Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Mucho mejor

Much better. I made Rosinantes just a little bit bigger—115%. It made all the difference.

Don Quixote

What Picasso might have created if he’d learned how to draw. I have to admit I may have made Rosinantes too small. I’ll fix that when I paint him.

We did it! We slogged through every first piece of vernacular Western literature (written in the author’s own language rather than Latin)—at least all the ones I can think of. German, English, Italian, French, Spanish. Chivalry and knights in shining armor sure was a popular subject. It’s as if: even as writers were moving everyone into a more modern age they needed to fondly look back and say so-long to the Middle Ages.

Spanish author Miguel Cervantes (mee-GEL sair-VAHN-tez) was having none of that. It was the late 1500s, the Middle Ages were over and their foolishnesses needed to be lampooned. In his book, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), the doddering old gentleman Don Quixote (DON kee-HO-tay) is obsessed day and night with reading those poems of chivalry and knights and their mighty deeds—to the point where his brain dries out. It’s cooked. Don Quixote loses his marbles; he becomes demented. Don Quixote gets the idea he should put on an old suit of armor he finds in a barn and become a knight-errant to restore honor to Spain. He talks a local peasant, Sancho Panza, into being his squire by promising him a parcel of real estate. The Don chooses as his steed a moth-eaten, played-out scrawny old horse named Rosinantes. As a nod to courtly love, he fixates on a local girl he calls Dulcinea—but she has no idea that she’s being honored this way.

Don Quixote and Sancho go adventuring across the countryside, questing for wrongs to be righted and monsters to vanquish. In the book’s most famous scene, Don Quixote (whose eyesight isn’t so good) mistakes a windmill for an ogre and charges at it with his lance. He gets caught up in the windmill’s vanes and has to be untangled. In nearly every other adventure, Don Quixote and Sancho get beat up by whomever they encounter.

Don Quixote is considered to be the first modern novel (a book-length work of fiction). Cervantes intended to move us out of the past into modernity, and he sure did. One bit of pure writing genius: Don Quixote speaks Old Spanish while the other characters speak modern Spanish. For us English speakers, imagine a modern novel’s character speaking like Chaucer or Shakespeare. Cervantes’ readers understood Don Quixote’s dialogue but he sounds antique and out-of-step.*

* In fact, Aldous Huxley used this gag in Brave New World to give us information about a character—https://www.litcharts.com/lit/brave-new-world/chapter-7

Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry for Don Quixote, including a summary of the story:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote
Look! You can get a poster of the title page of the 1605 edition of Don Quixote: https://www.amazon.com/Quixote-Ntitle-Cervantes-Published-Valencia/dp/B07C4K5LDY/ref=asc_df_B07C4K5LDY/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=527702999903&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=9503647619533183764&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9005111&hvtargid=pla-1401775165677&psc=1
https://www.biography.com/writer/miguel-de-cervantes
And here’s Peter O’Toole in the musical Man of La Mancha. In this scene, Cervantes is in prison, entertaining his fellow prisoners. In real life he’d been imprisoned twice, the first stretch for 5 years as a guest of the Turks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH9nDlBr3b4
You can visit Don Quixote’s windmills—https://www.awayn.com/listing/all_listings/consuegra-spain-consuegra-the-windmills-of-don-quixote-hiking-trip/

Hey, whadayaknow—Sophia Loren’s in this movie, too! She’s Dulcinea, who maybe wasn’t so unaware of being treated like a lady. I know, it’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42y15BYusmA&t=209s

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Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Thanks, Phoenicians!

By the 1400s movable type had made its way west along the Silk Road. Like the compass, movable type wasn’t a big deal in China. But when Johannes Gutenberg got ahold of it, movable type changed Western Civ. Why? The Phoenicians, that’s why.

Those Phoenicians left us a gift: a tight, efficient little alphabet of only 26 letters to represent every sound in any language. Our alphabet is ideal for movable type. You only need 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case (capitals and small) letters, numbers 0-9 and punctuation marks to print an entire book.

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The Chinese invent movable type

If you’re printing something with words, like a poster or an announcement or 95 Theses, every letter of every word needs to be carved out of your wood or linoleum block. Carving blocks for pages of an entire book is a king-sized headache.

Way over in China in the ad 1000s, printers got tired of having to carve every stinkin’ character on a block. One printer, Bi Sheng, thought: “Why not make individual characters ahead of time that you can mix and match to make paragraphs and pages?” That’s what he did. He made teeny little blocks with only one character. They were interchangeable. You arrange them together in a frame for printing. This idea is called movable type.

Bi Sheng’s characters were made out of fired clay so they were kind of fragile—they chipped easily. In the 1200s another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, introduced characters carved out of wood which were less likely to chip. Around the same time Korean printers were using characters cast in bronze or iron.

