As he neared the end of his first voyage, Christopher Columbus prepared a letter for the king of Spain in which he described the islands he had discovered.
The Written Record
Historians today emphasize that the political differences between England and the Continent reflected differences in social structure. England had its nobility or aristocracy ranging from barons to dukes. These nobles, plus Anglican bishops, composed the House of Lords. But in England, the younger sons of nobles were not themselves titled nobles, as they were on the Continent.
By this edict Henry IV granted religious freedom to the Huguenots. Its key provisions follow:
We have by this perpetual and irrevocable Edict pronounced, declared, and ordained and we pronounce, declare and ordain:
I. Firstly, that the memory of everything done on both sides from the beginning of the month of March, 1585, until our accession to the Crown and during the other previous troubles, and at the out¬break of them, shall remain extinct and suppressed, as if it were something which had never occurred.
A tension runs through Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Its hero struggles against reality, and in his aspirations he is ennobled even in a world where evil often triumphs. This class work is the source of our word quixotic.
In the sixteenth century the Inquisition inquired into the faith and correctness of view of many people who considered themselves to be Christians. In 1583 Domenico Scandella, called Menocchio (1532-1599), was denounced for heresy. Menocchio had been asked about the relationship of God to chaos, and he had answered “that they were never separated, that is, neither chaos without God, nor God without chaos.” This led to further efforts to clarify Menocchio’s views. This selection ends with the exact moment when Menocchio commits heresy.
In 1520 Martin Luther wrote On Christian Liberty. Considered to be “the most beautiful” of Luther’s writings, the Treatise on the Liberty of a Christian Man (its correct formal title) was an affirmation rather than a protest. Luther said he was sending his long essay as a gift to Pope Leo X.
The Italian Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) was said to be “one of the finest gentlemen in the world.
Benvenuto Cellini’s fame rests as much on his Autobiography as on his art. Begun in Florence in 1558, it is filled with court gossip, attacks on fellow artists, and accounts of Cellini’s often riotous life. It could take him months, even years, to complete a single commissioned work of art, for he faced many distractions. One of his most famous works, a great figure of Perseus (son of Zeus in Greek myth), took an especially long time, interrupted as it was by other commissions, difficult working conditions, poor workmanship by some assistants, and the death of his brother-in-law.
The following is an excerpt from a satirical work written in 1515 and titled The Letters of Obscure Men. The two authors were Ulrich von Hutten and Crotus Rubeanus.
For you must know that we were lately sitting in an inn, having our supper, and were eating eggs, when on opening one, I saw that there was a young chicken within.
This I showed to a comrade; whereupon quoth he to me, “Eat it up speedily, before the taverner sees it, for if he mark it, you will have to pay for a fowl.”
In a trice I gulped down the egg, chicken and all. And then I remembered that it was Friday!
The transition from medieval to modern times was marked by the consolidation of royal power, the decline of serfdom, the revolt against the medieval church, and the increasing importance of a money economy. These changes were hastened by the calamity and hardships of the late Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, the Great Schism in the church, and the threat of Turkish invasion.
Machiavelli blamed the Italians’ loss of civic spirit on the church, attacked the temporal interests of the papacy for preventing Italian unity, and questioned the values of Christianity itself. Machiavelli evidently believed that the purpose of government was less to prepare people for the City of God than to make them upstanding citizens of this world—ready to fight, work, and die for their earthly country.
The author of Piers Plowman was a popular writer roughly contemporary with Chaucer. The poem is a series of allegorical dreams that show the relationship of the individual to society in the fourteenth century. Piers, a simple plowman who works because he finds it good to do so, encounters lust, sloth, and greed around him. The poem is traditionally ascribed to William Langland (c. 1332–c. 1400).
Askers and beggars fast about flitted
Till their bags and their bellies brimful were crammed; Feigned for their food, fought at the ale-house;
In gluttony, God wot, go they to bed.
A Fleming, Philippe de Commynes (c. 1445-1511), drew a portrait of Louis XI in his Memoires, a notable work of contemporaneous history.
Not only do historic place names change, but places often simultaneously have two or more names and pronunciations. For example, Biscay Bay, referred to in the text, is the English form for Viscaya, its Spanish name; Napoli is the Italian form for Naples. Were this book written in a language other than English, these other forms would be used. One is not more “correct” than the other. The choice simply reflects the bias of language.
A contemporary Greek historian who was an eyewitness to the sack of Constantinople in 1204 described atrocities of which he had thought human beings incapable:
How shall I begin to tell of the deeds done by these wicked men? They trampled the images underfoot instead of adoring them. They threw the relics of the martyrs into filth. They spilt the body and blood of Christ on the ground, and threw it about…
They broke into bits the sacred altar of Santa
Sophia, and distributed it among the soldiers. When the
sacred vessels and the silver and gold ornaments were to be
Pope Urban proclaimed the First Crusade with these words:
The Turks, a race of Persians, who have penetrated within the boundaries of Romania even to the Mediterranean to that point which they call the Arm of Saint George, in occupying more and more of the lands of the Christians, have overcome them, have overthrown churches, and have laid waste God’s kingdom. If you permit this supinely for very long, God’s faithful ones will be still further subjected…
The term crusade is used to sanctify a wide variety of single-minded efforts to bring about change. At times the term refers to attempts, as with the Crusades described here, to take back lost lands and reabsorb them into some dominant culture, or to impose the will of one group upon another. While the original intent may have been religious, often the result is far more secular.
Roland has died on the field of battle, and Charlemagne believes that he was betrayed by Ganelon, who with his men deserted the field at a crucial moment. Ganelon is found guilty by trial, but before he can be executed one of his followers, Pinabel, challenges one of the emperor’s most devoted liege men to battle. The following passage describes that battle.
In a broad meadow below Aix la Chapelle, The barons meet; their battle has begun.
Both are courageous, both of them valiant lords, And their war-horses are spirited and swift They spur them hard, and loosening the reins,
The Magna Carta reaffirmed traditional rights and personal liberties against royal authority. Many of its provisions became the basis for specific civil rights enjoyed in Western democracies today. Following are a few excerpts from that document.
The great Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was the first to work out a substantial methodology for historical knowledge. In the Prolegomena to his work he analyzed the “sources of error in historical writing”:
Societies once possessed knowledge that was later lost: Greek science, Muslim scholarship, the wheel and the cart that disappeared from the region of their invention, the Middle East. Thus phases do not always represent a steady progression from a lower to a higher complexity, for complex knowledge and practice can be forgotten. This awareness may lead other scholars into the trap of a cyclical theory that assumes that history repeats itself.
In the fourteenth century a source known to us as The Goodman of Paris recorded what was expected of the good wife among the well-to-do burgher class:
Robert of Blois, a thirteenth-century poet, wrote of the correct behavior for women “of the gentle class”.
En route to church or elsewhere, a lady must walk straight and not trot or run, or idle either. She must salute even the poor.
She must let no one touch her on the breast except her husband. For that reason, she must not let anyone put a pin or a brooch on her bosom.
No one should kiss her on the mouth except her husband. If she disobeys this injunction, neither loyalty, faith nor noble birth will avert the consequences.
Unique among the stories of saints’ lives is an extraordinary document of the tenth century, a highly polished tale of an Indian king who shuts away his only son, Ioasaph, in a remote palace to protect him from the knowledge of the world, and especially to prevent his being converted to Christianity. But the prince cannot be protected; he sees a sick man, a blind man, and a dead man. And when he is in despair at life’s cruelties, a wise monk in disguise, named Barlaam, succeeds in reaching him by pretending to have a precious jewel that he wishes to show.