Thursday, March 18, 2010

Breaking the Master Narrative, Part 6

There’s one quality in a historian that’s more important than all the others.  It’s not writing skill, as that can be taught.  It’s not a good memory, as that can be a burden as much as an aid.  It’s not even intelligence, although a good chunk of that is deeply, deeply helpful.

What matters most of all, and what I believe separates a great historian from someone who merely possesses knowledge of history, is what I would call a restless intellectual curiosity.  It is intellectual curiosity that creates the drive to understand.  That drive, in turn, creates the desire to put down one book with the next already in hand.  It’s also what has lead me to my recent divergent fascinations with Byzantium and the Age of Discovery.  These are topics I knew a few things about but had never really bothered to study.  Then one good book, specifically Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea, gave me the desire to learn more about each.  Charles Mann’s 1491 helped immensely with the latter desire, too.

That fascination with the Age of Discovery, in turn, lead me to pick up Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.  And Bergreen offered me a bit of insight in to the topic I’ve been whittling away at with the Breaking the Master Narrative series that I am privileged to share with you.[1]

For when I left off it was with three P’s: Ptolemy, portolan charts, and Petrarch.  I was attempting to work out a strange question, namely how is it that accurate regional maps of the world could exist while the world map itself was the spectacularly wrong T-O map.  Bergreen’s book does not concern itself with this topic like Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World, as the Waldseemuller Map was drawn over a decade before Magellan’s journey.  But Bergreen understands that in order to properly understand Magellan we must understand something of his world.  As such he devotes the initial pages of his book to the all-important context.

In broad strokes he outlines ancient and medieval cosmology and how astrology and astronomy stood hand-in-hand as equally well-regarded academic disciplines.  He also outlines how the re-discovery of Ptolemy in Europe pushed aside the old T-O charts, which is what I’ll be discussing tonight, anyway.  But it is here that he offers the insight I was missing.

Amid the confusion, two kinds of maps evolved: simple but accurate “portolan” charts based on the actual observations of pilots, and far more elaborate concoctions of cosmographers.  The charts simply showed how to sail from point to point; the cosmographers tried to include the entire cosmos in their schemes.  The cosmographers relied primarily on mathematics for their depictions, but the pilots relied on experience and observation.  The pilots’ charts covered harbors and shorelines, the cosmographers’ maps of the world, filled with beguiling speculation, were often useless for actual navigation.

Now, it would seem there’s a simple solution to this issue.  But Bergreen anticipates the thought.

Although it might be expected that pilots worked closely with cosmologists, that was far from the case.  Pilots were hired hands who occupied a lower social stratum.  Many were illiterate and relied on simple charts that delineated familiar coastlines and harbors, as well as their own instincts regarding wind and water.  The cosmologists looked down on pilots as “coarse men” who possessed “little understanding.”  The pilots, who risked their lives at sea, were inclined to regard cosmologists as impractical dreamers.

We stand now at the crux of the problem of the transmission of knowledge.  It’s the fight between the down-to-earth folk who use common sense and those pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers of academia.  But, really, this is nothing new.

Consider Matthew Paris, the English monk who drew “maps” of the pilgrimage route to the Holy Land even though he probably never left the grounds of his monastery for fear of being contaminated by the world.  Then consider that the Western educational system came out of those same monasteries.  The first word in higher education is “scholar,” which derives from “scholastics,” which was originally a bastardization of a Greek word used to describe the discipline by which educated Christian attempted to reconcile ancient philosophy with the Christian Bible.  Scholars, meanwhile, were “academics,” a name derived from the Greek “Akademia,” a sacred space set aside for the study of wisdom.

Higher learning, then, has always been something that is set aside.  It is, to borrow the Biblical concept, in this world and not of it.  It feels no need to concern itself with the low, the base, the illiterate scoundrel, whether he’s a pilgrim or a pilot.  The problem with this, though, is that while the academic draws a map of what he thinks the world looks like, the pilgrim or pilot lives in that world and actually knows what it looks like.[2]

Ironically, though, this blog post is actually about progress.  Because even though Ptolemy’s charts weren’t exactly useful as navigational charts, they were massively useful in a different respect: they depicted the entirety of the world Ptolemy knew in a way that was far, far closer to reality than anything that existed in the years between its loss and its re-discovery.  We know the exact person who created the conditions that created a desire for something as comprehensive and useful as Ptolemy’s chart: Francesco Petrarch.

More, we know Petrarch for the discipline he created through his own diligent study.  It’s a discipline that, more than any other, encapsulates the difference between itself and its predecessor in exactly one word: Humanism.

