Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Sixteenth Century: Now with 30% more Confessionalism!

The recent In Our Time episode about Rudolf II got me to thinkin'. I made some connections that pretty near blew my mind - yeah, I know, it doesn't take much - and now I feel like I understand the sixteenth century a little better. You be the judge. Here's a transcript of the relevant bits; I gave up on sorting out the voices, so all three of the guests are just listed as "Guest". Their names are listed on the site.
Bragg: There was a university in Prague... there were universities all across Europe, yet Rudolf was attracting these people. What was he offering - his course - that the universities weren't providing?

Guest: Well, Charles University in Prague is a special case because in the aftermath of the Hussite Revolt Prague had been sort of sealed off from the rest of Europe and not fully integrated, so it was in a bad state. But the more general point is that universities were set up effectively to teach the received heritage of the west and to pass it on to the next generation. They were not remotely regarded as research institutes; they weren't set up, they weren't founded, they weren't funded for that kind of thing, and if you wanted funding - salary in the first instance, equipment and assistance in the second, to pursue natural philosophical inquiry, and to move back the frontiers of knowledge to change the accepted order of things, and you were not very independently wealthy as of course Tycho Brahe was, you needed to find a wealthy patron to sustain at least some part of that inquiry. And the obvious concentrations of wealth and prestige were in the courts of Europe - central Europe of course was divided into many individual territorial principalities, so it was very rich with this particular resource. Rudolph was at the summit of that system: notionally for the whole of Europe, and certainly for central Europe. And the other part of the equation is of course that it began to dawn on rulers in the Renaissance period that there was considerable prestige to be attached from being associated with these collections, with the kind of concentrations of knowledge and expertise, and also conceivably with the discoveries, whether mathematical, astrological, or whatever. So there was an incentive for them to patronize scientists - what we would call today scientists on the one hand, alongside artists on the other.

Bragg: He spent some of his youth at the court in Spain...

Guest: Yes, that's right, and that was the main thing he brought back with him. I mean, what he didn't bring back - and this is crucially important for understanding the natural philosphical as well as other aspects of his reign, is the ethos of the Counter-Reformation. Because there was simply no way of translating that from the Spanish half of the Habsburg family to the Austria half, because the political conditions were utterly different. He didn't have a consolidated state like Castile to make the center of his empire, he didn't have the ethos of the Reconquista, five hundred years of expelling first the Moors and then the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and of course he didn't have the boatloads of gold and silver coming in from the New World, either, to finance a military campaign, nor did he have the army. So he needed to find a way out of this trap which was building all around him, of his empire dissolving into equally antagonistic confessional factions. And part of the reason he then ends up patronizing this remarkable work in the arts - broadly conceived - including the arts of alchemy and astronomy, shifting into an interest in the natural world, is because here we have a field of cultural significance and creativity outside this fractious confessional demesne. So he's actually responding very creatively to the confessional pressures of the era by shifting the center of gravity of his court in a rather different (one or two of the other guests say "Yeah" in agreement) Now that doesn't tell you his personality, but given that he has a reputation, particularly in his latter years, of actually going mad, of actually sort of losing his grip, this suggests to me a very visionary and a very creative response to an almost impossible situation, one which had been prepared by previous Habsburg emperors, particularly his father Maximilian II, which Rudolf epitomizes and pushes to a new level because it is the only way of escaping from this dilemma that he finds himself in.

Bragg: Anything to add about his character before we wrap on him?

Guest: Yeah, I mean maybe I'm being slightly facile here, but Rudolph's father had a reputation for being extremely liberal, hence you've got this development of the Ultraquists - the believers who tolerate both confessions, Protestant and Catholic. Maybe Rudolph is more that he can't stand either confession particularly, so he doesn't favor either, which gets him into a lot of trouble of course with the church.

Bragg: Well he is, as we said at the beginning of the program, he is trying to get God out of the equation, isn't he?

Guest: He's trying to get the Catholic interpretation of God, perhaps, out of the equation, but there's no doubt that he's attracting people that are extremely devout, extremely spiritual, but they're performing practices that orthodoxy will automatically condemn as being diabolic.

I found the notion of Rudolf actively seeking to balance out the Counter-Reformation with a liberal alternative to be immensely intriguing, and a little suspicious: it had that whiff of twentieth-century thinking about it, so I wondered if there was actual historical evidence that Rudolf thought this way, or if the contributors were stroking a pet notion to the point of distortion, as historians sometimes do. I was thinking of posing this question to the Gunroom and, always keen to put in a Patrick O'Brian connection, I began thinking of Stephen Maturin. Of all the characters in 'the canon', Stephen is the only one who comes across to me as surprisingly modern. The following comes from a conversation in Master and Commander between Stephen and James Dillon, referring to their involvement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
'...Even then I no longer cared for any cause or any theory of government on earth; I would not have lifted a finger for any nation's independence, fancied or real; and yet I had to reason with as much ardour as though I were filled with the same enthusiasm as in the first days of the Revolution, when we were all overflowing with virtue and love.'

'Why? Why did you have to speak so?'

