Sunday, July 10, 2005

My Western History Odyssey, Part Three: 1500 - 1600

(Part One is here, Part Two is here)

As 1500 hove into sight, my reading of Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People was supplemented by Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, which gave me a wider perspective of the European continent around that most earth-shattering of times, the Reformation.

Dawn to Decadence is heavy reading but worth it. It is a real crash course in philosophy and arts awareness. Sure, I'd learnt a bit in Art History at school, but this really helped me understand the context - what a beautiful thing that is - that drove the Leonardos and the Donatellos, the Luthers and Erasmuses... fascinating stuff!

It was around this time that so many things were developed that we take for granted today. Paintings that actually look like their subjects, religious writings in the language of the common people, even encouraging people to question where before questioning was, well, out of the question.

It was interesting to look at the Reformation and contrast it with religion in the west today. My ancestors were Huguenots who were bitterly persecuted in the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, 1572. But I hadn't realised just how much persecution was going on both sides - newly converted Protestants were practising swordplay on their Catholic neighbours, too.

It brought up a whole range of issues that are very current too. Should Christians take up arms? Jesus said turn the other cheek - but what if it's not you under threat, but your family? In an age where a Christian President of the USA has urged his people into war, these questions are as pertinent as ever.

It also gave me pause to think, why are the issues of Protestant vs. Catholic no longer life-or-death issues? I think it's because of the idea of the secular state - something we take for granted now, but that didn't really exist back then.

I got a really good insight into the world of fear in which English Catholics lived when I saw In Search of Shakespeare, a marvellous documentary where the contagiously enthusiastic Michael Wood finds the behind-the-scenes story of the Bard's life.

Turns out Shakespeare was Catholic, and stuck to his beliefs even when it could have harmed his nascent career. Wood compares the world of Elizabeth I with the USSR in the mid-20th century. During the 1500s the espionage industry began in earnest, first for international affairs, but it wasn't long before it touched the life of every person in England. Those were dark days for many people, although many others were happy to conform and get on with their lives, such as they were.

Of course, I couldn't mention Good Queen Bess without mentioning Elizabeth, the film starring Cate Blanchett. I'm not a historian (nor an historian, if you say it that way), but what I read in Churchill agreed with what I saw on screen. I don't know if it's completely accurate (the folks at IMDb's discussion boards say it's not), but it does give you a feel for the times.

I also pulled off the shelf Great Artists, a book that I had referred to a lot for Art History class. It was great to read about some of the famous artists, bearing in mind the world in which they were living. And the context went both ways - being able to see the paintings and frescoes of the time, I was able to picture the scene, as it were.

Next time, the bloody and dangerous 1600s!


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