Europe on the Verge of a Revolutionary Breakthrough

Detail of Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513, by Albrecht Dürer. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Open Access)

Concentrating on the years 1490–1530, Patrick Wyman delivers a compelling historical narrative shot through with colorful political and personal stories.

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years That Shook the World, by Paul Wyman, (Twelve, 416 pp., $40)

Patrick Wyman’s The Verge is a narrative chimera, a work of history that synthesizes the author’s academic origins with his current profession, that of podcast raconteur. Wyman’s unusual hybrid background is an only-in-2021 phenomenon. Yet trying to balance academic rigor and precision with narrative verve for the general audience has often been tried — usually with less than inspired results. For the history-obsessed reader like me, it’s usually simpler to just stick to the dry academic stuff where the facts are denser. But Wyman’s book is that rare outing that quite successfully does the history justice and keeps you turning the pages.

In his selection of time frame and location — Western Europe between 1490 and 1530 — Wyman loaded the dice, maximizing predictive power and narrative sweep. These dates encompass a time before Columbus landed on Hispaniola but also the rupture of Western Christianity under Martin Luther’s fusillade. The Verge argues persuasively that simultaneous political, cultural, and economic revolutions in these decades later gave rise to the West, a legacy whose full fruition would come only centuries later.

But history is more than just themes and abstract forces. Comprehension of the roiling drama of the age, from its marquee figures such as Columbus and Luther to more-obscure ones such as the banker Jakob Fugger (1459–1525) and printer Aldus Manutius (1449–1515), aids our understanding of today. The Verge’s brisk narrative succeeds in exposing the workings of an age shaped by the singular decisions of the mighty along with the collective actions of the humble and the driving forces of cultural and economic dynamics.

The format of The Verge pairs a particular person, famous or obscure, with a broader phenomenon, chapter by chapter. Wyman’s history Ph.D. was focused on the late Roman period. For his doctoral thesis, “Letters, Mobility, and the Fall of the Roman Empire,” he researched “2,895 pieces of correspondence . . . to comprehensively examine human mobility and communication.” The thesis reflects a common contemporary academic focus on impersonal historical forces rather than evocative human characters, and clearly The Verge is written by someone with that command of relevant arcana, with chapters covering banking, printing, and “everyday capitalism.” And yet, because Wyman has also worked as a journalist and most recently a podcaster, this is not a dry and detached academic history, preoccupied with actuarial tables and exegesis of manuscript translations: The Verge delivers a compelling narrative, a cultural and economic history shot through with colorful political and personal stories.

But culture and economics in The Verge themselves rest on the foundations of institutions and technology. Institutions include formal and explicit entities and instruments, like the Roman Catholic Church and the trade monopolies granted to powerful individuals, as well as what cultural commentator Samo Burja calls “social technology”: tacit norms and implicit folkways.

Western Europe at the end of the 15th century was characterized by a unique equipoise between political fracture and civilizational unity. Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon forged the identity of the Spanish nation through their personal union, which bound together what had been disparate and fractious kingdoms. Similarly, to the north, France and England had already taken on the outlines of the nation-states they were to become. Wyman argues that the foundation of the strong modern state was being established along the Atlantic fringe of Europe. The Verge chronicles the life of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the ruler of the Low Countries, Spain and much of the New World, Central Europe, and Italy, to illustrate how the dream of a single universal state failed.  By the middle of the 16th century, it was clear Europe was to be a congress of nations.

And yet Western Europe was bound together by a common civilizational identity. That identity was rooted ultimately in the Latin Church, which after the Reformation would become the Roman Catholic Church. A common faith and a shared set of customs and norms lashed together a patchwork of warring polities. Charles V was a Burgundian noble who learned Spanish later in life. His younger brother Ferdinand grew up in Spain but eventually became the ruler of German Europe as Holy Roman Emperor. This sort of cosmopolitanism was not the exception but the norm for European nobility (the British royal house is of German origin, while that of Sweden descends from the son of a French lawyer). Similarly, Luther’s famous 95 Theses found an audience because they were written in Latin, the lingua franca of Europe’s literate classes. After the Reformation, Hungarian Protestants could make themselves understood at Oxford through their knowledge of Latin. Western Europe maintained unity in diversity.

This reality meant that Europeans engaged in technological competition with one another and experimented in forms of governance and culture. Johannes Gutenberg invented the prototype of the modern printing press around 1450, but it took decades for the technology to spread and become ubiquitous. Wyman points out the catalytic role of the Protestant Reformation in the spread of printing. By 1525, Luther’s works ran to 1,465 editions, eleven times more than the next most prolific author. The importance of text and scripture in Protestantism drove a massive boom in the printing of vernacular-language Bibles, with Luther’s German Bible and William Tyndale’s English Bible first being printed in the 1520s. But The Verge emphasizes the role of technology in this religious revolution: There is a strong correlation between the persistence of Protestantism and the density of printing presses in Germany. Medieval Western Christianity had had its religious reform movements, but on the whole they were sectarian or elite affairs. Printing democratized religious discourse and shattered Western Christianity in the process.

