COMPLETE AT LAST, this book is a source of pride, which is pleasant, though in this instance somewhat odd. It is, after all, a slight work, with no scholarly pretensions. All the sources are secondary, and few are new; I have not mastered recent scholarship on the early sixteenth century. This being true, I thought it wise to submit my final manuscript to scrutiny by those steeped in the period, or in certain aspects of it. For example, Dr. Timothy Joyner, Magellan’s most recent biographer, examined the passages on Magellan. His emendations were many and were gratefully received. My greatest debt, however, is to James Boyden, an authority on the sixteenth century, who was a history professor at Yale when he began his examination of my text and had become a history professor at Tulane when he finished it. I have never known a more scrupulous review than his. His knowledge of the sixteenth century is both encyclopedic and profound. He challenged me—and rightly so—in virtually every passage of the work. Of course, that does not mean that he or anyone else with whom I consulted is in any way responsible for this volume. Indeed, Professor Boyden took exception to several of my interpretations. Obviously I, and I alone, am answerable for the result.

Another oddity of this book is that it was written, so to speak, inside out. Ordinarily a writer does not begin to put words on paper until he knows much he is going to say. Determining how to say it is the last step—the most taxing, to be sure, but one preceded by intricate preparations: conception, research, mastering material, structuring the work. Very rarely are the writing and reading experiences even remotely parallel, and almost never does a narrative unfold for the writer as it will later for those turning his pages. The fact that it happened this time makes the volume unique in my experience.

Actually, at the outset I had no intention of writing it at all. In the late summer of 1989, while toiling over another manuscript —the last volume of a biography of Winston Spencer Churchill—I fell ill. After several months in and out of hospitals, I emerged cured but feeble, too weak to cope with my vast accumulation of Churchill documents. Medical advice was to shelve that work temporarily and head south for a long convalescence. I took it.

The fact that I wasn’t strong enough for Winston did not, however, mean I could not work. H. L. Mencken once observed that writing did for him what giving milk does for a cow. So it is for all natural writers. Putting words on paper is essential to their inner stability, even to their peace of mind. And as it happened, I had a small professional commitment to meet — providing an introduction to a friend’s biography of Ferdinand Magellan. That manuscript was back in my Connecticut home and I was now in Florida, but the obstacle seemed small; I hadn’t intended to write about Magellan anyhow. Instead, I had decided, I would provide the great navigator with context, a portrait of his age. It could be done, I thought, in several pages—a dozen at most.

I actually thought that.


I HAD MISCALCULATED because I had not realized how parochial my previous work had been. Virtually everything in my seventeen earlier books had been contemporaneous. Now, moving back nearly five centuries, I was entering an entirely different world, where there were no clocks, no police, virtually no communications; a time when men believed in magic and sorcery and slew those whose superstitions were different from, and therefore an affront to, their own.

The early sixteenth century was not entirely new to me. Its major figures, their wars, the Renaissance, the religious revolution, the voyages of exploration—with all these I had the general familiarity of an educated man. I could have drawn a reasonably accurate freehand map of Europe as it was then, provided I wasn’t expected to get the borders of all the German states exactly right. But I had no sense of the spirit of the time. Its idioms fell strangely on my ear. I didn’t know enough to put myself back there—to see it, hear it, feel it, even smell it—and because I had never pondered the minutiae of that age, I had no grasp of the way the webs of action were spun out, how each event led inexorably to another, then another …

Yet I knew from experience that such chains of circumstance are always there, awaiting discovery. To cite a small, relatively recent example: In the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration, four developments appeared to be unrelated —America’s humiliation at the Bay of Pigs in April, Kennedy’s confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev in Austria six weeks later, the raising of the Berlin Wall in August, and, in December, the first commitment of American ground troops to Indochina. Yet each event had led to the next. Khrushchev saw the Cuban fiasco as evidence that the young president was weak. Therefore he bullied him in Vienna. In the mistaken belief that he had intimidated him there, he built the Wall. Kennedy answered the challenge by sending four hundred Green Berets to Southeast Asia, explaining to those around him that “we have a problem making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.”

