ON MAY 22, 1453, the sun set on a besieged Constantinople. An hour later a full moon rose in a crystal-clear sky, and suddenly it was eclipsed to a sickly sliver. All night long panicked crowds stumbled through the ancient streets, their way lit only by the flickering red glow from the enemy fires outside the walls. As the last Romans held aloft precious icons and chanted prayers to God, the Virgin, and the Saints, they knew that an ancient prophecy had finally been fulfilled. The heavens had blinked; the end was near.
For more than a thousand years Constantinople had stood firm against waves of barbarians and Persians, Arabs, and Turks. It had survived devastating plagues, blood-soaked dynastic mayhem, and marauding Crusaders. The golden city of the Caesars had gradually been reduced to a hollow honeycomb, its inhabitants, a tenth the number at its peak, scattered around fields strewn with the ruins of lost grandeur. Yet still it held on. Long ago it had lost its Latin language and had adopted the Greek of its majority population; western Europeans had long called its empire the Empire of the Greeks. Later historians would label it Byzantine, after the city over which Constantinople had risen. To its proud citizens it was always Roman, the last living, breathing survivor of the classical world.
For the twenty-one-year-old Ottoman sultan who had pitched his tent less than a quarter of a mile to the west, the glittering prospect in his sights was not so much the final end of the Roman Empire as its revival under his protection. Mehmet II, middling in height, stocky in build, with piercing eyes, an aquiline nose, a small mouth, and a loud voice, was fluent in six languages and a keen student of history. He was already master of nearly all the old Roman lands in the East, and history told him that the conqueror of the imperial city would inherit the mantle of the great emperors of long ago. He would be the rightful Caesar, and his vaulting ambition would restore the true ring of authority to that hallowed, hollowed-out name.
As the Turks closed in, the emperor behind Constantinople’s walls had turned to the West one last time. In desperation he had visited the pope in person and had agreed to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches. His mission had fallen foul of centuries of bad blood between Greeks and Italians, and even in their last hour, the citizens of Constantinople had mounted a furious publicity campaign against reconciliation. Besides, while the papacy was as eager as ever to press its advantage, few in Europe had any appetite for more defeats at the hands of the Turks. This time there would be no papal coalition, no Crusading army, to defend the eastern bastion of Christendom.
Outside the land approach to the city the Turks had set up a monster cannon, its barrel twenty-six feet long and wide enough for a man to crawl inside, its weight so great that it took thirty yoke of oxen and four hundred men to heave it into place. For seven weeks its twelve-hundred-pound missiles had crashed into antiquity’s ruins and had shaken the ground with the force of a meteor strike. Countless smaller cannon had pulverized the defenses, leaving soldiers, monks, and matrons scrambling to shore up the gaps. The monumental walls were badly battered, but they still held, and for one last time the few thousand remaining defenders took heart.
To the Orthodox, the capital of Eastern Christianity was not only the new Rome; it was the New Jerusalem, the cradle of Christendom itself. The entire city was a charnel house of holy relics that were credited with miraculous powers; reputedly among them were large parts of the True Cross and the Holy Nails, Christ’s sandals, scarlet robe, crown of thorns, and shroud, the remnants of fish and bread from the feeding of the five thousand, the entire head of John the Baptist with hair and beard, and the sweet-smelling garments of the Virgin Mary, who was often sighted roaming the walls giving heart to the defenders. In Constantinople’s glory days St. Andrew the Fool, a former slave turned ascetic whose patent insanity was taken by his followers to be a mark of his extreme holiness, had promised that the metropolis need never fear an enemy until the end of time: “No nation whatever shall entrap or capture her,” he told his disciple Epiphanios, “for she has been given to the Mother of God and no one shall snatch her out of her hands. Many nations will attack her walls and break their horns, withdrawing in shame, though receiving from her gifts and much wealth.” Only in the Last Days, he added, would God slice the earth from under her with a mighty sickle; then the waters that had borne the holy vessel for so long would cascade over her, and she would spin like a millstone on the crest of a wave before plunging into the bottomless abyss. To true believers, the end of the world and the end of Constantinople amounted to one and the same thing.
A week after the portentous eclipse, the end arrived.
Under cover of darkness, to the blare of horns and fifes, the rattle of kettledrums, and the thunder of cannon, a hundred thousand Turkish soldiers launched an all-out assault. As Christians and Muslims fought hand to hand on the hills of rubble that had once been the strongest defenses in the world, fate played one last, cruel trick on Constantinople. In the furor the defenders had left a gate open, and the Turks rushed straight through. As dawn broke in a cloud of dust, sulfur, and smoke, the last Romans collapsed back into the exhausted city and fell to their knees.
The Turks surged along the Mese, the main thoroughfare laid out by Constantine the Great more than a millennium before. Peeling off left and right, they burst into houses, claimed them as their own, and staggered off with the loot. They massacred the city’s men and pressed themselves on its women, among them a goodly number of nuns. By the custom of battle, three days of plunder was the conquerors’ right; Mehmet, with an eye on history, put a stop to the rapine at noon and insisted the survivors be taken as slaves. No one protested; even battle-hardened soldiers stopped to gaze in hushed wonder. Nearly eight centuries after an Islamic army had first besieged Constantinople, it was finally theirs.
Late in a golden May afternoon, Mehmet rode along the Mese and dismounted outside the Hagia Sophia. He bent down to scoop up a handful of earth, crumbled it on his turban, and walked through the heavy bronze doors, several of which were hanging off their hinges. As his eyes adjusted to the cavernous space with its rearing walls of glittering, dilapidated mosaics, he took his sword to a soldier who was levering a marble slab from the floor. The greatest church of Christendom would henceforth be a mosque.
IN EUROPE, THE news of the final end of classical antiquity was received as tragic but inevitable. The timeworn city had long seemed to belong to another world.
