From Norwich to Naples

Anthony Grafton

  • The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale
    HarperCollins, 648 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 00 215339 4

On the sprawling, minutely detailed historical paintings of the contemporary German artist Werner Tübke, preachers and prostitutes, humanists and soldiers, animated zodiacal signs and Popes tortured by devils tumble, gallop and fly past the onlooker. The flamboyantly dressed soldiers, needle-sharp lances, Hills of Golgotha and Towers of Babel that fill his works are carefully reproduced from dozens of well-known Renaissance paintings. Within the swirling clouds of detail, juxtapositions suggest interpretations. Mining machinery and printing presses of the time, for example, appear as complementary causes of the dissolution of the medieval social order and the doomed rising of thousands of German peasants in 1525. But the real effect of Tübke’s work lies in its power to evoke, in unforgettable detail, a moment of seismic historical change.

Like the German painter, John Hale has produced a vast and enthralling mosaic. In his new cultural history of Renaissance Europe a sprawling mass of individual scenes, deftly drawn and coloured, capture the pain and the beauty of massive social and cultural change. As with Tübke, Hale’s work rests on enormous hidden foundations: only someone who had devoted a lifetime to studying the history, literature and art of the 15th and 16th centuries could draw so effortlessly on what seems a limitless range of texts and illustrations. One cannot skim a single chapter without encountering unfamiliar details, elegant juxtapositions of visual and verbal argument, and anecdotes without end, each of which makes a novel and instructive point. Why were the Venetians frightened when the Doge absented himself from a great public meeting to go to the lavatory? Who tried to push Turkish attackers away from the walls of Famagusta with gigantic mechanical forks reminiscent of J.G. Farrell’s Patent Cavalry Exterminator? What percentage of people in Elizabethan England were accused by neighbours of ‘fornication, adultery, buggery, incest, bestiality or bigamy?’ Read Hale and find out.

His account begins with the ‘discovery of Europe’: the massive effort to map the spaces, describe the towns, and understand the weirdly different peoples of the continent that occupied so many scholars and artists of the 15th and 16th centuries. This enterprise found expression at every cultural level. The newly precise maps of Mercator and Ortelius, based on the mathematical principles of Ptolemy’s cartography and informed by new data, satisfied scientific curiosity. The English travellers who survived brigands and bordellos to offer their countrymen scurrilous accounts of the carnivals and customs of Abroad catered to less technical interests. Both produced a newly well-informed stay-at-home reader: ‘From myth and map, chorography, history and survey, Europe passed into the mind.’

Hale shows us with elegance and economy the rise of a collective sense that Europe was a coherent entity: one separated by tradition, languages and customs, as well as geology and geography, from the barbarians of Russia and the New World, and the rich, cultured mandarins of the East. He also reveals, with characteristically skilful quotations, the ambivalence that Europeans felt as they became more conscious of the existence of powerful rivals. With Pietro della Valle, struck by the sharp contrast between the hurried movements and prissy status displays of European grandees and the silent dignity of the Turks, or Alessandro Valignano, impressed that Japanese children learned more quickly than Europeans and seemingly did not quarrel, sharp observation mutated into something like anthropology. The Americas presented the sharpest challenge: not only to an inherited Biblical history which seemed to supply no son of Noah as a forefather for their inhabitants, but also to a complex of ideas about which institutions are natural, which artificial, that Amerindian societies seemed to subvert. A very few individuals, like Montaigne, reacted to a varied universe with universal tolerance.

For the most part, however, the spyglasses of European intellectuals and readers were trained less on outsiders man on one another, and what they saw inspired more amusement and anger than tolerance. The sense that all Europeans shared assumptions and customs was accompanied by an ever sharper sense that national characteristics divided them. Playwrights, poets and pamphleteers enjoyed themselves creating clichés about national character which would reverberate down the years, inspiring riots, pogroms, wars and disputes over the fate of butter mountains. Thomas Nashe was funnier, but not more opinionated, than rival writers in the same field when he made a character in The Unfortunate Traveller warn that France had nothing for the traveller but syphilis, while in Holland he could study drunkenness, in Italy atheism, whoring, poisoning and sodomy, and in Spain, perhaps worst of all how to make ‘a ruffe with short strings like the droppings of a man’s nose’. True, Germans won Fynes Morrison’s gratitude because they did not piss in the street, unlike everyone else he encountered across the Channel; he attributed their cleanliness not to intelligence but to their obsessive interest in their work.

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