[x] See the Oxford Book of Saints, available on-line athttp://www.highbeam.com/The+Oxford+Dictionary+of+Saints/publications.aspx
Foxe's Book of Martyrs was re-published in the course of the sixteenth century. This and other works were produced by John Daye, who is known as the master printer of the English Reformation.
The Philosophers, The Archbishop, and he Sultan:
The historical circumstances that made the world of Colet and More
An extended version of the lecture given at the Gresham College
Colet and More 500th Anniversary Symposium
Dr Allan Chapman
Thomas More, knight, lawyer and saint, and John Colet, his Oxford mentor, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and founder of St Paul's School, were not only very good friends, but also great Londoners. The City of London, and the early Tudor Court which resided at Westminster when it was not on progress, was the public stage on which they spent most of their lives, after studying and teaching in Oxford. They also shared this London and Oxford stage with other leading Christian humanist intellectuals such as the physician Thomas Linacre, and the visiting Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus.
And central to the City of London, to Oxford, and to Cambridge, were strong traditions of self-government, both commercial and intellectual, that were already old by 1500, for the self-electing Fellowships of the academical colleges and legal Inns of Court, and the open oligarchies of the Mayors, Aldermen, Common Council, and Liveries of the City harked back to self-governing models of social organisation first seen in Athens and in Republican Rome. What is more, Colet, Erasmus, More, and their friends lived at a time when Europe was being set ablaze by profound changes and new ideas: religious, territorial, intellectual, philosophical, governmental, and in traditional authority relationships.
2. The origins of Christian Europe
Yet to understand the wider movement in which More, Colet, and their circle were engaged, it is necessary to go back a good 1,500 years, to the very roots of Western Christendom. And in this lecture and article, I want to trace what I think are some of the key ideas, movements, and historical circumstances that moulded the world and broader culture in which they lived, and which set the stage for the English and European Renaissance. I believe, moreover, that two key streams came together to form this world of high medieval and Renaissance Europe.
The first of these was the Graeco-Roman inheritance. On the one hand, this included the rich Greek philosophical tradition which delighted in the life of the mind for its own sake, and felt compelled to ask abstract questions as diverse as "What is truth", "What is justice?", and "What are the sun and the stars made of?". This same society also invented what might be called constitutional government, and a principle of "civic virtue" which worked closely, especially in Greece, with a strong commercial and free enterprise ethic. Merchants who made rich profits in corn, olives, and wine would often win local political popularity by endowing their free-trading cities with public buildings and entertainments, and sending their sons to be educated by the likes of Socrates, to create the profession of paid "academic". And if we add to this the Republican Roman talent for civil engineering, public efficiency, and administration, and their accessible law courts, constantly rotating public officials, and early form of representative government, then we find some of those self-same key ingredients of constitutional organisation that Colet and More would have recognised in the City of London and in Oxbridge.
The other great formative current is Christianity. In some respects, the morality of the Christian faith, its approach to the good life, and its approach to virtue, had some things in common with the more humane aspects of Greek paganism. On the other hand, there were profound and radical differences. The driving Christian passion to imitate Jesus displays a very different concept of virtue than that of the Philosopher King of Plato, or the balanced, superior Magnanimous Man of Aristotle. And what is astonishing is the speed with which Christianity moved first of all into the Greek world, for the Gospels and the New Testament Letters were all originally written in Greek, and then into the Roman Latinate world. What is more, one finds all kinds of unlikely people drawn in - such as St Paul and St Luke, a converted Rabbi and a Gentile doctor respectively, along with many others - and the incredible fusion of these two traditions: the synthesis of the Greek philosophical, intellectual, constitutional, liberal tradition and the morality, vision, and salvation of Christianity. It is the meeting of these traditions, I would suggest, that forms the basis of what becomes Western society.
It is also remarkable that, right through the succeeding centuries, and long after Christianity had become the universal faith of Europe, there continued to be a great fascination with the pagan Greek philosophers. For Plato and Aristotle were never lost, even if for some centuries their works were only known in outlines and compilations. Likewise for Euclid, Hippocrates, Cicero, Pliny, and numerous other figures, whose arguments and precepts survived in monastic digests and manuscript "ancient wisdom" collections, but whose texts in their entirety were unknown in the West.
I would suggest that other important influences with a direct bearing upon the City of London came to England from the classical world: one is the idea that power and authority should always be contained within some kind of check and balance relationship rather than under the control of an absolute ruler. For example, you have late classical and medieval constitutional arguments that the sacred authority of the Church, theSacerdotum, formed a natural counterbalance to the power of the Emperors, the Imperium. After Constantine became the first Emperor to accept Christianity sometime after AD 312, you had the very gradual emergence of a constitutional concept subsequently interpreted as the sword of the state and the keys to heaven. This created what I would call a sort of dialogue between Church and state, between spiritual and secular. Secular in this context, of course, did not presuppose a disbelief in God or a removal of God from civic life, but was rather understood in the sense of the Latin saecularis, "of the Age", or of ordinary time, as the Church was obliged to work within the contemporary situation. This concept was destined to play a crucial part in medieval culture and constitutional understanding, as one tries to trace the emergence of what might be termed a "corporate" rather than an absolutist view of public life, at least as an ideal.
I would argue that one finds examples of this corporate idea in the cathedral and the monastic chapters of medieval times, where very often, but not always, the monks decided who joined them and who their Abbot was going to be, and in the Bishops, Deans, and Chapters of the cathedrals who were fiercely watchful of their spiritual rights and external infringements of their patronage. In the twelfth century St Thomas Becket made a stand against royal interference in the running of the Church, on behalf of the Church as a spiritual corporation, for the Church as the Body of Christ had its own sovereign territory.
At the same time, there was the growth of the mercantile and legal ethos, and the development, not very far from here in Barnard's Inn Hall, and to the west of the City, of the Inns of Courts: those self-training, self-electing, and self-running corporations of lawyers. And just down the road in the opposite direction, around St Paul's Cathedral and into Guildhall, you had the City of London itself: a self-selecting and self-governing mercantile corporation, dividing up the medieval City into just over 100 wards and parishes, each with its own elected members and aldermen. Similar things were going on in Venice, Genoa, Florence, Antwerp, and many other cities in continental Europe, which had a similar kind of self-governing commercial ethos, and where you had those two bodies of spiritual and lay governmental authority coming together, though not infrequently in conflict. And most notably, after 1265, England developed that mode of corporate government which was to have an incalculable impact upon not only Britain, but upon the rest of the world over the ensuing centuries: Parliament. Sir Thomas More was to sit as a Member of Parliament, as well as holding the elected office of Under-Sheriff of the City of London.