“But what is that terrible news recently reported about Constantinople?” the scholar Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini—later Pope Pius II—wrote to the then pope:
Who can doubt that the Turks will vent their wrath upon the churches of God? I grieve that the world’s most famous temple, Hagia Sophia, will be destroyed or defiled. I grieve that countless basilicas of the saints, marvels of architecture, will fall in ruins or be subjected to the defilements of Mohammed. What can I say about the books without number there which are not yet known in Italy? Alas, how many names of great men will now perish? This will be a second death to Homer and a second destruction of Plato.
As it turned out, the books—if not most of the churches—were safe. A steady stream of scholars had fled before the Turks, mostly to Italy, where they arrived with armfuls of volumes containing the literature of ancient Greece and spurred on the gathering Renaissance. Mehmet the Conqueror, as his people now knew him, guarded what was left in his prized library, and the cultivated autocrat soon turned his mind to rebuilding what he had destroyed. As ruler of the Renaissance world’s only superpower, he had plenty of talent to call on. A new city, to be called Istanbul, would rise from the ashes of Constantinople, a capital illustrious enough to match the Conqueror’s ambition. The Grand Bazaar, a fifteenth-century world trade center, would arch across the age-old streets, and the workshops would hum at a pace not heard for centuries. Christians and Jews would be invited back as artisans and administrators, the patriarch would resume his watch over his Orthodox flock, and the chief rabbi would take his seat in the divan, the council of state, beside the religious leaders of the Muslims.
Yet Mehmet had his life ahead of him, and he was not about to slumber on his jeweled throne. The self-declared Caesar was not satisfied with Constantinople, the new Rome of antiquity. For his claim to be complete, he would have to conquer the old Rome, too.
A few Europeans saw an opportunity in the looming disaster. George of Trebizond, a pugnacious Greek émigré who became a renowned Italian humanist and papal secretary, was convinced that Mehmet would fulfill the old prophecies by becoming sole ruler of the world. According to received wisdom, a long reign of terror would then hold sway until the last Christian emperor arrived to preside over an era of peace that would presage the End Times of the Earth. Seeing an opportunity to skip two centuries of hell on earth and go straight to the age of bliss, George wrote a series of long letters to the Ottoman sultan. Addressing him as the rightful Caesar, he suggested how to reconcile Islam and Christianity so that Mehmet could be baptized and himself become the last “king of all the earth and heavens.” Though George’s eschatological scheme was especially ambitious, he was not alone in attempting to convert the Conqueror: several more Greek scholars and even Pope Pius II wrote to Mehmet, proposing the same thing.
The rest of Western Christendom, unaware that salvation lurked in the Turkish onslaught and torn apart by its usual internal wars, could only look on aghast as Mehmet’s armies marched deep into eastern Europe and set sail for Italy. The victorious sultan was on the verge of fulfilling the dream that had come to a halt, seven centuries before, on the fields of France.
Inevitably, Rome called a new Crusade. This time the genocidal papal plan was to reconquer Constantinople, invade the Ottoman heartlands, and exterminate the Turkish nation once and for all.
In February 1454, Philip the Good, the powerful duke of Burgundy—and the husband of Henry the Navigator’s sister Isabel—threw the most spectacular of all fifteenth-century banquets to bang the drum for the mooted holy war. Hundreds of nobles converged on Lille for the Feast of the Pheasant and were entertained in a style befitting a man who was besotted with chivalric romances. Three tables were laid in the great hall, and each was decorated with a toymaker’s fantasia of miniature automata. The top table alone boasted a castle whose moat was filled with orange punch trickling from its towers, a magpie perched on the rotating sail of a windmill that proved an elusive target for a file of archers, a tiger wrestling with a serpent, a jester mounted on a bear, an Arab riding a camel, a ship floating back and forth between two cities, two lovers eating the birds beaten out of a bush by a man with a stick, and a trick barrel that poured either sweet or sour wine—“Take some, if you dare!” read the label. For the pièce de résistance, a colossal pie was wheeled in and its crust was removed to reveal a twenty-eight-strong orchestra playing inside. While the masked guests worked their way through forty-eight courses, acrobats tumbled, actors performed interludes, a live lion roared next to the statue of a woman who poured spiced wine from her right breast, and two live falcons were released and killed a heron, which was presented to the duke. As the business of the evening approached, a giant dressed as a Muslim led in an elephant on a leash. A model castle was harnessed to the elephant’s back, and on it sat a female impersonator dressed as a nun. The actor announced himself as Holy Church, and he proceeded to recite a “complaint and lamentation in a piteous and feminine voice” of the iniquities of the Turks. In line with long-standing knightly tradition, an officer solemnly carried a pheasant sporting a necklace of gold, pearls, and jewels to the high table. The duke made his crusading vow to God, the Virgin, the ladies, and the bird, and the assembled knights and squires followed suit. After such a show, it was hard to make a polite refusal.
For all Duke Philip’s efforts the nobles turned out to be much keener on feasting than on fighting the Turks, and the papal call to arms was met with a great collective shrug. About the only nation that took the proposed Crusade seriously was Portugal. King Afonso V, King Edward’s son and Prince Henry’s nephew, had now come of age, and he was burning to eclipse the fame his forebears had won as holy warriors. The headstrong young king proposed himself as the commander in chief at the head of a twelve-thousand-strong Portuguese force, though when he sent an envoy to Italy to push his plan he was given a fast baptism in the muddy waters of Italian politics. Several Italian states had promised to join the Crusade, but the envoy reported that there was no chance whatsoever that they would keep their word. His skepticism was echoed by the Duke of Milan, who cattily wrote to Afonso in September 1456, admiring “the sublimity of spirit which led the Portuguese king, when barely out of his adolescence, to want to attack the infidel in a region so far away from the traditional Portuguese crusading arena in North Africa, and despite the fact that his plans might put Ceuta in danger.” In a fit of pique, Afonso declared he would take on the Turks single-handed. Even his uncle thought he had lost his senses, and Henry hastily persuaded him to redirect his energies into a new Moroccan Crusade.
