Generation 472, 1420-1440. Fading and appearing

This generation saw the last instance that I am aware of, of direct angelic intervention in human affairs. It happened through a young girl living in Donremy in north-eastern France, the daughter of Jacques d’Arc. During Jeanne d’Arc’s (in English, Joan of Arc’s) lifetime France was living through a prolonged civil war among its elites.

The dukes of the two warring factions, the Armagnacs and Burgundians, were cousins. The Armagnacs controlled most of central France, an area dependent on agriculture, with its feudal hierarchies still intact. The Burgundians controlled eastern France and Flanders to the north (the area that is now Belgium). Flanders was rich because of the wool trade with England, and so the court of Burgundy was rich too, famous for its lavish style. Flanders had prosperous cities with merchants, the arts, an infrastructure – in other words, a more modern world. The king of England was also cousin to the fighting French elites. England controlled France north of the Loire, and Aquitaine in the south-west. As rulers of Flanders, it was in the Burgundians’ interests to ally themselves with England.
This map from Wikipedia shows the situation. The territories controlled by Henry V of England are shown in pink, those controlled by Philip III of Burgundy are shown in purple and the territories controlled by Charles VII, not yet crowned king of France, are shown in blue.

Joan was a devout girl. She had her first vision at the age of twelve or thirteen, in the garden of her home. She cried when the shining people left – they were so beautiful. From then on, for the next four years, she saw them often. Her friends first teased her and then avoided her. Her marriage betrothal was broken off. She said she saw Saints Catherine and Margaret and the archangel Michael. They told her to drive the English out of France and take the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned king Charles VII of France. Apart from the fact that she was an unimportant girl in an unimportant village, such ideas were in the realm of fantasy. Fifteen years previously the English had won a decisive victory at Agincourt. The last king of France, Charles the Mad, had signed a treaty disinheriting his son, the dauphin, in favour of his grandson Henry VI of England, on the possibly correct suspicion that the dauphin was a result of his wife’s affair with his brother during one of his bouts of insanity.

The full story is told in detail elsewhere: how she persuaded her cousin to take her to meet the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs, and how on her second visit she made an accurate prediction that the Armagnacs were being defeated that very day by the English. (This was the so-called battle of the Herrings). How she went to Orleans, was dressed in armour and despite superior numbers the English lifted the siege nine days after her arrival.

This was a time of rigid hierarchies. It is extraordinary that a poor girl from a small town should be in the same room as the dauphin and all those military commanders even as a servant, let alone converse with them as an equal. It would seem they maybe humoured her but they also listened to her. And after her appearance the tide of the conflict turned.

She did indeed conduct the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned. Within a generation the English were out of France and Charles VII made a peace treaty with Burgundy. Within a hundred years Burgundy and its territories were absorbed either into France or the Habsburg Empire, and within another hundred years France was the powerhouse of Europe.

Joan herself was captured, sold to the English, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But within a generation of her death the sentence was revoked, suggesting that those who remembered the events knew they had lived through something remarkable.
Jeanne d'Arc
This image of her was painted around 1450, about twenty years after she died. (courtesy Wikimedia).

Reviewing the story, it raises contradictions. Why did the angels appear to Joan? It could be said that the zeitgeist was not finding expression in the France of Joan of Arc, but in Flanders, Florence and eastern Europe. That was where the new world, the one we live in now, was making its appearance.

For example: a wealthy merchant in Ghent in Flanders commissioned Hubert van Eyck to paint an altarpiece for the local church. When Hubert died, his brilliant brother Jan took over.
Here is the inside of the altarpiece. The reverse is similarly ornate.

For me the most remarkable parts of this painting are the images of Adam and Eve on the left and right.
Here is a close-up of Adam. It is painted with a realism that is new to the time. One can imagine Messer van Eyck asking one of his friends, family or neighbours to model for him, and then painting what he actually saw rather than an idealised image.

But the most famous painting by Jan van Eyck was for a merchant in Bruges, another wealthy town in Flanders.
The Arnolfini portrait shows the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenami in their bedchamber. From the wooden pattens on the floor to the brush hanging from the bedpost, it shows a faithful attempt to portray the world they actually inhabited. A determination to describe what is actually the case that would not be out of place in our time.

There has been discussion about what this painting represents. Does it show the wedding of this couple, or their betrothal? Or is he granting her the power to manage their business affairs in his absence? The lady in this portrait shares her name with Joan of Arc (in French, Jeanne d’Arc). I suspect that whatever it portrays, apart from that one thing in common, the two women inhabited very different worlds.