'Because I had to convince him that his plans were disastrously foolish, that they were known to the Castle and that he was surrounded by traitors and informers. I reasoned as closely and cogently as ever I could - better than ever I thought I could - and he did not follow me at all. His attention wandered. "Look," says he, "there's a redbreast in that yew by the path." All he knew was that I was opposed to him, so he closed his mind; if, indeed, he was capable of following me, which perhaps he was not. Poor Edward! Straight as a rush; and so many of them around him were as crooked as men can well be - Reynolds, Corrigan, Davis... Oh, it was pitiful.'

'And would you indeed not lift a finger, even for the moderate aims?'

'I would not. With the revolution in France gone to pure loss I was already chilled beyond expression. And now, with what I saw in '98, on both sides, the wicked folly and the wicked brute cruelty, I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross this room to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind - it is my own truth alone - but man as part of a movement or a crowd is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations, or nationalism. The only feelings I have - for what they are - are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.'

'Patriotism will not do?'

'My dear creature, I have done with all debate. But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.'
I always thought this sounded a lot like twentieth century nihilism. Yet the Gunroom folks, who know a thousand times more about Patrick O'Brian than I ever will, swear by his ability to "inhabit" the period; it's supposedly almost impossible to catch him in an anachronism. So I had to concede that if my reaction to Stephen was wrong, then my reaction to Rudolf might well be wrong too: perhaps what I perceived as a twentieth-century motivation is actually a universal human motivation. Amid all this angst over the appropriateness of bringing modern interpretations to bear on non-modern characters, I thought of the similar, stronger reaction I had when I read the placard for the Cimerlini cordiform heart map at the Field Museum. It said that "At a time when the world was divided by religious conflicts, some mapmakers thought that it was important to portray a world unified by love and tolerance." At the time, I took umbrage at what seemed to me like a wrong-headed interpretation, only to find out later that the writer of that placard was easily one of the world's experts on Cimerlini and his contemporaries, and on their motivations. I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd tried. While I was thinking of all this, something went click and a big piece of the puzzle that is the sixteenth century fell into my lap: It's all about confessionalism.

In 1517 a man walked up to a wooden door and nailed a piece of paper to it. That it happened to be a church door, and that it's seen as the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, has led people to think of this act as one of rebellion. It wasn't. It was the equivalent of you or I going down to our local city hall and filing a complaint. It was only after the Catholic Church and Luther had gone through a few rounds of "Shut up!" "No, you shut up!" that Luther truly became a revolutionary. In other words, times were overripe for religious discord. During the next few decades, confessionalism reached awe-inspiring proportions as Protestants split with Catholics, and then Protestantism itself became so splintered that one has to laugh or cry at the seemingly endless ramification.

In 1566, in the midst of this divisiveness, a man made a heart-shaped map of the world as a way of saying "We are all one."

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, a man looked at all the splintering - of credos and of skulls - going on around him; in an attempt to change the subject, he gathered wizards from all over the land to show the world shiny new things.

Now let's go back to 1588, to a man in a small room, clutching his well-worn rosary beads and trying to ignore the pain in his knees. I've often wondered about that man. Philip II had power the likes of which is quite simply inconceivable. He ruled an empire that reached from the Philippines in the east to South America in the west. He set in motion the greatest armada the world had ever seen. Few dared tell him that his plan for that armada was logistically impossible. Medina Sidonia tried to do so several times, at no small risk to himself, but Philip's councilors of state refused even to pass the last letter along.

Why? What makes humans think it's a Good Idea to give their power to kings? I still feel like I'm light years away from being able to answer that question, but at least now I feel like I understand Philip II in the context of his times a little better. The tendency toward confessionalism was extremely high: people were desperate to define themselves as Catholic or Protestant or Calvinist or Followers of the Great Green Arkleseizure, and then to set themselves against the Other. In this atmosphere, of course people gave their power to a man who could not bear the thought of a single Protestant in all of his vast kingdoms - a man willing to drain the Spanish treasury trying to expunge every last one. Just as today, though, there were people like Cimerlini and Rudolf who reacted to that oppressive divisiveness by trying to bring people together. Philip's power flowed from religion, and the engine of religion ran on a confessionalist gradient. Rudolf was marketing a new kind of engine.

People tend to look upon the sixteenth century as a conflict between confessional factions. Now I see those wars of religion as a subset of a larger conflict between divisiveness and unification. I'm pleased to have reached this new perspective by honing an old tool: Ever since I listened to Professor Brad S. Gregory emphasize the importance of viewing historical characters from within their own context, I've striven never to see history through modern lenses. That mindset has come in uncommon useful when reading about people from Elizabeth I to George Washington. Moments like this, however, make it clear that I've gone overboard. Certainly it's not useful to clutch stubbornly at those modern lenses when there's an old, dusty pair with a more appropriate focal length available; but neither is it useful to reject out of hand anything that sounds modern. After all, I believe firmly that people are people, and that in the most general sense human motivations don't change. I'm dead certain that I would have much more to talk about over a beer with Samuel Pepys than I would with the vast majority of my own peers.

The picture on the top right is of Gustav Mahler. I used it as a stand-in for the fictional Stephen Maturin because Mahler is, to me, the very image of Stephen. Look through some pictures of Mahler and you'll see how hunched he looks, how uncomfortable he seems in his own skin. That's Stephen for you.

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