With its claim to overlordship of the earth looking shakier than ever, Rome increasingly turned to the stalwart Crusaders of Iberia to buttress its vast aspirations. In 1455, the pope rewarded young Afonso’s ardor by bestowing on him the invented title of Lord of Guinea; so far as papal authority held sway, the Portuguese were now the rulers of vast swaths of Africa and the surrounding seas, discovered or still unknown. However far-fetched little Portugal’s dreams might have seemed, Rome had nothing to lose, and potentially a world to gain, from backing them.
Afonso had the long papal bull read out in Lisbon’s cathedral, a fortresslike structure that had been built on the site of the old Friday mosque, in front of an audience of international dignitaries. In glowing words, the pope praised Henry the Navigator as “our beloved son” and his discoveries and conquests as the work of a “true soldier of Christ.” He also affirmed the new Lord of Guinea’s right “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” It was the clearest possible sanction from the highest authority for any iron-fisted actions Europe might wish to indulge in overseas, and it would come to be known as the charter of Portuguese imperialism. Together with the bull granted to Henry in 1452, it would be trundled out time after time to justify centuries of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade.
Five years later, in 1460, Henry died. By then his ships had sailed two thousand miles south from Lisbon, and his lifetime’s obsession had startlingly expanded Portugal’s ambitions. Many of his countrymen revered him as a heroic visionary, the first man to launch a concerted exploration of the Ocean Sea and the father of an embryonic empire. Not all agreed: to some he was a rash opportunist, to others a reactionary medieval knight obsessed with Crusades and chivalry. He was all of those things, but his relentless pursuit of goals beyond the thoughts of more sober-minded men would divert the course of history. He was the single flawed figure without whom Europe’s knowledge of what lay beyond its shores might have crept forward at a far slower rate, without whom Vasco da Gama might never have sailed for India or Columbus for America.
Afonso had none of Henry’s appetite for exploration. For nine years the discoveries paused while he followed up his uncle’s Crusade against Tangier, which was repeatedly won and lost until it finally fell in 1471. Eventually he was persuaded to subcontract the African enterprise to a rich Lisbon merchant named Fernão Gomes. Without the royal distraction of Crusading, the voyages shot ahead. Gomes’s ships rounded the great continental bulge of west Africa and followed the land due east. In Ghana—which the Portuguese named the Mine Coast and the British would rename the Gold Coast—Gomes’s ships finally found the regular supplies of gold that had eluded Henry, and in 1473, now heading south again, they crossed the equator. In all, they had advanced another two thousand miles.
Gomes had been too successful for his own good; the following year, his contract was terminated and the crown took back the reins. Precious metal was not the only draw. When the Portuguese suddenly found themselves in the Southern Hemisphere, an electrifying possibility finally began to spark the nation’s collective imagination.
For centuries, Europeans had dreamed of finding a sure route to the distant reaches of Asia. For centuries, the wall of faith built by Islam had made the idea all but unthinkable. Yet if there was an end to Africa, there might be a way to sail directly from Europe into the East. The nation that pulled off that feat would transform both itself and the world.
IN CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY, Europe was born of an abduction from the East. The legends told that a Phoenician princess named Europa was dallying with her maids when Zeus, king of the Gods, disguised himself as a fetching white bull, lured the object of his desire to mount him, and swam off with her to Crete. Herodotus, the father of history, later explained that Europa was really seized by the Minoans of Crete in revenge for an earlier kidnapping by Phoenician traders, thereby inaugurating the enmity between Europe and Asia that climaxed in the Greco-Persian Wars. Either way, the mother of Europe evidently had no intention of quitting the attractions of Asia for foreign shores.
To medieval Europeans, the East was still a realm of marvels unmatched by anything to be found at home. Most were deduced from the Bible, as interpreted by the mystical medieval mind.
Cut off from firsthand knowledge of what lay beyond its borders, Europe had long ago retreated into a biblical literalism that had reshaped the world in its image. On its wheel-shaped mappae mundi, or schematic world maps, the three known continents were distributed around a T-shaped body of water. Asia was placed above the top bar of the T, which corresponded to the Nile and the Danube. Europe was to the left of the vertical bar, which represented the Mediterranean, and Africa was on the right. The Ocean Sea lapped around the edges of the circle, and at dead center was Jerusalem. In the European scheme of things, Jerusalem was quite literally the city at the center of the world. “Thus saith the Lord God; This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her,” the Bible records the prophet Ezekiel as saying, and so it came to be drawn.
At the top of the map, or in the Far East, was the Garden of Eden, the spring of humanity itself. There was nothing symbolic about this piece of patristic geography. The vast encyclopedia compiled by St. Isidore of Seville—the most popular textbook of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance—listed the earthly Paradise as an eastern province along with India, Persia, and Asia Minor. The entry on Paradise in the fourteenth-century Polychronicon, or “Universal History,” further specified that it made up “a sizeable part of the earth’s mass, being no smaller than India or Egypt, for the place had been intended for the whole of the human race, if man had not sinned.” The garden, of course, had been closed off after the Fall: it was shown on the maps guarded by a sword-wielding angel, a wall of flames, or a wilderness writhing with snakes, perched on a mountaintop so high that it touched the moon’s orbit and thus stayed dry during the Flood, or immured on an island where the only entrance was a forbidding door marked GATES OFPARADISE. Inside were dense green forests, fragrant flowers, and gentle breezes, together with every conceivable form of beauty, happiness, and fortune. Paradise might be out of reach, but there was no question it existed.
Apart from the biblical authorities, for centuries Europe had little else to go on but the fragments of classical texts that had survived the barbarian onslaughts. In typical medieval style, it embellished them to its heart’s content. The Alexander Romance, a medieval best seller recounting the adventures of Alexander the Great that ran to innumerable editions and became more far-fetched with each, told of an actual encounter with Paradise. In one version of the story, Alexander and his companions are sailing down the River Ganges when they find themselves alongside a towering city wall. After skirting its base for three days they finally see a small window and call up. The old guardian who answers tells them they have found the city of the blessed and are in mortal danger. Alexander leaves with a souvenir, a stone heavier than gold that, when it touches the earth, becomes lighter than a feather, a symbol of the end that awaits the most powerful of men. Classical lore buffed up by medieval ingenuity was also responsible for the belief that Alexander had encountered numerous “monstrous races” on his travels, including pygmies, cannibals, peoples with dogs’ heads or faces in their chests, and others with heads but no mouths who fed on the scent of apples. Each species had an accepted name: the last were aptly called the apple smellers.
