresy. It lacked the sweet clearness, therefore, of fearless thought. It often hinted what it dared not say. But it dealt with fundamentally important things, it was a long and necessary struggle to clear up and correct certain inherent defects of the human mind, and many people to-day blunder dangerously through their neglect of the issues the schoolmen discussed.
There is a natural tendency in the human mind to exaggerate the differences and resemblances upon which classification is based, to suppose that things called by different names, are altogether different, and that things called by the same name are practically identical. This tendency to exaggerate classification produces a thousand evils and injustices. In the sphere of race or nationality, for example, A «European» will often treat an «Asiatic» almost as if he were a different animal, while he will be disposed to regard another «European» as necessarily as virtuous and charming as himself. He will, as a matter of course, take sides with Europeans against Asiatics, But, as the reader of this history must realize, there is no such difference as the opposition of these names implies. It is a phantom difference created by two names…
The main mediaeval controversy was between the «Realists» and the «Nominalists», and it is necessary to warn the reader that the word «Realist» in mediaeval discussion has a meaning almost diametrically opposed to «Realist» as it is used in the jargon of modern criticism. The modern «Realist» is one who insists on materialist details; the mediaeval «Realist» was far nearer what nowadays we should call an Idealist, and his contempt for incidental detail was profound. The Realists outdid the vulgar tendency to exaggerate the significance of class. They held that there was something in a name, in a common noun that is, that was essentially real. For example, they held there was a typical «European», an ideal European, who was far more real than any individual European. Every European was, as it were a failure, a departure, a flawed specimen of this profounder reality… On the other hand the Nominalist held that the only realities in the case were the individual Europeans, that the name «European» was merely a name and nothing more than a name applied to all these instances.
Nothing is quite so difficult as the compression of philosophical controversies, which are by their nature voluminous and various and tinted by the mental colours of a variety of minds. With the difference of Realist and Nominalist stated baldly, as we have stated it here, the modern reader unaccustomed to philosophical discussion may be disposed to leap at once to the side of the Nominalist. But the matter is not so simple that it can be covered by one instance, and here we have purposely chosen an extreme instance. Names and classifications differ in their value and reality. While it is absurd to suppose that there can be much depth of class difference between men called Thomas and men called William, or that there is an ideal and quintessential Thomas or William, yet on the other hand there may be much profoundor differences between a white man and a Hottentot, and still more between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. While again the distinction between the class of pets and the class of useful animals is dependent upon very slight differences of habit and application, the difference of a cat and dog is so profound that the microscope can trace it in a drop of blood or a single hair. When this aspect of the question is considered, it becomes understandable how Nominalism had ultimately to abandon the idea that, names were as insignificant as labels, and how out of a revised and amended Nominalism, there grew up that systematic attempt to find the true-the most significant and fruitful-classification of things and substances which is called Scientific Research.
And it will be almost as evident that while the-tendency of Realism, which is the natural tendency of every untutored mind, was towards dogma, harsh divisions, harsh judgments, and uncompromising attitudes, the tendency of earlier and later Nominalism was towards qualified statements, towards an examination of individual instances, and towards inquiry and experiment and scepticism.
So while in the market-place and the ways of the common life men were questioning the morals and righteousness of the clergy, the good faith and propriety of their celibacy, and the justice of papal taxation; while in theological circles their minds were set upon the question of transubstantiation, the question of the divinity or not of the bread and wine in the mass, in studies and lecture-rooms a wider-reaching criticism of the methods of ordinary Catholic teaching was in progress. We cannot attempt here to gauge the significance in this process of such names as Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142), Albertus Magnus (1193 – 1280), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). These men sought to reconstruct Catholicism on a sounder system of reasoning. They turned towards Nominalism. Chief among their critics and successors were Duns Scotus (?–1308), an Oxford Franciscan and to judge by his sedulous thought and deliberate subtleties, a Scotchman, and Occam, an Englishman (?–1347). Both these latter, like Averroes, (see Chap. XXXI, sec 8), made a definite distinction. between theological and philosophical truth; they placed theology on a pinnacle, but they placed it where it could no longer obstruct research; Duns Scotus declared that it was impossible to prove by reasoning the existence of God or of the Trinity or the credibility of the Act of Creation; Occam was still more insistent upon this separation which manifestly released scientific inquiry from dogmatic control. A later generation, benefiting by the freedoms towards which these pioneers worked, and knowing not the sources of its freedom, had the ingratitude to use the name of Scotus as a term for stupidity, and so we have our English word «Dunce». Says Professor Pringle Pattison, «Occam, who is still a Scholastic, gives us the Scholastic justification of the spirit which had already taken hold upon Roger Bacon, and which was to enter upon its rights in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries».
