Saturday, January 23, 2010

Poor souls

By now you are getting royally tired of Tudor England, and so am I. Derek Wilson's hefty history goes on and on, and I'm too busy tiling the terrace to make more expeditious progress. As I mentioned, the book's slant is political -- the contentious politics of Henry's court, and of Europe in general, including the tangled machinations of the papacy. Henry ruled from 1509 to 1547. It was a watershed time in Europe, what with the spread of printing, the Protestant Reformation, peasant revolts, contentions with Turks and Moors, and the ransacking of newly discovered Western continents. Religion and gold, and lots of ink.

And speaking of ink --

In all of the 580 pages of Wilson's book, there is no mention of two books published in 1543 that may have had as much to do with shaping the future of Western civilization as any lusty monarch or rambunctious priest. I'm thinking of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), and Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres).

The microcosm and the macrocosm. Vesalius opened up the human body to empirical observation. He found a marvelous array of tissues and organs, and not a trace of the immortal soul or any seat thereof. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the universe and, in the absence of parallax, pushed the stars (and Empyrean) an essentially infinite distance away -- in effect removing any place an immortal soul might find repose. Both of which rendered superfluous all the interreligious squabbling -- Christian versus Christian, Christian versus Muslim, Christian versus New World "pagans" --that defined the era and caused such a tsunami of human suffering.

Of course, folks at the time were rather more interested in theological disputation than in using their eyes to see what's what, which is why Vesalius and Copernicus don't even have walk-on parts in Wilson's book. In that, nothing has changed. We still squabble about our respective versions of immortality. If we do it for the most part less violently than in the reign of Henry VIII, it is more because of the long-range influence of empirical anatomy and astronomy than of Luther's ninety-five theses or the Council of Trent.