As well as showing Adam and Eve fleeing the garden, Christ rising from the tomb, and the dead departing to eternal bliss or damnation on Judgment Day, the mapmakers also had to find room for the vacant Tower of Babel, the indolent Happy Isles, the land ofthe Dry Tree, the gold mines of Ophir, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the kingdom of the Magi, and the barbaric nations of Gog and Magog whose escape would unleash a battle for the End Times of the Earth. The last two were placed in the far north of Asia, where they were contained by an iron gate built by Alexander the Great that also held back as many as twenty-two more evil races. The maps depicted the fearsome tribes drinking blood and devouring human flesh, including the tender flesh of children and miscarried fetuses. Such dark imaginings were not limited to populist fear-mongers; they were taken as gospel by the foremost minds of the age. In the thirteenth century Roger Bacon, the medieval pioneer of science, urged the study of geography so that Christendom could plan against the coming invasion from the East.
As speculation piled on surmise and Europe came to believe that fantastical places were real, so little was known about real places that they became the stuff of fantasy in turn. Crucially, the far reaches of the East were such a mystery that it was possible to imagine, at some deep level at least, that they were Christian.
Of all the riddles, the whereabouts of India was the most perplexing. It was a source of untold frustration, because India was known to be the main source of the most sought-after goods in the world: spices.
NOTHING DELIGHTED THE medieval palate more than a fiery blast of spice. In kitchens across Europe, spices were heaped into sauces, steeped in wines, and crystallized as candies with the addition of sugar, which was itself classed as a spice. Cinnamon, ginger, and saffron were staples of any self-respecting cook’s larder, and precious cloves, nutmeg, and mace were scarcely less ubiquitous. Even countryfolk had a craving for black pepper, while wealthy gourmets gobbled up the full range from anise to zedoary, a once-favored relative of ginger, at an astonishing rate. The fifteenth-century household of the first Duke of Buckingham worked its way through two pounds of spices a day, including nearly a pound of pepper and half a pound of ginger, and even that prodigious intake paled next to the sacks of spices that were emptied into cooking pots at the banquets of kings, nobles, and bishops. When Duke George “the Rich” of Bavaria married in 1476, the chefs sent out for a king’s ransom of Eastern delights:
Pepper, 386 lbs.
Ginger, 286 lbs.
Saffron, 207 lbs.
Cinnamon, 205 lbs.
Cloves, 105 lbs.
Nutmeg, 85 lbs.
Spices did not just tickle the palate: by happy coincidence they were good for your health. Medieval medical students learned that the body was a microcosm of the universe, a concept that derived from classical Greek medicine and was transmitted to Europe by Muslim physicians. Four humors, or bodily fluids, were the internal equivalents of fire, earth, air, and water, and each conferred its own character trait. Blood, for instance, made you sanguine or irrepressibly optimistic, whereas black bile bred melancholy; and while no one was blessed with a perfect balance, an excessive imbalance brought on illness. Food was particularly important in maintaining the body’s equilibrium, and like the humors it was classed according to its degree of heat and moisture. Cold, wet foods such as fish and many meats were thus rendered less dangerous with a healthy powdering of hot, dry spice. Even better, spices were believed to be highly efficient purgatives, a valued quality in an age that liked its remedies to be as violent as its diseases.
Individual spices had specific pharmaceutical uses. Under the sign of the mortar and pestle, apothecaries ground their desiccated treasure into cordials, pills, and resins and marketed the results as miracle drugs and health supplements. Black pepper, the most widely available spice, was used as an expectorant, to treat asthma, to heal sores, as an antidote to poison, and—when invigoratingly rubbed into the eyes—to improve vision; in a range of blends it was prescribed, among a great deal else, for epilepsy, gout, rheumatism, insanity, earache, and piles. Cinnamon had nearly as many applications, ranging from severe fever to bad breath. Nutmeg was invariably recommended for bloating and flatulence, while hot, moist ginger was the drug of choice for flagging male libidos. The author of one of many medieval sex manuals suggested that a man discommoded by “a small member,”
who wants to make it grand or fortify it for the coitus, must rub it before copulation with tepid water, until it gets red and extended by the blood flowing into it, in consequence of the heat; he must then anoint it with a mixture of honey and ginger, rubbing it in sedulously. Then let him join the woman; he will procure for her such pleasure that she objects to him getting off her again.
Alongside the regular culinary spices, wholesale grocers and local merchants purveyed an exotic range of animal, vegetable, and mineral rarities from the far corners of the earth. These were also classed as spices, and many were meant to be inhaled.
Medieval men and women were not as universally unwashed as folklore holds, but life undoubtedly stank. The pungent aromas of tanneries and smelters wafted over residential areas. Sewage ran, or stagnated, in the streets, where it mixed with household garbage and dung from horses, rooting pigs, and cattle being driven to market. Floors were covered with rushes or straw and sprinkled with sweet herbs, but offending substances lingered underfoot. On a trip to England, the great Dutch humanist Erasmus noted that the rushes were renewed “so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harboring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapor is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health.” The only way to combat powerful bad smells was with powerful good ones, and pungent spices were burned as incense, dabbed on as perfumes, and scattered around rooms to create a fragrant haven. For those who could afford them, expensive aromas were the most soothing of all; among the most prized aromatics were rare resins such as frankincense, myrrh, mastic, and balsam, and even rarer perfumed animal secretions such as casto-reum from beavers, civet from wild tropical cats, and musk from small Himalayan deer.
