Political Milestones: 1400AD to 1500AD
One of the great discoveries that came out of the Renaissance was the re-discovery of Ptolemy’s “Geographia”, which reached Italy from Constantinople in 1400AD. It revolutionised the way Europeans looked at the world. This recovery of lost knowledge helped propel Europe into what we now describe as the “Age of Discovery”. From 1418AD the Portuguese began to use latine-rigged ships and were able to systematically explore the African Coast. By 1488AD, they had reached the Indian Ocean. In 1492AD, the ever competitive Spanish crown sponsored the Italian navigator, Columbus, to search for India in the opposite direction by heading west. Their reason was simply financial as they had squandered too much money expelling the last of the Moors from Grenada. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas would forever change world history. In 1498AD the Portuguese explorer, Vasco De Gama, did indeed reached India via Africa.
Why were they both looking for sea routes to India? It was because the Muslim monopoly on trade from east to west had been in place for 700 years. It was now finally broken and Islamic commerce and wealth would begin to stagnate. One of the sad legacies of the Portuguese ventures into Africa was the bringing slaves back to Europe, the beginning of 500 years of suffering for some 10 million of these poor souls. Amazingly, at the same time, between 1405-1433AD, the Chinese Admiral Zeng-He was charting the continental coastlines from the opposite direction. In fact, there is substantial evidence that he had circumnavigated the world during this time.
Tamerlane’s final campaigns and most sickening occurred in the first few years of the century. In 1401 he ravaged Christian Armenia and Georgia with unspeakable brutality. The same year he sacked Iraq again, killing all its inhabitants, including some half a million Christians. In 1402AD he defeated the Ottomans in the battle of Anatolia. However, with the death of Tamerlane in 1405AD, the Ottoman Turks were now free to pursue their goal of expanding their kingdom, and Islam, to their west. Constantinople finally fell in 1453AD. Within fifty years the Ottomans were in control of Albania, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Greece and the Crimea. Ironically, one of the great defenders of the Balkan Christians was Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula. In 1499AD the Ottomans defeated the Venetian navy in the first battle ever to use maritime cannons. Islam was once again firmly in control of a part of Europe for the first time since the conquest of Spain 600 years earlier. Ironically, over in Spain itself, the remaining Muslim stronghold of Grenada was defeated in 1492AD and its citizens were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave for Africa.
At the same time, at the opposite end of the ever-expanding Islamic Empire, the Malay Archipelago, previously dominated by Hinduism and Buddhism, now began to be systematically converted to Islam, again by force. However, unlike the puritanical Qur’anic Islam of the Middle East, Islam in South East Asia did not penetrate as deeply into the local culture, which to this day remains largely Animistic in Indonesia and the southern Philippines.
Back on the European mainland much was going on. The 100 Years War came to an end in 1453AD with the English losing all continental possessions, thanks in no small part to the amazing exploits of the French heroine, Joan of Arc. In Germany, Gutenberg invented a superior means of printing which would lead to an information explosion in Europe. It was to be the internet revolution of that era. In Italy the many capitalist city super-states were flourishing. Florence was coming to the end of golden age as a banking and commercial centre due in no small part to the powerful Medici family bank. As the centre of world banking, Florence was the first commercial centre to use debit and credit accounting, the abacus calculator, regional branch networks across Europe, bills of exchange, and insurance underwriting. This wealth helped pay for the mind-boggling grandeur of the Florence Cathedral. Today’s Vatican is a copy of this design.
The Medici’s became so powerful via fractional reserve banking that they bought three Papacies and controlled the purse-strings of most of the kings of Europe. Florence was where the money, education and culture was, so for the next 150 years it attracted many of the great Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance by this stage was also starting to bring into the European mind many materialistic ideas about the nature of man that would one day lead to the development of Humanism and Atheism as dominant philosophies in Europe. The chief claim of the Renaissance was that there was knowledge to be found outside that decreed by the strict pietistic and scholastic worldview of the Catholic Church, and it started with the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge. The flow of Renaissance Humanism into the European mind can be vividly seen in the 300 years of Renaissance art housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
In 1440AD Ivan the Great came to power in Moscow. By the time he died in 1505AD he had laid the foundations of the Russian empire by tripling the size of his possessions at the expense of the Mongolians and the Muslims. The vastness of Modern Russia, and the independence of the Russian Orthodox Church, is a legacy of this man’s rule.
