Pinning a date on modernity

2010-10-27 00:00

THE sub-title of this unusual book implies modernity. And that is generally taken to mean the unshackling of individual initiative from the conformity imposed by feudal, religious and community control. The modern age can indeed be traced back to the fifteenth century, but to pin it to a specific year is a bold gesture.

Fernández-Armesto is primarily a historian of maritime exploration, preoccupied by prevailing winds, ocean currents and late medieval­ cartography. Explaining why obscure West European nations should establish a series of empires, he falls back on favourable geography, coupled with economic imperatives and a culture of adventurism. Arabs, Chinese and Japanese were technologically as advanced, but constrained by natural factors or infighting. China deliberately turned its back on maritime expansion and, as the author wryly notes, retains its empire to this day.

He sees history as a process with no pre-ordained course and punctuated by sudden, even random, events — a description shared with geomorphology.

The rise of imperial Christendom and the decline of other empires was nevertheless a profound and defining event. In a nutshell it marked a shift from divergence to convergence, an early version of globalisation.

The substance of this book is an engagingly written account of events from the tail end of the 1400s: the fall of Granada, forced conversion of Spanish Jews, the rise of Muscovy, the changing geopolitics of the West African interior, the dynamics of the Chinese court, the defeat of Aztecs and Incas; and, of course, the voyages of discovery of that egomaniac Christopher Columbus.

But while each chapter begins with a dated reference to an event in 1492, the narrative soon wanders off on other trails. The author even cheerfully admits that there was no common understanding at the time of the dating of years.

He has produced an intriguing book — but it surely deserves another title.

Christopher Merrett


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