The Human Story – The European Renaissance

The Renaissance was an eventful period of European cultural, political, artistic and economic “rebirth” following the miserable Middle Ages. Generally, described as taking place from the 14th to 17th centuries, the European Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, art and literature. Some of the greatest authors, statesman, thinkers and scientists in human history lived and flourished during this period of history, while global exploration opened new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between Europe’s Middle Ages and modern society and ushering in an era of secularism, individualism and rationality.

However, this grand notion of the Renaissance can prove to be a little controversial. Why, is this? Well, the whole idea of the Renaissance presupposes that Europe was like an island unto itself, cast off from the rest of the world, that was briefly enlightened when the Greeks were philosophising and then lost its way before rediscovering its former glory. Was this really the case?

Essentially, the Renaissance was an explosion of arts, primarily visual, but also literary, and ideas in Europe that coincided with the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture. It is easiest to see this in the terms of visual art; Renaissance art tends to have a common theme of the human form, a form that was somewhat idealised by the Romans and especially the Greeks. This “classicising” is also apparent in the architecture of the Renaissance which featured Greek columns and Roman arches and domes.

In addition to “rediscovering” forgotten classical art forms, the Renaissance saw the revival of ancient Greek and Roman literature and ideas. This opened a whole new world for scholars looking to advance Europe’s wisdom and learning. The scholars who translated, studied and commented upon these writings were called humanists and they were concerned with wider worldly and human concerns. Because the Renaissance really was a revival, this rediscovered thought was based on learning about the old ways, especially the studies of the humanities: the three liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic. This, in turn, led to the so-called sciences of theology, medicine, laws and philosophy.

It is important not to fall into the common, but incorrect, misconception that Renaissance scholars, writers and artists were secretly not all that pious due to their focus on the “humanities”. The truth is that Renaissance artists were deeply religious. If you want evidence of this then look no further than the subject matter of much of the masterpieces of the age: Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Giotto’s The Lamentation and the countless depictions of the Madonna.

Funding the Renaissance

Although the Renaissance occurred all across Europe, we will focus primarily on Italy as this is where it really all kicked off and the Italian city-states were the nucleus of the Renaissance. What was it about Italy that lent itself to Renaissance? Italy was primed for Renaissance for one reason: money! A society must be incredibly wealthy to support artists, elaborate building projects and scholars enlightening the age. And the Italian city-states were vastly rich for two principle reasons:

  • Many of the city-states were miniature industrial powerhouses, each specialising in a specific industrial product. Florence, for example, spun fine textiles, Milan was famous for its metalwork and Urbino was known for beautiful ceramics.
  • The cities of Genoa and Venice were immensely wealthy from trade, with Genoa turning out fine sailors (including Christopher Columbus). It was Venice who became the richest city-state of them all, however. The Venetians were expert shipbuilders and sailors and the city was home to a merchant class who had figured out how to deal with the Islamic empires, including the greatest economic power of them all, the Ottoman Empire. Without trading in the Islamic world, especially in spices, the Venetians would never have been able to afford and fund the artists, scholars and building projects that defined the Renaissance.

Trade has often made appearances throughout the human story, but that is because trade is fantastic and binds the world together, enriching those who participate in it. However, not everyone wants to participate in fair trade, and this is exactly what one opportunistic Italian merchant and his godfather (who happened to be the Pope) had in mind when they sought to curb Ottoman economic power.

Pinturicchio_-_No._8_-_Pope_Pius_II_at_the_Congress_of_Mantua_-_WGA17804

The Venetians exported lots of textiles to the Ottoman Empire. These stylish garments were usually woven in other cities, like Florence; and the reason that Florentine textiles were so valuable is because their colour remained vibrant. This was due to a process of dying the materials with a chemical called alum, which was primarily found in Anatolia, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire. To make the fabrics that the Ottomans craved, the Italian craftsmen required Ottoman alum, at least until 1461 that is. When Giovanni de Castro, Pope Pius II’s godson, discovered alunite, the source of alum, in Tolfa near Rome. He wrote to his godfather hoping to receive support to mine the alunite, arguing that the Ottomans would lose their profits, thus weakening the menacing power to the east, and filling the coffers of the Papacy. Pope Pius II accepted Castro’s offer and granted a monopoly in alunite mining rights to the Medici family from Florence. Critically, Italian alunite mines did not bring victory over the Ottoman Empire, or cause them to lose all their profits, as there will always be a need to trade commodities.

And without commodity trading enriching the Italian city-states there certainly would have been no European Renaissance. In these prosperous cities, artists, composers, writers and scholars thrived along with the commerce that paid for everything. Urban merchants and manufacturers built a vigorous business that brought in products and ideas from across Afro Eurasia, with some families accumulating obscene amounts of wealth which allowed them to support the world of Renaissance artists and thinkers in a system called patronage.

Banking institutions also sprang up, and bankers funded civic events and the construction of grand cathedrals. These bankers also backed or personally paid for the building of masterworks in the rediscovered classical style of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. They also financed artists who required funds to complete their works, including Botticelli and Michelangelo. City governments also proved to be important patrons of the Renaissance whilst individual leaders also spent much of their personal incomes on the arts.

120px-Moravská_Třebová_Castle_Eastwing_Italian_Renaissance_1492

Why was so much spent on art and architecture? Well, for much the same reasons that rich people today often fund art and buildings: for status, for recognition, and possibly even for the love of beauty. Also, funding public artworks and churches served to legitimise the wealth of the families. The Church could hardly condemn merchant wealth if it were being spent on building and decorating churches, nor could the governments that came to depend on that wealth. We see this cycle again and again throughout history; wealth supporting institutions that, in turn, legitimises that same wealth.

Art, Science & Exploration

 

Through the sponsorship of the patrons, art, architecture and science became intricately linked together during the Renaissance. In fact, it was a rather unique period of history when these fields of study seemed to seamlessly intertwine. For instance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo incorporated scientific principles, such as anatomy, into their works so that they could recreate the human body with extraordinary precision. There is speculation that Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, one of the frescoes that adorns the roof of the Sistine Chapel, displays an anatomically correct human brain. How did these artists gain such precise knowledge of the workings of the inner human body? They dissected cadavers, of course; no stone was left unturned in the pursuit of perfection in their chosen discipline. After all, Renaissance art was characterised by realism and naturalism and artists strived to depict people and objects in as true a way as possible, using perspective, shadows and light to add depth to their work, and infuse emotion into their artwork.

Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam_(cropped)

Scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking: Galileo Galilei and Renee Descartes presented a new view of astronomy and mathematics, whilst the Polish polymath, Nicolaus Copernicus, arguably the Renaissance’s greatest mind (with fields of study including astronomy, law, medicine, mathematics and economics; very much a “Renaissance Man”), figured out that the earth was not the centre of the universe. However, it is very unlikely that he did not figure this out on his own. There is no way to be sure whether he had access to Islamic scholarship on this topic, but one of his diagrams is so suspiciously similar to one found in an Islamic mathematics thesis that it seems unlikely that he did not have access to it.

While many artists and scholars used their talents to express new ideas, some other Europeans took to the seas to learn more about the world around them. The era known as the “Age of Discovery”, a period of several vitally important explorations, was kickstarted during the European Renaissance. Voyages were launched to travel the entire globe, discovering new shipping routes to the Americas, India and the Far East with explorers journeying across areas that were not yet fully mapped. Famous journeys were taken by the likes of Marco Polo (the merchant who documented his travels across the Silk Road), Christopher Columbus (the explorer credited with “discovering” the Americas), Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the Americas are named), Ferdinand Magellan (who organised the first circumnavigation of the globe, although he never completed it himself and was killed in battle on the island of Mactan), and many other explorers.

Was the Renaissance Even a “Thing”?

One of the main problems with the idea of the European Renaissance is its longevity. It was not like the Norman Invasion of England or the American Revolution were people were aware that the world around them was changing and that they were living amid history being made. No one was aware that they were living through a glorious age when man’s relationship to learning was changing. Most people living in Europe throughout the European Renaissance were unaware of the Renaissance because its art and learned scholarship only affected a tiny proportion of the continent’s population. In a bitter twist of irony, life expectancy in many areas of Europe went down during this period. The art and learning that defined this period of European history did not filter down to most people in the way that technology filters down to us today and for this reason the Renaissance was only ever really, truly, experienced by the richest of the rich and those people, like painters and architects, that served them.

There were, of course, some extra commercial opportunities above the usual, like binding books and framing paintings, but these were not available to most Europeans who still lived on farms as peasants or tenants. The rediscovery of Aristotelian thought did not change their lives in any way, which were governed for the most part by the rising and setting of the sun, and by the rationality of the Catholic Church.

1024px-Mona_Lisa

The reason that the Renaissance is so important is not because it was central to the lives of Europeans living at the time but because it is important to us. We have retroactively applied such importance to the period because we care about the musings of Aristotle and Plato, the heliocentric model of the solar system, the Mona Lisa and the concept of individualism. At the time, Europe was rather insignificant and led the world in very little, so it is important to us that we highlight this period of European rediscovery. Because these things provide a narrative that makes sense: Europe was enlightened by the free-thought of the Greeks; Europe was un-enlightened with the fall of the Western Roman Empire; and Europe was re-enlightened with the rediscovery of the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and has remained alight ever since.

It is true that many of the ideas that were introduced to Europe during the period of the Renaissance became extraordinarily important to western thought, art and culture, but it is also crucial to remember that this extended period of time lasted for hundreds of years. The Florentine sculptor Donatello and the Bolognese female sculptor, Properzia de’ Rossi were born 104 years apart, whilst 325 years separates the birth of the Florentine humanist Petrarch and the death of the Scottish humanist David Hume of Godscroft.

Whilst the exact timing and overall impact of the European Renaissance is sometimes debated, there is little dispute that the events of the period ultimately led to advances that changed the way some people understood and interpreted the world around them. The real question to ask is whether the Renaissance was truly one “thing”, or whether it was a lot of mutually interdependent “things” occurring throughout the continent over an extended period?

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship
  23. Rise of the Bear: Early Russia

The Human Story – Rise of the Bear: Early Russia

Russia is the largest country on earth, spanning an incredible 17 million square kilometres. It not only takes the title of largest and most populous country in Europe but extends over the Ural mountain range and into Asia.

How did the story of this massive country with its complex and rich history begin?

The Kievan Rus and the Foundations of Russia

The principle history of eastern Europe began with people that the Greek writers called the “Slavs” and the first Russian state was founded when Oleg of Novgorod seized power of the Viking state in the Dnieper River basin in 882. In doing this, he united the northern and southern lands of the Eastern Slavs under one authority and lay the foundation of the powerful state of the Kievan Rus.

We know that trade was hugely important to the Kievan Rus and almost of their wars ended with trade concessions and trade treaties. In fact, their law codes were unusually devoted to the subject of commerce. The Rus traded raw materials like wax, fur and slaves. They also relied heavily upon agriculture and a person’s relationship to the land determined both their social status and tax burden. If someone ever fell into tax debt, which a lot of peasants did, then that person would become bonded to the land that they farmed for the rest of their life, essentially becoming a slave to the master of the land.

Kievan_Rus_en

There was no higher master in the Kievan Rus than the Grand Prince who ruled the state and became the model for future Russian kings and emperors. The early Grand Princes made a fateful decision and decided to convert to Byzantine Christianity, following the example of their Bulgarian neighbours. The Patriarch of the Church, being prudent, decided to send a bishop from Constantinople north to guide the Rus in their flirtation with Christianity. However, it was not until the year 988 that the definitive Christianisation of the Kievan Rus occurred when Vladimir the Great was baptised and proceeded to baptise his family and the people of Kiev. The legend goes that he elected to convert the Rus to Byzantine Christianity over Islam because of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol.

Mongol Russia and Vassalage

In 1240 the Mongols, or the Tatars as the Russians called them, conquered the Kievan Rus, beginning a new chapter of Russian history known as Appanage Russia (an appendage was a princedom). This period is best remembered for the many Russian princes vying for control over territory, which is not usually a recipe for solid political stability or economic growth.