But Europe between 1490 and 1530 did not just transform internally. Its scope began to expand outward, spawning the “Age of Discovery.” Columbus arrived in Hispaniola in 1492, Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1498, Cortés conquered Mexico in 1520, and Pizarro conquered Peru a decade later. This was not just a matter of courage, pluck, and fortitude. The Iberian states in the 15th century were born of warfare and geared toward conquest because of the long conflict with the Islamic states of the peninsula. They were aggressive and expansionist in orientation because that had been their key to survival. Additionally, Wyman argues that Western Europe was an economic backwater, so Europeans had to go and audaciously obtain the riches of the East. Eastern merchants had neither the will nor the ships to venture to European shores, so it was up to Western traders to venture to theirs.

The Verge depicts the early voyages and conquests as very much a matter of private interests and incentives. Though the Iberian monarchies may have given legitimacy, granted monopolies, and provided some capital, the impetus largely came from the nascent European capitalist class. Many of the early merchants and sailors were enterprising Italians like Columbus, a native of Genoa. Prominent well-connected merchants provided the capital and matériel. Though the voyages were risky, the returns on the early voyage were as much as 60-fold the investment. Meanwhile, the conquest of the New World was very much an ad hoc and unplanned affair. Cortés mutinied against his superior to embark on his expedition to Mesoamerica. Success made him one of the wealthiest men in Spain and even resulted in his being conferred a noble title.

Western Europe’s ability to project its power internationally during this period occurred because of a confluence of institutional developments in debt-financing, state consolidation, and the legal protections given to merchants. These independent states engaged in constant warfare, financing through loans and bonds the hiring of mercenaries, competition among which drove innovation in military technology. Europe’s advantage in armaments was not a function of the peculiar ingenuity of its people; the Chinese invented a primitive cannon long before Europeans, who were exposed to the technology via the Mongols. Rather, improvements occurred in Europe because of a fractured state system, which engendered competition rather than complacency.

The Verge presents the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent as a contrast to Europe in all ways good and bad. Unlike the organic helter-skelter of the European monarchies, the Ottomans had perfected a bureaucratic military-state that was heavily reliant on the meritocratic principle. They obtained new recruits from conquered Christian peoples and inculcated in the boys a sense of esprit de corps. Civilian officials were often competent ex-slaves, sometimes including even the vizier of the Ottoman sultan himself. While European monarchs were hamstrung by the legal and customary conditions on their ability to levy taxes and raise armies, the Ottomans had a good accounting of their tax base and routinely ran surpluses. Wyman uses the conquest of Rhodes and the obliteration of the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs to emphasize the military competence of the Ottoman state. He contrasts this with the chaos ushered in by 1527’s Sack of Rome, where unpaid Habsburg mercenaries unleashed an orgy of murder, rape, and looting.

And yet the future belonged to Europe. The Ottoman Empire was stuck at a local optimum. A solution good enough for the present but not flexible enough to win the future. The Siege of Vienna in 1529 was the high tide of the Ottomans. Instead of conquering Western Europe, they contented themselves with the Balkans. Like a windup toy, the Ottomans’ vigor and energy slowly, over a period of centuries, ran down, and by the 19th century Turkey was dismissed as the “Sick Man of Europe.” While Europe was awash in pamphlets, the Ottomans took little interest in printing, remaining an empire of the scroll. Even during the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans relied on a Hungarian engineer to design their largest cannon. The Ottomans utilized their resources efficiently and rationally, but their culture and state were not geared toward flexible adaptation and innovation. The great debates between Luther and ​​Desiderius Erasmus sundered Europe intellectually and ended an era of humanism, but the argument itself reflected the Continent’s openness to change. Luther was the son of a miner, Erasmus the illegitimate son of a priest. Both gained fame through writings that ricocheted across the continent, a process enabled only by the output of printers.

The Verge explicitly aims for a complex narrative that avoids the pitfalls of single explanations for the rise of Europe and the later “Great Divergence” between the Continent and the rest of the world. Europe never mastered that “one trick,” but it was favored by a set of concurrent innovations that conspired to push the nation-states of its western fringe toward economic and cultural liftoff. Strong states with no universal empire meant that homogeneity could not be enforced. But regional powers could still bankroll exploration and innovation. The rise to prominence of a man so eloquent and stubborn as Luther simultaneous with the advent of mass printing meant that the shattering of the Western Church was probably inevitable, and that shattering would drive even more printing. Christian Europe’s cultural unity allowed for transnational banking entities, which became so large that Jakob Fugger and his firm were able to profit from the Habsburgs’ spendthrift habits. But Europe’s divisions also drove competition, preventing a monopoly. Portugal rejected Columbus’s proposal to explore the Indies by voyaging west, but Castile accepted it.

Too often history is told as a sequence of facts and events. The Verge presents a tightly integrated story, with dramatis personae great and small. The story it tells is not of that one thing that made Europe great but of a fortuitous accumulation of many small things, which, taken together, set the stage for Europe’s becoming great. The scientific and political revolutions of the 18th century may have made Europe’s later worldwide domination inevitable, but that inevitability rests on a host of chance occurrences that happened to coalesce in the years between 1490 and 1530.

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