Standing apart by himself because of his distinctive genius is this Roger Bacon (about 1210 to about 1293), who was also English. He was a Franciscan of Oxford, and a very typical Englishman indeed, irritable, hasty, honest, and shrewd. He was two centuries ahead of his world. Says H. 0. Taylor of him,:
«The career of Bacon was an intellectual tragedy, conforming to the old principles of tragic art: that the hero’s character shall be large and noble, but not flawless, inasmuch as the fatal consummation must issue from character, and not happen through chance. He died an old man, as in his youth, so in his age, a devotee of tangible knowledge. His pursuit of a knowledge which was not altogether learning had been obstructed by the Order of which he was an unhappy and rebellious member; quite as fatally his achievement was deformed from within by the principles which he accepted from his time. But he was responsible for his acceptance of current opinions; and as his views roused the distrust of his brother Friars, his intractable temper drew their hostility on his head. Persuasiveness and tact were needed by one who would impress such novel views as his upon his fellows, or in the thirteenth century, escape persecution for their divulgence. Bacon attacked dead and living worthies, tactlessly, fatuously, and unfairly. Of his life scarcely anything is known, save from his allusions to himself and others; and these are insufficient for the construction of even a slight consecutive narrative. Born; studied at Oxford; went to Paris, studied, experimented; is at Oxford again, and a Franciscan; studies, teaches, becomes suspect to his Order, is sent back to Paris, kept under surveillance, receives a letter from the Pope, writes, writes, writes-his three bestknown works; is again in trouble, confined for many years, released, and dead, so very dead, body and fame alike, until partly unearthed after five centuries…»
The bulk of these «three best-known works» is a hotly phrased and sometimes quite abusive, but entirely just attack on the ignorance of the times, combined with a wealth of suggestions 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.
Throughout his books, alittle 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 inaestimabili, 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».
Occam, Roger Bacon, these are the early precursors of a great movement in Europe away from «Realism» towards reality. For a time the older influences fought against the naturalism of the new Nominalists. In 1339 Occam’s books were put under a ban and Nominalism solemnly condemned. As late as 1473 an attempt, belated and unsuccessful, was made to bind teachers of Paris by an oath to teach Realism. It was only in the sixteenth century with the printing of books and the increase of intelligence that the movement from absolutism towards experiment became massive, and that one investigator began to cooperate with another.
Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries experimenting with material things was on the increase, items of knowledge were being won by men, but there was no interrelated advance. The work was done in a detached, furtive, and inglorious manner. A tradition of isolated investigation came into Europe from the Arabs, and a considerable amount of private and secretive research was carried on by the alchemists, for whom modern writers are a little too apt with their contempt. These alchemists were in close touch with the glass and metal workers and with the herbalists and medicine-makers of the times; they pried into many secrets of nature, but they were obsessed by «practical» ideas; they sought not knowledge, but power; they wanted to find out how to manufacture gold from cheaper materials, how to make men immortal by the elixir of life, and such-like vulgar dreams. Incidentally in their researches they learnt much about poisons, dyes, metallurgy, and the like; they discovered various refractory substances, and worked their way towards clear glass and so to lenses and optical instruments; but as scientific men tell us continually, and as «practical» men still refuse to learn, it is only when knowledge is sought for her own sake that she gives rich and unexpected gifts in any abundance to her servants. The world of to-day is still much more disposed to spend money on technical research than on pure science. Half the men in our scientific laboratories still dream of patents and secret processes. We live to-day largely in the age of alchemists, for all our sneers at their memory. The «business man» of to-day still thinks of research as a sort of alchemy.
Closely associated with the alchemists were the astrologers, who were also a «practical» race. They studied the stars to tell fortunes. They lacked that broader faith and understanding which induces men simply to study the stars.
Not until the fifteenth century did the ideas which Roger Bacon first expressed begin to produce their first-fruits in now knowledge and a widening outlook. Then suddenly, as the sixteenth century dawned, and as the world recovered from the storm of social trouble that had followed the pestilences of the fourteenth century, Western Europe broke out into a galaxy of names that outshine the utmost scientific reputations of the best age of Greece. Nearly every nation contributed, the reader will note, for science knows no nationality.
