A History of the World, Chapter 7

Chapter 7

The Three “Rs” – Renaissance, Reformation and Rugby

By Patrick F. Cannon

(Editors Note: You will notice the curious title of this chapter. The author makes the dubious claim that Rugby was invented in 1567. I have found no evidence to support this claim. Mr. Cannon has generally been scrupulous in his researches, but has failed in this instance, or so it seems to me. You have been warned.)

 

The most curious fact about the Renaissance is that it originated in Italy but is described with a French word. It of course means “rebirth.” In Italian it’s “rebirtho,” so maybe that’s why the French is preferred.

At any rate, as we have learned, when the Dark Ages dawned, monks had spirited copies of the ancient Greek and Roman texts to Ireland. They had not only protected them, but also made many copies. When the coast was clear, they began travelling to Europe and wherever they went established great universities and bookshops.

By the 14th Century, they had managed to teach the previously loutish priests in Europe to read and write Latin. This strengthened the church, since they could now correspond from country to country with their temporal rulers being none the wiser. As often happens, one of the priests spilled the beans to King Louis the Learned of France, who demanded to learn the ancient tongue (or the distraught priest wouldn’t have one of his own). After that the genie was truly out of the bottle and soon the upper classes were chattering away in the language of the Caesars.

The Irish priests were soon doing a brisk business. Readers were truly astonished to discover that civilizations that were long dead had in fact been more advanced than their own. Instead of slogging through turds and urine in the streets, it appeared that the Romans had invented something called the sewer to carry the smelly stuff away underground into nearby rivers. If they could duplicate this marvel, they could start wearing nicer shoes!

Time passed, as it almost always does, and soon everyone who was anyone was wearing Italian shoes and having their portraits painted.

This preoccupation with shoes and self-image has persisted right up to the present, so we owe a great debt to the Renaissance men. In philosophical terms, this is called humanism. Prior to then, people worried more about what God might think of them; ever after, keeping up with the Borgia’s became an obsession.

The names of the great artists of Italy ring loudly down the ages – Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, Brunelleschi and Titian. But we remember only their first names, thus starting a tradition of calling artists by only one of their given names that persists to this day. Who indeed knows the full names of Picasso, Monet, Degas and Dali? Or, in another realm, the full names of Elvis, Brittany and Beyonce? If someone is known by their full name – Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, Lawrence Welk – you can be assured that their fame will be fleeting.

The one exception that proves the rule is, of course, Leonardo de Vinci. This was truly a Renaissance man! In addition to painting and sculpture, Leonardo dabbled in architecture, military engineering, poetry, philosophy and backward handwriting. His sketchbooks are full of wondrous things, including what appears to be an airplane. While much of this is amusing in its way, it did prevent Leonardo from doing what he did best – painting portraits of enigmatic young women like the famous Mona Lisa.

Unfortunately, his restless experimenting with new techniques ruined his other famous work, the Last Supper. Not content with the tried and true methods of fresco painting, he experimented with new paint formulations and the great painting began to deteriorate soon after it was finished. While attempts have been made from time to time to restore the work, it’s now very difficult to see who’s eating what.

The other great artist – immortalized by that great modern statue, Charlton Heston – was Michelangelo. He worked on the grand scale. His great David must be two stories high and David’s sex is not in doubt (although, curiously, women did not appear to have genitals until the 20th Century). His other great work is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. Done for Pope Julius II, the paintings best known image shows the finger of God waking up sleeping mankind. For hundreds of years, tourists have stared rapturously up at this stunning work, providing continuing work for street corner chiropractors.

Michelangelo was purported to be the first homosexual. While there is no direct evidence (his not getting married may only have shown good sense), it cannot be denied that the men in his works tend to be muscular and comely fellows, while the women tended to fat. On the other hand, Rubens’ women were certainly chubby and we know he was a happily married man with several children. Since he was also rather more surly than gay, Michelangelo’s sexual preference may never be known with certainty.

Lest we think that the Renaissance was limited to the arts, we should be reminded of the groundbreaking political scientist, Niccolo Machiavelli. In his famous book, The Prince, he laid out the path that politicians have been trodding to this day. While his ideas can be complex (and are written in Italian for some reason), they can be summarized as follows:

+All power corrupts, so you might just as well have as much as possible.

+Elections can be useful, but only if you can control the results.

+It’s OK to kill your opponents, but only if you can blame someone else.

+Damn with faint praise.

+Wage war on the weak; ingratiate yourself to the strong.

+Never give a sucker an even break.

The spread throughout Europe of these and other useful ideas was made possible through the coincident invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg. Prior to his invention of moveable type in the mid-15th Century, books were hand lettered by the ubiquitous Irish monks. Now, you could carve letters in blocks of wood and move them around to suit. Once you had set a page in type, you could print many copies without recourse to multiple monks. Because spectacles had not yet been perfected, the size of the letters, and thus the books, tended to be rather large. It took a good man to carry a Gutenberg Bible! The Irish copyists soon became redundant and most returned to Ireland, where they took to the drink.

Had the monks been aware of what was going on in Wittenberg, they might have stuck around. It seems that an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther had gotten fed up with the Roman Catholic Church’s most lucrative fundraising scheme (bingo hadn’t yet been invented) – the selling of Indulgences. Simply put, Indulgences were pardons for your sins. Say you had spent your life whoring, gambling and cheating your fellow man. You could pop around to your local priest, confess your sins, do penance and promise to sin no more. What could be simpler? But what if the penance consisted of wearing sackcloth and ashes and crawling up the Matterhorn on your hands and knees?

If you had the cash, there was a better alternative. Go to the same priest, list your sins and assign a monetary value to each one. Then pay up like a man and wipe the slate clean. Then go and sin some more, and so on. The priest took his cut and sent the rest to Rome. The Pope could then afford to hire Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, thus encouraging the arts. Everyone benefited, which is the essence of economics.

