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Book Review: The Verge
When was the modern world forged?
This is a book review of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World by Patrick Wyman, with special mention to 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C Mann. If you like this you might like my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, where I also discuss causality in history and Martin Luther.
In this Kvetch:
The Problem of Causality
Luther, ideas and new media
Why did poor, war-ridden Europe diverge from the rich, competent Ottoman Empire?
History as selection bias
A fun PodcastBook
Deus enim et proficuum
For God and profit
1. The Verge
The history of Europe during the decades between 1490 to 1530 is, if nothing else, a rollicking read. Battles between European, North African and West Asian powers. Mounted knights, halberds and arquebuses, gems, cinnamon, exotic animals, slaves from across vast oceans. Princesses in towers and powdered unicorn horn, scheming palace intrigues and gruesome deaths for inbred rulers and their kin who sire as many illegitimate children as possible. The sack of Rome by disgruntled mercenaries, and the Knight Templars ensconced in their island fortress of Rhodes, “a death trap designed to ensnare its besiegers, layer by layer, and bleed them dry.” Awesome!
It’s a busy period. Discovery of new worlds, religious turmoil, internecine European warfare, advances in military technology, new media and development of financial markets. Patrick Wyman weaves these complex strands into a visceral tapestry, noting the ways they converge and feed off each other. The press enabled the rise of Martin Luther, financial markets enabled the capital hungry press. Financial markets themselves arose from the need to fund wars and global expeditions which created labour markets for mercenaries and armies and brought back loot to fund the press and mining, which in turn funded more wars in an escalating spiral. Who could have known that the printing press would facilitate mass production of Church Indulgences (a kind of Pay-for-Pray scheme), a serious revenue stream that would be captured by rulers to enlarge and extend their wars?
Wyman paints this world through the eyes of ten famous as well as less know figures of the period. But he offers more than just their stories. As the sub-title indicates, he argues this is a unique period that seeded European technological, economic and military dominance for centuries to come in what would be called the Great Divergence — where Europe reached escape velocity and diverged from the fortunes of the rest of the world to carve out modernity. This claim is the centrepiece of these disparate threads. But this claim is not made out.
We do get vivid stories and wonderful details. Did you know that living standards and conspicuous consumption rose following the Black Plague? Or that aggressiveness was the hallmark of the Swiss? How things change. But sometimes it feels like a train of thought’s been cut off. Why did the Black Death result in a rise in living standards? We aren’t told. There’s no exposition of this remarkable aside (which seems awkward for modern immigration and population growth advocates). And so we’re not quite sure what to make of it it. This sense of incompleteness reoccurs.
Let’s take as an example a particularly vivid siege, the Ottoman conquest of Rhodes held by the Knights Templar:
When Suleiman arrived on the island on July 28, 1522, to command a force numbering somewhere north of one hundred thousand men, the sultan was immediately confronted by a series of formidable obstacles. Round towers laced with circular gunports jutted upward behind polygonal bulwarks; outer defensive towers connected to the towering main wall, which bristled with artillery and was as much as twelve meters thick in some places. Earthen ramparts placed in front of the more vulnerable stone structures soaked up the impact of incoming cannon fire. Angled bastions—yet another low structure projecting outward from the main wall—looked downward onto a wide, stone-faced ditch, which lay behind a second, wider, and still more inconvenient ditch fronted with an earthen bank called a glacis. Even if an attacking force managed to weather a hailstorm of cannon, gunfire, and crossbow bolts on their way to these ditches, they would still be staring upward at a series of high stone obstacles manned by experienced professional soldiers. Moreover, the four-kilometer course of the land walls flexed inward, allowing the projecting towers to provide flanking gun and cannon fire to any attackers unfortunate enough to have reached the main fortifications. The Hospitallers had turned their Rhodian fortress into a death trap designed to ensnare its besiegers, layer by layer, and bleed them dry.