Everyone knew a stench was a bad thing, even if they did little about it. What turned the craze for exotic aromatics into a full-blown addiction was the belief that foul odors were responsible for spreading epidemics, up to and including the Black Death itself. The supreme prophylactic against the plague was ambergris, a fatty secretion of the intestines of sperm whales that was coughed up or excreted, hardened in the water, and washed up on the beaches of East Africa as a crusty gray lump smelling of animals, earth, and sea. The medical faculty of the celebrated University of Paris prescribed a blend of ambergris and other aromatics—such as sandalwood and aloeswood, myrrh and mace—carried in pierced metal balls known as pommes d’ambre, or pomanders, though the king and queen of France, who were among the few who could afford it, inhaled pure ambergris.
In a world of mysteries and miracles, spices were among the deepest secrets of the earth. Ambergris was credited with magical powers precisely because it was so outlandish, and the same went for other equally strange substances. Also among the apothecaries’ under-the-counter goods were “tutty,” or crusty deposits picked out of the chimneys of the East, and “mummy,” which was glossed in a leading drug handbook as “a kind of spice collected from the tombs of the dead”—a foul-smelling, pitchlike substance scraped from the heads and spines of embalmed corpses. One cherished commodity, solidified lynx urine, was believed to be a kind of amber or gemstone, while real gems and semiprecious stones were stocked alongside the rarer spices and were reputed to possess particularly strong curative powers. Lapis lazuli was prescribed for melancholia and malaria. Topaz soothed hemorrhoids. Jet, ground up and sprinkled around the house, induced menstruation and had the added benefit of warding off evil incantations. Crushed pearls were taken to stanch hemorrhages, to increase the flow of a nursing mother’s milk, and for the truly self-indulgent, to treat diarrhea. Lavish concoctions of gems and spices were the last resort if all else failed: the pampered elite could combat the winter blues by downing powdered pearls blended with cloves, cinnamon, galangal, aloes, nutmeg, ginger, ivory, and camphor, and ward off old age with an exquisite blend of pearl, sapphire, ruby, and coral fragments mixed with ambergris and musk—a mixture barely easier to digest than the cheaper alternative of viper’s flesh, cloves, nutmeg, and mace.
Gems, naturally, were for the rich, and a few doctors quietly expressed doubts that the exotic goods from the East were any more effective than common, or garden, herbs. But for those who could buy the best, the very fact that spices were borne across distant lands and seas from jungles and deserts unknown—and the sky-high prices they commanded—gave them a reassuring cachet of exclusivity. In an age that glorified conspicuous consumption, basking in a cloud of Eastern ambrosia was an essential ingredient of high living. Spices were the luxury goods par excellence of the medieval world.
The profits at stake were immense, and unscrupulous merchants, their sales patter heavy with the exotic Orient, were not above adulterating their goods by soaking them in water to add weight, hiding stale spices under fresh ones, or even adding shavings of silver, which was worth less than its weight in cloves. Their customers’ fury knew no bounds: in 1444 one adulterator of saffron was burned to death in Nuremberg, though more often it was the spices that were incinerated. The increasingly vociferous anti-spice lobby, though, had larger concerns than a little local larceny; what really outraged it was the scandalous waste of money. Moralists fulminated that spices—even “that damned pepper”—merely inflamed the senses, generated gluttony and lust, and were gone in a flash. The habit, they fumed, was turning doughty Europeans into effeminate wastrels. Most egregiously of all, the taste for Eastern luxuries was draining Europe’s treasuries of gold and funneling it into the grasping hands of the Infidel.
It was not that spices were seen as unholy; quite the reverse. The aromas of the East, the naysayers sternly warned, properly belonged to heaven and the saints and not to greedy mortals. Resins and spices had been used in religious rituals as incense, balms, and unguents at least since the time of ancient Egypt, and though the first Christians shunned perfumes as the whiff of the bathhouse, brothel, and pagan altar, the idea that fragrances summoned up the supernatural proved hard to dispel. Medieval Christendom believed that the bittersweet smell of spices was a breath of heaven on earth, a waft of the fragrant hereafter. The scent, it was said, clung to visiting angels and verified their presence, while devils could be detected by their telltale stink. Saints were also believed to smell miraculously spicy, and those who had endured a particularly gruesome death were held to enjoy a correspondingly fragrant afterlife. In the fifteenth century the corpse of St. Lydwine of Schiedam, who broke a rib while ice-skating as a teenager and was fated to live for another thirty-eight years while chunks of her body fell off and blood poured from her mouth, ears, and nose, was reported to exude an appetizing savor of cinnamon and ginger.
LONG AGO, EUROPEANS had traveled the spice routes. The Greeks had shown the way, and the Romans, after ousting Cleopatra from her throne, had established a regular trade between the east coast of Egypt and the west coast of India. As many as 120 huge freighters had sailed back and forth each year to satisfy the Roman penchant for piquant flavors and exotic perfumes, though even then purists were complaining about the vast trove of gold and silver that was being forked out for Eastern fripperies, a theme the satirist Persius took up in the first century CE:
The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run
To the parch’d Indies and the rising sun;
From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear,
Bart’ring for Spices their Italian ware.
By the third century the Arabs had taken over the sea routes, and the later rise of Islam had consolidated their control of the Eastern trade. As Europe’s fortunes revived, the merchants of Venice and Genoa had haggled in the bustling spice markets of Constantinople, built by imperial edict beside the palace gate so the aromas wafted upstairs, and during the Crusades the Christian ports of Syria and Palestine had done a roaring trade in spices and jewels, oriental carpets and silks. Yet Europe’s spice merchants were the last link in a long supply chain, and they were utterly in the dark about where their precious goods originated or how they were produced.
As usual, ignorance bred a heady swirl of speculation. Since spices clearly came from a blessed place, the reasoning went, the obvious location was the earthly Paradise. From a handful of classical authorities it was clear that spices were most abundant in India, so it followed that India must border Paradise. Even so, it was known that some spices came from other far-flung places, and the answer to that puzzle was found in the Bible. The book of Genesis revealed that the Garden of Eden watered four rivers, which had become identified as the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ganges, and the Nile. It had long been believed that all four gushed forth from a single giant spring at the center of the Garden, but even Europeans had come to balk at that mangling of geography, so it was decided that the rivers ran underground until they surfaced at their apparent source. Of the four, the Nile was the most venerated, and since it could hardly flow through the sea, it had become accepted that the African hinterland from which it issued must be connected to India. This neatly explained why spices were widely available in Egypt. A Frenchman who went there with the Seventh Crusade revealed that every night, the people who lived along the banks of the Upper Nile cast nets into the stream: “When morning comes, they find in their nets such things as are sold by weight and imported into Egypt, as for instance ginger, rhubarb, aloes, and cinnamon. It is said that these things come from the earthly Paradise, for in that heavenly place the wind blows down trees just as it does the dry wood in the forests of our own land, and the dry wood from the trees in Paradise that thus falls into the river is sold to us by merchants in this country.”
