Thomas Christensen: 1616

Thomas Christensen
1616: The World in Motion
(2012, Counterpoint, 384 pages)

Books examining events within a particularly significant year in history have proliferated recently. Leading the way would probably be Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, although Gavin Menzies’s work of speculative history 1421: The Year China Discovered America has also garnered much attention. Thomas Christensen’s 1616: The World in Motion distinguishes itself by the breadth of his vision, taking in the entirety of the globe as he does, as well as the book’s numerous wonderful illustrations of art works and period maps. The California-based Christensen is the author of The Discovery of America and New World/New Words: Translating Latin American Literature, and the translator of works by authors like Carlos Fuentes and Laura Esquivel. Director of Publications at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Christensen, one of whose occupations is the design of art exhibition catalogs, executed the uncommonly beautiful design of 1616. In the Preface, Christensen notes that, while 1616 isn’t an iconic year in history like a 1066 or 1492, it is possible “to make out intimations of modernity in developing globalism, militarism, imperialism, diasporism, colonialism, capitalism, rationalism, bureaucratization, urbanization, [and] individualism.”

His Prologue lands us in the court of James I of England on the first day of 1616. James is about to witness a performance of Ben Jonson’s The Golden Age Restored, a masque (a stage play incorporating elaborate costumes, scenery, and dancing) that depicts the reform of a corrupt world by Jove, the king of Heaven, and the goddess Pallas Athena. Christensen uses this masque as a frame in which to discuss that fragile, rapidly changing time, where culture after culture, while welcoming progress, also longed to return to the stability and grandeur of the past.

A portrait of the recently established port of Acapulco opens Chapter 1, “Silk and Silver.” Paltry and dirty though it appeared then, the town was very important because much of the world’s silver trade passed through there. Goods exchanged in Acapulco might travel the 200-mile China Road to Mexico City (then the center of New Spain), or perhaps be taken via the Europe Road to Veracruz, then transported to Seville and on to Europe. Acapulco was also the only legal port in the Americas for the trans-Pacific trade. “The Manila-Acapulco galleons,” Christensen tells us, “were the final piece in the connection of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia – they marked the beginning of globalization.”

Regarding silver, Christensen reminds us that, much later, the silver peso coin of Spain (rather than the pounds and pence of England) became the standard for the currency of the United States (the word dollar derives from the German thaler, the other main silver coin of the time). Furthering the connections, the peso was equal in value to eight reales, or “pieces of eight.” Those eight reales came into the U.S. as the eight “bits” of the dollar, hence the quarter being known as “two bits.”

This trade on a global scale was made possible, according to the English philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon, by three inventions that had, in his words, “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world” – paper, gunpowder, and the compass (all of which, Christensen points out, were Chinese inventions). For all its participation in this worldwide trade network, China only tentatively involved itself in the sea trade – the famous voyages of Zheng He to southeast Asia, India, and east Africa (and America, if you believe the Gavin Menzies book mentioned above) were couched as a diplomatic mission. China’s most important export for hundreds of years was silk, much of which made its way out of the country via the Silk Road.

Chapter 2, “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” starts with the 1616 trip to London of representatives, both settlers and Native Americans, of the Virginia Company, whose London-based investors wanted to see some profit and had arranged something of a publicity tour. Among those representatives was “the Lady Rebecca,” a Native American by the name of Matoaka known to history by her childhood name, Pocahontas. Christensen uses this visit, and the famous story of how Matoaka saved John Smith from execution at the hands of her father Powhatan, as an introduction to the role of women in society back then.

Reading of publications of that time like John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Woman and Jacques Olivier’s An Alphabet of Women’s Imperfections – with its description of women as “the world’s most imperfect creature: the scum of nature, the cause of misfortune … the plague of the wise, the stirrer of Hell,” and so on, is profoundly depressing. Despite these common attitudes, a few women of the time were able to amass considerable power. One well-known example is Elizabeth I of England. Another is Nur Jahan, who did most of the day-to-day governing for her husband Jahangir, the ruler of the Mughal Empire. A third whose story Christensen relates, Alonzo Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán, a famously vicious soldier who fought in Chile and Peru, was eventually revealed to be a Basque woman from Spain named Catalina de Erauso. After serving as a soldier in a regiment led by her brother, where she fought for three years unrecognized by him, Catalina de Erauso was promoted to lieutenant, and came to be known as the “lieutenant nun” in the many books later written about her life and exploits.