None of this was a mystery to Suleiman when he stepped foot on Rhodes’s rocky shores, accompanied by tens of thousands of soldiers and laborers and hundreds of ships and cannon. The sultan knew taking Rhodes would require time, resources, and countless lives. The Knights repelled assault after assault, repaired breach after breach in their mine-blasted walls, and weathered ceaseless bombardment from the Ottoman guns. Thousands of the sultan’s soldiers fell in fruitless attacks on the walls, each bloodier than the last. One last assault on November 30, carried out amid an apocalyptic rainstorm, left the waterlogged ditch full of dead Ottomans.
The Knights had suffered just as dearly, however, and after a few more inconclusive clashes, they accepted the offer of surrender.
That’s it? I mean, we were set with an incredible scene and the description of the “death trap” is out of every 10 year old boy’s fantasy. Then the Knights just surrendered? We don’t have a sense at all for their motivations, their desperation, their objectives.
That said, the surrender and confrontation of the battle’s two opponents is one for the ages:
Villiers de l’Isle Adam, grand master of the order, strapped on his armor, picked eighteen of his finest knights, and walked out to meet the sultan. He kissed Suleiman’s hand, and the two men exchanged a long and poignant silence.
“I am really distressed to have thrown that man out of his palace,” Suleiman later told his grand vizier. For his part, Villiers said of Suleiman, “He was a knight in the truest sense of the word.”
2. The Problem of Causality
The biggest issue with The Verge stems from its biggest claim: that within these forty years lay the seeds of modernity.
Let’s imagine history as a rope of interweaving strands. These strands might be political structures (clan, kingdom, nation state), credit systems, military technology, and so on. Each strand is long. Wyman slices through this rope and shows us ten strands at the 1490 to 1530 cross-section. He claims that this period is the beginning of something special.
Maybe? It’s impossible to tell, as each strand has a dramatically different path up to and from that point. Books have been written on every one of those strands and their fluctuations from the dawn of time. Providing a snapshot of that moment does not tell us about the periods before or after. Wyman implicitly acknowledges this when he devotes a mere paragraph tenuously linking the emergence of English traders and Continental financial houses to modern Wall Street. In some way that’s obviously true: the path to Wall Street went through those moments. But one could say the same for countless other moments in financial history. A similar story could likely be told about the Mongols a few centuries earlier, or back further to Rome, or countless other predecessors. Do we look upon modern America and point merely to the voyages of Columbus as its genesis? Or trace its creation back to its Anglo folkways? Or further back to the invention of deep-sea navigation? Or ship building? Or the wheel and the Yamnaya conquests of Europe?
Wyman uses Charles V as the lynchpin to tie together the various strands of history, and the inherent challenge in making a causal argument reaches its apotheosis here:
Charles’s emergence as the most powerful Christian ruler of the age was both inevitable and incredibly contingent, the result of decades of deep structural transformations and complete accidents of birth, death, legal minutiae, and mental illness. The emperor himself was both the spider at the center of the web of causality and the victim hopelessly entrapped within it. He was capable of everything and nothing, simultaneously all-powerful and completely impotent amid the unstoppable wave of ongoing events.
This appears in the final chapter in the book: for Wyman form precedes substance. It’s a nice way to wrap his stories, all these disparate strands, into an elegant bow. The author tries to have it both ways — Charles V is a cause and a result. And this is of course true — but only in the way that every moment is the result of every link in the chain of events that led up to it and the cause of every link thereafter. It’s a glib description of determinism and an elision of the difficult questions of historic causality.
3. Luther, ideas and new media
It’s very hard not to be sympathetic with Martin Luther, one of Wyman’s ten protagonists. In the land of an ultra-wealthy Papacy selling mass produced absolutions (Indulgences) and corrupt, game of thrones playing and openly licentious Popes, the Church makes for an easy villain. The line between saint and heretic is thin. A reformer could be burned alive or canonised. I’d read a book on the social, technological and theological dynamics that undergird that line alone.