As to the means of harvesting the spices, Europe’s experts had plenty to say. It was well known that pepper grew on trees patrolled by poisonous snakes. “The pepper forests are guarded by serpents, but the natives burn the trees when the pepper is ripe and the fire drives away the snakes,” Isidore of Seville expounded in his encyclopedia. “It is the flame that blackens the pepper, for pepper is naturally white.” Some authorities declared that the whole grove had to be replanted after the blaze, which explained the high cost of the crop. Collecting cinnamon was equally labor intensive:
The Arabians say that the dry sticks . . . are brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb. The method invented to get the cinnamon sticks is this. People cut up the bodies of dead oxen into very large joints and leave them on the ground near the nests. They then scatter, and the birds fly down and carry off the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon.
The more cynical suspected Arab merchants of spreading tall tales to justify their prices, but the accounts were widely believed. So were the old reports that precious stones were only found in treacherous Indian gorges; since no man could climb down, the only way to retrieve the gems was to fling chunks of raw meat at them and send trained birds to fetch the glittering morsels. This particular thesis also convinced the Islamic world—it turns up in the tales of Sinbad, the sailor from Basra—and traveled as far as China. Over the centuries snakes were added to the ravines, some of which could kill with a mere glance. Alexander the Great, of course, had the answer: he lowered mirrors in which the snakes stared themselves to death, though he still fell back on the meat-and-birds strategy to retrieve the stones.
The first real information about the origin of spices reached Europe during the long Mongol peace. The Mongols, who were not particularly hung up on faith, guaranteed security of travel to all comers across their empire, and to adventurous Europeans the prospect of penetrating Asia’s hidden places was irresistible. Missionaries led the way, and merchants soon followed. The Italians, as usual, were in the vanguard, and among them was a young Venetian named Marco Polo. In 1271 the seventeen-year-old Marco set out for Beijing, where he became the trusted envoy of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. He set out to survey the Great Khan’s lands, and after twenty-four years he returned to Venice laden with rich jewels and richer tales. Almost immediately he was imprisoned by the Genoese, who were then at war with Venice, and he whiled away the time by dictating his Travels to a fellow inmate.
Marco Polo’s Asia was remarkably free of monstrous races, he poured cold water on the fireproof salamander, and he reshaped the unicorn into the less graceful rhinoceros. He—or his amanuensis—was not immune to all the old stories; diamonds, theTravelsexplained, were eaten by white eagles enticed into snake-infested Indian crevasses by lumps of raw meat, then fished out of the birds’ excrement. Yet on the whole his was a practical businessman’s report—and that was what made it startling reading. The China he described was a peaceful and prosperous nation of vast wealth and extent, a realm of countless cities built on a colossal scale, each with thousands of marble bridges and harbors teeming with junks. Fifteen hundred miles off its coast—an overestimate that would greatly encourage a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus—was Japan, whose palaces were roofed with gold. Polo was the first European to report the existence of Japan and Indochina; he was also the first known to have reached India, and the first to pass on the information that many of its spices came from islands far to the east, the number of which he put at precisely 7,448.
The Mongols had never conquered India, and only a tiny trickle of Westerners made it to the subcontinent after Marco Polo. In 1291, shortly before he returned to an astonished Venice, two missionary friars visited India on their way to China, and they were soon followed by a third, an intrepid Dominican named Jordan of Sévérac, who spent much of his life single-handedly supporting the tiny Christian communities established by his predecessors. Both Jordan and his Franciscan counterpart Odoric of Pordenone wrote accounts of the marvels of India that were heavily embroidered to entice new recruits, but they also contained some fresh information. Odoric finally explained that pepper grew on vines and was dried by the sun; crocodiles stalked the groves, he added, but they were timid and ran away from a modest fire. Another Franciscan, named John of Marignola, who set out in 1338 as a papal envoy to China and wandered around much of Asia for fifteen years, described how pepper was harvested, and demystified the people with parasol feet by introducing the West to the umbrella.
Of all the new revelations, the most provocative was Friar Odoric’s report that pepper was as abundant in India as grain was in Europe; the crop, he surmised, grew only on the Malabar Coast, the monsoon-soaked shoreline of southwest India, but it took a man eighteen days to travel from one end of the plantation to the other. This was news to feed Europe’s mounting anger at the ruinous cost of its condiments. The more India became a real place to the West, the more the old awe at the inordinate rarity of spices was scoffed away in favor of new stories of their absurd abundance. Spices, polemicists began to claim, grew everywhere in the East and cost nothing; it was Christendom’s enemies who spread wild stories and manipulated the supply and price.
It was all too much for many people. Vast stretches of the lands Marco Polo described were completely unknown to the ancients and the Christian geographers alike, and his claims were not widely credited. His was only one of many competing voices, and other travel writers continued to peddle and embellish the old stories, in some cases without ever leaving home. The highly imaginative Travels of Sir John Mandeville, likely written in the mid-fourteenth century by a French physician from Liège, came complete with dog-men, apple smellers, and one-eyed giants and was far more popular with the reading public than was Polo’s sober report. “Mandeville” took in a large sweep of the Middle East, China, and India, with a detour to the mountain of Paradise with its gushing spring and its wall of flaming swords. The plausible guide insisted that the pepper plantations were, after all, infested with snakes, though they could easily be driven away with lemon juice and snails. Prester John, he added, was fabulously rich from his extensive pepper forests and from the emeralds and sapphires that sparkled in his rivers. His land was watered by a spring of marvelous flavors that cured any disease and preserved everyone at thirty-two years old, the exact age at which Jesus was crucified.