The dichotomy between tradition and innovation in the arts of 1616 is the subject of Chapter 3, “Creative Imitation,” and was formulated by Wang Shijen, one of the Seven Late Masters of Chinese writing: “If one’s own method corresponds to theirs, one must attempt to express oneself; if one’s method departs, one must attempt to return. When there is departure in correspondence and correspondence in departure, there shall be awakening.” This same relationship was also noted by the great Chinese painter Dong Qichang, who wrote of the northern and southern schools of painting – the northern emphasized long years of study and the gradual acquirement of technical skills, and the southern a more wide-ranging learning that would lead to moments of inspiration evoking the deeper meaning of the painted scene: “external form” versus “inner reality.”

A different dichotomy, between those who sought truth through observation and scientific means, and those who used more traditional methods, occupies Chapter 4, “Witch Hunters and Truth Seekers.” Christensen cites as an instance the astronomer Johannes Kepler and Kepler’s mother Katharina, an herbalist who was accused of witchcraft. Such accusations, often resulting in torture and burning at the stake, were quite common, numbering in the tens of thousands, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Kepler formulated his three laws of planetary motion in part using data compiled by fellow astronomer Tycho Brahe, for whom Kepler worked as an assistant (and who, according to one theory, was murdered by Kepler so as to acquire that data). We also learn from Christensen that Brahe “kept a pet moose that died when it got drunk on beer and fell down the stairs,” a fact I won’t soon forget. Kepler briefly corresponded with Galileo, who was carrying on his own experiments with the speeds of falling bodies, and his initial observations with his refinement of a brand new invention, the telescope.

On the other side of the ledger, Christensen writes of C.R., a native of Germany who, after obscure studies in Arabia and North Africa, returned home and founded a secret society dedicated to occult knowledge. This story is told in one of three so-called Rosicrucian books published between 1614 and 1616, the third and best-known of which, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, incorporated both alchemy (the name derived from the Arabic al-kimiya) and elements of Kepler’s studies. This attempt to reconcile and harmonize inner and outer, microcosm and macrocosm, and a similar effort in China through the teachings of Taoism and its focus on the balance of yin and yang, are described by Christensen: “In China as in Europe there was a tendency to move away from the ‘outer alchemy’ of laboratory processes and to devote more attention to the ‘inner alchemy’ that focused on the symbolic values of the core alchemical principles of rending, uniting, and transforming.”

While most people living in 1616 rarely traveled more than a few miles from home, Christensen reminds us in Chapter 5, “World in Motion,” that many traveled considerable distances: “Artists and artisans; diplomats; pirates, adventurers, and explorers; migrants and settlers; soldiers and their hangers-on; traders and merchants; prostitutes; vagrants and beggars; opportunists; exiles and refugees from war, pestilence, or famine; religious and cultural pilgrims and missionaries; servants and slaves…”

Among the travels recounted are those of the Scot William Lithgow, who by his own estimation covered some 36,000 miles, mostly on foot, with no apparent goal other than adventure and seeing the world. His Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations, published in 1632, is one of the first major Western travel books. Of the three Sherley brothers, all born in England, Thomas became a privateer who wound up in Turkish and English prisons. Anthony Sherley started along the same course, but ended up something of an ambassador between the Persian court and the European powers he was trying to enlist in isolating Turkey, Persia’s enemy. He and his other brother Robert, also an ambassador for Persia, were widely traveled, known to the Pope and the British royalty, and welcomed at courts from Spain to Poland and Russia.

Before the expulsion of missionaries and other foreigners from Japan under Tokugawa Hidetada, under whom Japan’s interactions with the rest of the world were much diminished until the nineteenth century, Japanese also made their way around the world. After reading this book, it’s no longer surprising to find out that Japanese emissaries are depicted in Italian paintings of the seventeenth century, or that there are descendants of Japanese visitors in Mexico even today with the surname Japón.

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