So, just how important were the Tatars to Russia? Well, they did set up the delightfully named Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia, but this did not leave any lasting imprint on the institutions of the region, which had already been set up by the Kievan Rus. However, the establishment of the Golden Horde did bring about a massive population shift, away from the south, where the city of Kiev was located, and toward the north-east. This was, in part, to escape from the marauding Tatars and their initial massacring. However, once the dust had settled the Tatars proved to be comparatively light rulers who were content to live in their yurts and collect tributes from the ever-bickering Russian princes. All that these feuding princes had to do in exchange for their relative freedom was recognise the Mongol Khans as their overlords and allow the Tatars to select the Grand Prince from amongst them.

For the next century or so, little seems to have happened in Russia. In fact, given the tribute that was demanded by the Tatars, there was not much money available for building, military campaigns or anything else. With the Mongols off to the southwest, the northeastern cities began to gain more influence, first Tver and then, around the turn of the 14th century, Moscow. As a sign of the city’s importance, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Moscow, transforming it into the spiritual capital of Russia.

On top of this holy pivot towards Moscow the Mongols would often elect Muscovite princes to the position of Grand Prince. One of the privileges of the Grand Prince was to collect tribute on behalf of the Khan from the other princes. This proved to be an easy income source as the Grand Prince could easily skim a little off the top before forwarding it to their Tatar overlords. This little trick of redistribution was exactly how the Muscovite princes enriched themselves and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. By the latter part of the century, Moscow felt strong enough to challenge the Tatars directly, and in 1380 a Muscovite prince named Dmitri Donskoy attacked the Mongols and inflicted the first major defeat on them in Russia. His decisive victory at the Battle of Kulikovo Field proved that the Golden Horde were not invincible and immediately made Donskoy a popular hero (even though the Mongols maintained their rule over the city and captured and burned it two years later). Proving that an imperial force has vulnerabilities rarely has good outcomes for that force and Donskoy’s victory helped to strengthen the idea of a unified Russia. However, it was not until a full century had passed, in 1480, that Moscow was strong enough to throw off the weakened Tatar yoke for good. Moscow’s ruler at the time was Grand Duke Ivan III, better known as Ivan the Great.

A Tale of Two Ivans

Ivan the Great massively expanded Moscow’s power, first by subjugating most of Moscow’s city rivals and then by asserting Russia’s independence from the Tatars. By the time that he stopped paying tribute to the Mongols in 1476 and famously tore up the charter binding Moscow to them he was effectively in control of the entire country. Then he went further; he purchased, negotiated for or downright conquered further appanages, thus expanding Muscovite power even further and tripled the size of its territory, laying the foundations of what later became the Russian state.

Moscow_July_2011-3d

Ivan later declared himself sovereign over all Russians and married the niece, Zoe Palaeogina, of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, giving his claim more legitimacy. He also took the title of Czar, which means Caesar. Ivan then invited top architects from southeastern Europe to turn Moscow into an imperial capital, reconstructing the Moscow Kremlin, the Dormition Cathedral, and the Annunciation Cathedral. With his Eastern Roman wife, Eastern Romanised imperial capital and new title, Ivan formulated the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome. The idea of a Third Rome is the concept of a hypothetical successor of the Roman Empire via either the Byzantine Empire or through the Holy Roman Empire. Many cities and states have claimed to be the Third Rome, including late Medieval Russia. Ivan and his Grand Duchy of Moscow argued that there could be traced three interrelated fields of ideas:

• A linked religion through the unity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
• The social politics that derived from the feeling of unity in East Slavic territories being historically tied through the Church and Slavic culture.
• A state doctrine which suggested that the Moscow Prince should act as the supreme sovereign of Christian Orthodox nations and become a defender of the Church.

Basically, Ivan the Great created the first centralised Russian state and fabricated a tale of its being the heir to the Roman Empire in an effort to legitimise his efforts. And for these efforts he probably does deserve the title “The Great”.

While Ivan III consolidated Muscovite power, the undeniable brutal streak that has run through Russian governance comes not from the Mongols but from Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan_the_Terrible_(cropped)

Ivan the Terrible succeeded his father Vasili III as Grand Duke of Moscow in 1533 at the tender age of three. His mother served as regent until she too died when Ivan was just eight. For the next eight years, the young Grand Duke endured a series of regents chosen from amongst the boyars (the nobility). Finally, at the age of sixteen, in 1547 he adopted the title of Czar and his ascension to the throne represented the end of princely power and the beginning of autocracy that Russia has since became famed for.

In the beginning of the young Czar’s reign, however, Ivan proved to be an innovative leader and worked with a group of advisors collectively known as the Chosen Council. He also called the first meeting of the Zemsky Sobor, the first Russian parliament of the Feudal Estates (which proved to be like the Estates General that would become important to France two hundred years later). Ivan also introduced local self-governance to rural regions, mainly in the northeast of Russia which was heavily populated by the state peasantry. In addition to this he also revised the law codes and founded a permanent standing army, emphasising the new technology of the time: musketry. Basically, the early part of Ivan the Terrible’s reign was one of peaceful reforms and modernisation. Not all that terrible, really.

In 1552 he conquered and sacked Kazan, and in 1556 Astrakhan, destroying any lingering power that the Golden Horde possessed in the area. Ivan’s Tatar campaigns opened vast new areas for Russian expansion, and it was during Ivan IV’s reign that the conquest and colonisation of Siberia began. In 1580, Russia began its campaign to conquer the Khanates of Siber, marking the first time that Russia had expanded its borders east of the Ural Mountains and into Asia.

After all these modernising reforms, securing Russia’s borders and then expanding frontiers, why is it that Ivan IV is remembered as being so “Terrible”? Well, as he grew older his temper worsened and he set out to break the power of the boyars, carrying out a particularly brutal campaign, confiscating their land and executing or exiling those who displeased him. The boyars were the last connection to the earlier days of princely rule and with them out of the way Ivan the Terrible had Russia fully under the fist. To aid him in his ruthless rule, Ivan established the Oprichniki which were sort of like a personal bodyguard who dressed in black and rode black horses with severed dog’s heads attached to their saddles: an homage to their task of sniffing out treason and enemies of the Czar. The group was known to terrorize civilian populations and in one particularly brutal attack upon the city of Novgorod in 1570 it is estimated that the Oprichniki killed around 1,500 boyars with thousands more slain.