It cannot be denied, however, that over the centuries the Church and the civil powers differed in preponderance, as they often vied with each other. For instance, in the earlier part of the medieval period the state was on the whole much more powerful than the Church, but by the time of Pope St. Gregory VII in the 1070s the shift was in the other direction, and it was the Papacy that began to gain the greater authority in the later Middle Ages: an authority that was often bolstered by the intellectual power of Europe's great universities. But even the Papacy had gradually developed election as a way of maintaining the Papal Succession. From St Peter's successor Linus to the current Pope, Benedict XVI, Popes have been elected. This was the theory, at least; for it cannot be denied that once the Church had become a politically significant body by the sixth century, the powerful Roman families and other vested interests often turned Papal elections into little more than power-broking "horse-trading" exercises within the political elite.
Yet the practice of election even goes right back to the Apostles themselves. For when Judas the betrayer hanged himself and left a gap in the twelve, what did the eleven Apostles do? They prayed to God for guidance, then elected a successor, Matthias (Acts 1:26). Indeed, the very idea that the disciples elected a successor shows that this corporate, self-electing ethos was even present at the earliest phase of Church history: very Greek, in fact. It lies at the root of what I see as a check and balance approach to the operation of constitutional societies. It is, at least, an aspiration to a stable society, though I am not for a moment suggesting that you did not have outbursts of intolerance or violence, for that is human nature. But what I would say is that such a system contains the basic inner strength to heal itself. That is what I hope continues into our modern world today. For this checks and balances, spiritual and "worldly", corporate view of life lies at the heart of medieval Europe and its key mercantile, administrative, and legal institutions. And it formed the very social, spiritual, and intellectual fabric within which Colet, More, and their friends lived and worked. And let us not forget that Parliament, the American Senate, British town councils, the ancient universities, and other public assemblies continued for centuries to precede their deliberating and voting with prayers. Just like the Apostles, in fact!
3. Defining the truth
But a crucial thing to bear in mind when it comes to understanding the world of Colet, More, and Erasmus is what you define as valid evidences for truth: and, in some ways, this is reflected in Renaissance and Reformation changes in attitudes towards the status and veneration of sacred relics.
Relics, of course, were collected assiduously from the early Church onwards, and the Empress Helena, Constantine's mother, was herself a great relic collector and donor of relics to churches throughout the Empire. Bones and fragments of saints were seen as vessels through which the power of the Holy Spirit flowed. Yet even when it came to be recognised that a particular relic was historically spurious - an artefact of doubtful provenance which did not go back to the early Church or to an acknowledged saint, in fact - this did not necessarily damage the relic's spiritual potency. For what one tends to find over much of the earlier medieval period is that the authority of a relic derives from what is does, rather than from its attested historical provenance. Does this bone really cure you when you touch it, even though it may not be from St Thomas or from St Paul? For even if the relic is not authentic, historically, it can still be imbued with spiritual power, it can still work, and hence the relic can continue in use as a channel for spiritual comfort.
But that seems to be changing by the beginning of the sixteenth century. What now becomes significant is not so much that a relic works, as whether or not it really came from St Paul or St Thomas, because if it is not authentic, it cannot work miracles. In other words, authenticity is now coming to be seen as deriving from provenance, and not from action. This point about authenticity is very interesting, because I think it also relates to a lot of what happens in subsequent Renaissance scholarship, and even in early geographical exploration.
Renaissance scholarship, as its practitioners often said, was about getting to the truth, ad fontem, or to the fountainhead: cutting through the medieval glosses, commentaries, and what was rather derogatorily referred to in the Renaissance as the bad or dog Latin of the Middle Ages. To get back to what the Gospel writers really said now became the chief prerequisite: an aspiration which lay behind Erasmus's pivotal Greek New Testament in 1516. And likewise for the works of Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Cicero, and all the classical writers.
Now, I would argue that this concern for evidence of authenticity not only lies at the heart of what we would now call critical scholarship: it also relates to a lot of things connected with what we have come to call the experimental scientific method. And as a historian of science myself, I am fascinated by how attitudes towards nature, and how one aspires to get to the bottom of what nature is really like, are also undergoing interesting changes at this particular period. For I would suggest that the demonstrable authenticity of a "pure" critical text is similar to the "peer review" concept which is related to the experimental method.
4. Doom warnings and prophecies
Central to understanding the world of Colet, More, and their friends, not to mention appreciating some of the most powerful driving forces that lay behind what we now call "the Renaissance", was their concern with the approaching end of the world, and with interpreting its significators. For it is all too easy, from our modern perspective, to forget that Christian Europe saw itself as living on borrowed time. Prophecy, and the interpretation of prophecy, indeed, were part of the accepted spiritual furniture of medieval people, for had not God spoken to the Children of Israel in the Old Testament through a succession of prophets? And was not Christ Himself the surprisingly unmilitaristic fulfilment of these prophecies? And was not the New Testament book of Revelation replete with prophecies of the End of Time?
In addition to these Judaeo-Christian prophecies, moreover, Renaissance scholars were aware of pagan prophecies, such as the Tiburtina andSibylline prophecies, and there were also the utterances of ancient sages. But within the Biblical tradition itself, all hinged upon the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, who would return to earth to take the blessed up into heaven, consign the unrepentant to Hell, and then roll up the world like a curtain! We were therefore living quite literally on borrowed time, because no one knew when this long-awaited Second Coming and Judgment would take place. Yet everyone had to be prepared, for as Scripture said, it would come upon us all with the unexpected suddenness of a thief in the night.
But when would this be? It had been expected imminently in the early Church, and after that time had passed, people started to seek for clues, such as the occurrence of numerical patterns in the Scriptures. Yet such prophetic number-juggling was both foolish and impious, for when asked about the end by His disciples (Matthew 24:36), Jesus Himself had stated quite explicitly that it was known only to the Father and had not been revealed in any way to man. Yet mankind's curiosity and quest for certainty - and innate disobedience - had found expression in a whole body of prophecies and computations.