One of the earliest and most splendid in this constellation is the Florentine, Leonardo, da Vinci (1452–1519), a man with an almost miraculous vision for reality. He was a naturalist, an anatomist, an engineer, as well as a very great artist. He was the first modern to realize the true nature of fossils, he made note-books of observations that still amaze us, he was convinced of the practicability of mechanical flight. Another great name is that of Copernicus, a Pole (1473–1543), who made the first clear analysis of the movements of the heavenly bodies and showed that the earth moves round the sun. Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), a Dane working at the university of Prague, rejected this latter belief, but his observations of celestial movements were of the utmost value to his successors, and especially to the German, Kepler (1571 – 1630). Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was the founder of the science of dynamics. Before his time it was believed that a weight a hundred times greater than another would fall a hundred times as fast. Galileo denied this. Instead of arguing about it like a scholar and a gentleman, he put it to the coarse test of experiment by dropping two unequal weights from an upper gallery of the leaning tower of Pisa-to the horror of all erudite men. He made what was almost the first telescope, and he developed the astronomical views of Copernicus; but the church, still struggling gallantly against the light, decided that to believe that the earth was smaller and inferior to the sun made man and Christianity of no account, and diminished the importance of the Pope; so Galileo, under threats of dire punishment, when he was an old man of sixty-nine, was made to recant this view and put the earth back in its place as the immovable centre of the universe. He knelt before ten cardinals in scarlet, an assembly august enough to overawe truth itself, while he amended the creation he had disarranged. The story has it that as he rose from his knees, after repeating his recantation, he muttered, «Eppur si Muove»-»it moves nevertheless».
Newton (1642–1727) was born in the year of Galileo’s death. By his discovery of the law of gravitation he completed the clear vision of the starry universe that we have to-day. But Newton carries us into the eighteenth century. He carries us too far for the present chapter. Among the earlier names, that of Dr. Gilbert (1540–1603), of Colchester, is pre-eminent. Roger Bacon had preached experiment, Gilbert was one of the first to practise it. There can be little doubt that his work, which was – chiefly upon magnetism, helped to form the ideas of Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam (1561 – 1626), Lord Chancellor to James I of England. This Francis Bacon has been called the «Father of Experimental Philosophy», but of his share in the development of scientific work far too much has been made. He was, says Sir R. A. Gregory, «not the founder but the apostle» of the scientific method. His greatest service to science was a fantastic book, The New Atlantis. «In his New Atlantis, Francis Bacon planned in somewhat fanciful language a palace of invention, a great temple of science, where the pursuit of knowledge in all its branches was to be organized on principles of the highest efficiency».
From this Utopian dream arose the Royal Society of London, which received a Royal Charter from Charles II of England in 1662. The essential use and virtue of this society was and is publication. Its formation marks a definite step from isolated inquiry towards cooperative work, from the secret and solitary investigations of the alchemist to the frank report and open discussion which is the life of the modern scientific process. For the true scientific method is this: to trust no statements without verification, to test all things as rigorously as possible, to keep no secrets, to attempt no monopolies, to give out one’s best modestly and plainly, serving no other end but knowledge.
The long-slumbering science of anatomy was revived by Harvey (1578 – 1657), who demonstrated the circulation of the blood… Presently the Dutchman, Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723) brought the first crude microscope to bear upon the hidden minutiae of life.
These are but some of the brightest stars amidst that increasing Multitude of men who have from the fifteenth century to our own time, with more and more collective energy and vigour, lit up our vision of the universe, and increased our power over the conditions of our lives.
We have dealt thus fully with the recrudescence of scientific studies in the Middle Ages because of its ultimate importance in human affairs. In the long run, Roger Bacon is of more significance to mankind than any monarch of his time. But the contemporary world, for the most part, knew nothing of this smouldering activity in studies and lecture-rooms and alchemist’s laboratories that was presently to alter all the conditions of life. The church did indeed take notice of what was afoot, but only because of the disregard of her conclusive decisions. She had decided that the earth was the very centre of God’s creation, and that the Pope was the divinely appointed ruler of the earth. Men’s ideas on these essential points, she insisted, must not be disturbed by any contrary teaching. So soon, however, as she had compelled Galileo to say that the world did not move she was satisfied; she does not seem to have realized how ominous it was for her that, after all, the earth did move.
Very great social as well as intellectual developments were in progress in Western Europe throughout this period of the later Middle Ages. But the human mind apprehends events far more vividly than changes; and men for the most part, then as now, kept on in their own traditions in spite of the shifting scene about them.
