Post-classical history


1492: the anatomy of a year

When the Middle Ages end is just as vexing a question as when they begin, and when a book on the church in the Middle Ages should end is equally vexing. Arguments can be made to continue the story to the time of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17) and its inadequate response to issues of the day. Other arguments would suggest that Erasmus and Thomas More complete the medieval story. Still others would conclude with Luther and his gesture of defiance at the Castle at Wittenberg in 1517. Such dates can be persuasively argued, yet, in the final analysis, any date or event is bound to be arbitrary, chosen as much for pedagogical as for other reasons. In any case, historical orthodoxy rightly sees a transitional period, when the old (medieval) was fading and the new (modern) was emerging. By the end of the fifteenth century the transition was well under way.

The year 1492 is taken here – other years could have been used – as a convenient place to conclude this account of the medieval church. This is not to suggest that the Middle Ages ended in 1492 or that the church lost its medieval character in that year. Such would constitute historical heresy. The choice of that year affords us the opportunity to consider some events that occurred in 1492 and how they reflect things past and portend things to come.

On 2 January 1492, after a sporadic campaign lasting ten years, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received the surrender of the Muslim city of Granada. They led 1,000 horsemen and 5,000 foot soldiers to the Alhambra, where the banners of the king and queen, each bearing the cross, were hoisted from the tower. The solemn entry into the city took place four days later, on the day of the Epiphany (Feast of the Kings). Although the terms of the capitulation allowed Muslims to continue the practice of their religion, the reconquest was complete, Islam was no longer a presence in western Europe, and there was widespread rejoicing. Henry VII ordered a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The University of Paris sent a message of praise, fulsome in the Latin rhetoric of the time. And the pope was soon to declare Ferdinand and Isabella the ‘Catholic Monarchs’. The victory at Granada ushered in or, at least, buttressed a sense of triumphalism, long associated with Spanish Catholicism.

Three months later (31 March 1492) the triumphant monarchs ordered the expulsion of all Jews from their kingdoms. The decree, issued at Granada, gave Jews who did not convert to Catholicism three months to leave, taking with them neither gold, silver, horses nor arms. Many converted, including the chief rabbi; others left in a new exodus, their numbers impossible to know but no doubt in the tens of thousands. The sincerity of these conversions would incur the suspicion of the inquisition in Spain for some time to come. The Jews had been expelled before from other places, for example from Gascony in 1289 and from England in 1290, and soon (1497) from Portugal and, in recent times, from other places, in circumstances of utter barbarity.

At Florence, during the night of 5 April 1492, the great cupola of the duomo was struck by lightning. Lorenzo de’Medici, as he lay mortally ill, took it as an omen that he would soon die. Three days later he sent for the Dominican preacher Savonarola, who gave Lorenzo his blessing; then Il Magnifico died. With Lorenzo’s restraining hand gone, Savonarola’s fiery rhetoric seemed to know no bounds. While delivering a sermon later in the same year, he claimed that he saw a hand holding a flaming sword, on which appeared the words, ‘Terrible and swift upon the earth is the sword of the Lord.’ And he claimed to hear a voice, which said, ‘The time is at hand when I shall unsheathe my sword.’ From then his preaching, with increasing fervour, denounced the vices of the church, the corruption of society and the preoccupation with luxuries. His was to become the dominant voice in Florence for six years and he the city’s de facto ruler, providing an austerity to Europe’s most luxurious city. On carnival day 1497 he was to encourage Florentines to feed the bonfire in a main square with their vanities, such as obscene books and pictures, playing-cards, dice, gaming pieces, cosmetics, perfumes, mirrors, dolls, etc. Whether any valuable books or pictures were devoured in the rogo della vanità(‘bonfire of the vanities’), we shall never know, but the spectacle clearly shows a city high on enthusiasm, almost to the point of uncontrolled hysteria. The religious fervour ended, with no obvious lasting effects. It is reminiscent of the excesses of the flagellants in the darkest days of the Black Death as they entered a community and by chanting, incense and preaching heated the religious emotions to a fever pitch. The Salem witch-trials of 1692 may have fed from a similar source. And some may see parallels between Savonarola’s Florence and Calvin’s Geneva.

Meanwhile, at Rome on 11 August 1492 a new pope was elected, for many the most infamous in papal history. The Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia took the name Alexander VI. It was an election arrived at by blatant bribery and extravagant promises. As a cardinal, Borgia had sired many children by several mistresses, and, as pope, he continued to indulge his sexual appetites. Through his ruthless son Cesare and his daughter Lucretia he would pursue political ambitions in Italy, even to the extent of trying to appropriate the papal states for the Borgia family. Two of Lucretia’s marriages he annulled, and a third husband Cesare murderously dispatched. At one point, when Alexander VI was absent from Rome (1501), he remarkably left Lucretia in charge of the Holy See. It may not have been the worst of times for the papacy, but it surely must have come close. An institution with its share of saints, it also has had its share of men who were apparently wholly secular. The papacy would recover from the excesses of the pope elected in 1492, but the spiritual mission of the papacy continued to be in danger of being compromised because of the pope being a secular ruler, until the Piedmontese army settled the issue in 1870, just two months after Pius IX declared papal infallibility.

There entered Granada with Ferdinand and Isabella on 2 January 1492 a 40 year old Genoese sailor. Later that year, on 12 November, that sailor, Christopher Columbus, landed in the Indies and immediately fell to the ground on his knees, thanking God for reaching land, which he called San Salvador (Holy Saviour). His men were carrying the banners of the king and queen, on each of which was the Christian cross. Columbus wrote of the people he found there:

To win their friendship, since I knew they could be converted to our holy faith by love rather than by force, I distributed among them red caps and glass beads, which they hung around their necks, and many other things of similar value, which pleased them much … I noticed that they can repeat what is said to them quite quickly. I believe that they would easily become Christians.

And, so, a tectonic shift in world history and, perforce, in the history of the Christian church began on that beach in the Caribbean islands. Tens and tens of millions of white Europeans and countless numbers of black Africans would come to the Americas in the greatest migration in human history. In several senses, it was a new world.

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