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REVIEW: The Verge, by Patrick Wyman
The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World, Patrick Wyman (Twelve, 2021).
This is a weird Substack featuring an eclectic selection of books, but one of our recurring interests is the Great Divergence: why and how did the otherwise perfectly normal people living in the northwestern corner of Eurasia managed to become overwhelmingly wealthier and more powerful than any other group in human history? We’ve covered a few theories about what’s behind it — not marrying your cousins, coal, the analytic mindset (twice) — but there are lots of others we’ve never touched, including geographic and thus political fragmentation, proximity to the New World, and even the Black Death. So this is also a book about the Great Divergence, but unlike many of the others it doesn’t offer One Weird Trick to explain things. Instead, Wyman approaches the period between 1490 and 1530 through nine people, each of whom exemplifies one of the many shifts in European society, and so paints a portrait of a changing world.
Of course, he does point to a common thread woven through many of the changes: culture. Or, more specifically, the institutions1 surrounding money and credit that Europeans had spent the last few hundred years developing. But these weren’t themselves dispositive: after all, lots of people in lots of place at lots of times have been able to mobilize capital, and most of them don’t produce graphs that look like this. Really, the secret ingredient was — as Harold Macmillan said of the greatest challenge to his government — “events, dear boy, events.”2 Europe between 1490 to 1530 saw an unusually large number of innovations and opportunities for large-scale, capital-intensive undertakings, and already had the economic institutions in place to take advantage of them. One disruption fed on the next in a mutually-reinforcing process of social, political, religious, economic, and technological change that (Wyman argues) set Europe on the path towards global dominance.
Some of Wyman’s characters — Columbus, Martin Luther, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — are intensely familiar, but he presents them with verve, as interested in giving you a feel for the individual and their world as in conveying biographical detail. (This is an underrated goal in the writing of history, but really invaluable; the “Cross Section: View from…” chapters were always my favorite part of Jacques Barzun’s idiosyncratic doorstopper From Dawn to Decadence.) This is particularly welcome when it comes to the chapters featuring some lesser-known figures: you may have heard of Jakob Fugger, but unless you’re a Wimsey-level fan of incunabula you’re probably unfamiliar with Aldus Manutius. One-handed man-at-arms Götz von Berlichingen becomes our lens for the chapter about the Military Revolution not because he played a particularly significant role but because he wrote a memoir, and small-time English wool merchant John Heritage is notable pretty much solely because his account book happened to survive into the present. But even with the stories “everyone knows,” Wyman takes several large steps back in order to contextualize that common knowledge: for example, were you aware that while before 1492 Columbus didn’t take any particularly unusual voyages, he did take an unparalleled number and variety of them, making him one of the best-travelled Atlantic sailors of his day? Did you know that Isabella’s inheritance of the Castilian throne was far from certain?3
As the book continues, Wyman can reference the cultural and technological shifts he described in earlier chapters. For instance, much of the Fuggers’ wealth came in the form of silver from deep new mines in the Tyrol. Building the mines required substantial capital — for their new, deeper tunnels and the expensive pumps to drain them, as well as for the furnaces and workshops to separate the copper from the silver via the relatively inefficient liquation process — and while everyone knew all along that the metals were there, it took the combination of a continent-wide bullion shortage and a rising demand for copper to cast bronze cannon (look back to the chapters on state formation and the military!) to make it worth anyone’s while to get them out. But it wasn’t only the Fuggers who made their money in these new mines: the money for Martin Luther’s education came from his father’s small-scale copper mining concern in eastern Germany. Grammar school in his hometown, a parish school nearby, and then four years at university cost Luther pater enough that he couldn’t follow it up for his younger sons (and from his point of view the was probably squandered when Martin became a monk instead of the intended lawyer who would be an asset in the frequent mining disputes), but such an education for even one son would have been out of reach if not for the printed texts on grammar, philosophy and law that made it all far more affordable.
Of course, the relationship between Luther and printing goes both ways. While Luther’s very existence as an educated man was enabled by the printing press, it was the intellectual and religious ferment he would kick off that made printing work.