With the downfall of the Mongols the overland routes became unsafe and eventually impassable, and virtually all travel between the two continents ceased. Europe’s tantalizing glimpse of the East was soon a dim memory, and it became harder than ever to tell fact from the fantasies supported by centuries of tradition. It was painfully clear, though, that with the Turks entrenched in Constantinople, any hopes Europe had of infiltrating the spice trade had receded further than ever. This was no epicurean’s lament; the predicament posed a dire threat to Europe’s economy, its political structures, and even its faith. As prices rose sky-high and demand barely wavered, the obsession with keeping up appearances left the privileged classes—including several royal courts—facing the real possibility of severe financial embarrassment. Even worse, the prospect of an ever richer Islamic world pushing on an impoverished Europe’s doors seemed to spell Christendom’s doom.
The European powers that appeared to have most to lose from the new order of things were Venice and Genoa. For centuries the two maritime republics had vied for control of trade with the East. One late-fifteenth-century visitor to Venice was astonished to discover that the whole world seemed to be doing business there: “Who could count the many shops,” he marveled, “so well furnished that they almost seem warehouses, with so many cloths of every make—tapestry, brocades, and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort, camlets of every color and texture, silks of every kind; and so many warehouses full of spices, groceries, and drugs, and so much beautiful wax! These things stupefy the beholder.” The wealth of both cities depended on a regular supply of Asian luxuries, and the supply had dried up.
Yet as Venice’s councilors met inside the newly completed Doge’s Palace, its architecture inspired by the mosques, bazaars, and palaces of the East, they scented an opportunity, not a disaster. The city’s merchants still had deep contacts within the Islamic world, and since Muslim control of the trade routes was all but complete, the rest of Europe had even less chance of competing with them than before. Half afloat on its lagoon, Venice had always been tenuously anchored to Europe; to its neighbors its power had a cold, hard sheen, and its religious scruples came a distant second to trade. “Siamo Veneziani, poi Cristiani,” its people were fond of saying; “First Venetians, then Christians.” Within months of the conquest of Constantinople the republics were back, buying their luxuries from the Ottomans and passing on the inflated tariffs to their customers. The entente did not last—Mehmet’s conquering gaze soon turned on Venice’s overseas colonies, and despite itself the republic was plunged into its own Crusade—but for all the Ottomans’ triumphs they were not the only game in town. Mehmet was marching toward war with the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, and the Egyptians dispatched a series of dazzling embassies to Italy in a deliberate attempt to cut their fellow Muslims out of the market. One deputation arrived in Florence bearing balsam, musk, benzoin, aloeswood, ginger, muslin, Chinese porcelain, purebred Arabian horses, and a giraffe. Another reached Venice, and the republic soon switched much of its trade to the ancient Egyptian port of Alexandria.
To the rest of Europe, the situation was a scandal. Italy’s merchants were conniving with Muslims to corner the spice trade, and their fellow Christians were paying the price. As so often, necessity was the mother of invention; with Islamic states once again lined up along Europe’s land borders, the notion of reaching the East by sea no longer seemed quite so ridiculous.
It was still such a radical idea that few gave it a passing thought, but it was not entirely new. Back in 1291, as the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land had fallen to the Egyptians, two Genoese brothers had put into action a heroically suicidal plan. Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi had equipped two oared galleys for a ten-year voyage and had set out with the intention of reaching India by sailing around Africa. They rowed across the Mediterranean and out through the Pillars of Hercules and were never heard from again, though persistent legends held that they circumnavigated Africa before being taken prisoner by an unexpectedly hostile Prester John. No one would attempt the same feat until Vasco da Gama set sail two centuries later, but the notion that the seaborne trade of the East was the key to undermining Islam gradually became an article of faith, and it kept resurfacing in the reams of propaganda that flew from the pens of Crusading revivalists.
In 1317 a Dominican missionary named William Adam wrote a lengthy memo to a cardinal-nephew of the pope titled De modo Sarracenos extirpandi—“How to eradicate the Muslims.” Adam had spent nine months exploring the Indian Ocean, and he recommended enlisting the help of the Mongols of Iran to mount a naval blockade of Egypt using Genoese galleys. “Everything that is sold in Egypt,” he explained, “like pepper, ginger and other spices, gold and precious stones, silks and those rich textiles dyed with Indian colors, and all the other valuables, to buy which the merchants from these countries go to Alexandria and expose themselves to the snare of excommunication, all these are brought to Egypt from India.” According to Adam, two Genoese galleys had already been built on Mongol territory and had rowed down the Euphrates toward the Indian Ocean, but rival factions of sailors had quickly set upon each other and they were all dead before they had got very far. Seven years later Jordan of Sévérac, the Dominican friar who had taken it upon himself to establish the Catholic Church in India, wrote to his order echoing Adam’s call for ships to be sent into the Indian Ocean to launch a new Crusade against Egypt. “If our lord the pope would but establish a couple of galleys on this sea,” he urged, “what a gain it would be! And what damage and destruction to the Sultan of Alexandria!” He briefly journeyed back to Europe to press his case, and in 1329 the pope sent him back to India as a bishop, but soon after his return he was rumored to have been stoned to death.
Around the same time, a Venetian statesman named Marino Sanudo Torsello penned an elaborate manual for reviving the Crusades. It came complete with detailed if inaccurate maps, and it also made the case for a naval blockade. The papacy had responded to the loss of the last Christian port in Palestine by prohibiting all trade with the Islamic world, but Rome had soon started granting let-outs to Europe’s merchants, in return for a hefty consideration. Sanudo forcefully argued that Christian merchants were funding Islam’s wars against Christian armies by handing over Europe’s wealth in return for spices. It was abundantly clear, he pointed out, that armed expeditions alone were not going to dislodge the Muslims from the Holy Land. What was needed was a total trade embargo backed by the threat of excommunication and enforced by patrolling galleys; the blockade would fatally weaken the Egyptian sultan, since his wealth flowed from his grip over the spice trade. A Crusader navy could then sail up the River Nile and finish offthe job. From their new base in Egypt, the knights could forge an alliance with the Mongols, attack Palestine, and retake Jerusalem. Finally, a fleet would be established in the Indian Ocean to police its peoples and trade. Sanudo pressed his plan on two successive popes and the king of France, but since it required concerted action from Europe’s fractious rulers, it came to nothing.