How do modern Catholics look upon this period? How did Catholics maintain institutional longevity and legitimacy in this context? Do they consider these corrupt, licentious or murderous Popes aberrations? Something to do with the fallibility of man? Another book I’d read.
The meat of this chapter is devoted to Luther’s rise as enabled by the press. Today the printing press is often compared to the rise of social media. With the proliferation of Luther’s writing from zero to 500,000 pamphlets in two years it’s easy to see why. Luther found product market fit. Similar to the companies today that crest with each new wave of media: Zinga on Facebook, Away and Wayfair on Instagram, Youtube stars, Substack leaders. Luther’s talents converged with a new media and took off — he rode the white space. His descent was similarly rapid — and that’s exactly what you’d expect under this model. The channel saturated.
But what else caused the Lutheran uprising? How much was the conflict really about ideas? Are ideas really the right level of abstraction? What about leadership credibility and charisma? Economic interests? Military might? Wyman gives us a taste but no more.
4. Why did poor, war-ridden Europe diverge from the rich, competent Ottoman Empire?
The Ottoman Empire of the period was a wealthy and dominant regional power whose reach extended to sacking the Italian and Spanish coasts, quelling the Persians and the Egyptian Mamluks and conquering the Hungarians. They even marched on Vienna where they were stopped in large part by bad weather.
One interesting difference between the Ottomans and their European rivals: they were an integrated player. They “owned” their warriors (often literally in the form of Janissary slaves) and controlled their canon foundries. European kings had to barter for mercenaries and weapons on open markets. Different regions specialised in different flavours of warrior: Swiss halberdiers, German landsknecht, Balkan cavalry.
One story you could tell is how this forced Europeans to develop markets to intermediate these powers. Financial markets, labour markets, and other hybrids (e.g. Wyman covers a fascinating array of contract mechanisms that arose by region and specialty). And this somehow led to Europe’s rise (that causal link is blurry). But it’s hard to avoid the benefits of hindsight here, working with a sample of one. If things had gone another way one could have told a story about how Ottoman financial and industry integration provided the advantage. Maybe both stories are wrong, and Europe’s rise is misattributed here altogether.
Wyman paints the Ottoman Empire’s strategic position as a kind of local maximum, a historic trap that left it leapfrogged by the European powers. But the why remains elusive. Is it the competitive rivalry between European states? Separation of State and Finance? We are given hints along the way — for example, the escalating feedback loop between canon power and defensive fortifications is a vivid example of how competition drives technological progress — but the discrete does not quite answer the general. Perhaps there is no easy answer to be found in early 16th century for why the Ottomans entered a period of multi-century decline. But that would undermine Wyman’s thesis.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Wyman about the period being a hinge in human history. But that’s because I’ve been left convinced by Charles Mann’s 1493. Charles Mann narrows his aperture to 1492 and the discovery of the New World. So much so, in fact, that he wrote two books — 1491 and 1493 — documenting the world before and after the discovery of the Americas. His is an all-in case for the hinge status of that event:
After Columbus, ecosystems that had been separate for eons suddenly met and mixed in a process… [called] the Columbian Exchange. The exchange took corn (maize) to Africa and sweet potatoes to East Asia, horses and apples, to the Americas, and rhubarb and eucalyptus to Europe —and also swapped about a host of less-familiar organisms like insects, grasses, bacteria, and viruses.
The creation of this ecological system helped Europe seize, for several vital centuries, the political initiative, which in turn shaped the contours of today’s world-spanning economic system, in its interlaced, omnipresent, barely comprehended splendor
The Columbian Exchange did not just lead to colourful examples of worlds colliding — like Japanese samurai and Basques in Mexico and a Scottish Panama. It led to an expanded trans-Atlantic slave trade where, in a cruel irony, blacks became the slave of choice for their ability to survive and work where English indentured servants and local indios died:
Tobacco brought malaria to Virginia, indirectly but ineluctably, and from there it went north, south, and west, until much of North America was in its grip. Sugarcane, another overseas import, similarly brought the disease into the Caribbean and Latin America, along with its companion, yellow fever. Because both diseases killed European workers in American tobacco and sugar plantations, colonists imported labor in the form of captive Africans —the human wing of the Columbian Exchange. In sum: ecological introductions shaped an economic exchange, which in turn had political consequences that have endured to the present.