Wyman’s earlier chapter on Aldus Manutius (fl. 1494-1515) makes very clear the serious issues that faced early printers: the average lifespan of a Venetian press founded between 1479 and 1490 was eighteen months. The vast majority were able to bring out only a single edition of a single book before they failed. Start-up expenses for a new press were enormous: the printing machine itself, of course, and the paper and the labor all cost money, but the greatest investment was the metal types, which costs thousands of ducats and took months or years to create. (For comparison, a well-off nobleman’s estates might bring in two hundred ducats a year.) And then, of course, you had to bet on your product: how many people wanted to buy your new edition of Caesar? There weren’t enough rich and educated men in Venice to justify a print run of 500, but if you began to expand to other cities, how far should you expand? Would someone in Augsburg or Cambridge or Lyon want a copy? Could you get it to them and get paid? The marginal cost of printing one additional book was more or less the cost of the paper, a tiny fraction of the total cost of your print run, but what if you produced 3000 copies and then discovered that a competitor in Danzig brought out the same text six months ago? What if you didn’t catch errors in the manuscript you used as a source, or the ship carrying your books went down, or your agent in Germany pocketed the profits?
Of course, printing still happened, and Aldus Manutius took risks: he created a whole new set of types in Greek and brought out first grammars and dictionaries, then beautiful editions Theocritus, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Aristotle, and more. Although Aldus himself was never a particularly impressive scholar, the Aldine Press made ancient Greek accessible to early modern Europe, so one could argue that he did more for the Renaissance4 than any other single individual. But he didn’t do much for the economics of printing. That took the Reformation.
Aldus had, to some degree, been able to create his own market for Greek texts by introducing a reading public eager for classical learning to a new language. But he had nothing on Martin Luther, who wrote — and sold — forty-five works in 1518 and 1519. It started simply enough: Johann Tetzel, the Dominican preacher whose indulgence-selling campaign5 had first roused Luther’s ire, wrote a reply to the Ninety-Five Theses, which was printed up (and then burned by an angry crowd). Luther wrote back a short, punchy text, the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in German this time to appeal to the public — and appeal it did, getting at least twelve editions across Leipzeig, Nuremberg, Augsburg, Basel, and Wittenberg. Tetzel replied, also in print and in German; Luther shot back; other opponents of reform began to pick up on some of the more radical interpretations of Luther’s arguments and Luther, needled, came out with increasingly extreme and vitriolic responses. And it all sold like gangbusters.
No one had realized there was such a market for vernacular arguments about church reform, but printers quickly realized that it would all sell — at enormous profits. Most of Luther’s works were short, eight pages or fewer, so they could be printed on a single sheet of paper in quarto format. This meant minimal up-front investment, no more months or years of setting and printing an entire volume before you could make money; anyone between major editions could make a few quick ducats by printing a Luther pamphlet. Of course, small print jobs like handbills, advertisements, and even those indulgences (which were also printed, though often on vellum) had often filled the space and coffers between major editions, but the demand for reform pamphlets dwarfed anything that had come before. The controversy of their contents heightened the appeal, and as Luther’s ideas spread in print defenders of the church published their own rejoinders. Again and again, Luther responded, pushed by his interlocutors and the popularity of his more extreme views into positions he would never have espoused on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his call for disputation to the door of the church in Wittenberg.
This should be a familiar dynamic to anyone who’s spent five minutes on Twitter: extreme and controversial statements get people’s attention, and if a platform or medium can make money off people’s attention then it’s in their interests to publicize extremism and controversy. Many of the printers were not themselves particularly invested in the question of church reform, but they knew what sold — and before long, it was radical advocates of violent revolution like Thomas “God instructs all the birds of the heavens to consume the flesh of princes” Müntzer, rather than boring old Martin Luther, who became the Main Characters of the press.6 But printing thrived.