For reasons of his own, Luther didn’t think this system was right. Perhaps he wasn’t getting his share. Nevertheless, he sat down one day in 1517 and soon had a list of 95 Theses (reasons) why the Church had gone astray. Instead of mailing them to Rome – he was a poor monk after all — he nailed them to the door of the local church. Most of the Wittenbergers couldn’t read, so they went about their business wondering who the crazy monk was. But agents of the Pope were soon on to him.

News didn’t travel fast in those days, so it was 1521 before the church leaders gathered for the Diet of Worms (named for the city, not the participants). Poor Luther was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. One of those who most roundly criticized Luther was King Henry VIII of England. For his support, Pope Leo named Henry “Defender of the Faith.” Later, he had cause to regret this.

Not for the first time (or presumably the last) the Church misjudged public opinion. It turned out that only the wealthy few could afford to buy indulgences. The rest were tired of crawling on their hands and knees up stone staircases and decided to support Luther. Being simple people, they called themselves Lutherans instead of Anti-Indulgencers. It’s just as well, since few people would want to belong to a church call the Anti-Indulgencers, Missouri Synod.

Soon, others got on the Luther bandwagon and began to protest against the abuses of the Roman church. Indeed, there were so many protestors that the general term Protestants was coined to describe them, although each retained their own special name. Thus, the followers of John Calvin became knows as Calvinists. Less successful was Johannes Bigams, who espoused plural marriage. To this day, Bigamist has a naughty connotation.

It must be said that support for the Reformation was not entirely religious in nature. As usual, princes and other nobles saw an opportunity for feathering their nests by seizing church property. When Henry in England got wind of this, his anti-reformation zeal began to cool.

What really brought him around, however, was the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had not given him an heir. Henry, it must be said, had never quite understood how some Italian in Rome could possibly be smarter and more powerful than he (and have more money) and decided that the Church in England needed a leader closer to home, and one who wasn’t adverse to divorce, namely himself.

He granted himself a divorce and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. Alas, she didn’t do any better than Catherine and was executed in 1536. He kept trying though and had six wives in all. Shakespeare immortalized Henry’s hapless quest for the perfect wife in his play, The Merrie Wives of Windsor. His many marriages and their expense may have hastened his seizure of Church property, which he accomplished with the Act of Supremacy in 1534. While some of the abbeys still stand in England, most have been converted into expensive country hotels.

With creativity flourishing in the arts, and people happily killing one another over religion, it might seem that little time was available for other amusements. Nevertheless, in precincts remote from the great centers of art and religion, young men were busy inventing amusements that have, in our day, assumed greater importance than either art or religion – sport.

Although the Olympic Games had fallen victim to Roman prudery, to be replaced by the clothed brutality of the Coliseum, young men in more primitive regions kept the sporting flame alive. After battle, for example, the winners often beheaded the vanquished, then would choose a likely head and toss it around for amusement. In Asia, with horses more available, they would toss the head around on horseback until one of the warriors reached an end line, by which time the head was somewhat the worse for wear. Another fresh head was usually available and so the game would continue. The man who tossed the head over the end line was called the “chucker,” a term still used in a modern variation called polo.

In Europe, only the nobles could afford to keep horses and indulge in the sport of jousting. The lower orders enjoyed watching the matches, but their sporting spirit was confined to placing a bet or two. Then one day in 1567 at a small school in the English village of Rugby, one of the lads came upon a pig’s bladder, left behind by the schools butcher. Being naturally curious, he picked it up and noticed that one could blow into one of the tube like appendages and capture the air within.

He tied the tube into a knot and happily threw the pigskin bladder into the air. His fellow students gathered round and soon were cheerfully throwing the pigskin back and forth. There were 22 of them, and being English they soon had things organized. The headmaster, a divine named Dr. Arnold, codified the rules and they have changed little since. One is permitted to run with the ball, kick it and throw it to ones teammates. Holding the ball has its dangers, since your opponents can tackle you. Although it’s unclear just why it’s done, every so often the referee takes the ball and has all the players grovel in the mud together for a bit, then throws the ball under them, whereupon the running, kicking and tackling begin anew.

Rugby was invented by the sons of the upper and middle classes, and was thought to be a gentleman’s game, despite the mud, but a variation was made available to the lower orders. Now called “football” (or soccer by ignorant Americans), it did not permit players to hold the ball and run with it. One could hit it with ones head or kick it. No tackling was permitted, since it was thought the poor were too weak and undernourished to stand the punishment.

Modern games such as American football, ice hockey, field hockey, La Crosse, and kick-the-can are familiar derivatives. Meanwhile, down the road at Eton College, the more intellectual students there had taken to whacking rocks about with small tree branches called “crickets.” Eventually, one of the boys would throw a rock to his fellow Etonian and he would hit it back. Due to their intellectual prowess, the boys soon made up rules that remain puzzling to this day.

Not to be outdone, over in the former colonies in North America, young men invented a variation called baseball, and made sure that the rules would be as incomprehensible to Englishmen and Cricket was to them.

Sport’s relationship with history is well known. Cricket gives us a good example. When the English expanded their Empire, they brought the game with them. Initially, the natives were as puzzled by it as Americans still are. Eventually, they began to catch on. When the Australians, Indians and Pakistanis actually beat teams from the mother country, it was considered that they were finally intelligent enough to govern themselves. And while the English later had second thoughts about this, it was too late.

And who can forget the Duke of Wellington’s remark that the Battle of Waterloo was won “on the playing fields of Eton.” Perhaps Napoleon was not so much defeated as confused.

(Next week – we’re discovered!)

#####

Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon

 

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