It also brought the miracle of the potato:
Potatoes (and, again, maize) became to much of Europe what they were in the Andes—an ever-dependable staple, something eaten at every meal. Roughly 40 percent of the Irish ate no solid food other than potatoes; the figure was between 10 and 30 percent in the Netherlands, Belgium, Prussia, and perhaps Poland. Routine famine almost disappeared in potato country, a two-thousand-mile band that stretched from Ireland in the west to Russia’s Ural Mountains in the east. At long last, the continent could, with the arrival of the potato, produce its own dinner.
Did you know potato and milk together can sustain life?1 The potato, along with the discovery of fertilizer in the form of Peruvian guano — seabird droppings deposited in large quantities in coastal areas which were shipped across the Atlantic — powered the rise of Europe:
Before the potato and maize, before intensive fertilization,2 European living standards were roughly equivalent with those today in Cameroon and Bangladesh; they were below Bolivia or Zimbabwe. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon. Industrial monoculture with improved crops and high-intensity fertilizer allowed billions of people—Europe first, and then much of the rest of the world—to escape the Malthusian trap. Incredibly, living standards doubled or tripled worldwide even as the planet’s population climbed from fewer than 1 billion in 1700 to about 7 billion today.
It’s interesting how the form of each book supports or detracts from their respective theses. For Wyman, the form of ten stories just makes it harder to paint the period as causal. Why ten (e.g. where’s the potato)? And why that particular cross-section in time, when you can pull any of them back or forward? Whereas for Mann, it’s very clear: 1942, the Columbian exchange. That’s the answer, that’s the hinge.
1493 deserves its own review — it’s an outstanding book — but I use it here to show exactly what it means to demonstrate that an event or period was genuinely a hinge even or period, shaping everything that came after. It does what Wyman purported to do in The Verge.
6. Selective moralising
Wyman lapses into selective moralising just often enough to irk.
A cursory dismissal of Spanish conquests in the New World as a special kind of brutality is puzzling in a book that covers unending atrocities across Europe. Wyman singularly damns the Massacre of Cholula by Hernán Cortés and the sacking of the Incas and ransom and strangling of their emperor Atahualpa:
Cholulan blood funding the emperor’s European adventures… Treasures robbed from murdered Inca paid for the whole enormous expedition, blood money begetting yet more blood.
I mean, that’s not wrong. But it stands out in its emphasis. The Cholula massacre, which killed 3,000, was small compared to the other wars covered. And it was far from the most morally questionable event of the period, as panic-driven as it was. The Indian Ocean conquest by the Portuguese would have made a better example of European brutality outside of Europe. De Gama’s cold-blooded sinking of the merchant ship Miri, along with its unarmed merchants, women and children (and treasure), is blood curdling. As is the slaughter of every Muslim man, woman and child in Goa, which the Portuguese conqueror Albuquerque described as “a very find deed”. Why does Wyman single out for condemnation Cortés and Pizarro, savvy and vastly outnumbered conquerors in the Americas, amidst a Eurasian continent soaked in unceasing bloodshed? If the Inca money is blood money, what is the treasure looted and re-looted from across Europe? The Inca and Aztec empires who warred and slaughtered with the best of them do not need our condescension. Priests are being disembowelled and heads are impaled on stakes across Europe, man! That’s just the world it was.
Similarly with Wyman’s description of Luther’s later years as an unfortunate and discrediting descent into bigotry and antisemitism. It’s annoying because it feels defensive and it’s unconvincing because it’s left as an aside with no case made for it. Who wasn’t an anti-Semite and bigot by modern standards? A line drawn from Luther to Prussia to Hitler would be interesting. But tsking at Luther’s anti-Semitism is glib.
The narrative fictional style Wyman likes to deploy and his occasional moralising can be less effective than careful detail, entrusting the reader to react for themselves.
7. History as selection bias
We’re reminded again that all of history might just be selection bias. (This is a central observation of Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness, which I reviewed here). The uber-wealthy Fuggers, covered by Wyman, made it partly by betting it all on Charles V. How many dynastic houses were destroyed by backing the wrong horse? I’ve written before about the meteoric rise of central historic figures often being predicated on betting it all. It works until it doesn’t:
Hitler was the greatest gambler of all. Demand the Chancellorship — all in, WIN. Militarise the Rhineland — all in, WIN. Invade France — all in, WIN. Invade the USSR — all in… KABOOM! Game over.
8. A fun PodcastBook
Wyman brings together strands of a complex, dynamic and emerging pre-modern Europe.
The shortcomings of The Verge in part stem from its format. Wyman’s fun historical podcast, Tides of History, covers many (all?) of the episodes in the book. It’s hard to shake the sense that the book was born a series of episodes and backfilled into a thesis.
The format hampered an attempt to deal with the meaty questions raised: technological progress, centralised vs decentralised governance, the features of European finance that distinguished its productivity from other times and places, the social structures that changed the political and economic power equilibria within Europe forever. The Verge provides a fun introduction to these subjects and overview of the period, but for deep answers you’ll probably need to go elsewhere.
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If you like this you might like my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, where I also discuss causality in history and Martin Luther.
The economist Adam Smith, writing a few years after Young, was equally taken with the potato. He was impressed to see that the Irish remained exceptionally healthy despite eating little else: “The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution—the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions— are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root.” Today we know why: the potato can better sustain life than any other food when eaten as the sole item of diet. It has all essential nutrients except vitamins A and D, which can be supplied by milk; the diet of the Irish poor in Smith’s day consisted largely of potatoes and milk.
The story of agriculture is in large part a story of technology raising yields. Leaving fields fallow preceded crop rotation (in particular legumes, which raised yields) preceded animal husbandry preceded natural fertilizers preceded artificial fertilisers (not always in a straight line and with large regional differences around the world).
A little heretical perhaps, but one can’t help but wonder what the Jewish law of sh'mitah (leaving a filed fallow every 7 years) would look like if the revelations of the Torah happened a few thousand years later. God said thou shalt fertilize with bird sh*t out of South America or use the Haber–Bosch Process to create artificial fertilizer?
Also consider, as another aside, the irrigation methods of the pre-Spanish Mexicans via chinampas (from Energy and Civilization by Vaclac Smil):
The basin of Mexico had a succession of complex cultures, starting with the Teotihuacanos (100 BCE–850 CE), followed by the Toltecs (960–1168) and, since the early fourteenth century, by the Aztecs (Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325). There was a long transition from plant gathering and deer hunting to settled farming. Intensification of cropping through water regulation started early in the Teotihuacan era, and gradually evolved to such a degree that by the time of the Spanish conquest, at least one-third of the region’s population depended on water management for its food (Sanders, Parsons, and Santley 1979).
Permanent canal irrigation around Teotihuacan was able to support about 100,000 people, but the most intensive cultivation in Mesoamerica relied on chinampas (Parsons 1976). These rectangular fields were raised up to between 1.5 and 1.8m above the shallow waters of the Texcoco, Xalco, and Xochimilco lakes. Excavated mud, crop residues, grasses, and water weeds were used in their construction. Their rich alluvial soils were cropped continuously, or with only a few months of rest, and their edges were reinforced with trees. Chinampas turned unproductive swamps into highyielding fields and gardens, and solved the problem of soil waterlogging. Accessibility by boats made for easy transportation of harvests to city markets. Chinampa cultivation provided an outstanding return on the invested labor, and the high benefit/cost ratio explains the frequency of the practice, which started as early as 100 BCE and reached its peak during the last decades of the Aztec rule.