In South America the Inca Empire was gaining power over neighbouring states. After having secured much of what today is central and northern Peru by 1471AD, they expanded their empire into Ecuador. With a new king, Tupac Inca, they then began to expand southward into Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
Spiritual Milestones 1400-1500AD
Inquisitions and persecutions against anyone perceived to be a threat to Catholic orthodoxy continued unabated though the century, along with progoms against the Jews in various locations and times. The best known of these was the infamous Spanish Inquisition from 1478AD, which was instigated as a means of ensuring the Catholic orthodoxy of those who were converting from Islam and Judaism. There was also a large scale crusade against the Waldensians from 1483AD in France and Italy, and there was ongoing persecution of the English followers of John Wycliffe, known as the Lollards. In contrast to the intellectual suppression of the Papacy, 1455AD saw Gutenberg produce the first massed-produced Bible, which immediately led millions to see the faults in the Catholic Church for the first time. This was the tool that would eventually transform small scale challenges to the Papacy into continental rebellion in the next century.
On the other side of Europe the fire of reform that Wycliffe began was stirred to even greater heights. 1400AD Jan Hus was ordained a as priest and quickly began translating Wycliffe’s teachings into the Czech language. Hus demanded deep reform from the Catholic Church and the Czech people followed him to a man. However, within a few years Hus was executed for treason in 1414AD. Outraged at the treatment of their national hero, the Bohemian people instigated the first large scale territorial rebellion against the Catholic Church in Europe. All efforts to subdue the rebel Bohemians failed until 1620AD.
In 1457AD this national movement morphed into the Moravian Brethren Church, the first church to be founded in Europe that was completely independent to the Catholics. This church created a liturgy in the Czech language, had lay people receive communion and used married priests. It had also eliminated indulgences and the idea of purgatory. Its doctrine centred on the belief that justification in the eyes of God was by grace through faith alone. The Moravian Church became the first true Protestant church, a church that would be brutally wiped out by the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War in the 1600’s. Three hundred years later, the spiritual descendants of this church, the Moravian fellowship of Saxony, would initiate the first modern, truly faith-based evangelical missions movement.
By 1500AD the world’s population had recovered from the ravages of the Black Death 150 years earlier. However, the percentage of Christians in the world was now less than a thousand years earlier! The once mighty Byzantine Orthodox Church had been vanquished by the Ottoman Turks, while Christian cultures in the Balkans were falling like dominos. Catholic Europe was corrupt, arrogant and intolerant of new ideas. This is well illustrated by the widespread introduction in this century of church pews, not as we know them, but as private booths for the rich. On the surface, things were looking decidedly grim for the future of European Christendom, but things were about to become far worse for the great civilizations of the Americas.
The Cultural Influence of Christianity: 1000 – 1500AD
“The creation waits for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19)
It is a sad indictment on the modern world that many of our historians have fallen for the lie that European progress needed the rebirth of Greek learning drag Europe, kicking and screaming, away from the shackles of Medieval Christian dogma. Let me explain why this is not the case, and why we must thank Medieval Christianity for rescuing Greek thought. The foundations of rational enquiry into the material world could never have arisen in the irrational ideologies of Islam, China, Greece or India because of two formidable hurdles. Firstly, all those cultures lacked a conscious and law-giving God. Let me explain in detail.
The Greeks had a concept of the gods that were inadequate for the role of a creator. They therefore concluded that the universe was eternal and went through endless cycles of both progress and decay. Even though Aristotle and Plato conceived of a creator, their version was not a conscious being but more similar to the concept Brahma or Tao. God was therefore inadequate to be the creator of the universe and was a product of the universe. So to the reincarnation-believing Greeks, the gods, social progress and history were all circular and non-progressive. They therefore believed that the Greek golden age, built on the shoulders of slavery, would be followed by decay.
The Greeks believed it was futile to seek rational explanations for physical phenomena. They transformed inanimate objects into living creatures and gods. Plato and Zeno taught that the universe had a soul and was conscious. They were the original New Age pantheists. They thus short circuited the search for rational answers to physical phenomena by looking for motives, not physics. For example, Aristotle saw the movement of stars as intelligent affection for one another.
