It’s 1347 in Caffa. The Mongols have been besieging the Genoese for four years, and some of the newest recruits turn out to be stricken with a rather nasty disease that causes bleeding lumps. As soldiers die, the troops catapult the infected bodies over the walls, which some note as one of the first instances of biological warfare. Since Caffa is a port, many escape in ships, carrying the disease with them to Sicily. By the time the pandemic spreads across Europe, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 the population would die, and, in densely-populated cities, near 70-80%.
The Pandemic After-Party
The Black Death didn’t launch the Renaissance, and it wasn’t even the only widespread calamity of the day. There were massive famines throughout the 14th century in Europe as a mini-Ice Age followed centuries of relatively warmer weather. A different kind of climate shift–a drying out in the grasslands to the far east–may have pushed rats out of those drying grass of Siberia down south and east, to the population centers nearer to Mongolia and China. Virus + fleas + rats + people on horseback and on ships, all moved west. (Of course, China and India also suffered massive casualties from the plague, earlier than 1347, which is often overlooked.)
Large-scale reduction in populations cause upheaval, but they can be followed by opportunity. When the peasants recovered, they were in high demand. Their standard of living increased dramatically.
Travel and trade had dwindled for decades, but now it was turbo-charged, with traders flying around the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, the round-the-tip-of-Africa route to carry goods again. People were healthier, food was more abundant, more resources were available. You could stop worrying about how soon you were going to die and start thinking about pillows, cinnamon, and how to paint Venus on a seashell.
For the 2022 A to Z challenge, I wrote 26 posts all about the Renaissance. You’ll find juicy gossip about the popes, artwork by Van Eyck and Raphael, the origins of the tarot, and the story behind Da Vinci’s horse. You can scroll through the posts individual by clicking the NEXT button at the very bottom, or you can enter April 2022 in the Search box on the right sidebar.
Welcome to the Renaissance. It’s an Age of …
Renaissance, as I’m sure you remember, means “rebirth.” Ironically this term was created by a French historian centuries after the reborn age was long redead. You can thank Jules Michelet for making the era so hard for historians to spell.
What Was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a historical period when culture bloomed like algae on a lake. With the right conditions in place, the growth of population and wealth combined with receding constraints allowed ideas to flourish and accelerate. It exploded out of Italy primarily at first but the changes in art, science, fashion, commerce, and knowledge spread across large swaths of Europe. Soon, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into yet another statue or domed ceiling or argument about which subject in the quadrivium was most important.
A circle is an infinite number of points all equally distant from a single center. That definition came from Euclid, a Greek, although the Greek’s didn’t use zero. Aristotle was afraid to divide by the void because it wasn’t descriptive of the real world.
The Chinese and the Sumerians used placeholders in their counting, adopting different marks for the tens and the 60s digit, since Babylonians used base 60. But they didn’t have a zero.
The Mayans had a zero–they used base 20–which allowed them to produce large astronomical calculations that generated accurate solar and lunar calendars using only sticks. But their isolation prevented trade, which limited their civilization.
The Romans had zero, of course! Nulla. The Romans had sophisticated plumbing and developed roads that lasted for millenia. But Romans disdained to use nulla in their numbering systems, so even though their business records were hierarchical and detailed, they were limited. Growth is limited if a number like 397,654 is CCCXCVMMDCLIV.
The Arabs developed zero; they developed algebra. But the Arabs learned it from the Hindus.