More dramas in this generation were playing out in the world of the church. The last Avignon pope (supported by the Armagnac faction) abdicated in favour of Martin V, supported by the English and therefore the Burgundians. Martin V came from an old Roman family, and moved the seat of the papacy back to the city. He started rebuilding Rome, which had fallen into ruin. This was the beginning of the end of the turmoil in the catholic church, but not the end of dissent.

In 1415 a priest and scholar from Prague University in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) had been burned at the stake for heresy. In anticipation of the grievances of Martin Luther a century later, Jan Hus highlighted the hypocrisy of the church establishment and advocated a simpler, more personal religion. Jan Hus’s followers continued his cause after his death. There were five attempts by local rulers, backed by the catholic church to stamp out the heresy. But the Hussites defeated them all, thanks to some innovative tactics and inspiring leaders. By the end of this generation a compromise had been reached and the Hussites were nominally reintegrated into the church. But Hus’s ideas continued, and a century later the Reformation found fertile ground here.

Pope Martin’s successor Eugene IV oversaw an attempt to reunite the eastern and western churches. Although this ultimately failed, it did have a side-effect. One of the entourage accompanying the elders of the eastern church to Ferrara and then (after an outbreak of the plague) to Florence was a scholar called Gemistus Plethon. Cosimo de Medici attended Plethon’s lectures on Plato and, inspired by them, founded the Platonic Academy in Florence. And so the seeds that led to the flowering of the Renaissance were sown.

One seed that was sown in Florence at this time was within the realm of humanity. The wool merchants’ guild, one of the nine major guilds of the city, commissioned the sculptor Brunelleschi to design the first orphanage that I know of, and it opened in 1427. There was a basin outside the front door where an unwanted baby could be left anonymously. The children were reared there and given an education appropriate to their gender. The boys learned a trade, the girls domestic arts. The older girls had the chance to become nuns, or were given a dowry to be married. There is a mercy, a compassion given expression here: regardless of their background, the children left at the Ospedale degli Innocenti were cared for and given a chance to play their part in the life of Florence when they grew up.

Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence


Generation 473, 1440-1460. The way ahead.

In 1440 the Archbishop of York in the north of England attempted to extract payment from the stallholders at Otley market, about thirty miles from the city of York. The local landowner, Sir William Plumpton, considered himself entitled to this rent and decided to teach the archbishop a lesson. With 700 of his men he made an attack, there was a battle and the archbishop’s men withdrew. But the archbishop had not given up – after all, money was short. There had been some cold winters, crops had failed and the plague had returned to Yorkshire in recent years: times were hard. The final showdown took place on Friday 5th May 1441. Plumpton’s men set up roadblocks and the archbishop’s officers, tenants and servants were trapped in the villages of Helperby and Brafferton, between Plumpton’s land and York. Carnage followed. The archbishop’s men were cut down even as they tried to escape. This time Plumpton’s victory was decisive.

This story sounds strange to me. Why would an archbishop gather an army of mercenaries and servants from his lands to extract protection money from a market town? That doesn’t sound like the behaviour we would expect from a person of this rank. Both men sound more like organised crime bosses than local worthies.

Even stranger is the response of the establishment. This event was the launch of Sir William Plumpton’s career. His feudal overlord, Sir Harry Percy, made him steward of all his lands in Yorkshire. The king sent him a gift of twenty felled and trimmed mature oak trees. Within a few years he served as Sheriff of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (each a one-year appointment). He was a Justice of the Peace, administering the law, and Steward of Knaresborough Castle.

Clearly might was right, and Plumpton was seen as a man who could get things done. And clearly religious practices were separate from the people who lived to promote them.

A bit of context. As we have gone backwards through the generations, we have seen that the concept of individual human rights did not become established until 15 generations or 350 years later than the story described here. In this world, everyone had their place. The men who fought for Sir William Plumpton were tied to him. They had little choice in the matter. And Sir William himself belonged to his own bloodline. His father, grandfather, sons and grandsons were all called William or Robert. When he was a child his family arranged his marriage to his first wife, and he grew up in her family’s household. For the landowning class, the marriage contract was negotiated with a dowry from the woman’s family, and lands from the man’s.

More context. The Black Death (as it is known to our generation) or the great pestilence as it was called at the time, had first struck a century previously and would keep returning intermittently for the following century and a half. By 1440 The population of Europe was about a third lower than in 1340.