Central to these predictions had been: (a) God's creation of the world in six days as described in Genesis 1, and (b) the Psalm 90:4 statement that "a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday". If a day in the sight of God was the same as a thousand human years, did it mean that the world would last for 6,000 years, and if so, how many years had passed since the Creation- Various computations, such as that of Julius Africanus in the early third century, had proposed a number of dates, and many subsequent calculators came to think that 1500 must be the end. For was not 1500 the number of the threefold Holy Trinity multiplied by the numerologically significant number five? To allay popular fears, as the end of the fifteenth century approached, Pope Alexander VI even proclaimed 1500 to be a celebratory Year of Jubilee. But the world did not end, and so the numerologists asked, would Armageddon come in 1533 (for had not Christ been 33 years old when He was crucified)?
What is more, another quotation from the richly prophetic Book of Daniel(12:4) in the Old Testament stated that before the end of time, "Men shall run too and fro and knowledge shall be increased." And was not this happening by 1500, as the new geographical discoveries, blossoming Greek scholarship, those rumblings soon to lead to the Reformation, and - as will be shown anon - the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks signified both fresh knowledge and also disorder?
5. The fall of Constantinople
Yet it was the fall of Constantinople on 29 May 1453, and with it the sudden extinction of the long- and slowly-declining Christian Byzantine Empire, that gave the prophecies of doom a new and terrifying force. For ever since the mid-seventh century AD, when Islam came into being and thundered north out of the Arabian peninsula to eat up Christianized Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the Black Sea, Greece, and the Balkans had formed a Christian "buffer zone" between Western Europe and Islam. While the Byzantine Empire was devoutly Christian, it often had ambivalent and at times hostile relations with the Roman Catholic Church in the West: there were disputes about spiritual authority, such as over the universalist claims of the Papacy, and about the precise theological relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
On the other hand, the Byzantines and the Western Christians had much in common in addition to their faith. For when the Emperor Constantine founded a new Eastern capital for the Roman Empire on the Bosphorus, named "Constantinople", in AD 330, both arms of the Empire, in Constantinople and back in the city of Rome, still saw themselves as direct and legitimate heirs of the Caesars. They were both the RomanEmpire, and were recognised as such when Constantine moved its official heart to the East. Then after three decades of uncertainty, the Empire was formally divided in AD 364, when Valentinian became Emperor of the West in Italy and made his brother Valens Emperor of the East in Constantinople. And then the Popes began to claim their own spiritual Empire through St Peter and the Keys of Heaven. But the Byzantine Empire lost much territory to the Muslims beginning in the seventh century, and while occasionally successful Byzantine sorties were launched to regain parts of it, the Empire was gradually shrinking. But it had been the capture of Jerusalem by the Seljuk Turks from the more tolerant Arabs in 1071, followed by the Seljuk defeat of the Byzantine Emperor and occupation of Christian Anatolia, that eventually precipitated the First Crusade. Over 20 years of Byzantine appeals for help from the West, and diplomatic negotiations with the Seljuks to vacate Anatolia and re-open the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem, came to nothing. In consequence, Pope Urban II preached a Crusade to liberate them by force of arms in 1095. (This First Crusade, moreover, came over a century after the Spanish and French had begun the "Reconquista" of Spain, to drive out Muslim invaders who had occupied and taken over Christian Spain after first crossing the straits of Gibraltar in AD 711.)
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the greed and duplicity of the Christian Venetians had also played a part in weakening Byzantium. For the shameful Fourth Crusade of 1204 never got beyond Constantinople, when the driving force behind that Crusade, Enrico Dandalo, Doge of Venice, decided it would be quicker and more profitable to loot the great riches of Constantinople than to bother going on to fight the Muslims south of the Bosphorus.
From the 1290s onwards, however, following the rise of the new dominant Muslim dynasty, the Ottomans, a full-scale assault was begun against what was left of the Byzantine Empire, and in the fourteenth century, bit by bit, much of the Black Sea, the Balkans, and part of the lower Danube fell under Ottoman control. By 1440 little remained of Constantine's Eastern Empire except Muslim-encircled Constantinople itself. Yet standing on the north shore of the Bosphorus, upon the formidably-defended promontory of the Golden Horn, Constantinople proved a very tough nut to crack
The determination to crack Constantinople came when the 21-year-old Mehemmed II became Sultan in 1451. He brought a force of 100,000 troops against the 10,000 defenders of Constantinople, along with a train of artillery with which to batter the city's massive and complex medieval defences, whose cyclopean character still impresses modern visitors to Istanbul. And some of the great cannon used by Mehemmed II were the work of a Christian: Urban the Hungarian, an early member of the profession of international arms-dealer. Urban had only sold his services to Mehemmed II, however, after the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI had declined to employ him.
On the other hand, not only circumstances but also prophecy did not seem to be on Constantine XI's side. For an ancient prophecy had said that the Palaiologoi, the Imperial Family of Byzantium, would fall when there was an Emperor called Constantine with a mother named Helena: thus recapitulating the names of the founders of the Eastern Empire, for Constantine the Great, back in AD 330, was the son of a mother named Helena. Of course, no one expected Constantine to become Emperor, for only after John VIII, Theodore II, and another older brother pre-deceased him did he take up the Imperium to become Constantine XI.
After a long siege - the Byzantines being reinforced with Genoese troops - and a heroic defence in which Constantine himself died fighting, Mehemmed II entered the fallen Constantinople on 29 May 1453. The following Friday, Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, one of the great consecrated places of Christendom, was desecrated and used for Friday prayers by the Muslim invaders.
That is how Constantine's "new Rome" in the Eastern Empire of Byzantium came to its sudden termination after 1,123 years. And that end, half-expected as it was, as the Byzantine Empire had been gobbled up bit by bit over the centuries, nonetheless sent shivers of fear across Western Europe, although in truth the Pope and the rulers of Christendom had had plenty of warnings and plenty of time to help reinforce Constantine XI and his predecessors if they had only stopped bickering and acted sooner and more decisively. But now it seemed that a young, victorious, and very capable Sultan was all set to spring across the Balkans to take Western Europe. Mehemmed II did, indeed, seize Serbia, and Black Sea and Aegean ports, as well as Otranto in the eastern tip of south Italy. Yet the full-scale assault never came, although succeeding Sultans did work their way up through the already Ottoman-occupied Balkans. Belgrade fell to the Muslim armies in 1521, in spite of Mehemmed II's failure to take the city in 1456, and his successors were to overrun Hungary, taking Buda in 1541. Unknown to the Europeans of c. 1480, however, were the revolts in Persia and elsewhere in the Ottoman domains, which sapped the Ottoman resources and stretched its command structures - which always focussed on the person of the Sultan - to the limit. Yet had the fall of Constantinople been followed up by a successful march through the Balkans and on to Vienna (a siege by Suleiman I failed in 1529), then Europe would have lay at Mehemmed II's mercy, as his armies got into the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine valleys, and the other great arteries of Europe. Subsequent European history would certainly have been profoundly different.