Wyman argues that his forty-year period was a critical juncture in world history, a series of sudden, discontinuous changes that fundamentally altered the subsequent course of events such that Europe’s eventual dominance, while far from certain, was at least imaginable by 1530 in a way it hadn’t been in 1490. The Thirty Years’ War, for instance, would never have happened without the Reformation (or lasted for thirty years without the tools of state finance developed during the Italian Wars), but set the stage for the rise of the 18th century fiscal-military state, and so on. And while of course everything that happened in this period had its roots in what came before — a literate bourgeoisie is a prerequisite for the Reformation, &c. — things certainly did change very quickly! I’m not completely sold on critical junctures in general, but I’m not doctrinaire about my theories of historical change: sometimes events are very clearly determined by a single Great Man, and sometimes it’s all vast impersonal forces, so why not sometimes very slowly and then all at once? Which raises the interesting question of what other recent critical junctures have been, and how short they can be. “The Industrial Revolution” is a popular suggestion, but awfully broad; what about 1910-1920? Or…right now? If you’re in the middle of an all at once, can you tell? Or do you only know after the dust of a new world has settled?
But whatever your theory of historical change, Wyman’s approach to the era works extremely well, with each chapter describing one of a number of runaway processes that operated in parallel and mutually reinforced one another. Voyages of exploration, the rising state and the long-term debt used to finance it, the printing press, gunpowder warfare, the Reformation — each one fed into the others, to the point that his “point of view” characters are necessary less to humanize the topic they illustrate than to draw some kind of boundary around it. It’s an incredibly effective way of telling the story, not answering “why did the world change” but showing how. And while I do love books that trace the expanding ripples of one little pebble thrown into the millpond of time,7 really, in the end, a broad picture of a changing world is going to be far more effective at actually getting your head around the incredibly complex reasons why things are the way they are.8 Was it gunpowder or the printing press? Was it the discovery of America or continental trade networks? Was it the Reformation or the Renaissance? Well…yes.
Wyman glosses the term as “a shared understanding of the rules of a particular game…the systems, beliefs, norms and organizations that drive people to behave in particular way,” but it’s more or less what I’ve elsewhere called bundles of social technologies.
Isabella’s opponent, her half-niece Joanna, was married to King Afonso V of Portugal, so perhaps some degree of Iberian unification might still have followed. On the other hand, Afonso already had an adult son (King João II, widely admired as “the Perfect Prince” — Isabella always referred to him simply as el Hombre, “the Man”) who would have had no personal claim to Castile. Joanna and Afonso’s marriage was annulled on the perfectly true grounds of consanguinity — he was her uncle — after they lost the war, so they never had children, but if she had won perhaps João (who died without legitimate issue) could have been succeeded by a much younger half-Castilian half-brother. Certainly an Isabella relegated to Queen-Consort of Aragon would still have been a force to be reckoned with, but losing the knock-on effects of her reign (Columbus, Granada, the fate of the Sephardim, not to mention the eventual unification of most of Europe under Ferdinand and Isabella’s Habsburg grandson) makes all this a pretty good setup for an alternate history!
Even more fun: before she married Ferdinand of Aragon, there was discussion of Isabella’s betrothal to Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Yeah, that one.
Yes, yes, okay, the “Renaissance” is not actually a thing, but you know what I mean. Don’t @ me.
I was, however, very taken with Wyman’s passing remark that that although humanists did sometimes articulate a broad set of philosophical aims, they mostly “dove into the intense study and emulation of classical texts because they liked doing it [and] they were surrounded by other people who liked doing it” — because, yes, diving into the world of the ancients is fun, and part of the fun is that you’re diving into the same world that Aldus and Erasmus and Pico della Mirandola also dove into. It’s going to be very weird when the Vesuvius Challenge gives us classical texts that don’t have two thousand (or at least five hundred) years of scholarship and discussion around them.
The proceeds from the indulgences went to Prince-Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, who used them to pay back a loan he took from the Fuggers. See? It all connects. (As it happens, the Prince-Archbishop had taken the loan to bribe the Pope not to object to his election to the archbishopric, which was questionable since he was already Archbishop of Magdeburg and also only 23.)
The German Peasants’ War Müntzer helped kick off, the most widespread popular uprising before the French Revolution, killed hundreds of thousands. Incidentally, Götz von Berlichingen was briefly forced to lead some of the rebels.