Lecture #1 - Europe in 1500 - 45:23 min (mp3)
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Mosse begins the lecture by asking: What were the attitudes towards life like around the year 1500? What was the atmosphere like in Europe? Atmosphere is important because it determines human thoughts and actions. Society, Mosse says, was very different from today. It was a hierarchical society: men lived according to their inherited social positions. Princes and nobility directly influenced both politics and personal life. But another class was emerging: the world of learning, of intellectuals. This class was still mostly clerical, but it became associated with a certain “lifestyle”. The urban classes did exist and were rising in importance as well, but the vast majority of the population still consisted of agrarians. The towns were growing: during the 16th century, Paris would gain a population of 200,000.
This rise in urbanism brought to the fore another factor: the rapid rise of European population. It would bring about an economic crisis and high inflation. The population increase put great pressure on the land, while agriculture did not progress. Rising prices in foodstuffs and other goods would lead to unrest and hardship, especially for the poorer parts of the population. The princes, nobles, urban classes, and the world of learning were far removed from these concerns, but shared a common attitude towards life: this attitude was Christian for sure, but it was also linked urban and agrarian classes by a culture of fear and irrationalism. This was still a primitive society, death was sudden, and man lived surrounded by a “cloud of unknowing.”
By 1500, economic conditions were severe: a price revolution was starting, but it was also a time of bad harvests. 1500 saw a total crop failure in all of Germany that resulted in peasant uprisings, looting and pillaging, to such a proportion that in 1501 Europe for the firsts time saw a paid police force to maintain order. Additional scourges were diseases and epidemics. First and foremost, the Black Death: To the populations of Europe, this seemed like a willful and arbitrary punishment. Between 1499 and 1502, whole populations were decimated. A new disease, syphilis, joined the plague. This prompted preachers to call for repentance, penance and pilgrimages. The Plague was more frightening than the syphilis, because it occurred suddenly and greatly disfigured its victims. All of this leads to a heightened religious sensibility and a search for answers by all parts of the population.
To find answers, people turned to a kind of literature that had come down from the Middle Ages and was most popular: books of prophecies. Their content was simple, promising hope for the future: darkness would be followed by light, and after the Anti-Christ would come Christ. The roots of these books lay partly in the bible (which, Mosse tells the students, he is sure they have never read), especially in the Books of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is written in symbolic terms. Before the book of the seven seals can be opened, “the wine must be pressed and the harvest reaped” that means, before Christ’s return there will be bloody wars and mass the conversion of the heathens, especially of the Jews, to Christianity. Man lived in the expectation that the world was coming to an end; Luther believed it, and so did all protestant reformers and many of the intellectuals. With it came astrology. The stars were now in an evil conjunction. Saturn was “the evil planet”. The Anti-Christ would come up from the darkness; for a short while the Jews would rule the world before their conversion. Then the book of seven seals would be opened. (For example, Shakespeare firmly believed in astrology).
Basic to that age was a feeling of lost harmony, a turning to prophecy and astrology, shared by rich and poor, learned and ignorant. This was a result of the belief in a hierarchical world. Social status on earth, it was believed, corresponded to the heavens. A “golden chain of being”, from God down to the serfs on earth, tied all together.(This actually comes from Virgil). For the belief in an ordered universe, the “Elizabethan Homily on Obedience” was typical. Required obedience to the queen was put into this kind of hierarchical system. The Church had given sanction to it: this was the Christian universe by divine command, but if it had ever existed, it was now falling apart. In the Homily, people were exhorted not to rise above their station-which meant that people did just the opposite and attempted to rise in society. Increasing social mobility undermined hierarchy. The new urban people, the newly rich, new civil servants, the alienation of the peasant from society, undermined the existing hierarchy from above and below, side by side with the natural catastrophes of the time. The ordered universe was breaking down.
The individualism of the Renaissance added to this kind of challenge. Man looked for safeguards and explanations while, as Shakespeare said, “the stars are out of joint”. The “Golden Age” was both in the past and in the future: the paradise that had been before the fall was also the goal for the future. To reach the future goal, what was the evil you had to get rid of? There were three elements of evil, of the Anti-Christ, and all three were seen as opposed to nature and thus opposed to God: Jews, witches, and the corruption of the church. The operative word here was “unnatural”, offending the harmony of nature and by that destroying the harmony of political and social life. They were “humanity’s burden of guilt” as contemporaries put it. The years between 1450 and 1519 sees a flood-like increase of ritual murder accusation against the Jews. These went back to Roman times. At Easter time, the Jews were believed to kill a young child and drink its blood. This accusation was connected with the sacrament, in that it was an unnatural travesty of the sacrament, of the natural order. It led to the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492.