What is more, this spectre of impending Muslim invasion haunted the world of Colet, More, Erasmus, and their friends, and made the prophecies of doom and Armageddon seem very real indeed. Nor would the threat go away for a good 200 years to come, for the last, failed, Ottoman assault against Vienna was in 1683: a deliverance still to be seen commemorated in several public monuments in that city. The Ottoman occupation of Hungary would continue until the 1690s. And in some ways, one can say that the repercussions of 1453 are still with us, most notably in the ethnic and religious conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo, and in concerns about modern Turkey becoming a member of the European Union.
To understand the world of Colet and More, therefore, as well as to grasp some of the powerful forces that drove Renaissance Europe and its culture, one should be aware of the prevailing sense of foreboding, of the impending fulfilment of ancient prophecies, and of the ever-present spectre of what they referred to as "the Turk", who might come with his armies at any time and batter down the very gates of Christendom.
6. Fleeing Greek scholars come to Western Europe
There had, of course, been a steadily increasing stream of Greeks coming to Europe, as diplomats seeking a crusade of deliverance, or as refugees, ever since the Ottomans began to make serious inroads into the Byzantine Empire in the fourteenth century. The fall of Constantinople, however, began an exodus from that city of all who were able to flee, including many Greek scholars and Churchmen. Most headed for Italy, Venice in particular, and one comes across accounts of the libraries that many of these asylum-seekers brought with them - original Greek manuscripts of classical philosophy, science, medicine, and theology. What was so important for Western scholars, as the crates of Greek books and their owners arrived, was not the presence of titles, and occasionally even authors, that were not hitherto known in the West, but of original, "pure", texts of already-known writings that had accumulated those errors that were inevitable when a Greek work may have passed through intermediary translations, perhaps into Syriac, Arabic, and then into Latin, as it migrated through cultures. Translations might sometimes be made by men who did not properly understand the technical content of what they were translating, especially if it was a medical or astronomical text, and their renderings could be garbled or incoherent in places. But now here was the original, exactly as Ptolemy, Hippocrates, or St Paul had intended, and all that one needed to do to drink from the pure fountainhead of learning was to learn Greek.
Greek, of course, had been read in the West by a very small body of scholars for several centuries well back into the Middle Ages, usually by men who had visited Byzantium on ecclesiastical or diplomatic business; and some had even made direct Latin translations from Greek works. And perhaps one of the earliest scholars to actively teach the language in a European university was Manuel Chrysolaras, who was working in Florence in the 1390s. For Chrysolaras was one of many scholars who originally came to Western Europe seeking help against the invading Muslims: he had been sent by Emperor Manuel Palaiologos. And like many of these ultimately unsuccessful academic and clerical diplomats, he combined diplomacy with teaching Greek.
But after 1453, the study of Greek, and access to hitherto unknown texts, escalated significantly, and enterprising printers, such as Aldus Manutius of Venice, commissioned Greek fonts of type so that multiple copies of important texts could become available to the whole republic of learning.
It is hard, indeed, to overestimate the scholarly significance of that confluence of forces - the fall of Byzantium, Greek scholarship, and the rapid development of the powerful new technology of printing - as a formative influence upon the European Renaissance: an influence that would have impacted upon Colet, More, Erasmus, and their friends, while they were still schoolboys.
7. Archbishop Johannes Bessarion: diplomacy and Greek astronomy
In many ways, several of the currents discussed above, such as the significance of Greek learning, the growing danger posed by the Turks to Western Christendom, and the beginnings of the new learning - especially in astronomy - in the West, came together in one man. This was Johannes Bessarion, a native of Trebizond and an Orthodox Archbishop of Nicaea: a See which was already in Muslim hands when he was appointed to it in 1437, and which he may never have been able to visit. Bessarion was an eminent scholar, a collector of Greek manuscripts, and an advocate of the union of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches; and in 1438 he accompanied the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII (the future Constantine XI's older brother), on a diplomatic mission to Italy which sought Western support for Greece against the growing Turkish menace. The discussions were to take place at the Council of Florence, convened to discuss the Ottoman problem, and at Ferrara.
The Council of Florence sat for many years, and Bessarion was already resident in Italy when Constantinople fell in 1453. He went on to become a Roman Cardinal, and was almost elected Pope. Yet quite apart from ecclesiastical diplomacy, he was a warm encourager and patron of scholars in many fields of learning, and in particular worked personally on a Latin translation of Ptolemy's great AD 150 astronomical treatise, Magna Syntaxis, or, in its medieval Arabic-derived Latin translation, Almagest. Bessarion believed that it was necessary to re-found astronomical studies on the pure Greek Ptolemy, rather than on the Syriac-Arabic-Latin versions then circulating in late medieval Europe. Indeed, his encouragement of astronomical scholarship alone was fundamental to the subsequent development of the science, especially through the patronage of Georg Puerbach and Johannes Müller (Regiomontanus). Nor must we forget the importance of printing to the "new astronomy", for technical works such as Ptolemy's Almagest were very difficult to reproduce accurately in manuscript, especially if the scribe or translator did not fully understand the complex diagrams he was trying to reproduce, or the columns of figures he was trying to copy.
8. Printing: the "internet" of late medieval Europe
Yet printing provided a perfect solution. Accurate woodcut diagrams, texts, and columns of numbers could be doubly or trebly proof-read, and then printed as definitive. Identical copies could be read in Palermo or St Andrews, in Salamanca or Prague, and their Latinate readers could be confident that they were all working from one, hopefully perfect, text, with no hidden one-off manuscript errors.