Ivan’s campaigns of terror were effectively the first of Russia’s purges that have been a hallmark of Russia’s history and existence ever since. During the latter half of Ivan’s reign, whole towns were destroyed and the whole period was, in effect, a civil war without any resistance: a civil massacre, if you will.

Ivan the Terrible’s temper grew so monstrous that he even killed his son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, by striking him with his sceptre in a fit of rage. The Czar is reported to have thrown himself upon his son’s body in an attempt to stop the bleeding, whilst repeatedly crying, “May I be dammed! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!”

In the end, Ivan IV established the absolute control of the Czar over all of the Russian people, but he also set the precedent of accomplishing this through terror, suspension of law and the Oprichniki (a forerunner of Russia’s secret police). This absolute control of the population through terror would echo through the ages of Russian history until today. Hence, the stereotypes of Russian brutality and barbarism, but here is the truth; western Europe knew a lot about brutality too. However, for centuries, Russia was viewed by western Europe as being both European and simultaneously not European; an “Other” that was both doubly feared because it was not fully “Other”.

When we think of all these historical stereotypes about Russia, it is worth remembering that what one person sees as barbaric about others is often what the others see as barbaric about the viewee.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade
  22. The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

The Human Story – The Venetians & The Ottomans: A Convenient Relationship

This instalment will discuss a relationship between a city, Venice at the north-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, and an empire, the Islamic Ottomans.

This mutually beneficial relationship between two unlikely “frenemies” led directly to several significant changes but the two most monumentally massive deals for world history being the European Renaissance and Christopher Columbus “discovering” the New World.

The City

Now would be a good point to delve a little into the history of the city of Venice. In the middle of the fifth century, nearly all northern Italy had fallen to the Huns as they continued their march towards the eternal city of Rome during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Adriatic coast became a refuge for many Italians fleeing from the onslaught of Atilla and his Hun hordes. However, due to the lack of fertile soil these refugees learned to live off the sea and entire communities of fisherman and salt miners began to spring up and dot the coastline. These lagoon dwellers bounded together for mutual protection against the Huns, the Goths and later the Lombard peoples. Essentially, Europe has Atilla to thank for one of its most glorious possessions: the city of Venice.

Around 300 years after the death of Atilla when the political situation in Italy had calmed down, the Venetians convened and chose a leader, known as the Doge. Soon after, the Franks, led by Charlemagne, conquered the Kingdom of the Lombards in 774 and later recognised Venice as a sort of self-governing commonwealth under Byzantine’s sphere of influence. However, Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, launched an invasion of Venice, prompting the people to relocate to the Rialto island which proved impregnable and the Franks soon withdrew as many succumbed to disease. A new capital was ordered for construction upon this island, which soon expanded to the surrounding islands of the swampy region and the Franks and the Byzantines signed an agreement which recognised Venetian independence.

The city of Venice effectively became almost like a collection of floating buildings tied together by an intricate canal system. If ever there was a city where geography was tied closely to destiny, it was Venice. The city was literally built for sea-going trade. The city did not have much in the way of natural resources so if they wanted to grow then they had to rely upon trade.

1600px-Map_of_Venice_by_Nicolas_de_Fer_1725

First, the Venetian people became experts in shipbuilding. Remember that when the crusaders of the crazy Fourth Crusade required ships, it was the port city of Venice that they headed for because the Venetians were famous for their ships. Not only could they masterfully build ships, they could also sail them to places like Constantinople and the Levant, so the Venetians formed trade treaties with the Byzantine Empire and when the city of Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottomans, the shrewd Venetians were quick to make trade agreements with their new neighbours.

Even before the Ottomans, the Venetians had experience in trading with the Islamic world and initially established itself as the biggest European trading power in the Mediterranean thanks, in large part, due to its commerce with Egypt in the spice trade. Due to the antics of the crusaders, Egyptian merchants were, understandably, not very welcoming of Europeans but they had all of the spice as they imported it from India and controlled both the overland and oversea access to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst other nations and city-states cited moral and religious opposition to trading with the heathen Egyptians the Venetians found a way which opened to the door to unfathomable wealth.

St Mark's facade mosaic: Stealing St Mark's body

The Venetians employed a handy story. Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the place with the bronze horses pillaged from Constantinople during teh Fourth Crusade) contains the body of Saint Mark, author of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, who had been the Bishop of Alexandria… which is in Egypt. Naturally, he was buried in the Egyptian city when he died. However, in 828 two Venetian merchants, with the help of two Greek monks, stole the bones of Saint Mark and hid them in a shipment of pork. Since Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, the guards did not inspect the shipment too closely. A mosaic in Saint Mark’s Basilica, which can still be seen today and includes the guards’ revulsion, depicts this outlandish tale. Afterwards the Venetians agreed that they had to trade with the Egyptians as they could use it as a secret way to ferry holy relics out of Egypt.

What exactly did Venice import? Well, lots of things but most notable is that they imported a lot of grain because the area is not very fertile, and it is difficult to farm. The Ottomans on the other hand had abundant grain, even before they conquered Egypt with its fertile Nile River valley basin in 1517. Whilst trade was certainly the cornerstone of Venice’s economic success, they did have a diverse economy which produced things such as textiles, famous for their silk makers, and glass. Venice is still known for its glassware, but it could not produce such fine works without a certain type of ash which they used to make different colours. This ash came from the Ottomans.

One final thing to note about Venice and which made it special, at least for its time, was that it was a republic in a feudal world which was dominated by nobles and royal dynasties. Its leaders were elected and had to answer to the populace, or at least the property-owning male populace.

The Empire

The Ottoman Empire lasted from around 1300 to 1919, making it one of the longest lasting, as well as wealthiest, empires in world history. The Ottomans succeeded in blending their nomadic pastoral roots with some very un-nomadic empire building and some incredibly impressive architecture, making them very different from that other nomadic people who built an impressive empire, the Mongols.

