This generation saw the establishment of the Holy Office for the Propagation of the Faith, known to us now as the Spanish Inquisition. But Spain did not exist yet, so perhaps it could be called the Castilian and Aragonese Inquisition, as King Fernando of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castile were the ones authorised by the pope to set it up.
The Iberian peninsula (with Portugal, Navarre and the Moorish kingdom of Granada as well as Castile and Aragon) had traditionally been one of the more religiously tolerant and diverse parts of Europe. All jews had been expelled from England two hundred years previously, followed by other European states. The fact that Jesus was jewish seemed to get lost in the christianity that was propounded in the churches of Europe, and the jews were a conspicuous minority wherever they were allowed to live.
The chief inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, saw it as his mission to remove heresy from the kingdom of Castile. Non-christians – jews and moslems – were offered the alternatives of conversion to christianity or expulsion. As a person from generation 500, I find this whole scenario difficult to comprehend. Why is it so important which religion I was brought up in? What does it matter to anyone else? And if someone makes a big deal about it, why not just tell them what they want to hear? After all, they can’t see what goes on between my ears. If I observe the outward forms of the religion imposed on me and keep my thoughts to myself, won’t that make everyone happy?
Some people did choose to convert, and were still regarded with suspicion even after protesting that the conversion was genuine. But most decided to leave. Clearly, this was a much more serious matter to generation 475 than it is to most people of ours. Fundamentalism was the norm. How to understand this?
A similar suspicion of outsiders found different expression in northern Europe. This generation saw the publication of The Malleus Maleficarum, ‘The Hammer of Witchcraft’ by a German called Heinrich Kramer. It was a handbook for the identification of witches and on how to prosecute them. Despite the author being dismissed as a ‘senile old man’ and expelled from Innsbruck when he tried to bring a prosecution for witchcraft there, and official condemnation from both the pope and the Inquisition, the book was popular. Witchcraft prosecutions increased in number. It went through twenty editions until the events of the Reformation turned everyone’s attention to other questions.
Again, how to understand this? Fernando of Aragon was at pains to show that he did not expel the jews for material gain. He allowed them to take their possessions with them, and waived the limits for the amount of gold they could take out of the country. The step could almost be seen as short-sighted, given that the christian world felt threatened by the growing power of the Ottoman Empire, and that is where many of the exiles found refuge. The Ottoman emperor couldn’t believe his luck, to receive so many talented and industrious new citizens.
The Alhambra decree, written after the defeat of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, offers a clue for this extraordinary step. It gives the reason that Fernando and Isabel were worried that jews who did not convert to christianity might tempt back those who had. In other words, the expulsion was presented as an attempt to save christian souls as part of their duty as monarchs of a renewed christian peninsula.
A dislike of difference was in the air. A clue to the mindset that allowed it can be seen in another publishing success of the time, ‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brandt. In the book he expels all of the fools disrupting the harmony of the world, and describes the many varieties of folly aboard the boat.
Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch
Why send away all the fools? Here is a verse from Brandt’s introduction to his book.
‘Banished is doctrine, we wander in darkness
through all the world: our self we will not know.
Wisdom is exiled, alas blind foolishness
Misguides the minds of people high and low.
Grace is decayed, ill governance does grow.’
And because Brandt was a humanist (like Erasmus in generation 476), he finishes the verse with a classical allusion:
‘Both prudent Pallas and Minerva are slain
Or else to heaven returned are they again’
And the people he loads on to the ship? He starts with the lawyers, then those who show greed, envy or wastefulness. The next group are those who wear ‘new fashions and disguised garments’. He laments the certainty of the old days when a person’s rank in life was evident from the clothes they wore. And so it goes on, a list of what is wrong with the world worthy of our modern tabloid newspapers.
Each chapter has a woodcut illustration. This one is about people making a noise outside at night when others are trying to sleep.
And this one illustrates a chapter on parents setting a bad example to their children.
It sounds to me as if Herr Brandt preferred a world where people knew their place and didn’t question the order of things. As his book was so popular, he may not have been alone in thinking the world was going downhill. Which says that change was in the air.