This "typographical fixity", as it has come to be called, brought about by printing would be fundamental to every branch of scholarship, from astronomy and medicine to jurisprudence and theology. Printing would also transform the study habits of Europe's universities, as books became not only much cheaper than manuscripts - though still very expensive - but much more commonplace and accessible. For Europe's universities, from the twelfth century onwards, had been listening and memorisingplaces for students, rather than reading places. Quite simply, manuscript books on vellum were simply too costly to produce for 16- or 17-year-old undergraduates to have widespread access to them. Instead, students would listen as a text was slowly read out to them by a "Reader", and thereafter discussed and argued around by the "Professor": ancient offices that still survive in our present-day universities, though with very different functions. And as the late Professor Frances Yates has shown, both students and dons in the medieval universities developed mnemonic techniques which enabled them to commit vast chunks of Aristotle, Plato, or the Bible to memory. For medieval Oxford, Paris, or Bologna were oralplaces, where teaching and even revision exercises and examinations were conducted as "disputatio cum lectio", or lecture and debate, and living voice, viva voce, rituals. Books in themselves were things to hear declaimed out loud, or else perhaps consulted by a senior scholar; they were not intended for mass reading.
By the time that Colet and More were grown men, however, books were becoming cheap and plentiful enough for students to read - and even own! For at the same time as printing technology made mass book production possible, so the growth of the paper-making industry, especially in Italy, meant that a much cheaper vehicle for the written or printed word became widely available. And as paper was made from linen rag pulp - quite literally, from recycled worn-out shirts and underwear - the costs of literacy plummeted, relatively speaking.
And quite apart from the impact that the much lower cost of books had on the spread of the Protestant Reformation after 1520, with the Reformers- stress on each Christian being able to read God's Word for him- or herself, as translated into the vernacular tongue, so it changed the study habits of academia. For Europe became a reading culture, and in its universities and learned institutions, in particular, it became a criticalreading culture. Philology, textual analysis, and the push back to the authentic source, ad fontem, be it in theology or astronomy, became the new priorities, as glosses on established texts began to take second place to the perceived accuracy of a source.
So by the time that Colet, More, and their friends were taking their places on the European stage by the early sixteenth century, these techniques and intellectual practices were already established within scholarly culture.
9. Astronomy, cosmology, and the calendar
Having discussed the innovations brought about by printing, a new kind of critical classical scholarship, and a concern for authentic sources, I would now like to return to the impact of Cardinal Bessarion's work on producing a "pure" or accurate edition of Ptolemy, and look at the very important role which astronomy and geography were coming to play in the world of Colet and More.
The classical and medieval cosmos was geocentric, with the earth placed at the centre of the rotating planetary and stellar spheres. This was the cosmos of Ptolemy and, in spite of what simplistic modern-day popular writers claim, it was not backward, or enforced by the Church. Quite simply, it made sense, for the earth appears to be fixed, everything doesseem to rotate around us, and loose objects on the earth's surface do not fly off into space; and nearly 2,000 years of physical observation and meticulous geometrical analysis all concurred to demonstrate the earth's centrality - as did daily commonsense experience. And while Copernicus did not publish his sun-centred system - the gist of which he acknowledged back to several classical Greeks - until 1543, it is often forgotten that his heliocentric ideas were being talked of perhaps as early as 1510, as his Commentariolus manuscript account of a sun-centred universe was circulated amongst his friends and astronomicalcognoscenti. For while Copernicus was all too aware of the massive scientific and common-sense objections to his theory that could be advanced in the early sixteenth century, the heliocentric theory in itself was in no way a secret within the learned world.
What I would like to know, however, is whether More, Colet, Erasmus, and their friends knew about Copernicus. For one influential classical humanist scholar from Poland, Bishop Johannes Dantiscus - Jan Dantyszek (1485-1548) - not only was present in a diplomatic capacity at the Court of King Henry VIII in 1522-3, and was a friend and correspondent of the young Thomas Cranmer, but also knew Copernicus back in Poland and had been discussing his astronomical ideas as early as 1518. So could Colet, More, and their friends, especially considering their close connections with the Royal Court and government, have discussed the heliocentric universe with Dantiscus in London? It could be a rich subject for archival research. And there was no reason why such conversations should not have taken place, for there was no "arts" and "sciences" divide until very modern times, and More, Colet, and their circle would have talked about ancient and modern ideas in astronomy, medicine, and geography with the same facility as they would have talked of poetry, Roman law, and theology.
I would suggest, however, that astronomy was going through intellectual changes in the Renaissance that were similar to those taking place in the understanding of sacred relics, of Greek and Latin texts, and of theology: namely, a growing concern with authenticity and a desire to return to the true source, ad fontem. For just as Erasmus was concerned with obtaining a "pure" and uncorrupted Greek New Testament, so Cardinal Bessarion and the astronomers influenced by him were concerned not only with getting a "pure" version of Ptolemy's Magna Syntaxis(Almagest), but also with observing and testing the celestial geometry a fonte (i.e. from the heavens) for themselves.
I would argue, though, that this approach to the heavens had far less to do with cosmological theory - geocentric or heliocentric - than with practical necessity. For by the mid fifteenth century, it was clear that the Roman Julian calendar, which had been in use, with a few small modifications, all through the Christian centuries, was falling seriously into error. Indeed, by Colet's and More's time, the heavens - such as the easily-measured solstices and equinoxes, which marked the seasons by the sun's midsummer, midwinter, and spring and autumn positions - were seriously out of alignment with the civil and religious calendars. Midwinter, for instance, was falling on St Lucy's Day, 13 December, rather than on 21st, as the seasons slipped backwards through the year. The astronomical versus civil date anomaly had been getting bigger over the medieval centuries, and was caused by a very slight error in the value for the length of the year, and the steady accumulation of that error over fifteen centuries.
Of course, the worrying implication of this anomaly was the difficulty of calculating the correct date of Easter each year. For Easter can only fall over late March or early to mid April, and is governed by a complex astronomical formula depending on the relation of the Easter or 'Paschal' full moon to the spring equinox (the equinox being the point, as seen from the earth, as projected upon the stars, at which the "ecliptic" or solar orbit intersects the "celestial equator", to begin spring and summer). And if one is uncertain of the correct equinox date, because of inaccurate astronomical tables, then the wrong moon cycle might be selected for Easter - with the consequence that Easter, the most important event in the Christian calendar, marking Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, could be celebrated in different months in different ecclesiastical dioceses across Europe. Not a desirable situation at all!
The calendar clearly needed to be reformed, new and more accurate figures obtained for the length of the year, and the astronomical tables and formulae rendered more exact. Towards this end, several Popes had appointed Calendar Commissions, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the 1490s, in fact, when he was working as a doctoral student in Italy, Nicholas Copernicus himself was co-opted on to one such committee.
But the calendar problem, and its urgent need for reform, brought together the theologians, astronomers, classical scholars, and historians. The long haul would come to completion in 1572, when Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the new calendar, with its own error-correction mechanisms. We still use this "Gregorian"calendar today.
