It easy to forget how backward Europe was for so long – thus, for most of its history, Europe was a source of slaves, the scourge of Muslim slaving only really ceasing in the C18th. A mid C9th Muslim geographer (Ibn Khurradadhbeh) described Europe as a source of
eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables and swordsand not much else.
Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 looked at the spread of the neo-Europes (countries with majority European settlement populations). In The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 he examines the medieval creation of the ‘new model’ of the universe as something regular, quantifiable and mathematical.
He starts by explaining what he calls The Venerable Model of looking at the world. One completely comfortable with a universe which could be wildly, qualitatively different at different places (such as Dante’s placing of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere): Dante averred that anyone who believed people lived in the antipodes ‘was a fool’ while St Augustine thought the notion of circumnavigating the globe absurd (p.39). All allied with an amazing (to us) indifference to mathematical accuracy. Thus, Roger Bacon accurately measured the angle of rainbows (42 degrees), a copyist halved this – and apparently no-one noticed the error for several centuries (Pp68-9).
To explain at how the scientific, abstracting, mathematicising presumption of fundamental uniformity arose – the ‘new model’ – Crosby looks at the development of conceptions of time, space, mathematics, the arts of visualisation, painting, music and bookkeeping are all examined. Including the weird idea that things in flux can be expressed mathematically. He is a master of the striking observation – such as how bookkeeping has had a pervasive effect on the way we think (p.220). Or the change from reading aloud to reading silently – St Augustine thought it necessary to explain his mentor St Ambrose’s habit of reading without speaking aloud (p.134). Or that chronic shortage of specie is probably why the medieval West developed such elaborate forms of abstract money (p.73). Or the military importance of square root tables for new officers organising foot soldiers (p6.). Permanent wage-labour, which we view as the only ‘proper’ way to be a soldier, only became a serious component of European armies in the mid to late C15th, having disappeared from Western Europe with the collapse of the Roman imperium.
Crosby brings out just how desperate was the loss of knowledge in the Dark Ages (for instance, use of the abacus/counting board completely vanishes from the literary and archaeological record for about five centuries [pp42-5 et al]) and how the provincial philistinism of the West helped Western thinkers (when they moved beyond simple recovery) to put ideas together in new ways and thus onto the very unusual in human history marriage of theory to practical application. Crosby brings out how unique in human history is its persistence in Europe. A sparkling slice of history.
Then there is Throwing Fire: Projectile technology through history, which starts with asking the question What are humans? . What really distinguishes us from other species? Two-legged throwers who start fires is his arresting answer. An eight-year old
homo sapien is a better thrower than any member of any other species on the planet (p.4).He points out cases where gunpowder armed Europeans were greatly discomforted by rock-throwing locals (p.27).
As he writes,
We are Stone Age creatures, lately arrived in a world that is, ironically, both alien and of our making (p.2).Thus our omnivorous diet aided our development, since meat-eating provides transferable packages of nutrition aiding teamwork (pp26-27). Throwing weapons were, early on, a key part of our technological progress as a species.
Crosby’s use of striking observation is strong – the WWII V-2 rockets killed less people than died as slave labour constructing them (pp.164-5). But the US welcomed Wernher von Braun and co in 1945 for the same reason Mehmet II hired the infidel Urban – using fire to throw projectiles (p.175). In the former case, it culminated in the Saturn V rocket, the V-2’s gargantuan descendant – taller than a 30-story building, 60’ taller than the Statue of Liberty on its pedestal, thirteen times heavier as the Statue (p.183). (And the cruise missile, the V-1’s very clever offspring). In the latter case, it culminated in the fall of Constantinople.
Another book enlightening to my fellow two-legged-throwers-who-start-fires.