‘The fool’ is becoming a theme here. In generation 476, Erasmus wrote a book entitled ‘The Praise of Folly’. What does this tell us? Was a new perception appearing? The very acknowledgement of folly maybe shows that a person can make mistakes, which in turn says that a person has some autonomy, some individual choice of which action to take – and that actions have consequences.
A new world was within reach in another way. While Fernando and Isabel were celebrating the conquest of Granada and around the time of their Alhambra decree to expel the jews, they gave their sanction to a Genoese sailor with a dodgy proposal. Cristoforo Colombo claimed that he could sail to Asia, to China and Japan by going westwards across the Atlantic. They knew his calculations were incorrect – the size of the Earth was more or less known, his sums didn’t add up and the distance was almost certainly much further than he claimed.
The first globe had been made recently. It didn’t show America as it hadn’t been discovered, but the sense of the size of our home planet was there.
However, Fernando and Isabel had nothing to lose and a lot to gain. The Portuguese had rounded the southernmost point of Africa and were within reach of finding a route to India and east Asia that way, meaning it was blocked to Aragon and Castile. Christopher Columbus already had financial backing, so they didn’t have to spend any money. Maybe he would find some more islands in the Atlantic, like Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands.
Columbus’ great achievement was that he found a way home before setting off. In earlier years when he sailed to the Canaries for his work he noticed that the prevailing winds blew from east to west. Further north they blew west to east. The boats they used were square-rigged and could only sail before the wind. He could travel out via the Canaries and back via the more northerly route. And that is what he did.
New worlds of perception were appearing too, and one way this showed was in painting. Previously paintings had been compositions, decorations of space, rather like an embroidery. The concept of perspective was relatively new, and with it came the idea that a painting could be a faithful representation of the external physical world.
This extraordinary painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is on the end wall of a refectory in Milan. The unremarkable rectangular room is transformed, seemingly doubled in size with views of the countryside beyond. The monks who dined there must have felt they were sharing their meal with Jesus and his disciples. Seeing it now, over five hundred years later and despite the fact that it has deteriorated (Leonardo experimented with a new method of fresco painting, and the paint flaked off) the realism is still disturbing.
Jesus and his disciples are portrayed as ordinary people, without halos around their heads and in everyday poses. The consternation of some of the people in the image is palpable. What does this say about the human world view?
To me it says that a new permission was appearing. People were starting to feel distinct, in the same way as the individuals in that painting are all different from one another. The painting captures the moment when Jesus announced that one of those present was going to betray him. The people in the painting are not distinguished by their function and dress as was the norm, but by their personal expression and response to this verbal bombshell.
If his notebooks are a guide, Leonardo expressed an individuality there as well as in his paintings. He was clearly able to think his own thoughts. He was fascinated by the physical world.
Here is the plan of the Italian town of Imola that he drew for Cesare Borgia, one of the many drawings he made, which included anatomical sketches, military machines, studies of the way water flows and much more.
Events elsewhere may explain why Leonardo was so secretive about his notebooks. As well as keeping them physically hidden, he wrote his notes back-to-front, in mirror writing. He probably ran the risk of accusations of heresy if they were discovered. Imagine the response if one of the readers of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ came across them. Where did all those ideas come from? He must be possessed!
An example of the dangers of such indiscretion played out in Florence during this generation. Girolamo Savonarola was a friar who worked as a teacher at the convent of San Marco in the town. He started to have ideas for the reform of the church, and took them to be divine revelation. Their divine origin seemed to be confirmed when he prophesied that one ‘like Cyrus was going to cross the mountains’ and that no fortresses would be able to stop it. And sure enough there was an invasion from over the Alps two years later, in 1494. Charles VIII of France invaded and moved through the peninsula in his attempt to claim the crown of Naples.
Savonarola was the man of the moment. His group of followers took over the administration of the town in the vacuum left after Charles’ retreat back to France. His ideas had a strong resonance with those of Martin Luther a couple of generations later (which I also find curious. An idea looking for its people?). He instituted ‘bonfires of the vanities’, setting fire to trinkets and baubles, distractions from a godly life.
Savonarola had no backup and he didn’t endear himself to the establishment. Machiavelli was a follower for a while, but not for long. Here is what he had to say about Savonarola in ‘The Prince’:
“If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”
The tide turned. He and his followers were accused of heresy and burned at the stake in 1498.