But why were the astronomical tables wrong? Errors could have derived from scribal transcription and misunderstood diagrams, for calculating the planetary positions from the complex epicycles and equants of Ptolemaic theory was not easy. But hopefully, a "'pure"' Greek text would be an enormous step forward, especially if it were clearly printed, so that identical error-free tables, diagrams, and rules could be in the hands of every astronomer in Europe.
But pure printed texts were not all, as some astronomers began to use large angle-measuring instruments to establish key celestial angles afresh with instruments similar to, but maybe better than, those of Ptolemy. The Nuremberg businessman and Renaissance astronomer Bernhard Walther set up a large set of "Ptolemy's Rulers" - a large vertical angle-measuring instrument - and between 1475 and 1504 made regular observations of the noon altitude of the sun, along with the meridian, or due-south, angles of the moon and planets. It was Walther, in fact, who really began the Renaissance astronomical tradition of original observation of bodies against the fixed stars, both as a check upon and as an advancement beyond the figures in the classical texts.
Indeed, Walther's published tables of astronomical positions, along with the works of Puerbach and Müller (Regiomontanus), were to have a profound influence on both contemporary and subsequent astronomy. They were used by, among others, Copernicus himself, as well as providing valuable primary date for the Calendar Correction project. It is not for nothing, moreover, that so much of this work took place in the German city of Nuremberg, the 'silicon valley' of late medieval Europe, in so far as it was at the forefront of so much innovation: in printing technology, instrument-, clock-, and mechanism-making, weapons manufacture, banking, and finance. Copernicus would send his De Revolutionibus manuscript for publication in Nuremberg in 1543.
10. The geographical discoveries: new knowledge a fontibus
I mentioned above that, in addition to astronomy, the exploration of the surface of our planet, and the development of the science of geography, were also moving rapidly ahead in Colet's and More's time. Of course, the spherical shape of the earth itself, and even its approximate size, had been known since classical Greek times, and the assertion that medieval people thought the earth was flat is no more than a post-'Enlightenment' yarn. What ancient and medieval people did not know, however, was how big the Asiatic and African continents were, how much of our planet's surface they covered, and how much of the earth was land and how much was water. The appearance, in the West, of a Greek manuscript of Ptolemy's treatise Geographia (c. AD 150) - Ptolemy's companion work to his astronomical Magna Syntaxis (Almagest) -' in 1400, with its measurements of places in the world of his day, was influential in stimulating a new interest in geography and cartography, especially after a good Latin translation was printed in 1475.
Late medieval Europe, moreover, witnessed a revolution in ship design and ship building, as those countries on the Atlantic seaboard in particular developed the carrack, and then the galleon, tough, high-sided three-masted sailing ships, armed with cannon, that could survive the batterings of the western seas and still carry a large cargo
Yet for one of the very significant stimuli behind the oceanic exploration and discoveries of the late fifteenth century, one must return to the destruction of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. For with Christian Constantinople gone, two major problems emerged for Europe. The first, of course, was the prospect of imminent Islamic invasion through the already Muslim-occupied Balkans, as mentioned above. The second was the effective closure to Europe of the commercial products of the East. Silks, spices, and luxuries which came via the Constantinopolitan entrepôton the Eastern caravan routes were now either lost to Europe or else only made available at even more exorbitant rates than before. Deliverance from both, however, could come via the sea.
Circulating in medieval Europe were stories of distant Christian kingdoms, in Africa, Ethiopia, Persia, and other far-off places. Communities in fact christianized by some of the Church's earliest evangelists (late-classical Egypt, let us not forget, was a power-house for early Christian hermitism and monasticism), yet subsequently engulfed, cut off (as in the case of Ethiopia), or destroyed by Islam after AD 632 did in some cases continue to survive, although the stories that got back into Europe often elevated them to a power or splendour that bore little relationship to reality. These far-flung Christian empires of the imagination, however, fuelled the myth of Prester (Presbyter, Preacher) John: an awesome Christian king who probably lived in Africa or Persia. If only the beleagured and terrified rulers of Europe could get in contact with him, could not a sort of pincer crusade be activated, to attack Islam on two fronts, and deliver the West from impending invasion?
And the other, commercial, aspiration was for Europeans to make direct contact by sea with the sources of the spice trade, to avoid having to deal with hostile and exorbitant Ottoman middlemen, and bring the luxury goods directly into Europe wholesale. These were the legendary 'Christians and Spices' which drove the great voyages of discovery: spiritual and political deliverance from an alliance with Prester John, and commercial deliverance by breaking Ottoman monopolies.
It is interesting to note, moreover, that this new oceanic agenda for Europe, beginning with the first, tentative, Portuguese voyages down the West-African seaboard, really gets under way as the Sultan's armies begin to close in upon, and finally take, Constantinople in 1453. And within little more than half a century, the rough outlines of the modern map of the world had been drawn, as Ptolemy's and the rest of classical geography had been shown to be woefully incorrect when venturing much beyond Europe. For Africa, and the still sought-after kingdom of Prester John, did not join onto a vast unknown southern continent, terra incognita australis, as the ancients had believed. Instead, Africa came to a point at 30º south of the equator, as the Atlantic and Indian Oceans formed one vast sea - not a continent - that swirled around the bottom of the earth (though a large continent was still believed to exist further south). This sea had already enabled Vasco de Gama to trade directly with the Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) and Indian spice merchants by the 1490s, and would soon give European captains direct access to Malaya and China. And then, of course, the Bristol-employed Portuguese Cabot family, Christopher Columbus, and others would discover a vast continent to the west of which the classical geographers had been entirely ignorant. And one wonders whether the name of that continent, with all its wealth and wonders, derived from the late-fifteenth-century Bristol Merchant Venturer Richard Ameryck. For it was Ameryck whose commercial initiative encouraged that joint stock company to commission the Cabots to undertake those voyages which led to the discovery of the codfish-rich Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and the land to their west.
Yet what were Bristol Merchant Venturers and chartered Portuguese sailing masters doing in these northern waters, such as when John Cabot sailed the Bristol vessel The Matthew across the Atlantic in the spring of 1497, to claim what is now North America and Canada for King Henry VII of England? The answer, in the main, was codfish. Christian Europe, by longstanding custom, ate fish on Fridays, and as codfish merchants pushed forever further out into the Atlantic in search of rich shoals, they discovered the Grand Banks, over 2,000 miles away from home. Sailing just as brave, in fact, as any of the other great voyages of that age, often in very cold and dangerous stormy seas, and using the new, sturdy, capacious, three-masted ships that could swim through the roughest Atlantic gales.