A subtler, more progressive catena may be found in nineteenth-century social history. In 1847 the old, slow, expensive flatbed press was rendered obsolete by Richard Hoe’s high-speed rotary “lightning” press, first installed by the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Incorporating lithographic and letter-press features, some of which had been patented in France, Hoe went on to design and build a web press capable of printing—on both sides of a sheet at the same time—eighteen thousand sheets an hour. Vast supplies of cheap paper were required to feed these new presses. Ingenious Germans provided the answer in the 1850s: newsprint made from wood pulp. Now a literate public awaited them. W. E. Forster’s Compulsory Education Act, passed by Parliament in 1870, was followed by similar legislation throughout western Europe and the United States. In 1858 only 5 percent of British army recruits could read and write; by the turn of the century the figure had risen to 85.4 percent. The 1880s had brought the institution of free libraries, which was followed by an explosion in journalism and the emergence of the twentieth-century mass culture which has transformed Western civilization.

Though the early 1500s offer a larger, much more chaotic canvas, perspective provides coherence there, too. The power of the Catholic Church was waning, reeling from the failure of the crusades, corruption in the Curia, debauchery in the Vatican, and the breakdown of monastic discipline. Even so, Martin Luther’s revolt against Rome seemed hopeless until, abandoning the custom of publishing in Latin, he addressed the German people in their own language. This had two immense but unforeseen consequences. Because of the invention of printing and the increase in literacy throughout Europe, he reached a huge audience. At the same time, the new nationalism which was fueling the rising phenomenon of nation-states—soon to replace the fading Holy Roman Empire—led loyal Germans to support Luther for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. He won a historic victory, which was followed by similar success in England, where loyal Englishmen rallied to Henry VIII.

As each such concatenation came into focus, I came to a dead stop and began major revisions. Sometimes these entailed the shredding of all existing manuscript for a fresh start—an inefficient way to write a book, though I found it exciting. The period became a kind of kaleidoscope for me; every time I shook it, I saw a new picture. Of course, the images I saw, and describe in this work, cannot presume to universal validity. Another writer, peering into another kaleidoscope, would glimpse different views. In fact, that was precisely the experience of Henry Osborn Taylor. Finishing his two-volume work The Mediaeval Mind in January 1911, the pietistic Taylor was suffused with admiration for the medieval churches, the pageantry of the age, its romance, its “spiritual passion,” and, above all, its interpretation of “Christ’s Gospel.” He explained candidly: “The present work is not occupied with the brutalities of mediaeval life, nor with all the lower grades of ignorance and superstition abounding in the Middle Ages. … Consequently I have not such things very actively in mind when speaking of the mediaeval genius. That phrase, and the like, in this book, will signify the more informed and constructive spirit of the mediaeval time.”

No matter how hard I shake my kaleidoscope, I cannot see what he saw. One reason is that my approach is more catholic than his. I share his conviction that “a realization of the power and import of the Christian Faith is needed for an understanding of the thoughts and feelings moving the men and women of the Middle Ages, and for a just appreciation of their aspirations and ideals,” but I do not see how that can be achieved without a careful study of brutality, ignorance, and delusions in the Middle Ages, not just among the laity, but also at the highest Christian altars. Christianity survived despite medieval Christians, not because of them. Fail to grasp that, and you will never understand their millennium.

Only after one has contemplated the age in its entirety do its larger patterns emerge. Often these are surprising. For me the most startling, and the culmination of my work, was a reappraisal of the extraordinary Magellan, whose biography I had left in New England. I had foolishly thought that the times in which he lived would put him in context. Instead, I realized, Magellan was essential to a comprehension of his times—both a key to the period and, in many ways, its apotheosis. How I reached that conclusion is the story of this book.


Middletown, Connecticut
December 1991

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