While the exhausted great powers shrugged off each successive proposal as yet another foolish flight of fancy, tiny Portugal had been busy preparing the way.
THE OLD MAPPAE mundi had no place for the Southern Hemisphere. Contrary to popular belief, the mapmakers did not think the earth was flat, but they did assume that no one lived in the Antipodes, the lands below the equator. The equator itself was widely believed to be a scorching ring of fire, and since Noah’s Ark had come to rest on Mount Ararat in the north, it was hard to see how people could have made their way south. Besides, they would have been unreachable by the Gospel, which the Bible declared had gone forth over all the earth.
As that world picture wavered and collapsed, mapmaking underwent a revolution. For decades the new world maps were a curious blend of the medieval and the modern: half based on the remarkably accurate portolan charts, or coastal maps, of sailors, half filled with black giants who ate foreign white men, or with fish-women called Sirens. When cutting-edge cartographers began to search for more reliable information about the far-flung regions of the globe, like so much that was new in the Renaissance they harked back to the classical age.
In 1406, Ptolemy’s Geography had reappeared in the West in the baggage of a scholar fleeing dying Constantinople. Ptolemy, a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt during the second century CE, was the first geographer to give detailed instructions on how to represent the globe on a flat plan, and the first to provide a comprehensive gazetteer of every known place on earth. The Geography was quickly translated into Latin, and it was soon a fixture in the library of any self-respecting prince, cleric, or merchant. It was a mark of Europe’s long isolation that going back more than a millennium in time meant leaping forward in knowledge. Christian geographers had believed that six-sevenths of the earth was land and had imagined a single supercontinent fringed by a single Ocean Sea. Ptolemy spread his continents across a background of clear blue, and his maps gave a startlingly watery image of a world where the oceans led everywhere.
Everywhere, that is, except around the southern tip of Africa. Ptolemy’s Africa had no end: its east and west coasts abruptly turned at right angles and stretched across the bottom of the page, like the tail of a humpback whale. The eastern extension curled around to join a long south-tending finger of Asia, leaving the Indian Ocean as an enormous landlocked lake.
The rediscovery of Ptolemy radically altered Europe’s conception of the globe, but one daring mapmaker caught the spirit of the time and decided to go further. In 1459, King Afonso of Portugal commissioned a new world map from the renowned Fra Mauro of Venice. Mauro, a monk who ran a cartography workshop out of a monastery on the island of Murano, synthesized Ptolemy with Marco Polo and added in the intelligence gleaned from an even more intrepid Venetian traveler, an inveterate adventurer named Niccolò de’ Conti, who left home in 1419, learned Arabic and Persian, disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, and toured the East for twenty-five years. On Fra Mauro’s map, Africa stopped short of the bottom of the page, and a narrow channel linked the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. It was the audacious monk who raised the tantalizing prospect of sailing around Africa, and yet his trailblazing scoop was almost certainly based on a misunderstanding.
In India, Niccolò de’ Conti had learned of the great Chinese junks that sometimes visited its ports. The giant multistoried ships had five masts and a colossal rudder suspended from an overhanging bridge at the stern. The hulls were triple-planked to withstandstorms and were divided into compartments, so that if one was holed the ship was still seaworthy. Inside were rows of cabins with lockable doors and latrines; herbs and spices were cultivated in gardens on the decks. The junks were vastly larger than any European vessel, and they were far from the biggest Chinese ships afloat.
The Central Kingdom, as China contentedly called itself, had traded with India and East Africa for centuries, but between 1405 and 1433 the Ming emperors had staged a spectacular piece of seaborne theater. Seven floating embassies had arrived in the Indian Ocean, under the command of Admiral Zheng He, a burly Muslim eunuch who was the great-grandson of a Mongol warlord. The first fleet alone comprised 317 ships manned by 27,870 sailors, soldiers, merchants, physicians, astrologers, and artisans. At its head were 62 nine-masted treasure ships, and yet in a display of munificence that would have utterly baffled Europeans, the ships were designed not to receive treasure but to dispense it. As they sailed into the harbors of Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa, they disgorged huge quantities of silks, porcelain, gold and silver wares, and other marvels of Chinese manufacturing. Such terrifying munificence invariably had the intended effect: in the space of a few years the envoys of thirty-seven nations rushed to pay homage to the emperor at Beijing. Yet not even China could afford to dispense such largesse indefinitely, and in 1435, the Central Kingdom voluntarily abandoned its commanding presence in the Indian Ocean. Within decades its navies and merchant fleets dwindled away to nothing—a development without which Portugal’s route to the East might have been well and truly blocked.
On Fra Mauro’s map a caption carried the remarkable news that, around the year 1420, a junk had rounded Africa and had continued on a southwesterly bearing for two thousand miles, a course that would have taken it deep into the icy South Atlantic. Mauro credited the information to a “trustworthy source” that was likely his fellow Venetian Niccolò de’ Conti. Yet Conti had set out on his travels only the year before the junk had supposedly made its voyage, and if he got wind of the story, it must have been from hearsay. Fra Mauro had more: his informant, he added, was himself driven two thousand miles to the west-southwest of Africa by a great storm. Yet Conti’s own account of his travels merely mentions that he was blown off course while crossing to Africa in an Indian or Arab ship. Since Fra Mauro’s depiction of the southern tip of Africa bears a strong resemblance to features of the east African coast much farther to the north, the most likely explanation is that the mapmaker read into the new information he had at hand the facts to support his own hypothesis—and, perhaps, to please his Portuguese paymaster.
On such slender threads rested the growing belief that the Indian Ocean was, after all, connected to the Atlantic. It was not a new idea, but its time had come.