This faulty worldview led the Greeks to view knowledge as a deductive, top down process of the mind because the universe was an unpredictable place inhabited by gods. Science requires the opposite; inductive reasoning that must engage with a predictable material world that is separate from God. This is why the Greeks never developed science. The great Roman and Byzantine scholars and the Muslim scholars that came after them were incapable of fixing this fault in Greek thinking because of their own irrational view of God. Even Christianity, for the first thousand years was caught in the Greek deductive trap. Only during the first few centuries of the second millennium, the rational view of a rational law-giving and keeping creator that was external to his creation was crucial to the development of empirical knowledge. Freed from the shackles of Greek thought, the world could now progress.
This rational worldview that Christianity brought to the ancient world gathered pace and influence in the first half of the second millennium. Using the now well-developed cultural assumption that God is the epitome of rational thought, the scholastics of this era began to build rapidly on the great libraries of the Benedictine monasteries, combining them with the libraries of the Byzantines. They began to use reason, debate and logic to further their understanding of our creator and his creation. This era saw the foundations of modern higher learning being laid in the new Christian institutions of the universities of Europe. The first, Bologna specialised in ecclesiastical law. The second, Paris, specialised in theology. These two universities spawned dozens of others in quick succession, all of them growing up around monasteries. As time went on they quickly added other faculties, all designed to rationally further their understanding of God’s creation. Thus, only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry, and only in Europe did astrology morph into astronomy. Many of the monks of the era, such as Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste, William of Occam and Roger Bacon, using rational arguments about the existence of God, moved European minds significantly toward the rational worldview that dominates the world today.
At the beginning of this era the uniquely Christian invention of capitalism was confined to the Monastic estates and a few city states of Italy. By the end of this era capitalism was becoming much more widespread, moving up into the Dutch lowlands and across to England. A result of its continued growth was a slow but sure increase in technology, commerce, banking, private property rights and trade across Europe. At the beginning of this era individual standards of living were equal to the Islamic and Chinese world. By the end of this era Europeans enjoyed a standard of living roughly double that of other world civilisations. This would prove a decisive factor in keeping the Islamic ambitions of the Ottoman Empire for the subjugation of Europe at bay. Capitalism would also be a pivotal part of the age of discovery and colonisation of the world by the Europeans and the Christian religion. At the beginning of this era Europe was in mortal fear of the great Islamic threat. By its end Catholic Franciscans had leapfrogged the Muslims and embedded as missionaries in the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and China.
Another continuing development based entirely on Christian values was the continued rise of the individual conscience. Christian philosophy viewed sin as a purely individual matter and an individual was not responsible for the sins of others. This led to the emerging concept of individual free will before God, church and state, as opposed to the near universal concept of individual obligations to the clan, tribe or state in other cultures. From this era arose the supremacy of conscience as the barometer of civil conduct. This single development would bring the authoritarianism, moral corruption and tyranny of the Catholic hierarchy to its knees via the emerging conscience-driven reforms of God-fearing movements such as the Waldensians, Lollards and Hussites. The era of human duty was giving way to the era of human rights. The freedoms now enjoyed by the Western world owe a huge debt to the sacrifices of these early Christian champions.
Biblically infused documents like the Magna Carta were an example of this philosophy in action. As well as establishing England’s first parliament, it decreed that no man could be tried without a jury of their peers, no taxes could be levied without representation, no one could be imprisoned without a trial, and that property could not be confiscated without just compensation. Its writers stated that it was drafted “out of reverence for God and for the salvation of our souls…for the honour of God and the reform of our realm”. The Magna Carta created a level of national freedom from despotic rulers, commercial certainty and individual rights not seen on the continent outside the Italian city states. It therefore laid a very important legal foundation stone for the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.
Sadly though, Christianity suffered a knockout blow in Central Asia. This was partly due to the sheer violence of Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane and Islamic inspired genocide. However, cultural stagnation played a hugely significant part in its decline. I believe failure to impregnate Christian beliefs, ideas, literature and thinking into these cultures was more to blame. If the Armenians could survive wave after wave of invasion and genocide, then so could have many other surrounding cultures. The difference was the embedding of Christian ideas deeply into the culture. They, along with the Egyptian Coptic Christians, had the scriptures in their own language. Renewal and regeneration kept the light of the gospel flickering in a sea of spiritual darkness. Genghis Kahn’s two sons married culturally Christian women. How different would history be if they knew their faith well? The Ottoman Turks came from a line of once Christian tribes. How different would the world be if they had the scriptures in their own language?