Christendom in the 16th Century
16th Century Europe
In the 16th Century, the average person only lived to be forty years old.
The humanists at the forefront of the Renaissance saw themselves as descendants of the Roman Empire. They venerated Constantine and Charlemagne. They saw their movement as a rebirth of civilization; a departure from what was seen as the “slumber” of the Middle Ages. They denigrated the immediate past as "Gothic." They fused faith and philosophy, and they pondered the questions: What is life for? What is man's duty? What is to be his destiny? What is reality?
Italy, with its great cities and universities, led the way to advanced ideas about science, law, and business; and a new regard for elegance, manners, and cuisine. Italy was the mother of high culture.
Spain was the second most advanced nation in the 16th Century, though it would later be supplanted by France, which in turn was surpassed by England. Finally, the United States would become the most advanced country on Earth.
Consider the words "human" and "inhuman." We attribute to the former the things we approve of, the good things. But in fact, cruelty, murder, and massacre are decidedly "human."
In Venice, around 1500, we find the inventive printer Aldus Manutius. For a hundred years the printing firm he founded produced the very best Greek and Latin classic books. Innovations came in such as punctuation, capital letters, uniform spelling, and the spacing that makes words, sentences, and paragraphs stand out as units of meaning.
In England, the wealthy merchant William Caxton set up a printing house that provided the English with the best extant books and contributed heavily to the standardization of the language. The redesigning of letters created a new art called typography. To a connoisseur, a book can be dated by its typeface.
Books were considered works of art, with high regard for beauty and masterful illustrations. Printers and booksellers oft times published scandalous books because they learned that they sell briskly. The proliferation of books weakened the individual and collective memory, and sparked specialization of intellectual pursuits.
"Among the natural wonders, the first and rarest is that I was born in this century when the Earth was explored, while the ancients barely knew more than a third of it. Knowledge has expanded. What could be more wonderful than the invention of the printing press, conceived by the minds of men, created with their hands, and able to rival divine miracles? What's left for us but to take possession of the skies?" ~ Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576)
Renaissance Art, Artists, Artisans
Prior to the 16th Century, guilds of artisans kept the tricks of their trades secret; they guarded them as valuable property, similar to the patents and copyrights of today. Alchemists and astrologers also competed with secret knowledge used for gainful ends.
The new individualism saw the decline of guilds, and more people used talents rather than secrets to make their services valuable. In fact, many published manuals to publicize their techniques. In view of this, we see the rise of a new social type: the artist. The artist was not a performer of common tasks, but a free, innovative, and uncommon creator.
The Italian Giorgio Vasari, wrote biographies of the master artists of the Renaissance. He describes more than facts and dates; he makes us appreciate what set these men apart. He describes the techniques involved, the new science of perspective, geometrical rules, the best way to grind pigments, and proper handling of apprentices.
Strikingly, Vasari claims that great art can only be created by great artists and that a great artist must be virtuous, with true faith in God and strict morals. Art reveals an artist's soul. Good soul, good art. Hundreds of years later these ideas were cast aside, and neither art nor artists are expected to be moral or virtuous any longer. Today, breaking rules has become the true test of art.
Perspective is based on the fact that we have two eyes and see objects defined by two lines of sight that converge. These two lines form an angle, and geometry can show the size and place that any object at any distance must be given in a painting to make it appear as it appears in real life.
The artists of the Renaissance learned the value of the geometrical system and the way in which it could be used to give the appearance of reality. They learned about horizon lines and vanishing points; they were able to problem solve because of their extensive knowledge in the laws of perspective and proportion. An example would be Leonardo da Vinci’s Perspective Study for the Adoration of the Magi, in which he constructed perspective using the lines formed by the floor tiles.
All art forms are most fruitful at their genesis, when the idea is more important than technique. As knowledge grows exact, originality declines. Perfection increases but inspiration decreases. This can be seen even in rock and roll or jazz music. The original innovators were not as competent as those who learned from them. The innovators show more individual character, those who follow more virtuosity.