In an outline such as this it is impossible to crowd in the clustering events of history that do not clearly show the main process of human development, however bright and picturesque they may be. We have to record the steady growth of towns and cities, the reviving power of trade and money, the gradual re-establishment of law and custom, the extension of security, the supersession of private warfare that went on in Western Europe in the period between the first crusade and the sixteenth century. Of much that looms large in our national histories we cannot tell anything. We have no space for the story of the repeated attempts of the English kings to conquer Scotland and set themselves up as kings of France, nor of how the Norman English established themselves insecurely in Ireland (twelfth century), and how Wales was linked to the English crown (1282). All through the Middle Ages, the struggle of England with Scotland and France was in progress; there were times when it seemed that Scotland was finally subjugated and when the English king held far more land in France than its titular sovereign. In the English histories this struggle with France is too often represented as a single-handed and almost successful attempt to conquer France. In reality it was a joint enterprise undertaken in concert first, with the Flemings and Bavarians and afterwards with the powerful French vassal state of Burgundy to conquer and divide the patrimony of Hugh Capet. Of the English rout by the Scotch at Bannockburn (1314), and of William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce, the Scottish national heroes, of the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) in France, which shine like stars in the English imagination, little battles in which sturdy bowmen through some sunny hours made a great havoc among French knights in armour, of the Black Prince and Henry V of England, and of how a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, drove the English out of her country again (1429–1430), this history relates nothing. For every country has such cherished national events. They are the ornamental tapestry of history, and no part of the building. Rajputana or Poland, Russia, Spain, Persia, and China can all match or outdo the utmost romance of western Europe, with equally adventurous knights and equally valiant princesses and equally stout fights against the odds. Nor can we tell how Louis XI of France (1461- 1483), the son of Joan of Arc’s Charles VII, brought Burgundy to heel and laid the foundations of a centralized French monarchy. It signifies more that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, gunpowder, that Mongol gift, came to Europe so that the kings (Louis XI included) and the law, relying upon the support of the growing towns, were able to batter down the castles of the half-independent robber knights and barons of the earlier Middle Ages and consolidate a more centralized power. The fighting nobles and knights of the barbaric period disappear slowly from history during these centuries; the Crusades consumed them, such dynastic wars as the English Wars of the Roses killed them off, the arrows from the English long-bow pierced them and stuck out a yard behind, infantry so armed swept them from the stricken field; they became reconciled to trade and changed their nature. They disappeared in everything but a titular sense from the west and south of Europe before they disappeared from Germany. The knight in Germany remained a professional fighting man into the sixteenth century.
Between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries in western Europe, and particularly in France and England, there sprang up like flowers a multitude of very distinctive and beautiful buildings, cathedrals, abbeys, and the like, the Gothic architecture. This lovely efflorescence marks the appearance of a body of craftsmen closely linked in its beginnings to the church. In Italy and Spain, too, the world was beginning to build freely and beautifully again. At first it was the wealth of the church that provided most of these buildings; then kings and merchants also began to build.
From the twelfth century onward, with the increase of trade, there was a great revival of town life throughout, Europe. Prominent among these towns were Venice, with its dependents Ragusa and Corfu, Genoa, Verona, Bologna, Pisa, Florence, Naples, Milan, Marseilles, Lisbon, Barcelona, Narbonne, Tours, Orleans, Bordeaux, Paris, Ghent, Bruges, Boulogne, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Southampton, Dover, Antwerp, Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Mayence, Nuremberg, Munich, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Breslau, Stettin, Dantzig, Koenigsberg, Riga, Pskof, Novgorod, Wisby, and Bergen.
«A West German town, between 1400 and 1500, embodied all the achievements of progress at that time, although from a modern standpoint much seems wanting… The streets were mostly narrow and irregularly built, the houses chiefly of wood, while almost every burgher kept his cattle in. the house, and the herd of swine which was driven every morning by the town herdsman to the pasture-ground formed an inevitable part of City life. In Frankfort-on-Main it was unlawful after 1481 to keep swine in the Altstadt, but in the Neustadt and in Sachsenhausen this custom remained as a matter of course. It was only in 1645, after a corresponding attempt in 1556 had failed, that the swine-pens in the inner town were pulled down at Leipzig. The rich burghers, who occasionally took part in the great trading companies, were conspicuously wealthy landowners, and had extensive courtyards with large barns inside the town walls. The most opulent of them owned those splendid patrician houses which we still admire even to-day. But even in the older towns most houses of the fifteenth century have disappeared; only here and there a building with open timberwork and overhanging storeys, as in Bacharach or Miltenburg, reminds us of the style of architecture then customary in the houses of burghers. The great bulk of the inferior population, who lived on mendicancy, or got a livelihood by the exercise of the inferior industries, inhabited squalid hovels outside the town; the town wall was often the only support for these wretched buildings. The internal fittings of the houses, even amongst the wealthy population, were very defective according to modern ideas; the Gothic style was as little suitable for the petty details of objects of luxury as it was splendidly adapted for the building of churches and town halls. The influence of the Renaissance added much to the comfort of the house.
