The Western world became more modern in the early part of the 15th century, though a number of folks had to fry along the way.
Chained to a stake, Jan Hus went fairly quickly. His fatter pal, Jerome of Prague, screamed for a long time.
They were reform-minded preachers burned for questioning the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church at a time when this was heresy.
Remember them as you read Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” which starts in the winter of 1417 as a stranger rides through the hills and valleys of southern Germany.
Greenblatt, the prolific humanities professor at Harvard University whose books include “Will in the World,” about Shakespeare, sets the scene beautifully.
“Unarmed and unprotected by a clanging suit of armor, he was certainly not a Teutonic knight -- one stout blow from a raw-boned yokel’s club would have easily felled him. Though he did not seem poor, he had none of the familiar signs of wealth and status: he was not a courtier, with gorgeous clothes and perfumed hair worn in long lovelocks, nor was he a nobleman out hunting and hawking. And, as was plain from his clothes and the cut of his hair, he was not a priest or monk.”
Everyone had a fixed position in life and a costume to go with it.
The Book Hunter
Suspicious locals watched the mysterious rider forge ahead. Eventually he arrived at a distant monastery whose unexplored contents were his journey’s goal.
The visitor was Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian in his late 30s with an unconventional vocation. He was a book hunter and an intellectual in a time when the Church told people what to think and few were literate.
The state of ignorance reflected the triumph of the Church over the civilization of ancient Rome. Zealots had burned libraries and often their patrons. Even so, some books survived because monks copied them over the centuries.
In a luminously written book filled with provocative observations, Greenblatt devotes an entertaining section to the challenges besetting monks who wore out their bottoms in the scriptorium as they groaned over poor-quality parchment and fought off boredom.
“Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink!” scribbled one in a margin.
Such men (and a few women) kept the past alive for future generations.
Having sweet-talked his way into the monastery’s library -- theft was a problem back then too -- Poggio stumbled on a famous epic known only from the title and a few surviving scraps: “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”).
Here in his hands was the entire poem by Lucretius, a first century B.C. Roman poet, book collector and bon vivant.
Everything Lucretius extolled would become anathema to the Church. Taking his cue from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, he described a world devoted to beauty and pleasure. Enjoy your life. There is no other.
The universe has no creator or designer, Lucretius wrote. Everything is composed of invisible particles. “‘We are all made of the same matter as the stars in the sky and the creatures in the sea.”
He could not see atoms but believed as fervidly in them as others might believe in heaven and hell and the angels who shuttle in between.
Greenblatt takes his intriguing title from Lucretius’s explanation of unexpected change. The Roman posited that a swerve -- a minimal motion -- might set off a ceaseless chain of particles. “Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles,” as Greenblatt puts it.
We share the sense of excitement as the book hunter reads Lucretius’ lost poem in praise of a world so different from his own, where pain was a constant -- even central -- part of life expected by most mortals and condoned by the Church.
It was also, of course, a dangerous text. Poggio had seen Jerome burn and he took care to avoid promoting Lucretius and his Church-challenging ideas -- while making sure the manuscript was copied.
Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things” became the defining text to a growing circle of humanists in Florence. The old Roman opened the door to the new splendors of the Renaissance. Think of the questing mind of Leonardo da Vinci, who assumed man was the measure of all things and conceived of humans flying over the earth.
All the while, Poggio served as secretary to eight Popes including the disgusting Baldassare Cossa, known as John XXIII during the follies of the Western Schism, who pushed Hus and Jerome to their terrible end. He must have been unctuous and quite an operator. Greenblatt recounts how Poggio got rid of a competing book-hunter by beating him up and then having him fired.
When he died in 1459, Poggio was rich and respected if soon forgotten, though the manuscript he found would influence philosophers, politicians, writers, artists.
In a wondrous phrase, America’s Founding Fathers guaranteed the “pursuit of happiness.” Unsurprisingly, Thomas Jefferson owned many copies in different languages of “On the Nature of Things.”
“The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence,” writes Greenblatt, whose own book is appropriately pleasurable.
“The Swerve” is published by Norton in the U.S. and Bodley Head in the U.K. (356 pages, $26.95, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)