After their long voyage out, followed by weeks of deep-sea fishing, they could land their catches on what is now the North American and Canadian coast. Here, the fish would be gutted, dried, and salted in barrels, ready for the voyage eastwards. Indeed, the preserved and dried fish would then be sold across Christendom through mercantile outlets, providing relatively nutritious food in winter, and reminding eaters that Christ had been a fisher of men.
Colet, More, Erasmus, and their friends no doubt sat down to many Newfoundland fish dinners in Oxford and Cambridge College Halls, the Inns of Court, the London City Livery Halls, and the Royal Court.
We all know how the King and Queen of Spain sent Columbus on a voyage of exploration to find a direct route to the Far East in 1492, but let us also remember that it was almost certainly a group of freely-acting businessmen and a joint stock company - the Bristol Merchant Venturers - whose commercial enterprise led to the discovery of Canada and North America, wherever on the face of the earth they then thought that landfall was. Richard Ameryck lies buried in St Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol.
Yet how, one might ask, did the new concern with authentic sources in ancient texts, sacred and secular, and with the new theology of relics, relate to the great geographical discoveries taking place in the age of Colet, More, and Erasmus? I would suggest that what they all share is a new kind of inquisitorial, or consensual, approach to knowledge. Now this does not by any means imply that the earlier medieval scholarly tradition had not been critical and guided by principles of the highest intellectual rigour - for Europe's post-twelfth-century universities thrived on debate, argument, and analysis -so much as that a new kind of intellectual meat was becoming available that had not been there previously. And this new meat I would characterise as new data: fresh facts and kinds of phenomena which demanded new tools of inquiry beyond the medieval dialectical processes of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy to make proper sense of them.
One form of new meat for the scholars of the fifteenth century to chew over was the new authentic Greek texts coming out of conquered Byzantium, for in many cases they showed that the multiply-translated Latin texts being read out in Europe's universities contained errors. Fresh insights into Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy or the Gospel writers constituted a major form of new knowledge, with a promise of much more to come if one learned Greek and went to the originals. And perhaps in response to attacks on the spiritual and curative powers of relics by Luther, Calvin, and others the Roman Catholic Church was becoming more guarded in its willingness to authenticate miracles, or confer sainthood, without a full and detailed investigation. And as far as the geographical discoveries of the age are concerned, it is obvious that European leaders, scholars, geographers, and mathematicians were, quite literally, being bombarded with new, raw data about continents, oceans, and curious phenomena, with which they struggled to make sense.
All of the above and many more forms of new knowledge that were hitting Europe by 1520 or so were winning their authority by what might be called a consensual or "peer review" process. And nowhere was this process more in evidence than when dealing with the newly-emerging facts of geography. For no philosopher in his study could have deduced the existence of the American continent, the Pacific Ocean, or the sea route to India from first principles based on Ptolemy's or Strabo's writings. Such things could only be found by people quite literally chancing upon them: often, as in the case of Columbus or the Bristol Merchant Venturers, when looking for something else!
This is what I mean by 'raw data' as a culturally transformative agent. It is hard for us today to realise how classically- and textually-dominated medieval civilisation was, where one interpreted the human condition through a body of ancient writings, sacred and secular, and where even terrifying changes, such as the fall of Byzantium, still fell within a known historical schema, for other great cities - Babylon, Athens, and Rome - had fallen in the past. But the geographical discoveries were of an entirely new order in both impact and cultural potential, in spite of the fact that Prester John was getting harder and harder to find.
And if one did discover another continent or ocean, using the new technology of the three-masted sailing ship, the authentic status of the discovery was not established by finding an allusion to it in an ancient writer, but by other modern navigators going out, following the original sailing directions, and confirming or denying the discovery as a physical fact, and then by establishing a hopefully lucrative mercantile relationship with the newly-discovered place. I am cautious about calling this new evidential, peer-review, testing approach "scientific", because it would be jumping the gun with regard to the way in which knowledge was understood in Colet's and More's day. Yet there is no doubt that when, in the early seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon wrote his own philosophical treatises on the importance of new discoveries, he saw the great geographical explorations of the previous 150 years as a pivotal moment in human understanding, to which he constantly returned. And in addition to his empirical 'scientific' vision, Bacon was deeply aware of the Christian eschatological power of these new discoveries: as significators of the end. It is not for nothing, moreover, that the frontispiece of his profoundly influential Novum Organon (1620), for all its optimism, with a great ship sailing boldly through the ancient Pillars of Hercules, also carries the unascribed Latin quotation: Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia. The very quotation, Daniel 12:4, as given in St Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible, about men running to and fro and knowledge increasing before the world would end.
For Bacon saw his 'new science' in a deeply spiritual, divine revelatory context, and was far closer in spirit to the world of Colet, More, and Erasmus than to that world of modern science and technology to which so many modern-day historians of science, through their selective, secular understanding of his works, try to make him belong.
Yet the new, accuracy- and observation-based Greek and post-Greek astronomy encouraged by Cardinal Bessarion, and the rapidly-expanding geographical knowledge of early-sixteenth-century Europe, had some fascinating consequences. For one thing, they got Christopher Columbus out of a tight corner by enabling him to impress the natives in Jamaica on 29 February 1504, when on his fourth voyage to the New World. Fortunately, on this voyage Columbus was carrying a copy of Johannes Müller's (Regiomontanus') Kalendarium astronomical tables of 1474. Using information contained in the printed, published tables, and being able to rely on their accurate timings, Columbus convinced the Jamaicans that it was in his power to restore the eclipsed moon to its full light. A scientifically-based ruse which ensured the safety of his party, and much-needed food supplies!
11. Drawing the world: maps and the new cartography
Another and far more profound consequence was the beginning of modern cartography, for when explorers returned from seeking 'Christians and Spices', they brought not only interesting new knowledge, but a wealth of measurements, some more accurate than others.
Among them were measurements of the latitudes (quite accurate), and longitudes (less so), of new-found lands, along with new data about the odd behaviour of ships- compasses, sea-depth soundings, currents, and meteorological phenomena. For scientific instrument-based measurements - made with quadrants, cross-staves, magnetic compasses, and other devices - were now providing a new authority for the big world beyond the library. Techniques that were rooted in the books of the library, such as Euclid's geometry or Ptolemy's geography, were expanded in their potential so as to enable explorers to quantify, and turn into public knowledge, places and things of which the ancients themselves had never dreamt.
And nowhere was this more spectacularly seen than in the production of maps. For the sights, soundings, and journals of the navigators, combined with new projection techniques based on the classical Greek geometry of the sphere, were to transform the art of cartography. It should be noted, however, that they transformed cartography; they did not create it. Indeed, medieval Europe had a rich cartographic tradition long before 1450: firstly of the great circular symbolic spiritual world-maps, such as that which survives in Hereford Cathedral, with Jerusalem in the centre of the circle to make clear the primacy of the Resurrection, and secondly of practical, direction-finding maps.
The commonest form of practical map in medieval Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards, was the 'Portolano' sea-chart, originally drawn on vellum, and eventually printed on paper. These Portolanos came to be based around 32-point compass roses, to give the navigator a set of magnetic bearings by which he might sail, let us say, from London to Lisbon, then on to Sardinia, Sicily, and Constantinople. But what is so impressive with even the early Portolanos is the accuracy of the coastal mapping: of Britain, the Channel, the Bay of Biscay, Spain, Italy. Indeed, no one can look at these sophisticated works and believe that medieval people had no proper concept of the visual appearance of at least the European continent, North Africa, Asia Minor, and even Iceland and the Canary Islands.
And in addition to the sea-charts, at least one government department during the reign of King Edward III, in c. 1360, possessed an astonishingly accurate road map of England, with directions and distances between towns, castles, monasteries, and cathedrals given as stages radiating out from London. This is the so-called 'Gough Map', named after the eighteenth-century antiquary of that name, who first picked it up in a sale, and which is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. My map historian friend Roger Mason and I made a study of the Gough Map some years ago, comparing its mileages along the old highways with those of some pre-motorway arterial roads in a modern road atlas, and we were amazed at its accuracy, even for long distances, such as from the Channel ports to York or Durham. Yet while many late-medieval Portolano sea-charts survive, the Gough road map is largely unique, though it is hard to imagine that the wealth of precise technical information that it contains was not used to make other, now lost, maps of Britain or continental countries.
Suffice it to say, however, that by the time of Colet and More and of the great sea voyages, cartography had already progressed well past its infancy. It was, moreover, vastly aided by the new art of copper-plate printing (a technique displayed to maximum artistic effect at that time in the fine art prints of Albrecht Dürer), which enabled state-of-the-art maps to be printed as easily as books. And it is interesting to see how manuscript and printed maps produced during the lifetimes of Colet, More and their circle were transforming European knowledge of the globe. Indeed, geographical knowledge was moving very rapidly. In Giovanni Contarini's copper-plate engraved world-map of 1506 (a unique copy of which survives in the British Library), Europe, Africa, the Western Atlantic, and parts of the Indian Ocean are almost modern in their outline detail. Cuba and the Caribbean Islands discovered by Columbus are there in the West - though they are confused with Japan (Zipangu) - and the American continent is labelled "Cathay", or China. For at that time, knowledge of the Pacific Ocean was only just filtering through, and most geographers thought, as did Columbus, that the east coast of America was China. Yet even a year later Martin Waldseemüller, in his printed map of 1507, shows America as a distinct continent for the first time: South America as pear-shaped, Mexico as a narrow isthmus, and North America rising vaguely upwards, with an albeit relatively small Pacific Ocean to the west.
During the period 1480-1520, knowledge of the earth's surface progressed at a breathtaking speed, with almost every year bringing home a new discovery. And all of this was susceptible to the 'peer review' of subsequent voyagers, obtained by an entirely empirical process - sailing out in ships - and broadcast through printed maps and books.
For oceanic discovery was as much a part of the world of Colet, More, and their friends as Greek NewTestaments or the fear of Turkish invasion, for by the time that these men died, in late middle age, the physical world was quite literally a different place from the world into which they had been born. And considering the City of London's growing economic power, which largely derived, in one way or another, from shipping, one can imagine the discussions it must have stimulated in the Inns of Court, the Livery Halls, and the Royal Palace of Whitehall. For I would suggest that the next time mankind's knowledge of the world 'out there' was to move ahead with a similarly awe-inspiring speed was during the Space Age, between 1957 and the present day. Yet not even the most active modern-day space-promoters visualise prospects for trade with Mars or Venus with the same relish as Renaissance Europeans did with America, India, or China.
In this lecture and ensuing text, I have said very little about the achievements of John Colet, Thomas More, and their circle; other scholars have dealt with that. What I hope to have done, however, is to provide a brief overview of the historical circumstances that formed their world. In particular, I hope to have shown the importance of the classical and Christian legacies in the framing of Western civilisation, for this constitutes the wider cultural and creedal stage upon which 'the Renaissance' was acted out.
But what I also want to do is to challenge the idea that this age of Renaissance was perceived by people living through it as a time of hope and joy, as people moved out of the restrictive 'Middle Ages'. For I would argue, quite to the contrary, in fact, that medieval Europe was seen as enjoying a spiritual and political hegemony, as Church and State, Pope and Emperor - in spite of spasmodic jostlings for power - represented (at least in the West) a unified Christendom, with the pagan wisdom of the Greeks and Romans coming to be sanctified and completed by the Holy Spirit: Divine Grace, quite literally, completing Nature, as St Thomas Aquinas would have seen it.
Yet far from contemporaries viewing the Renaissance as a time of new light and freedom, it was rather perceived as full of omens of Armageddon. Christian, Jewish, and even pagan prophecies and numerologies, along with the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Turks, all seemed to indicate that history was drawing to a close. Then in addition to threats of Islamic invasion of mainland Europe, early-sixteenth-century Christendom itself was falling apart under its own weight, in what would later be seen as the Reformation.
On the other hand, the realm of human learning was expanding remarkably, with the new Greek scholarship, literary, theological, and scientific; while the re-drawing of the map of the world in less than a single human lifespan, along with a remarkable expansion of commerce and trade, seemed - and were - amazing achievements in themselves. Yet once again, we must be careful not to impose our modern "Renaissance" perspective upon early Tudor people, for even these great achievements could be construed as fulfilments of doom warnings.
What cannot be denied, however, is that the age of Colet, More, and Erasmus is one of abiding fascination. But to understand it properly, we must put aside our romanticised views of the Renaissance and try, as far as modern people can ever hope to do, to see their world through their eyes.
©Dr Allan Chapman, Gresham College 2009