«The fourteenth and fifteenth century saw the building of numerous Gothic town churches and town halls throughout Europe which still in many cases serve their original purpose. The power and prosperity of the towns find their best expression in these and in the fortifications, with their strong towers and gateways. Every picture of a town of the sixteenth or later centuries shows conspicuously these latter erections for the protection and honour of the town. The town did many things which in our time are done by the State. Social problems were taken up by town administration or the corresponding municipal organization. The regulation of trade was the concern of the guilds in agreement with the council, the care of the poor belonged to the church, while the council looked after the protection of the town walls and the very necessary fire brigades. The council, mindful of its social duties, superintended the filling of the municipal granaries, in order to have supplies in years of scarcity. Such store-houses were erected in almost every town during the fifteenth century. Tariffs of prices for the sale of all wares, high enough to enable every artisan to make a good livelihood, and to give the purchaser a guarantee for the quality of the wares, were maintained. The town was also the chief capitalist; as a seller of annuities on lives and inheritances it was a banker and enjoyed unlimited credit. In return it obtained means for the construction of fortifications or for such occasions as the acquisition of sovereign rights from the hand of an impecunious prince».
For the most part these European towns were independent or quasi-independent aristocratic republics. Most admitted a vague overlordship on the part of the church, or of the emperor or of a king. Others were parts of kingdoms, or even the capitals of dukes or kings. In such cases their internal freedom was maintained by a royal or imperial charter. In England the Royal City of Westminster on the Thames stood cheek by jowl with the walled city of London, into which the King came only with ceremony and permission. The entirely free Venetian republic ruled an empire of dependent islands and trading ports, rather after the fashion of the Athenian republic. Genoa also stood alone. The Germanic towns of the Baltic and North Sea from Riga to Middelburg in Holland, Dortmund, and Cologne were loosely allied in a confederation, the confederation of the Hansa towns, under the leadership of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck, a confederation which was still more loosely attached to the empire. This confederation, which included over seventy towns in all, and which had depots in Novgorod, Bergen, London, and Bruges, did much to keep the northern seas clean of piracy, that curse of the Mediterranean and of the Eastern seas. The Eastern Empire throughout its last phase, from the Ottoman conquest of its European hinterland in the fourteenth and early fifteenth century until its fall in 1453, was practically only the trading town of Constantinople, a town state like Genoa or Venice, except that it was encumbered by a corrupt imperial court.
The fullest and most splendid developments of this city life of the later Middle Ages occurred in Italy. After the end of the Hohenstaufen line in the thirteenth century, the hold of the Holy Roman Empire upon North and Central Italy weakened, although, as we shall tell, German Emperors were still crowned as kings and emperors in Italy up to the time of Charles V (circa 1530). There arose a number of quasi-independent city states to the north of Rome, the papal capital. South Italy and Sicily, however, remained under foreign dominion. Genoa and her rival, Venice, were the great trading seaports of this time; their noble palaces, their lordly paintings, still win our admiration. Milan, at the foot of the St. Gothard pass, revived to wealth and power. Inland was Florence, a trading and financial centre which, under the almost monarchical rule of the Medici family in the fifteenth century, enjoyed a second «Periclean ago». But already before the time of these cultivated Medici «bosses», Florence had produced much beautiful art. Giotto’s tower (Giotto, born 1266, died 1337) and the Duomo (by Brunellesco, born 1377, died 1446) already existed. Towards the end of the fourteenth century Florence became the centre of the rediscovery, restoration, and imitation of antique art (the «Renaissance» in its narrower sense). Artistic productions, unlike philosophical thought and scientific discovery, are the ornaments and expression rather than the creative substance of history, and here we cannot attempt to trace the development of the art of Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Donatello (died 1466), Leonardo da Vinci (died 1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564), and Raphael (died 1520). Of the scientific speculation of Leonardo we have already had occasion to speak.
In 1453, as we have related, Constantinople fell. Throughout the next century the Turkish pressure upon Europe was heavy and continuous. The boundary line between Mongol and Aryan, which had lain somewhere east of the Pamirs in the days of Pericles, had receded now to Hungary. Constantinople had long been a mere island of Christians in a Turk ruled Balkan peninsula. Its fall did much to interrupt the trade with the East.