The empire, or least the dynasty, was founded by Osman Gazi who was the leader of a small Anatolian tribe that was left in the post-Mongol power vacuum. Ottoman being a Latinised version of Osmanli which means House of Osman.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the House of Osman’s 600-year long history was that their empire only once descended into civil war (1402 -1413) following the death of Sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara. Five of his sons each claimed the throne for himself and they fought it out in what is known as the Ottoman Interregnum for eleven years before Mehmed Çelebi emerged as victor, crowned himself Sultan Mehmed I, and restored the empire.

The question though is why was there only ever one succession crisis in the empire’s long history? Well, the reason is particularly brutal. The official practice, until the late sixteenth century, for avoiding any future civil wars was basically state-sanctioned fratricide – “survival of the fittest, not eldest, son” as the historian Donald Quataert described it. During their father’s lifetime, all adult sons of the reigning sultan obtained provincial governorships and would gather support and upon the death of the sultan, the brothers would fight amongst themselves until one emerged triumphant to claim the throne: similar to the Interregnum but approved by the state.

Two particularly celebrated sultans emerged to take the throne and rule over the empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first was Mehmet the Conqueror who ruled from 1451 to 1481 and expanded Ottoman control to the Balkans (which is why today there are Bosnian Muslims living in the area). However, Ottoman expansion reached its greatest extent under Sulieman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566. Sulieman was deserving of the honorific “Magnificent”. He codified the secular and religious laws of his land to make the justice system fairer and more efficient. Sulieman also embarked on thirteen lightening campaigns in every direction, taking valuable territory in Mesopotamia, north Africa (thus securing control of the western parts of the Asian trade networks, both overland and oversea) and he defeated the King of Hungary and laid siege to the city of Vienna. Under his control, the Ottomans became a major naval power of the time. To top this off, Sulieman also sorted trade deals with another major trading power at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea: Portugal, whose own empire was in its infancy.

645x450-1536691201783

The Ottomans controlled around half of what the Romans did but it was far more valuable due to all the Indian Ocean Trade. All this land and trade brought a lot of wealth, but it needed to be managed. The Ottomans could have followed the Roman model of sending generals and nobles to rule over conquered territories or demanded the allegiance of client kings like the Persians had done. They could have developed a civil service like the Chinese, but instead they innovatively created an entirely new model of administration; a new ruling class system that some historians have dubbed the Slave Aristocracy.

One of the main problems for kings of this time was their landed hereditary noblemen, because they were always looking to gain more power and replace the king as top dog. One of the best solutions to bypass this situation is to pull them into the fold of government and make them feel included and even more important. Another solution is to simply kill them. However, the Ottomans circumvented the problem of hereditary nobles altogether by creating both an army and bureaucracy from scratch, whose only loyalties lay with the sultan. The devshirme (translated as “child levy” or “blood tax”) was the practice of recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of the Ottoman’s Balkan Christian subjects. Soldiers would take the boys, from as young as eight years old, from their parents and force-convert them to Islam with the primary objective of selecting and training the best children for either the military or civil service of the empire. The boys selected for the military were enlisted into an elite fighting force known as the Janissaries. The Ottoman ruling class came to be ruled exclusively by the devshirme, creating a separate social class which was begrudged by ordinary Ottomans and the practice eventually died out at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Partnership

Without a doubt, Venice was the greatest threat to the Ottomans in the Mediterranean arena due to their massive navy but when the two states were not squabbling over island territories, they proved to be one another’s biggest trading partners. This fruitful, if tense, relationship made both polities fabulously wealthy. After the Ottomans captured Egypt, they pretty much exclusively controlled the flow of trade through the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. However, by this point the Venetians had centuries worth of experience, as well as lots of ships and so the Ottomans were content to allow the Venetians to continue carrying the goods and conduct in the lion’s share of trading whilst they made money from taxing this trade. This system worked so well because the city of Venice and the Ottoman Empire added value to one another.

Venice became immensely wealthy and being immensely wealthy was one of the prerequisites for the European Renaissance. All the art and learning that sprung up from the Renaissance required funding, which is why Venice was a leading city at the beginning before being eclipsed by the likes of Florence, Rome, and several northern European cities.

Additionally, this mutually beneficial arrangement that the Ottomans had with the Venetians established firm connections between the Islamic world and Christian Europe. This allowed once forgotten ideas to flow again, especially Greek ideas that had been preserved and built upon by Islamic scholars.

However, perhaps the most critical offshoot of the business duopoly held by these behemoths of trade was that it forced other European powers to look for alternative paths to the riches of the east. This desire to unlock other routes to the far east was fuelled by huge investments in exploration and helped kickstart the “Age of Discovery”. The Portuguese sailed south and east around the southern tip of Africa whilst the Spanish hoped to carve a more direct route. They instead sailed west, under the command of the Genoese born Christopher Columbus, believing that China and the Indies were much closer than they turned out to be.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease
  21. Indian Ocean Trade

The Human Story – The Indian Ocean Trade Network

Today we will be discussing the trading network that was prevalent in the Indian Ocean and provided a crucial method of exchange during the significant increase in trade in approximately 500 – 1500 CE. This article will focus on a system rather than individuals, groups of people or nations. Many world history books, classes and television programmes tend to zero in on the people whose actions have shaped the course of history and influenced our ancestors’ lives and whilst it may be interesting to note that when Pedro I (1320 – 1367) was crowned King of Portugal, he had the remains of his late mistress dug up to be crowned as well, or that King Charles VI of France (1368 – 1422) believed, at times, that he was made entirely of glass, we lose focus and forget that the common people of history also helped forge it.

The Trade Winds

The Indian Ocean trade network was much like the Silk Road in that it was a system of trading routes that connected people who had goods with people who wanted goods and were willing to pay for them. Just as the Silk Road was never just a single road, there were lots of long distance trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting various port cities all around the Indian Ocean basin, stretching from Java and Canton in the East to Zanzibar and Mombasa in the West. The Indian Ocean Trade Network was bigger, better and included more diverse players than its Eurasian land-based equivalent. However, this trading system is much less famous than the Silk Road, probably because it does not have a catchy name attached to it.