And after the great pestilence, the climate had turned colder. This was the start of the Little Ice Age. The Thames in London froze over. Colder climate meant crop failure, and that meant starvation for some. Villages in marginal areas in Europe and Asia were abandoned.

As the fabric of society came apart, opportunists like the archbishop and Sir William took their chances. And others did, too. Labourers’ wages increased after the great pestilence. Serfdom, which required that a villein had to pay a penalty to his lord for the privilege of leaving the land, effectively came to an end. And the restrictive dress code of earlier generations became unenforceable. Previously, you could tell a person’s station in life, their role in society by the clothes they wore. Even to who was allowed to wear gloves, and of what material. This rigid control started to relax, and some extraordinary styles of dress appeared. Most dramatic was the hennin, a headdress worn by aristocratic women particularly in northern and western Europe.
Isabella of France returns to England
Here Isabel of France, married to Edward II, lands in England accompanied by her ladies.
Here is another Isabella, who was married to the Duke of Burgundy, also in France. She was originally from Portugal. Women plucked their foreheads so that no hair showed, and wore a veil down to their eyebrows.
Here is a portrait believed to be of Isabella’s brother Henry (known to our generation as Henry the Navigator), wearing another type of extravagant hat. Men wore wide flat hats like this one.

As a young man Henry had seen the goods arriving in the caravans over the Sahara to Ceuta in North Africa, and he wanted to establish direct trading links rather than having to deal with muslim merchants as intermediaries. In the 1430’s, from his base on the Sagres peninsula in Portugal, Henry encouraged map-making and shipbuilding and sponsored expeditions down the coast of Africa. After 15 failed expeditions in which his captains had returned reporting that Cape Bojador could not be passed, the sixteenth sailed away from the coast to catch the wind, then headed back for land and discovered that they had passed the cape. A barrier had been breached. Now in this generation his captains travelled as far as the Gambia and Senegal, paving the way for the Portuguese trading links and voyages of discovery to the horn of Africa and beyond in the following generations.

Here is some more dramatic headgear from the time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This window, now in the Museum of the Middle Ages, Cluny, Paris, shows a couple playing chess. She wears the divided hennin and he has an extravagant flat hat.

This headgear stayed in fashion until the end of the century. What caused people to pay such attention to their heads? Such outfits can’t be easy to wear. The conical hennin with a veil flowing behind has stayed in the popular imagination as the archetypal headwear of a fairytale princess.
truncated hennin
Another version was the beehive or truncated hennin. This one is from Burgundy. Heads and headcoverings were clearly important!

Meanwhile, in south and eastern Europe, other dramas were playing out. By the end of this generation the papacy managed to re-establish itself after a turbulent period in which at one point in the previous generation there had been three men each calling himself pope. There had been popes in Avignon, Basel and Florence, but by the end of this generation pope Eugene III was the only one, and he was based once more in Rome. However, the papacy was still in no position to help the other centre of the christian church, Constantinople, when it called for help in the face of Ottoman aggression. At the siege of Constantinople in 1453 5000 Byzantine troops faced ten times as many Ottoman invaders.
This map from Wikipedia gives an idea of the hopelessness of the Byzantine situation. Byzantium, in purple, is surrounded by the Ottoman Empire.
It was not simply a war of muslims versus christians. There were many christians fighting with the Ottomans, and a Hungarian-built cannon gave the city walls a battering.
The good news was that after the inevitable victory, Sultan Mehmet displayed a tolerance to the defeated that he did not extend to his own family (he was the first to establish the practice by Ottoman sultans on accession of killing all their male relatives seen as potential rivals). He banned looting and invited those who had fled the city to return home. Apart from converting the cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he did not interfere with other religious practices. He moved his capital there, and Constantinople prospered under its new name of Istanbul.

A final item from this generation: an extraordinary wooden sculpture by Donatello, in Florence.

Donatello, penitent magdalen

The penitent Magdalen looks so contemporary, so expressive of individual emotion.  It is hard to believe that it was made over 500 years ago, at the same time as Sir William Plumpton and the archbishop of York were slugging it out at the other end of Europe.

Generation 475, 1480-1500. The appearance of the individual.

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.
Bosch ship of fools
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.
ship of fools people making a noise when others are trying to sleep
Each chapter has a woodcut illustration. This one is about people making a noise outside at night when others are trying to sleep.
ship of fools parents leading their children astray
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.
da vinci last supper

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.