Of the two rival cities of the Mediterranean, Venice was generally on much better terms with the Turks than Genoa. Every intelligent Genoese sailor fretted at the trading monopoly of Venice, and tried to invent some way of getting through it or round it. And there were now new peoples taking to the sea trade, and disposed to look for new ways to the old markets because the ancient routes were closed to them. The Portuguese, for example, were developing an Atlantic coasting trade. The Atlantic was waking up again after a vast period of neglect that dated from the Roman murder of Carthage. It is rather a delicate matter to decide whether the western European was pushing out into the Atlantic or whether he was being pushed out into it by the Turk, who lorded it in the Mediterranean until the Battle of Lepanto (1571). The Venetian and Genoese ships were creeping round to Antwerp, and the Hansa town seamen were coming south and extending their range. And there were considerable developments of seamanship and shipbuilding in progress. The Mediterranean is a sea for galleys and coasting. But upon the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea winds are more prevalent, seas run higher, the shore is often a danger rather than a refuge. The high seas called for the sailing ship, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it appears keeping its course by the compass and the stars.
By the thirteenth century the Hansa merchants were already sailing regularly from Bergen accross the grey cold seas to the Northmen in Iceland. In Iceland men knew Of Greenland, and adventurous voyagers had long ago found a further land beyond, Vinland, where the climate was pleasant and where men could settle if they chose to cut themselves off from the rest of human kind. This Vinland was either Nova Scotia or what is more probable, New England.
All over Europe in the fifteenth century merchants and sailors were speculating about new ways to the East. The Portuguese, unaware that Pharaoh Necho had solved the problem ages ago, were asking whether it was not possible to go round to India by the coast of Africa. Their ships followed in the course that Hanno took to Cape Verde (1445). They put out to sea to the west and found the Canary Isles, Madeira, and the Azores. That was a fairly long stride across the Atlantic. In 1486 a Portuguese, Diaz, reported that he had rounded the south of Africa…
A certain Genoese, Christopher Columbus, began to think more and more of what is to us a very obvious and natural enterprise, but which strained the imagination of the fifteenth century to the utmost, a voyage due west across the Atlantic. At that time nobody knew of the existence of America as a separate continent. Columbus knew that the world was a sphere, but he underestimated its size; the travels of Marco Polo had given him an exaggerated idea of the extent of Asia, and he supposed therefore that Japan, with its reputation for a great wealth of gold, lay across the Atlantic, in about the position of Mexico.
He had made various voyages in the Atlantic; he had been to Iceland and perhaps heard of Vinland, which must have greatly encouraged these ideas of his, and this project of sailing into the sunset became the ruling purpose of his life. He was a penniless man, some accounts say he was a bankrupt, and his only way of securing a ship was to get someone to entrust him with a command. He went first to King John 11 of Portugal, who listened to. him, made difficulties, and then arranged for an expedition to start without his knowledge, a purely Portuguese expedition. This highly diplomatic attempt to steal a march on an original man failed, as it deserved to fail; the crew became mutinous, the captain lost heart and returned (1483). Columbus then went to the Court of Spain.
At first he could get no ship and no powers. Spain was assailing Granada, the last foothold of the Moslems in western Europe. Most of Spain had been recovered by the Christians between the eleventh and the thirteenth century; then had come a pause; and now all Spain, united by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, was setting itself to the completion of the Christian conquest Despairing of Spanish help, Columbus sent his brother Bartholomew to Henry VII of England, but the adventure did not attract that canny monarch. Finally in 1492 Granada fell, and then, helped by some merchants of the town of Palos, Columbus got his ships, three ships, of which only one, the Santa Maria, of 100 tons burthen was decked. The two other were open boats of half that tonnage.
The little expedition – it numbered altogether eighty-eight men!—went south to the Canaries, and then stood out across the unknown seas, in beautiful weather and with a helpful wind.
The story of that momentous voyage of two months and nine days must be read in detail to be appreciated. The Crew was full of doubts and fears; they might, they feared, sail on forever. They were comforted by seeing some birds, and later on by finding a pole worked with tools, and a branch with strange berries. At ten o’clock, on the night of October 11th, 1492, Columbus saw a light ahead; the next morning land was sighted, and, while the day was still young, Columbus landed on the shores of the new world, richly apparelled and bearing the royal banner of Spain…
Early in 1493 Columbus returned to Europe. He brought gold, cotton, strange beasts and birds, and two wild-eyed painted Indians to be baptized. He had not found Japan, it was thought, but India. The islands h had found were called therefore the West Indies. The same year he sailed again with a great expedition of seventeen ships and fifteen thousand men, with the express permission of the Pope to take possession of these new lands for the Spanish crown…
We cannot tell of his experiences as Governor of this Spanish colony, nor how he was superseded and put in chains. In a little while a swarm of Spanish adventurers were exploring the new lands. But it is interesting to note that Columbus died ignorant of the fact that he had discovered a new continent. He believed to the day of his death that he had sailed round the world to Asia.