Trade in the Indian Ocean dates back millennia and there was an extensive maritime trading network operating between the Indus River Valley Civilisation (Harappan) and the Mesopotamian civilisations as early as the middle Harappan Phase (2600 – 1900 BCE) with much of the commerce being handled by middlemen in the Persian Gulf.

However, it did not truly take off until the seventh century CE and by around 700 CE there was a recognisable major trading network in place around the Indian Ocean basin, but it really blew up between 1000 – 1200 CE. The Indian Ocean Trade Network did experience a bit of decline during the heyday of the Mongol Empire when overland trade became safer and cheaper, but then it surged again in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

So, just who was trading in this intricate network of port cities dotted around the Indian Ocean? The Swahili city-states of East Africa, the Islamic Empires of the Middle East, India, China and the principalities and states of South-East Asia. At this point, it should be noted that the states of Europe are not on this list… which is probably a contributing factor as to why the Indian Ocean Trade Network is probably not as famous as the Silk Road: the Eurocentrism view of world history strikes again!

If you were an ornament maker in fourteenth century China and needed some ivory to craft an intricate ivory ornament, then you would have to trade for it as elephants are only found in India and Africa. One of the reasons that the Indian Ocean Trade Network took off is that there was a massive range of resources available and a wide range of import needs from ivory to timber to books to grain. But, the most important factor in the emergence of the Indian Ocean maritime trading network as being as important as it was, was due to winds.

The Indian Ocean is home to a set of special winds known as the Monsoons. Generally, when we think of monsoons, we tend to think of them in the context of the rains in the Indian subcontinent but rather than thinking of them as rains we should picture monsoons as the winds that bring the rainy season. The great thing about seasons is that they are predictably cyclical and come around regularly, as do Monsoon Winds. If you were a thirteenth century sailor, you could count on the wind to take you from Africa to India if you set sail between April and September. Likewise, these winds could be counted on to take you back if you sailed between November and February. These winds were so reliable that early maritime travel guides often listed the times of departure down to the week and sometimes even down to the day!

1600px-Monsoon_&_trade_wind_chart_of_the_Indian_Ocean_LOC_2009575919

Predictable winds made trade much less risky. For example, back in the days when the only power available to ships was sails and oarsmen, the cargo may not arrive in time, or may be spoiled by the time of disembarkation, or perhaps the ship would be lost to shipwreck. All of these were bad for the health of global economic trade. However, predictable winds led to lower risk which led to cheaper trade which, in turn, meant that more people could participate and benefit from the Indian Ocean Trade Network.

There are a few more aspects of Indian Ocean trade that are worth mentioning. Indian Ocean trade incorporated many more people than participated in Silk Road trade: there were Muslims, Jewish people, people from Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, South East Asia, India and China all sailing around the Indian Ocean and setting up trading communities where they would act as middlemen trying to sell for more than they had bought and trying to buy new stuff that they could mark up to sell.

Despite all this diversity, for the most part, especially in the western half of the Indian Ocean basin, the trade was dominated by Muslim merchants. Why? Well, largely because they had the money to build the ships, although in the fifteenth century the Chinese state could have completely changed that balance.

Bulk Goods to Philosophies – What was Traded

As previously mentioned, we tend to think that states, governments and those who ruled them are the real movers and shakers of world history but that is not always the case. In the Indian Ocean, the terms and conditions of trade were set by the merchants and dictated by the demands of the market and not by the whims of the political and religious leaders of the regions. The self-regulating nature of this oceanic marketplace was astonishing and pretty much unprecedented. Perhaps the most incredible aspect is that, a few pirates besides, this whole commercial enterprise was remarkably peaceful. For the better part of seven hundred years these merchant ships were free to sail and trade without the protection of any state’s navy, even though some astonishingly valuable goods and cargoes were being traded.

The great advantage that seaborne trade has over land-based trade is that you can trade goods in bulk like foodstuffs, cotton cloth and timber that is all too heavy to strap to the back of a mule or camel and march them for hundreds of miles across inhospitable terrain. For the first time, we see goods being traded for mass markets instead of just luxury goods for the elites of society like silk. For example, wood can be used to erect houses and buildings but there is not all that much timber to be found in the barren Arabian Peninsula. However, when it becomes cheaper due to bulk trade then suddenly more people can have improved housing.

TRANS_INDIAN_OCEAN_SLAVE_TRADE

Much of the timber that was shipped throughout the Indian Ocean Trade Network came from Africa, which is kind of emblematic. Africa produced a lot of raw materials like timber, gold, animal hides and ivory, whilst the Swahili city-states imported finished goods, such as silk and porcelain from China and cotton cloth from India. Spices and rice were shipped from South East Asia, especially Sri Lanka where black pepper was a primary export. The Islamic world provided everything from books to coffee to weapons.
It was not just goods and products that were transported around the Indian Ocean basin, however. Technology also spread too. Technologies like the magnetic compass, which was crucial if you wanted to know where you were headed, came from China and dated back as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Additionally, Muslim sailors popularised a device called the astrolabe which made it easier to navigate by using the stars. The sternpost rudder, another Chinese invention, made it easier for crews to steer ships and this technology quickly found advocates throughout the Indian Ocean. One of the most important technologies to be used in the Indian Ocean Trade Network was the triangular lateen sail which allowed ships to tack against the wind. Dating back to Roman navigation, the lateen sail was introduced into the trading network by the Islamic world and meant that a skilled crew could make their way through the ocean even if they did not have a particularly strong tailwind.

Just as with the Silk Road, philosophies and ideas also travelled throughout the Indian Ocean basin. For example, today there are more Muslims living in Indonesia than in any other country on the planet, and knowing what you have already learned about the spread of Islam and the growth of trade then it will come as no surprise to learn that Islam spread to Indonesia during the times of the Indian Ocean Trade Network.

After the 1200s, the region, which had been heavily influenced by the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism became increasingly Islamic as the ruling elites began to adopt the religious practices of the incoming merchants. As has happened so often throughout history (think of the Islamisation of West Africa) the leaders of a region adopted the religion of merchants so that they could have religious as well as economic ties to the people that they were trading with.