When we think of the Renaissance we think of the great ones, the geniuses. But there was a large crowd of highly gifted and talented people who've since been long forgotten. It was simply a great artistic period, a clustering of great minds. It is a mystery.
Aesthetic appreciation is more than spontaneous liking. A good eye is not enough. One must be able to talk about style, technique, and originality. Thus, another new social type was born: the critic. A critic is an expert. The critic separates himself from the unknowing, who only know what they like. Critics and connoisseurs came to dictate fashion and taste, by purchase or utterance.
In the 16th Century highbrow meant religious or historical painting, which edified, reminded, and decorated. Portraits were a notch below, and landscapes down another rung. The goal of all artists was beauty.
The latest technique in painting involved using pigments carried in oils. Michelangelo scorned this new trick as only fit for women and children, because the amateur or inept professional could easily correct their mistakes. Before oils, artists painted on plaster walls, or panels of wood, requiring a far-seeing mind and infallible hand, as each stroke was final.
The Renaissance was about progress in outlook, behavior, language, manners, art, and science. The religious Reformers saw themselves in this same light. This outlook led to the modern idea that latest is the best.
The individual artist or thinker came to be seen as extra-ordinary, and exempt from convention. The artisan gave way to the artist. The artisan was anonymous, the artist famous. Artisans were told by their customers what to produce; artists created what they wanted to create, in their own style.
The Renaissance Man
What is a Renaissance man? Today that may be a brain surgeon who is well read, can play the violin, and sail a boat. But in the Renaissance such a man would be a noted thinker, builder, painter, poet, playwright, musician, and writer.
The example most often given is Leonardo. He was an artist, scientist, and engineer. But his machines did not work, he did not write, he was not a philosopher or theologian, he was not a musician. In fact he disdained music because as soon as a musical piece was over it was gone, unless one did it again.
Martin Luther is a more appropriate Renaissance man. He was a great writer, speaker, musician, theologian, and naturalist. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and even Savonarola qualify.
A Renaissance man is a jack of all trades. He is not defined by genius, which is rare, but by being a proficient amateur in a wide range of interests. A Renaissance man can fashion verse; act; sing; dance gracefully; play music; have good taste in art; be familiar with architecture, history, philosophy, and politics; be refined in manners and conversation; be capable of combat. In other words, he is the exact opposite of a specialist.
Rabelais (1494-1553) was a professor of medicine and astrology who studied biology. He publicly performed dissections of the human body in France, and created treatments for broken bones and hernias. He mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, on the way to becoming the most learned man of his time.
Montaigne (1533-1592) famously stated that we are not human beings but becoming humans. He invented the term "the human condition." He had a servant gently awake him each morning by softly playing a flute. At the time, a professional author (even more so a playwright) was neither considered an honorable trade for a gentleman, nor an art form.
Rich and beautiful music was composed during the 16th Century, which for the first time included harmony and polyphony, and saw the advent of the professional lyricist. In earlier times, a troubadour sang his own songs to his own strumming. The first orchestra was formed in 1470, and soon to follow was the concert (playing together), and the opera.
During the Renaissance the word comedy referred to any type of play, the vast majority of which were dramas. These plays did not provoke laughter.
The Scientific Revolution is generally held to have to have taken place from 1550 to 1650, focused on astronomy. This focus led to great advances in auxiliary sciences such as mathematics, physics, and optics.
The Scientific Revolution changed the view of human nature and the human predicament for the learned classes, though the masses continued to be absorbed by magic, astronomy, and alchemy. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is considered the father of the scientific method. Copernicus (1473-1543) of Poland discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa.
Estates Not Classes
Europeans in the 16th Century did not think in terms of class, as we do today. Society was divided according to estates (social orders). Social groups were divided by functions, privileges, restrictions, and institutions; rather than assets or income.
Heredity was the main determining factor as to what estate one would belong. The descendants of medieval knights inherited lands and titles of nobility given to their ancestors for military service to the Kings of Europe, which became an obsolete system once standing armies became the norm.
The combination of pike and musket required professionally trained soldiers, with a salaried career officer corps to lead them, due to all of the changes in technology and strategy. Military academies were founded to teach the arts of warfare and soldiering. Massed artillery came to the fore during the 16th Century, and cannons rendered the old castles and forts obsolete. Warships changed from troop transports to floating gun platforms. The revolution in military technology led to the modern state.
The most famous infantry belonged to Spain. The foot soldier had become the most decisive force in battle, over the warrior on horseback. The word "infantry" means "small foot soldier" derived from the word "infant."
The Modern State
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), a historian and diplomat, wrote The Prince in 1513. He was an advocate of limited government and the Rule of Law, but had a low view of human nature. Machiavelli posited that the most successful rulers separated moral scruples from politics.
Machiavelli famously said, "War should be the only study of a prince. He should look upon peace only as a breathing space which gives him the means to execute military plans." He also said, "The nearer people are to the Church of Rome, the more irreligious they are."
The power and wealth of a country depended on gold reserves, and this depended on exporting more goods than a country imported (having a favorable balance of trade). As Thomas Mun wrote, "The ordinary means to increase our wealth and treasure is by Foreign Trade, wherein we must ever observe this rule: to sell more to strangers yearly than we consume of theirs in value."
The rise of nation states was accompanied by the rise in the appointment of resident ambassadors, who supplied commercial and political intelligence to their governments. Diplomats soon gained a reputation for deception, such as using secret codes and invisible ink. Sir Henry Wooten said, "An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country."
The 16th Century saw the rise of the remarkable Habsburg family, achieved not by conquest but by matrimonial schemes.
Madrid was a sleepy little village before the 16th Century. In 1540, Emperor Charles V, forty years old and afflicted with gout and malaria, moved there in the hopes that the brisk breezes would improve his health.
Madrid was not an attractive town. Its 3,000 residents lived with the poor soil, lack of trees, and a shortage of water (not being on a river). Pigs ran wild in the muddy, garbage-strewn streets. The population would increase to 30,000 within 25 years of the arrival of the emperor.
Charles V was an honorable, chivalrous man who loved God and hated greed. He was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. His Holy Roman Empire dominated Europe from the Netherlands to Italy, twenty times the size of the area once controlled by the ancient Roman Empire.
In 1518, Count von Schlick was granted an imperial patent to mine silver in Bohemia and establish a mint there. His coins were known as thalers (valleys)—dollars in English—and were soon the accepted currency throughout most of Europe.
The 16th Century saw the first experience of people with inflation. Grain cost seven times as much in 1600 as it had in 1500. This happened because of a population explosion, which caused the amount of available land to shrink, raising land values and rents.
In the year 1500, there were only five cities in Europe with 100,000 people but by 1600 there were fourteen (Constantinople, Naples, Venice, Milan, Paris, Rome, Palermo, Messina, Marseilles, Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Moscow). Peasants were leaving the countryside to move into cities, but wages lagged behind prices and beggars were ubiquitous. In order to pay for the new standing armies, governments sharply increased taxes in the 16th Century. Trade and industry expanded, not the least for production of armaments.
The New World
It is false that Europeans thought the Earth was flat. Anybody with a lick of sense had known since 500 B.C. that Earth was round. It was just a lot bigger than most thought. In 1522, the expedition of Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, proving beyond a doubt the spherical shape of Earth, and that the Americas lay between the great oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic.
The Portuguese were the first colonizers, claiming Brazil in 1500 and Indonesia in 1511. Spain, with its conquistadors, settled Cuba in 1511; conquered the Aztecs of Mexico in 1520 under Hernando Cortez (1485-1547); settled Central America in the 1530s; conquered the Incas of Peru in 1532 under Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541); and founded St Augustine, Florida in 1565. France got into the act with the founding of Montreal in 1536 by Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). But Spain dominated the Atlantic Ocean.
The colonists from Spain surely committed atrocities, but it is ridiculous to blame Christopher Columbus for them. It is also fantasy to believe in the "Noble Savage" myth—that the Indians Columbus encountered were peace loving, harmoniously living peoples.
The Caribs were on those islands because they had annihilated the Anawaks whose islands these had been before them. The Aztecs had wiped out an entire civilization before Cortez wiped them out. Most tribes lived in perpetual warfare. The Iroquois, and others, had slaves. The story of conquest in the New World is the same story that has played out around the planet since the most ancient of days.
The Noble Savage myth circulated around Europe in the 16th Century. Stories were told about the Indians of the Americas, in which they were free of the sins of Europeans, wonderfully natural and fearless, completely healthy, with impeccable manners. Actually the myths about the Indians mirrored the myths about the Germanic tribes believed in Rome 1500 years earlier. The unspoiled natural man. The Noble Savage that we ought to regress to.
In the decade of the 1590s alone, three million grams of gold and nineteen millions grams of silver were shipped from the New World to Spain. New Staple foods such as corn, potatoes, and turkey were introduced to Europe from these expeditions, as well as exotic products such as tomatoes, sugar, coffee, cocoa, pepper, and tobacco; forever changing the palate and diet of Europeans.
The Europeans introduced horses to the New World, as well as firearms and smallpox. They took syphilis back to Europe with them. European settlers braved deprivation, hardship, and hostile Indians. The Conquistadors of Spain also inflicted massive casualties on the native population. It was a conquest. 95% of the Native Americans were gone by 1550, mostly dead from disease.
Those countries in the West of Europe, with access to the sea, were changed forever by their intercourse with the New World. Those in the East of Europe preoccupied themselves with themselves.
Along with conquistadors, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries came to the New World by the score. By 1530, Mexico had bishops and a single pair of Franciscans had baptized 200,000 Indians. These friars firmly believed themselves to be doing God's work, by teaching the heathen about the Lord. They also abhorred the treatment that the natives were subjected to by the conquistadors.
In 1511, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos protested to the Spanish rulers: "You are in mortal sin for your cruel oppression of these innocent people. Tell me; by what right do you keep them in such cruel and horrible servitude? Are they not human beings? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves? How is it that you sleep so soundly?"
The first great advocate of human rights may have been the Dominican priest, Bartholomew de las Casas. He launched a campaign for justice in 1514 by writing about the enslavement of Native Americans, the squalor in which they were kept, the atrocities and massacres by the Spanish, from killing babies for bets to live burials.
He participated in an official debate about these matters in 1550, at which his opponent quoted Aristotle that "some races were naturally inferior to others and therefore rightly their slaves." Las Casas insisted that "no people are so primitive that they could not be civilized if taught with love, gentleness and kindness."
By 1550, the Portuguese had bought 150,000 slaves from African chieftains and shipped them to Brazil and the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations.
Portuguese explorers had also reached southern India and were surprised to find Christian churches there, and maybe 10,000 Christians who traced their origins back to the Apostle Thomas, confirming ancient stories that he had evangelized there. The founder of the Jesuits, St Francis Xavier, went further, traveling to Japan and baptized 10,000 Japanese in one month of 1542.
The Utopia craze was started by Sir Thomas More and later followed by many other writers. These writers envisioned a world where everybody shared everything, essentially a Communist society without class distinctions. The catch is that everybody in these envisioned societies was also healthy, hard-working, kind, virtuous, prayerful, lovers of God, and good-looking. Of course they were.
European kings of the 16th Century, starting in France and England, demanded that people declare, or be assigned, a surname. As populations grew and became more mobile, there came to be too many people named James, John, and Mary. Some adopted nicknames they already had, such as Bright, Smart, or Stout.
Some took surnames based on where they lived, such as Hill or Woods. Many created a surname from their fathers' names, as in Johnson, Thompson, or Watson. My name came from the clan (kin) of Wat—Watkins. Many adapted the name of their trade: Fuller, Carter, Smith, Marshall, Draper, or Miller.
Nostradamus (1503-1566) was a physician, magician, occultist, psychic, writer, and of all things—a beautician. His first book was Treatise on Make-up.
To prepare this article I used the following books: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun; and Europe by Norman Davies.