From 1500 on, the Jews were isolated from the rest of the population. Venice began this isolation in 1516: first out of commercial rivalry, Jews were forced to move into a district called the “ghetto”. From then on we call this kind of isolation a “ghetto.” Ghettos spread through Italy, then through all of Europe. A Papal bull put the final seal of approval on this: Jews were to own no real estate, to employ no Christian servants, and were to be a “living example of the guilt of mankind.” Moreover, from this time on, Jews had to wear special dress.
Yet according to Prophecy, Jewish conversion must precede the Golden Age. It was the beginning of forced sermons of conversion: Jews were forced to attend church every Sunday. This practice started in the 16th century and went on throughout this period. To the Jews were added the witches, who openly defied the order of nature. The “Black Mass” was seen as a travesty of the Christian mass. Witches married the devil, slept with animals, and did other things that were always a perversion of nature. This was more frightening than Jews, for Jews could be isolated, but who could identify a witch? Witchcraft was imagined as a secret society. It came to serve to explain every unnatural event, and eventually any unconventional behavior in a primitive society. Some of the accused actually believed they were witches. Most important, however was the perceived corruption of the Church, which was also a corruption of the natural order. The play “The Rise and Fall of Anti-Christ” was very popular in Germany. The Anti-Christ triumphs over kings and emperors, but especially over the Church. God does not love worldly priests, it says in the play. What was the problem here? The Church was intimately involved with politics, owned a third of German lands: involvement with worldly society was perceived as part of the corruption and decline of the age. Mosse addresses the students: “Just like you today think that the university cannot fulfill its function because it has corporate contracts, people then thought the Church could not fulfill its function because it was involved with the worst part of the age’s corruption.” It sold its offices and behaved like any worldly power. So, man was cut off from God, and this brought about the dreadful punishments of the age. The watchword became renewal: The renewal of the Church, together with the conversion of the Jews and the extermination of the witches. The Italian Renaissance tried it by reviving the classical tradition; Luther and Calvin through uncorrupted Christianity; the peasant by a return to “the age of innocence”. Eventually, the arrival of a messiah was expected. Some talked about a peasant emperor, others of an emperor, others yet about a “pastor angelicus”. This all went back to the thought of the Middle Ages, the messianism of the middle ages, also revealing a longing for lost harmonies.
From 1500 on, we have an age of profound transition: from a hierarchical society cemented by religion and custom to the ruler-centered nation state; an agricultural economy to one based on commerce: it is no accident that the image of the Jew as Anti-Christ was linked to the image of the usurer- they were linked together and would remain so throughout the history of the Jews. The Jew was the harbinger of a bad modernity. And indeed, for priests in the early 16th century, the image was combined. One of them, Bernardino da Feltre, was especially concerned with the Jews, and used accusations of ritual murder but at the same time founded new loan associations (which still exist), the Banco Santo Spirito in Rome under Church auspices, to get rid of Jewish usury. A great deal of hypocrisy was involved here. The new was coming to the surface, which is never a very popular thing, above all in a primitive age.
People of the time saw all of this (new politics, new economics) as a punishment for moral failing and the attack on a hierarchical universe. Luther, who was closest to popular ideas and prejudices, made his vow to enter the church when he was nearly hit by a bolt of lightning. The brutality of the age knew only two types of entertainment: listening to preachers, or watching executions. Villages would buy condemned criminals for executions at great expense. Violence was everywhere. Spectators at these events were often crushed to death. Hawkers praised their wares. This lasted into the 18th century, and the reaction to the new guillotine was much the same. Refinement came only much later in our history: the last ritual murder accusations took place in 1915. It was then revived by the Nazis and still exists today. What did change was the greater sophistication of the upper classes.
But then, the same fears were held by rich and poor alike. The humanists ran to the preaching of Savonarola, and shared his millenarianism. “The Thousand Year Reich” is an old term from the book of the Apocalypse, referring to the second coming of Christ that would last a thousand years. The thought that God spoke through all kinds of things in nature, like stars, floods, and lightning, prevailed. Nobody doubted the divine system of reward and punishment. Also popular was the belief in alchemy, because the lower always goes to the higher. To us, such beliefs seem like superstitions, but alchemists, astrologists, and occultist believed that man’s mind could fathom the universe in the last resort. Superstition was one of the forces that drove Europe ahead. Learning would unlock the secrets of the universe. Millenarianism looked back to paradise, but in reality it pushed society forward because it became a dynamic, revolutionary myth. One of Luther’s teachers gave up his chair and went back to the plough. From all of this follows one thing: the Renaissance was already in full swing in 1500. The intellectuals and humanists of the renaissance were no rationalists. They also believed in portents and signs, but they did add something new: the rejection of Christianity, of a theological basis. They took their explanations from the classics rather than the Church. In the Renaissance, which starts about 1450, intellectuals started to question theological interpretations that had led to action, like the burning of witches (and the line between thought and action was very thin). The center of the new, non-theological attitude was Italy. Italy had always had a modern rather than medieval aspect, more urban than rural civilization in city states. The new comes form the urban typically enough.