More importantly, these dates provide the student of history a sort of “soft landing”, a place to go back to in order to look forward. For me, the study of dates is not the paramount item, but rather what made those dates so important. Should students of history get caught up in the “names and dates” of history as so many do, we lose sight of the importance of impact. I’ve written about it before, but will reiterate again that the names and dates of history are meaningless study in and of themselves, not to mention that they are boring. The real value is attaching significance to the names and dates that we study, to use them as road markers to the past, to allow us to see the path that we’ve been tracing for all these thousands of years. We do not know where we are going until we understand where we have been is something that I’ve been teaching for years when relating to students why we study history. With that in mind, dates are important as they give us precisely the location of those seminal events that changed the direction of human kind and allow us to see the path behind us. With that in mind, here are some “pivot dates” that I feel are a must for the student of European history, and even history itself. Here I will provide my dates for the 15th and 16th Centuries, with other dates to follow in future blog entries. What are yours??
1455 – The Gutenberg Printing Press
*His bible was sold on that date thereby ushering in the era of print. The press was certainly a watershed event in that it allowed information to be more rapidly disseminated among people, helped to increase the literacy rate (although that would take much time), and permitted people to spread their ideas among the literate classes, proving that the pen is mightier than the sword. The argument can be made that the Reformation would have been greatly reduced or even non-existent had it not been for the printing press.
1492 – The voyage of Christopher Columbus
*This voyage would open up the West to Europe. While it can be argued that he was not the first (as so many anti-Columbites” which to say), there is no question that his voyage is the one that opened up the “New World” for the rest of Europe. The debate can rage as to the efficacy of this opening (We won’t get into that here), but the fact remains that this voyage shined the light on the new continents and they were laid open for the rest of the world to see.
1498 – Vasco da Gama Sails into the Indian Ocean
*With da Gama’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, the spice trade, which had been a secret for so many centuries, was now laid open to Europe. Gone was the exclusivity of the Venetian states which made so much money for so many years. Portugal was to become a major player in European economics, with Lisbon becoming the trading capital of Europe for a time. I would also like to suggest that what once seemed insurmountable, the rounding of the Cape, was no longer so, further proving that man could overcome any obstacle put in his path. Man was beginning to understand his own power, a realization that would have implications for the rest of history.
1517 – Martin Luther posts the 95 Theses
*Seminal in that this seemingly innocent event becomes the basis for not only challenging the Catholic Church outright, but successfully challenging the Church. There had been many questions and challenges before Luther in the form of the conciliar movement, the writings of Marsiglio of Padua, the speeches of Jan Huss and John Wycliffe. The difference here is that it was Luther who posted, defended and survived in the face of every obstacle put in his path. Certainly, Luther had his benefactors like Frederick the Wise, but the fact remains that even when called to the Diet at Worms (more about that in a moment), he never faltered in his stance against what the Church was doing. These Theses, were the beginning of a movement that would change Europe forever, cause nations to deviate from their course, cost literally hundreds of thousands of lives and eventually contribute to the idea of free thought in Europe for generations.
1521 – The Diet at Worms and Luther’s defense
*I’ve written about this moment before (Luther and the Diet at Worms) so this explanation will be brief. In the face of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther steadfastly refuses to recant his statements on religion and the Catholic Church. He survives, Protestantism survives, and the direction of Europe changes.
1534 – The Act of Supremacy in England
*When Henry VIII decided to break from the Church and “create” his own church, it was the moment that every Protestant was waiting for. At one time, England was the model of European catholicism. Henry himself defended the Church against Luther, and was called the “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope himself. How could it be that he broke from the Church, embraces an anti-Catholic stance, and forces England to leave the Holy Father behind? Let’s just say that love…or lust…has its own power. No matter, the deed was done and Henry forged a new path for himself and England and in the process, granted himself a divorce from Catherine of Aragon only to marry and eventually behead Anne Boylen. This event served notice that the Church now had its challengers and would never command the power it once did during earlier centuries. Gone were the days of Pope Gregory VII…forever.
**There are other dates of note…1555 – The Peace of Augsburg, 1588 – The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, but none of these has the power and impact of the above dates in my estimation. Don’t agree? Drop me a line.