Believe it or not, movable type didn’t make books in Asia any cheaper. It was actually less expensive to carve an entire page of characters from one block. The reason could be this: the Chinese written language has over 3,500 characters. It was maybe too time-consuming to organize thousands of characters into an efficient sorting & printing system. By the time you finally locate the characters you need from a supply of 3,500, the guy with the chisels has a page carved and ready to print. So movable type didn’t take off in Asia back in those days. There’s at least one Chinese printer today that still uses cold type, though (see the links below).*

* The type was stored on big lazy-Susan-style discs that rotated so they could get to all the characters (kind of funny: food used to be served in Chinese restaurants this way). Chinese printers used a rhyme to remember where all the characters were. I’m not a Chinese speaker so I don’t know what the rhyme is, but it’s the same kind of rhyme you use to remember which months have 30 days—a mnemonic.

http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/songdynasty-module/tech-printing.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LvhjgW9zh0
Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:
https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/world/world-record.html
http://idsgn.org/posts/the-end-of-movable-type-in-china/
https://ich.unesco.org/en/USL/wooden-movable-type-printing-of-china-00322
http://www.silk-road.com/artl/movableprt.shtml

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That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha

Martin Luther

My take on Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther. His studio cranked out a bunch of these. There’s one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436047 They got Joseph Fiennes to play Luther in the 2003 movie. I think they should have gone with a beefier actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wasn’t he still alive back then?). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/

I wrote in earlier posts about 2 things that were troubling about the mediæval Church:
1) the Bible was not accessible to ordinary shmos, mainly because it was in Latin. Hardly anybody spoke Latin anymore. Hardly anybody could even read.
2) the clergy sold indulgences, which promoted the idea you could buy your way into Heaven.*

Both of these conditions were troubling to a monk in Saxony (where Germany is now) named Martin Luther (ad 1483 – 1546). He was a philosopher as well as a religious scholar. His philosophical mind told him there should be nothing to stand between you and G-d. The clergy shouldn’t need to intercede on your behalf—anybody can have a conversation with G-d directly in the form of prayer.

Why? Because Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins. That’s it. Paid in full. Selling indulgences to absolve sin belittles Jesus’ sacrifice. Martin Luther put forth the idea that only your faith and G-d’s grace are needed to get into Heaven. Grace is a gift freely given. You have merely to believe in Christ’s sacrifice to benefit from it. 

* I want to reassure my Catholic Christian pals that the corruption of the Church we’re talking about was from 500 years ago. I’m not knocking Catholicism nor promoting Protestantism. Churches, like human beings, aren’t perfect. We muddle along. We try to learn from our mistakes and trust that G-d loves us in spite of them.

https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/

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The Peasant’s Revolt

So that was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague—maybe a third to a half of the population. Under those circumstances, the feudal system was what the experts call ‘unsustainable.’ Serfs were expected to keep the food supply going full steam with only a partial crew on each manor. The way it was supposed to work was serfs paid their rent by giving the lord of the manor their harvest and keeping some for themselves. With smaller harvests, the serfs saw their portion get cut. They were working harder for lower pay.

Did I mention? Serfs had to pay taxes to the king, too—so there goes another chunk of the food they’d hoped to live off of that year. If you’re a serf, you’re starting to get plenty torqued. It was at this moment the geniuses who run the English government thought, “Now’s an ideal time to collect those unpaid poll taxes.”



It was too much. Serfs and peasants from all over England got together—they gathered a bigger crowd with each manor they passed—and marched on London to tell whoever would listen that they weren’t paying the poll tax. A guy named Wat Tyler emerged as the peasants’ leader. They broke into the Temple and destroyed tax records. They killed the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer and other officials. Finally, 14-year-old King Richard II rode out to meet the mob and somehow talked them out of killing him, too. Richard promised a bunch of reforms. He kept the peasants there long enough for the London militia to arrive and arrest or break up the crowd. Wat Tyler was killed.

I include this episode merely to show the effects of the bubonic plague, its terrible death toll and the cheesed-offedness of the serfs. The Peasants’ Revolt didn’t accomplish anything much that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Richard (or his handlers) didn’t keep his promises, but the feudal system was already over, kaput, done, stick a fork in it. Why? The Laws of Supply and Demand, gang. It eventually dawned on the serfs that they were in short supply—a limited resource—which increased the demand for them. Lots of farm fields, only a few farmers. There was nothing to keep serfs tied to one lord’s manor anymore. They could set up on their own and negotiate terms. A voluntary exchange of labor for wages. The beauty of the free market.

“That’s nice, Manders. What’s it got to do with reading and writing?” That’s an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It turns out not only were people fed up with feudalism, they’d begun to question the way the Church was run, too. One guy in particular thought that more people ought to read the Bible.

I love this little illumination of Richard II in his ship meeting the peasants (although it looks more like an army to me)—https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11780/richard-ii–the-peasants-revolt/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Temple
Laws of Supply & Demand:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9aDizJpd_s

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