A Lesson from History

The conversion of a region to Islam, where it continues to flourish to this day, is a pretty massive deal to world history. However, Islam did not take hold as effectively in other South East Asian countries as it did in Indonesia. The religion did not spread to Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam for one simple reason and that is because they were not centres of trade.

So, just how does an area become a centre for trade exactly?

Strait_of_malacca

Between the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra lies a narrow 890 km stretch of water, which is still one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, known as the Strait of Malacca which acts as a choking point for trade. Any city that controlled this channel could stop any ships from travelling through it, or at least tax them. This is exactly what happened to such an extent that a powerful merchant state called Srivijaya emerged and rose to prominence on the island of Sumatra.

For a while, Srivijaya dominated trade in the region because there were so many ships using the straits to get to and from China. However, this trade began to decline in the fifteenth century and with it, so did the Srivijayan Empire.

This leads us onto an especially important point about the Indian Ocean Trade Network, which is that it was essential to the development and growth of certain powerful city-states like those of the Swahili coast and the empire of Srivijiya. Without the riches brought in by trade, these places would never have existed, let alone become wealthy and powerful regional powers. Trade was of such huge importance to these places because they could tax it, through import and export duties or port fees but the fact that they are no longer places of great importance just proves the fact that trade is a pretty weak foundation on which to build a polity, even a small one. There are a multitude of reasons for this, for example, high taxes may motivate traders to find alternative routes. However, the main reason that trade is such a poor base for society is that it relies upon trade… this makes the society susceptible to the peaks and troughs of the global economy.

The legacy of the South East Asian market kingdom lives on in the city-state of Singapore, for instance, but one of the great lessons to be learned from cities and states that have declined or disappeared is that there is usually a town or country nearby that is eager to take your place and happy to offer lower taxes. It is almost as if the merchants and markets decide where the shakers and movers of history go, rather than the other way around.

The Rest is History.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols
  20. Black Death & DiseaseBlack Death & Disease

The Human Story – Black Death & Disease

We left this series off last time by laying a large portion of blame for the Black Death at the doorstep of the Mongol Empire and their opening of trade routes. It only seems natural to have a look at disease and how it has impacted the human story.

Fortunately for us, we live in the 21st century, a time when communicable disease does not play such a massive role on society, unless you are speaking about cases of SARS and its various offshoots, including the coronavirus, HIV/Aids, bird flu, swine flu or any other recent anti-biotic resistant bacteria.

Traditionally, the study of history has not focused much on disease, partly because they are mysterious and terrifying and partly because they do not fit in with our narrative that history has been made as the result of some people doing good things, or some people doing bad things, or at the very least some people doing some kind of things. However, the reality is that history often happens due to factors that are out with human control such as lots of people contracting smallpox or bubonic plague. Also, very often diseases are seen as a result of some divine judgement. Perhaps the most likely reason that people tend to not focus so much on disease as being a major contributor to the human story is down to the fact that people did not understand or know very much about them. If they did not understand it, they were less likely to write about it and when they did, which some chroniclers did, they would often write rather vaguely about them.

A New Dawn for Bacterial Evolution

Given that, we are going to have to engage in a little speculation here. So, diseases have been with humans for as long as there have been humans, this much we do know. Humans, you will recall from the first article of this series, first appeared in the tropical regions of Africa, in which live a wide and varying range of micro parasitic bacteria so it is probably a safe bet that these parasites played some role in keeping the human population extremely low for a very long time. It is only after we see the migration out of Africa and into regions that are less agreeable to diseases, around 64,000 years or so ago, that we really start to see the growth of human populations necessary to create what we would call civilisations.

Humans migrated into these river valleys that over time became the cradles of civilisation with their agriculture and surpluses. This allowed these early migrants to escape the population limiting tropical diseases, but it created all kinds of new disease problems. The communities that sprang up in these river valleys had more people which led to population density that, in turn, allowed for epidemics. One of the great things about hunting and gathering is that diseases cannot wipe out cities if there are no cities to wipe out.

Coronavirus_SARS-CoV-2

Also, river valleys can often be breeding grounds for diseases, especially in the valleys where cultures developed irrigation which often relied on slow moving or standing water. Still water is the perfect incubator for disease carrying and nasty micro-organisms that are often associated with disease. For example, schistosomiasis, the symptoms of which include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloody stool and blood in the urine, was recorded as early as 1200 BCE in ancient Egypt. Additionally, lots of diseases originate in domestic animals who were living in close proximity to these new agriculturists; but you cannot have ham and bacon without having a little swine flu.

From a macro historical point of view, it is not like these diseases always came only with downsides. It is a matter of historical fact that certain diseases have helped certain populations throughout history shield themselves against would-be conquerors. For example, large swathes of Africa were protected as late as the nineteenth century; early modern-era European attempts to colonise the continent were thwarted by diseases such as malaria which sickened the humans and nagana which the European’s horses contracted.

We like to say that one of the hallmarks of civilisation is the written word and surely pandemics were exactly the type of events that people would tend to write about in early civilisation because they were such a big deal. Pestilence appears in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and early Chinese historians recorded an alarming decrease in populations as diseases and their migrant hosts spread from the northern Yellow River region down to the more tropical Yangtze River basin.

Ancient Greece was relatively disease free thanks to its climate and the isolationist nature of city-states. However, as these city-states began to trade more with one another they became more susceptible to endemics. The most well-known example of this was the plague that struck the city of Athens in 430-429 BCE during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies. This conveniently leads us to a very important point: there is a decent correlation between war and disease. Armies tended to carry disease along with them and this combined with food shortages and displacement meant that civilian populations were more likely to get sick. This is still very much the case.

However, nothing spreads disease quite like trade.

Trade is so good for economies and yet so bad for keeping individual people healthy and alive. Ancient Rome’s integration into the transcontinental trade routes, like the Silk Road, may explain why the Roman historian, Titus Livius, more commonly known today as Livy, recorded as many as eleven separate pestilential disasters and it is very likely that these diseases and the accompanying decline in Rome’s population contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Black Death

Of course, we cannot talk about disease throughout history without touching upon the most infamous pandemic of them all: The Black Death which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1353.

