Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Bossy Capricorn's Book Review

"Their Motives differed, and they moved in fits and starts, but gradually, guided to a surprising degree by a Church increasingly global in its outlook and imperial in its ambitions, their efforts fed into a collective quest for knowledge, power and wealth the likes of which had never been seen before."

I have just finished reading The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester- a book nominally about the first map to identify the New World as America, but more importantly about the age of discovery. The above quote from the final chapter brings to mind a rather animated electronic discussion I have been having with my Uncle Rufus regarding the Renaissance. His Masters thesis, which he received from Tufts during the mid-60's, doubted the existence of the Renaissance. My perspective on this period in history are through the eyes of art historians while, I am sure, his definition encompassed a broader perspective. The above quote neatly sums up the arc of the quest for worldly knowledge, the range of players, the roadblocks and passions which defined the Renaissance. This book defines the humanists and outlines their role in promulgating it.

As I look out across the Atlantic in an Easterly direction it is difficult to conceive of a world as small and insular as Europe in the 1200's. The world had contracted with the declines of the Roman & Greek empires, but not quite as much as our grade school history books would have us believe. The scientists of Europe were still in contact with their innovative Arabic counterparts and the Eastward reaching Holy Roman Empire despite the Church Schism and the Crusades. It is eye opening to learn that at no time was it accepted doctrine that the world was flat among the educated. This bit of hysteria was reserved for the hoi polloi- perhaps abetted by the sovereigns and the Church to keep them from remembering how hungry they were?

Ironically it is the Church who sped up the flow of information by calling for Church Councils to resolve the Papal and Church Schisms. By calling together all church potentates along with their retinues that numbered in the hundreds the Church brought together the best and the brightest of Europe who had nothing better to do but share knowledge, books and maps while the plenaries bickered about minutiae. It caused an explosion of knowledge sharing which was only enhanced by the soon to be invented Gutenberg press...... which in turn made this knowledge available in a cheap and freely traded format.

What I find fascinating about this book is the undeniable synergy of Church, commerce & scholarship which pushed the world forward in its understanding of itself. It is easy to dismiss any one of these factions as unimportant in the age of discovery- either pointy headed map makers without the heart of adventurers or the Church that is only interested in maintaining the status quo. This book dispels all those easy interpretations and replaces it with a nuanced view of the time.

Get thee to a library.

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