This is the difference between philosophy and theology.  It’s the difference between a world dominated by T-O charts and one dominated by Ptolemy’s maps.  Theology and, by extension, medieval cosmology, preoccupies itself with the question of what the world looks like from god’s perspective.[3]

What Petrarch did was something that was so simple, so basic, that no one else in medieval Europe was even considering doing the same thing.  See, he spent his time traveling around Europe in search of ancient manuscripts.  And then, when he read them, he realized that the world that he lived in didn’t look anything like the classical world.  So he decided to attempt to map it out.

Lester contends that Petrarch used maritime charts in his research.  He may well have.  Lester also contends, and on this I strongly agree, the Petrarch did not and could not have used the old T-O style mappaemundi in trying to figure out his world.  For the mappaemundi did not depict the world that anyone lived in.  And it was that desire to find a way to map the world that ultimately lead to the re-discovery of the cosmology of Claudius Ptolemy.

This, by the way, is where my parallel fascination with Byzantium comes in extremely handy.  Most people are at least somewhat aware of the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in the waning days of Rome.  Most are also at least somewhat aware of the schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  And anyone who reads a modern map can see that the city known in Greek and pre-Constantine Roman days as “Byzantium,” then for a thousand years as “Constantinople” is now known as “Istanbul” and is the [former]* capitol of Turkey, the modern descendant of the once-grand Ottoman Empire, the greatest of all Muslim nations.

Constantinople was the bulwark at the eastern tip of the Roman world.  The reason Constantine moved his capitol to the city that would be the greatest city in all the world as known to Europeans for a thousand years is because it was the first and strongest defense against the barbarian tribes from the east.  It remained in that role during the middle ages, but the enemy switched from the Huns to Islam.

The schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox created problems, however.  On a practical level, European powers that answered to the Pope were less willing to militarily support their supposedly heretical neighbors.[4]  On a philosophical level, it created an atmosphere in western Europe toxic to any and all Greek learning.  Greek scholarship was automatically regarded as inferior to Latin and Greek thinking was considered suspect, if not outright heretical.

Petrarch himself did not change that attitude.  He was long dead when the dramatic shift occurred.  So it fell to his disciples in humanism to foster an environment where Greek thought was properly respected.

That moment came in 1439.  Constantinople was, once again, in danger from the Turks.  These were the Ottomans, a nomadic tribe that had established itself as, basically, mercenaries that were regarded as holding to the true spirit of jihad.  Under Osman I the tribe had set down permanent roots in 1299 (five years before the birth of Petrarch), but held to that restless spirit of jihad and expansion, specifically against Constantinople itself.

The word “Byzantine” carries two distinct connotations in the English language: complicated and deceptive.  If a country is described as having a “Byzantine bureaucracy,” that is not a compliment.  If someone advances an argument using “Byzantine logic,” that’s not saying they’re plain spoken and guileless.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

It was that very quality of Byzantine-ness that allowed Constantinople to hang on against the expansive Ottomans, however.  On some level it was all they had.  Well, that and the Justinian walls that were impenetrable and insurmountable to pre-gunpowder military technology.  They outsmarted their enemies at the negotiating table and played their factions against each other in the shadowy world of espionage.

Even so, they knew that there was only so much that Constantinople could do without the support of a serious force of arms.  By the early 15th Century the ever practical Emperor John VIII Palaiologos knew that getting that support would require the unthinkable: reconciling with the Roman Catholic Church.

A grand Ecclesiastical council was called in Florence in 1439 to attempt to once again join the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  But, as with so many other things, this council had an unintended and unanticipated consequence that would have a far greater impact on history than the council itself.

For the priests and bishops brought their assistants to Florence, too.  And while the men of god argued over arcane creeds and modes of worship, the assistants met and discussed.  A particular class of learned men were highly sought-after by the Roman Catholic clerics due to the depth and breadth of their knowledge.

As such, the Council of Florence, that great ecclesiastical meeting between East and West, was also the first great conference of Humanists.  And while the clerics were attempting to patch up centuries-old conflicts and issues of mistrust over languages in creeds, modes of offering sacraments, and Papal authority, the Latin Humanists were eagerly meeting with their Byzantine counterparts and attempting to get any knowledge they could of classical Greek thought.

It was at Florence that Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmography re-entered Western Europe.  There’s far more to Ptolemy’s work than I’ve gotten in to so far, but I think that I can leave the thought with a pair of pictures.

