Hale, John: The Discovery of Europe

[From “The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance”, 1994, Macmillan Pub.Co.©1993 by John Hale]


When in 1623 Francis Bacon threw off the phrase ‘we Europeans’, he was assuming that his readers knew where ‘Europeans’ were, who they were, and what, in spite of national differences, they shared(1). This was a phrase, and an assumption, that could not have been used with such confidence a century and a half before. It was during the period covered by this book that the word Europe first became part of common linguistic usage and that the continent itself was given a securely map-based frame of reference, a set of images that established its identity in pictorial terms, and a triumphal ideology that overrode its internal contradictions.

Though scholars throughout the middle ages had known that they lived in a continent called by classical geographers ‘Europe’ to distinguish it from Africa and Asia, the other land masses partly known to them, the word had little resonance. In all likelihood the great majority of those who lived in Europe and could read only with difficulty, if at all, had not even heard of the word. Their knowledge of a world beyond their local or national confines came from the stories of martyrs, missionaries and crusades and from the pulpit. The clergy harangued them as Christians forming part of the particular continent which had been chosen by divine providence to be the home of witness to the true faith: Christendom. Without spatially accurate maps, and without the mass of itineraries and traveljournals to be released by the advent of printed books, Europe’s identity was above all emotional: Us, uniquely privileged (and thus also punishable by wars, plagues and famines for our sins) versus Them, the godless or the erroneous believers.

As early as 1471, in a moment of enthusiastic gratitude for the welcome he was granted in Nuremberg, the astronomer Johannes Müller (Regiomontanus) praised the city as ‘the middle point of Europe’(2). For Bacon it was always Europe; Henry VII was buried in Westminster Abbey ‘in one of the stateliest and daintiest monuments’ – by the Italian Pietro Torrigiano – ‘in Europe’; England was involved in the ‘affairs of Europe’(3).

But the notion of Christendom was a long time a-dying. It continued to drip from the quills of those inditing peace treaties, for given man’s incurable urge to fight, what better resolution to a domestic conflict than a joint Christian enterprise against the infidel? It surfaced in the prayer which a devout citizen of Milan adopted in 1565, with the advice of his confessor, for his family devotions: he prayed that God keep his family ‘in perfect union and love, us and all of Christendom’(4). Even in 1590 a conservative but travelled English squire, Sir John Smythe, alternated between referring to the countries of western ‘Europe’ and the ‘nations of the occidental parts of Christendom’(5). Its more personal appeal was expressed as late as 1620, when the young Cornishman Peter Mundy, labouring his way back across the Turkish-dominated Balkans after a trip to Constantinople, passed the boundary stone of the Venetian enclave of Spalato (Split): ‘wee were no sooner past it, but wee entred into Christendome, then seeminge to be in a new world’(6).

This way of expressing the relief of coming home from alien lands is as moving as it was by then rare. The sense of Christendom being a sacred sheep-fold, within which European peoples shared at least the comforting uniformity of their faith, had been subject to many erosions. Princes had struck bargains with popes, amongst other things over appointments to high clerical offices and the use of taxes levied on church lands, that anticipated the public reasons for the withdrawal of England under Henry VIII from all obedience to Rome. In 1439 an ecumenical conference in Florence had opened many eyes for the first time to the extent of the gap in doctrine and observance that divided the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox varieties of Christianity. And from the early sixteenth century, propaganda for the notion that Moscow was the Third Rome and the tsar the true leader and protector of orthodoxy drew attention to the extent and weirdness of the Russian version of the faith. Christendom, in the sense of a traveller knowing what images and services to expect when he entered a church abroad or passed clerics and friars in the street, was becoming at best ‘the Christendom of Europe’, as a priest put it in 1572 – and was having its centre of gravity pushed westwards(7). The most dramatic push in this direction was the Ottomans’ conquest of territories in south-eastern Europe which began well before their occupation of Constantinople in 1453; by 1529 it had brought them to the walls of Vienna, which they besieged but failed to take.

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