The news of his discoveries caused a great excitement throughout western Europe. It spurred the Portuguese to fresh attempts to reach India by the South African route. In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon to Zanzibar, and thence, with an Arab pilot, he struck across the Indian Ocean to Calicut in India. In 1515 there were Portuguese ships in Java and the Moluccas. In 1519 a Portuguese sailor, Magellan, in the employment of the Spanish King, coasted to the south of South America, passed through the dark and forbidding «Strait of Magellan», and so came into the Pacific Ocean, which had already been sighted by Spanish explorers who had crossed the Isthmus of Panama.
Magellan’s expedition continued across the Pacific Ocean westward. This was a far more heroic voyage than that of Columbus; for eight and ninety days Magellan sailed unflinchingly over that vast, empty ocean, sighting nothing but two little desert islands. The crews were rotten with scurvy; there was little water and that bad, and putrid biscuit to eat. Rats were hunted eagerly; cowhide was gnawed and sawdust devoured to stay the pangs of hunger. In this state the expedition reached the Ladrones. They discovered the Philippines, and here Magellan was killed in a fight with the natives. Several other captains were murdered. Five ships had started with Magellan in August 1519 and two hundred and eighty men; in July 1522 the Vittoria, with a remnant of one and thirty men aboard, returned up the Atlantic to her anchorage near the Mole of Seville, in the river Guadalquivir-the first ship that ever circumnavigated this planet.
The English and French and Dutch and the sailors of the Hansa towns came rather later into this new adventure of exploration. They had not the same keen interest in the eastern trade. And when they did come in, their first efforts were directed to sailing round the north of America as Magellan had sailed round the south, and to sailing round the north of Asia as Vasco da Gama had sailed round the south of Africa. Both these enterprises were doomed to failure by the nature of things. Both in America and the East, Spain and Portugal had half a century’s start of England and France and Holland. And Germany never started. The King of Spain was Emperor of Germany in those crucial years, and the Pope had given the monopoly of America to Spain, and not simply to Spain, but to the kingdom of Castile. This must have restrained both Germany and Holland at first from American adventures. The Hansa towns were quasi-in dependent; they had no monarch behind them to support them, and no unity among themselves for so big an enterprise as oceanic exploration. It was the misfortune of Germany, and perhaps of the world, that, as we will presently tell, a storm of warfare exhausted her when all the Western powers were going to this newly opened school of trade and administration upon the high seas.
Slowly throughout the sixteenth century the immense good fortune of Castile unfolded itself before the dazzled eyes of Europe. She had found a new world, abounding in gold and silver and wonderful possibilities of settlement. It was all hers, because the Pope had said so. The Court of Rome, in an access of magnificence, had divided this new world of strange lands which was now opening out to the European imagination, between the Spanish, who were to have everything west of a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, and the Portuguese, to whom everything east of this line was given.
At first the only people encountered by the Spaniards in America were savages of a Mongoloid type. Many of these savages were cannibals. It is a misfortune for science that the first Europeans to reach America were these rather incurious Spaniards, without any scientific passion, thirsty for gold, and full of the blind bigotry of a recent religious war.
They made few intelligent observations of the native methods and ideas of these primordial people. They slaughtered them, they robbed them, they enslaved them, and baptized them; but they made small note of the customs and motives that changed and vanished under their assault. They were as destructive and reckless as the British in Tasmania, who shot the last Palaeolithic men at sight, and put out poisoned meat for them to find.
Great areas of the American interior were prairie land, whose nomadic tribes subsisted upon vast herds of the now practically extinct bison. In their manner of life, in their painted garments and their free use of paint, in their general physical characters, these prairie Indians showed remarkable resemblances to the Later Palaeolithic men of the Solutrian age in Europe. But they had no horses. They seem to have made no very great advance from that primordial state, which was probably the state in which their ancestors had reached America. They had, however, a knowledge of metals, and most notably a free use of native copper but no knowledge of iron. As the Spaniards penetrated into the continent, they found and they attacked, plundered, and destroyed two separate civilized systems that had developed in America, perhaps quite independently of the civilized systems of the old world. One of them was the Aztec civilization of Mexico; the other, that of Peru, They had probably arisen out of the heliolithic sub-civilization that had drifted in canoes across the Pacific, island by island, step by step, age after age, from its region of origin round and about the Mediterranean. We have, already noted one or two points of interest in these unique developments. Along their own lines these civilized peoples of America had reached to a state of affairs roughly parallel with the culture of predynastic Egypt or the early Sumerian cities. Before the Aztecs and the Peruvians there had been still earlier civilized beginnings which had either been destroyed by their successors, or which had failed and relapsed of their own accord.
The Aztecs seem to have been a conquering, less civilized people, dominating a more civilized community, as the Aryans dominated Greece and North India. Their religion was a primitive, complex, and cruel system, in which human sacrifices and ceremonial cannibalism played a large part. Their minds were haunted by the idea of sin and the need for, bloody propitiations.
The Aztec civilization was destroyed by an expedition under Cortez. He had eleven ships, four hundred Europeans, two hundred Indians, sixteen horses, and fourteen guns. But in Yucatan he picked up a stray Spaniard who had been a captive with the Indians for some years, and who had more or less learnt various Indian languages, and knew that the Aztec rule was deeply resented by many of its subjects. It was in alliance with these that Cortez advanced over the mountains into the valley of Mexico (1519). How he entered Mexico, how its monarch, Montezuma, was killed by his own people for favouring the Spaniards, how Cortez was besieged in Mexico, and escaped with the loss of his guns and horses, and how after a terrible retreat to the coast he was able to return and subjugate the whole land, is a romantic and picturesque story which we cannot even attempt to tell here. The population of Mexico to this day is largely of native blood, but Spanish has replaced the native languages, and such culture as exists is Catholic and Spanish.
The still more curious Peruvian state fell, a victim to another adventurer, Pizarro. He sailed from the Isthmus of Panama in 1530, with an expedition of a hundred and sixty-eight Spaniards. Like Cortez in Mexico, he availed himself of the native dissensions to secure possession of the doomed state. Like Cortez, too, who had made a captive and tool of Montezuma, beseized the Inca of Peru by treachery, and attempted to rule in his name. Here again we cannot do justice to the tangle of subsequent events, the ill-planned insurrections of the natives, the arrival of Spanish reinforcements from Mexico, and the reduction of the state to a Spanish province. Nor can we tell much more of the swift spread of Spanish adventurers over the rest of America, outside the Portuguese reservation of Brazil. To begin with, each story is nearly always a story of adventurers and of cruelty and loot. The Spaniards ill treated the natives, they quarrelled among themselves, the law and order of Spain were months and years away from them; it was only very slowly that the phase of violence and conquest passed into a phase of government and settlement. But long before there was much order in America, a steady stream of gold and silver began to flow across the Atlantic to the Spanish government and people.
After the first violent treasure hunt came plantation and the working of mines. With that arose the earliest labour difficulty in the now world. At first the Indians were enslaved with much brutality and injustice; but to the honour of the Spaniards this did not go uncriticized. The natives found champions, and very valiant champions, in the Dominican Order and in a secular priest, Las Casas, who was for a time a planter and slave-owner in Cuba until his conscience smote him. An importation of negro slaves from West Africa also began quite early in the sixteenth century. After some retrogression, Mexico, Brazil, and Spanish South America began to develop into great slave-holding, wealth-producing lands…
We cannot tell here, as we would like to do, of the fine civilizing work done in South America, and more especially among the natives, by the Franciscans, and presently by the Jesuits, who came into America in the latter half of the sixteenth century (after 1549)…
So it was that Spain rose to a temporary power and prominence in the world’s affairs. It was a very sudden and very memorable rise. From the eleventh century this infertile and corrugated peninsula had been divided against itself, its Christian population had sustained a perpetual conflict with the Moors; then by what seems like an accident it achieved unity just in time to reap the first harvest of benefit from the discovery of America. Before that time Spain had always been a poor country; it is a poor country to-day, almost its only wealth lies in its mines. For a century, however, through its monopoly of the gold and silver of America, it dominated the world. The east and centre of Europe were still overshadowed by the Turk and Mongol; the discovery of America was itself a consequence of the Turkish conquests; very largely through the Mongolian inventions of compass and paper, and under the stimulus of travel in Asia and of the growing knowledge of eastern Asiatic wealth and civilization, came this astonishing blazing up of the mental, physical, and social energies of the «Atlantic fringe». For close in the wake of Portugal and Spain came France and England, and presently Holland, each in its turn taking up the role of expansion and empire overseas. The centre of interest for European history which once lay in the Levant shifts now from the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic. For some centuries the Turkish Empire and Central Asia and China are relatively neglected by the limelight of the European historian. Nevertheless, these central regions of the world; remain central, and their welfare and participation is necessary to the permanent peace of mankind.