This is what the world looked like to the Western European mind before the re-discovery of Ptolemy:

This is what it looked like after:


[1]Yes.  Privileged.  The sharing of knowledge and wisdom is a mitzvah.  In both senses of the word, really.  But I prefer the secular interpretation of the word…

[2]This, too, shows the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson in the foundation of the University of Virginia.  He considered the study of theology anathema to a proper education and preferred a school that studied things that were useful to the human experience.  The American educational system has largely followed the Jeffersonian model and, as such, we have state chartered universities that matriculate graduates in everything from philosophy to physics to physical education.  The fact that certain reactionary elements in the Texas School Board of Education and morons with public platforms like Chuck Norris can’t understand that and appreciate it is, on some level, deeply saddening.  But, by the same token, it’s heartening that they’re only disturbed by Thomas Jefferson because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.”  They don’t understand that Thomas Jefferson’s greatest contribution to the modern world wasn’t the Declaration of Independence, but the charter of the University of Virginia.

[3]In this I believe that I set myself against Fred Clark.  He sees theology as a deeply human endeavor, as he believes that we cannot understand god without understanding how god wishes humans to interact with each other.  But even in that we cannot separate the world around us from the god view of that same world.  Ergo, even if we must study humans to fully appreciate and understand god, we’re not actually studying humans.  Think about it this way: when medical research companies use animals for drug trials they aren’t trying to figure out how to use antibiotics to extend the life span of rats.  They’re studying the rats to better understand what the drugs would do to humans.  The rats themselves are merely useful objects of study, while humans are the eventual subject.

[4]The story of the fall of Constantinople is deeply, deeply fascinating, frustrating, and contradictory.  It’s amazing that the city stood as long as it did, given that it was constantly threatened from the east and mistrusted from the west.  With proper support from Christian Europe the city would never have been taken.  But prior to the city’s fall in 1453 the only successful conquest of Constantinople came in the form of the Fourth Crusade in 1203.  Even at that the Byzantines re-took the city in 1261 and held it for nearly two more centuries in spite of the fact that the city’s population had dwindled to approximately 35,000, from a height of somewhere over half a million in the 10th Century (by way of comparison, at the dawn of the Age of Discovery the population of London was about 50,000 and the greatest cities of Europe: Seville, Venice, Rome, and Genoa, had about 100,000.  Of course the Black Plague had played something of a role in this, but consider that Christian Constantinople at its height exceeded the size of any five cities in Europe.  Oh, and Istanbul was at about half a million at the dawn of the Age of Discovery, too…).  When Mehmet II gathered an army backed up by the largest artillery pieces to date to assault Constantinople in 1453 the Catholic powers of Europe sent some token support to the city, which had a defensive force that was outnumbered by about ten-to-one.  And even at that the city held out to the breaking point of the Ottoman attackers and could have survived if not for a series of misfortunes that befell the defenders during Mehmet’s final, desperate attack.

*Thanks, Rhino of Steel...


meyerprints said...

Fake Al Gore said...

Brilliant! I finally got an opportunity to sit down and read this. I look forward to the next in the series.

Rhino of Steel said...

Yes. Privileged. The sharing of knowledge and wisdom is a mitzvah. In both senses of the word, really. But I prefer the secular interpretation of the word…

Well said, I decided I wanted to continue my university career until I could pass on some of this history for that reason.

And in that spirit a small nitpick, Istanbul is not actually the capital of modern Turkey, Ankara is. Ataturk decided to move it to show that the new Turkey would be a secular nation based in the old Roman provincial capital rather than the seat of the Caliph. Easy mistake to make though, I would have had no idea if I were not taking a class on Galatia at the moment.

I am definitely going to look into that conference now. I'm curious what else was brought over to Western Europe from that meeting.

Geds said...

Ah, crud. And the sad thing is that I did actually know that...

Actually, though, this illustrates the exact problem that Petrarch found when attempting to figure out where stuff from antiquity actually was. Since I've been looking at the Ottoman Empire far more than Turkey lately, I just thought, "Istanbul's the capitol," and went on with my life. But things change, especially over the course of a hundred or a thousand years. And we have to remember to update the map sometimes...

fool for beautiful words said...

Byzantium is quite a fascinating topic, even to a (yet) lay man, like myself.

But what I most liked about this post of yours was this sentence:
What matters most of all, and what I believe separates a great historian from someone who merely possesses knowledge of history, is what I would call a restless intellectual curiosity.
It reminds me of what a young lady said (also a student of history) in a forum thread about the justification of the existence of humanities: "I study to satisfy my scientific Eros."