In October 1347, twelve Genoese ships dropped anchor at the Sicilian port of Messina. Those that eagerly approached the vessels were met with a grisly sight. Almost all onboard the vessels were either dead or dying, their skin erupting with blackened boils that oozed pus and blood. The Sicilian authorities quickly moved these cargo ships on, but the damage had already been done.

Europe may have been hit hard by the plague, but it was not hit first. Those Genoese ships were travelling from somewhere, after all and the reason that they were quickly moved away from the port was because the rumours about the disease spread westward before the disease itself. There were stories of a terrifying and mysterious sickness devastating the populations of first China, then India, Egypt, Persia and Syria, getting ever closer to Europe.

1374px-1346-1353_spread_of_the_Black_Death_in_Europe_map.svg

The death rate of this plague was incredibly high. It is estimated that anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population of people living in Europe died from the Black Death.

We are not 100% sure that the disease that caused the Black Death was the bubonic plague as its virulence in some regions suggest that it may have been pneumonic, but we do have descriptions of it that match bubonic plague symptoms. The Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani said:

“It was a plague which touched people of every condition, age and sex. They began to spit blood and then they died – some immediately, some in two or three days, and some in a longer time… most had swellings in the groin, and many had them in the left and right armpits and in other places, one could almost always find an unusual swelling somewhere on the victim’s body.”

Well, that sounds utterly horrifying!

People fleeing the cities for the countryside were no safer there either as plague infected and killed livestock too. Countless pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and cows fell to the disease that was caused by Yersinia Pestis. This was such a problem that it led to shortage of wool throughout Europe. The disease was so bad in Florence that an estimated 90% of the city’s population lost their lives. The European death toll is generally estimated to be between 50 and 75 million, whilst the worldwide death toll is placed between 155 and 200 million. To put into perspective just how devastatingly high this number is the world population at the time was approximately 500 million.

The plague obviously affected a lot of individual’s lives but it also affected world history. For example, the plague probably contributed massively to the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China. The Yuan Dynasty’s collapse did not follow the typical dynastic loops that historians have observed throughout the history of China. There were virtually no records of serious corruptions, power struggles, internal conflicts within the royal court, external invasions or even large-scale famines during most of the Yuan’s reign. Yet the Dynasty fell so quickly and inevitably that many believe the Black Death may have been the underlying reason, in a roundabout way. The first wave of the plague struck China in 1344, three years before Europe and the epicentre appears to have been in the Huai River Basin, hometown of the later Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The story goes that he became homeless as all of his family had perished in the plague and as a result, he was forced to flee the disease by begging as a travelling monk, during which time he fell into the company of a resistance army against the Mongol Yuan. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a leading figure of the rebellion group and eventually captured the entire country, founding the Ming Dynasty.

Aside from being beneficial to the fortunes of the Ming Dynasty, there is substantial debate as to whether the Black Death kick-started Europe’s economy and ended the Middle Ages, propelling Western Europe onto a trajectory that would lead to the gunpowder empires and the modern era. Undoubtedly, the shortage of skilled workers did create opportunities, for example, Guilds being forced to admit new members in order to replace the many workers who had died and persistent European inflation until the end of the fourteenth century suggests both a shortage of products and higher wages. Again, we can look to Matteo Villani to provide some evidence to the effect of the plague on Italy’s economy:

“Nurses and minor artisans working with their hands want three times or nearly the usual pay, and labourers on the land all want oxen and all seed, and want to work the best lands, and to abandon all others.”

So, the Black Death may have been good for the standard of living for the workers who survived the pestilence.

Another probable impact that the plague had on world history is that it changed Europe’s views on Christianity. When people were faced with seemingly random and widespread deaths, it was inevitable that some people would completely abandon piety for decadence and debauchery and the ineffectiveness of the priesthood in dealing with the crisis may have led to an increase in anti-clericalism which later transpired into a greater and more readily acceptance of the Protestant Reformation when it came around.

Attempts to combat the pestilence sweeping across the land, which left thousands of European villages without one single living soul, changed the way that the people lived. For example, construction techniques changed, and people began building out of brick rather than wood and many places saw the mass introduction of tiled roofing which replaced thatched rooftops which were a haven for rats. These new shelters created more barriers between humans and the disease carrying, flea infested rodents.

The Fightback: Medicine – Leading the Charge

So, the Black Death looms larger in our Eurocentric imaging of history, but in terms of devastation and human suffering it pales in comparison to the Great Dying that accompanied the Columbian Exchange (which we will look at later). It is estimated that somewhere between 80% and 95% of Native Americans died within the first 150 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the New World. That truly is an astonishing and horrifying number, and much of it was down to the Old World diseases that the European invaders brought with them that the Americans had little or no immunity to.

Thankfully, the world has not seen anything remotely like the devastation brought by the Columbian Exchange since. Some of this is down to our shared immunological profiles, but much of the credit is due to massive improvements in science and medicine.

Louis_Léopold_Boilly_-_L'innoculation

The most significant medical advance in the battle against infectious disease and viral epidemics like smallpox was the invention of inoculation. The first recordings of this form of fighting disease come from tenth century China but it came under widespread use in England in the eighteenth century and was soon followed by the rest of Europe. The development of antibiotics in the twentieth century proved to be extremely effective against bacterial diseases, like bubonic plague and tuberculosis. Some of these advances have had a tremendous results: smallpox was officially declared as the first disease to be completely eradicated from the human population in 1980 by the World Health Organisation.

However, infectious diseases continue to be a leading killer of human beings and we still see deadly outbreaks of diseases like Ebola and cholera around the world. And even though antibiotics have only been in wide use for less than a century, we are already beginning to see the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria and diseases such as tuberculosis making a bit of a comeback in recent years. Then there are the more modern diseases like HIV/Aids and the prospect of lurking epidemics like the various flus that we often hear about.

All of this demonstrates that diseases are still shaping the human story. Just look at the current flu pandemic that is sweeping its way across the earth, COVID-19, or better known by its virial name, the coronavirus, which has investors running for the hills and entire countries on lockdown.

The Rest will be History

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols