Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rambling Speculations About Cause And Effect

I like to look at the chronological relation of events of hundreds or thousands of years ago, and speculate about possible cause-and-effect relationships, perhaps ones which have been rather seldom thought of. I'm hardly alone in this: historians often revise and refine our perceptions of events long after the fact. For example, the spires on Gothic cathedrals existed for quite a few centuries before it occurred to many people that they imitated the shape of minarets on masques, and that the Gothic style appeared in Europe in the 12th century, soon after the Crusades had begun and made masses of Western Europeans familiar with Islamic architecture. Now it is a commonplace in some circles that Gothic spires imitate minarets, and it is even somewhat difficult to understand how people failed to see this for so long.

I'm not the first to speculate about the relationship between Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere and the rush of European exploration which followed, or, to use a popular phrase, the "Age of Discovery" -- between the Age of Discovery and the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Henry VIII and Calvin weren't the first Protestants, but no Protestants before them had succeeded and survived on such a large scale. The Hussites had succeeded and survived more than a century before those other three, but on a much smaller scale, and at the cost of their leader, John Hus, being arrested, condemned and executed by the Catholic authorities. Luther, Henry and Calvin all lived to die of natural causes. Did the Age of Discovery, with its shattering of conventional ideas about the extent and variety of human civilization, lead directly to an increased readiness to accept the shattering of the Medieval ideal of the one true universal Catholic Church? (Nevermind that this Medieval conceit of one Church ignored -- as some Westerners today still ignore -- the Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic and other churches.) I can't point out a link as clear and obvious as that between minaret and Gothic spire, but there's no reason we can't wonder about it.

And of course there's the effect of printing, which began before 1440 and became widespread in Europe before 1470, on both exploration and religious quarrels.

And let's go back a little further in time, and wonder about the relationship between guns and clocks on the one hand, and printing, exploration and religious conflict on the other. Usually when someone speaks of something like the "mechanical revolution" they mean something which got underway in the 18th or 19th century, with factories and mills and trains and steamships and filthy smokestacks, but there definitely was a great revolution in the 14th century when guns became more and more important in warfare, and clocks began to appear in more and more town squares, and to ring the hours with huge bells. Both inventions turned all sorts of things upside-down, it's hard to say which one did so to the greater extent, guns or clocks.

And now is the time where perhaps you expect me to wrap up this blog post in a neat bow of a conclusion full of real or feigned wisdom and relevance for the year 2015 and beyond, and I fail to do so. At least I'm not feigning something, not presented some half-baked bullshit about what the above means. Minarets, Gothic spires, guns and clocks, then the Hussites, then printing, then Columbus, then a rush of other explorers, and European colonies, then the Reformation -- what does it all mean? Well, I don't know. But at least I'm giving you the list in correct chronological order. (And as long as I'm here, I could add: the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and extinguished the "Byzantine" Roman Empire just as printing began to spread, and for a century and more before that conquest [1453, same year the Hundred Years' War ended], Greek scholars had been fleeing to Italy before the Ottoman onslaught, helping to create what we refer to as the "Italian Renaissance.") Maybe I even gave you something interesting to think about, and maybe eventually one of you will be able to tell the rest of us what it all means. (Maybe all that it means is that I'm preoccupied with the history of Western Europe to the exclusion of the rest of the universe.) I honestly just enjoy thinking about such things, and figuring out what happened before what, just for its own sake, with no pretensions to astonishing insights.

No comments:

Post a Comment