Generation 477, 1520 – 1540. Baptisms of fire

The next misconception to be laid to rest by this project is that the rate of change for our species has accelerated within our lifetimes. People from generation 477 had to adapt to as many, if not more changes than the ones we are living through now. It was a rollercoaster – for some of them, anyway.

Let’s work from west to east, starting with south America.

The Spanish had the wind in their sails, literally. Under the Spanish flag the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan had reached the south of South America by the start of this period, on his attempt to sail around the world. After Columbus’s voyage a couple of generations previously, the sailors crossing the Atlantic had begun to accept that Ptolemy’s Geography didn’t describe the world they were seeing. The New World was not Asia, as Columbus had initially believed, but another continent not described by the ancients. And clearly the world was not five-sixths land surrounded by sea, as Ptolemy had said. The sailors still had no idea that so much of the planet was covered by water, until Magellan’s journey. After a month of backtracking and slowly moving forward through the maze of islands between the Tierra del Fuego and the mainland, Magellan and his men reached the huge ocean which they named the Pacific. It took them over three months more to cross the Pacific, which luckily for them lived up to the name they had given it. Magellan himself died in the Phillipines, but one of the original five ships and a couple of dozen of his crew completed the journey around Asia and Africa back to Spain, three years after setting out.

Other European explorers had already brought an unintended cargo to the north of South America: diseases like smallpox, chicken pox, measles … Many of these diseases had originally appeared after crossing species from animals to humans. Centuries of settled agriculture and close contact with farm animals had made Europeans largely immune, but the diseases were devastating for the populations of South America. Sophisticated civilisations tottered with the attempt to cope with so many deaths – and then a few hundred Spanish conquistadores armed with muskets and riding horses came and pushed them over the edge. The Inca Empire was claimed by Spain, and the Portuguese occupied Brazil. The coming of the Europeans must have felt like the end of the world.

For many in mainland Europe a world came to an end in this generation. First, a bit of power politics to set the context.

The most powerful man in Europe was the Habsburg emperor, Charles V. His empire included Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and later also Hungary. If you look at a map of Europe, you can see that these countries almost completely encircle France. The next powerful man, King Francois I of France, was acutely aware of this fact, and so made forays in the only land direction not controlled by the Habsburgs, into Italy. The pope (powerful man number three) was also wary of Habsburg power and allied himself with Francois, which did not please Charles. Powerful man number four, the Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent, was also flexing his territorial muscles out into the Mediterranean, the Balkans and towards Vienna. This made both the pope and Charles very nervous. Francois made an alliance with him, presumably on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. In other words, not a stable situation and certainly not one to accommodate new ideas.

And a new idea had arrived. Martin Luther’s protest about the pope’s favoured fundraising method had found many sympathisers. This was the selling of indulgences: paying alms for the remission of sins. The Vatican’s latest project was the very expensive rebuilding of St Peter’s basilica in Rome, and the previous pope had directly linked donations to the costs with the promise of indulgences. Luther described the practice with the phrase ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’.

Luther did not set out to create a new religion. His protest was originally intended to press for reform of the church, but the pope in his lavish insulated world was oblivious and didn’t catch the spirit of the times, believing that this protest would fade away like all the earlier ones. It didn’t, and I suspect Luther sometimes wondered what he had started. Other clever men took up his ideas and explored them further. During this generation the bible was translated into both English and German. Literate people could now see for themselves what had previously been the domain of the clergy. And what they read did not always correspond to what they had been told by the priests.

For example, Mary the mother of Jesus does not feature largely in the bible, certainly not as much as she does in the church. There were attempts in the new religion to downgrade her status, so that she was seen as the vessel through which Jesus arrived, and no more.

There was no mention of infant baptism in the bible. In fact, Jesus had been baptised as an adult.

Another example from the old Testament: the commandment about not having graven images. The churches were full of them.

These ideas had the effect of a spark in a powder keg. Works of art were destroyed, statues were removed from the churches, the people didn’t know who to turn to. There were violent uprisings, particularly in the German-speaking world. Luther was horrified and wrote against the uprisings, in a book entitled ‘Against the murderous thieving hordes of peasants’. Events quite clearly were not proceeding according to plan. However, some of the German princes began to examine their consciences: were they treating their subjects as well as they might? By the end of this generation some of them had embraced the new religion and formed a league in defiance of their catholic overlord, the Emperor Charles V. The pope had to accept the new reality that not all christians now accepted the authority of the roman catholic church.

Meanwhile, the power politicians had their own dramas. The Habsburg army moved into Italy to counter French ambitions, and in the middle of it was the pope. Rome was sacked and looted, half its population killed. While the pope was escaping, an embassy came from England requesting the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. As this lady was Charles V’s aunt and Charles’ army had just defeated the Vatican, the pope was not sure what to do. When he refused to sanction the annulment, Henry declared himself head of the English church and another part of christendom was lost to catholicism.

Something not dissimilar was unfolding in India at the same time. The muslim Mughal emperors had not made many converts. They hardened their line against the hindu subjects, with a resulting reduction of tolerance and goodwill on both sides. Into this came guru Nanak, the founder of sikhism. He travelled through India and to Mecca and Medina. Through discussions with wise people along the way he devised a system which took the best of each religion and leaves its more unfortunate aspects. From islam came the idea of a single god, but he took the hindu tradition of gurus. He rejected the caste system as espoused by hindus, declaring that all humans are equal.

And finally, a new letter was added to the latin alphabet during this generation, by Gian Giorgio Trissino in his Ɛpistola del Trissino de le lettere nuωvamente aggiunte ne la lingua italiana (“Trissino’s epistle about the letters recently added in the Italian language”) of 1524. The letter ‘j’, which had started as a flourish to the final ‘i’ of roman numerals (as in xxiij for 23), took up its place in the alphabet next to the ‘i’ it had emerged from. Which means that before this generation ‘Jesus’ was spelt and pronounced ‘Iesus’ or ‘Iesu’. This letter has no equivalent in the Greek or Hebrew alphabets.


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