An open letter to an author

Dear Yuval,

if I may? Sometime around the publication in English of your trendy mega bestseller, Sapiens, I read something from you, I can’t remember if it was an essay or an extract from the book, on the Scientific Revolution, as part of the extensive sales campaign for your publication. To say the least, I was, to put it mildly, totally underwhelmed and decided that I really didn’t need to read your book. Since then whenever the subject of your book came up in conversations or on the Internet I made disparaging comments about your abilities as a historian of Early Modern science. Recently it occurred to me that I might be being somewhat unfair, my comments being based on a half remembered short piece of writing and that maybe I ought to give you a second chance. Eventually I ordered your book through interlibrary loan, my university library apparently doesn’t have a copy. When it arrived I sat down to read the Fourth Section of the book entitled The Scientific Revolution. You must excuse me but I have so much that I want to read that I don’t really have time to read your whole book.

The first page of waffle about time travelling peasants and battleships didn’t really impress me but then on the second page I stumbled across the following:

In 1500, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most buildings were constructed of mud, wood and straw; a three-story building was a skyscraper. The streets were rutted dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter, plied by pedestrians, horses, goats, chickens and a few carts. The most common urban noises were human and animal voices, along with the occasional hammer and saw. At sunset, the cityscape went black, with only an occasional candle or torch flickering in the gloom.

The evocative picture that you paint with your words in this paragraph reminds me of the Hollywood B-movie visions of medieval hovels and unwashed peasants that informed my childhood and in my opinion has about as much truth content as those movies of yore.

I am a historian of Renaissance science, hence the name of this blog, and I live just up the road from the German, Renaissance city of Nürnberg, where, belonging as I do the an active group of local historians, I conduct on a fairly regular basis guided tours of the history of astronomy of that city most, but not all, of which revolves around the year 1500, plus or minus 50 years. For your edification and education I would now like to take you on part of that tour to show what a Middle European city really looked like in 1500.

Before I start I will grant that few European cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants; Nürnberg, then the second biggest German city, only had a population of 40,000. Of course there were much bigger cities in other parts of the world, Middle East, India, China but as the entire world population has been estimated to lay between 400 and 500 million in 1500, it is not surprising that the major cities were much smaller than those of today. Scaling up proportionally a city of 40,000 in 1500 with a world population of 500 million is equivalent to a city of more than 500,000 in today’s world of 7,000 million inhabitants, slightly less than Nürnberg’s current population.

I always start my tour with this sundial, which was created in 1502.


Lorenzkirche Sundial Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

As you can see it is a quite sophisticated sundial and if you know how, you can read the time on it in three different ways, from sunrise, from midday and according to the Great Nürnberger clock: a system between the medieval local time system and our equinoctial hours: A bit beyond the primitive culture that you sketch. I hear you muttering but what about clocks. We’ll get to one of those a bit later.

The sundial is on the side of the Lorenzkirche, one of Nürnberg’s two parish churches started in 1250 and finished in 1477.

Nürnberg St. Lorenz Türme von Westen

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see it’s a rather impressive sandstone building with a slate roof, as were most of the city buildings in 1500. By the way, the streets were also paved. No dirt tracks here.

Our next station is the Heilige-Geist-Spital built in 1399 as an old peoples residence, a function it still fulfils today.


Heilige-Geist-Spital Source: Wikimedia Commons

Moving on, we come to the Market Place and the Frauenkirche built between 1352-1362.


Frauenkirche Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mechanical clock on the facade was built in 1509.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ball above the clock shows the phases of the moon, still accurate today. At twelve-noon everyday there is a complex mechanical display with fanfares by the trumpeters, drum rolls and bell ringing. This is followed by the seven Electors circling the Emperor in the middle, three times. Tourists from all over the world come to Nürnberg to witness this spectacle.

I like this 19th-century picture showing the Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain), also on the Market Place, which was built between 1385-1396.


Here it is in all its glory, today.


Schöner Brunnen. In the backgrounfd you can see the towers of the other parish church St. Sebald (14th century) Source: Wikimedia Commons

You might like this house, it was the home of a local artisan, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1525), you might have heard of him?


Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1500, Nürnberg was a major industrial city, producing a very wide range of metal products, as well as being a leading European trading centre. In fact it was one of the biggest centres in Europe for the production of everything that could be made out of metal. For example, the Nürnberg craftsmen received an order from the Emperor, Charles V (1500–1558), for five thousand suits of armour, so we can assume that there was quite a lot of noise on the streets on the city. Nürnberg traded on a large scale with much of Europe. It was not unusual for the traders to attend the Frankfurter Fair with a waggon train of five hundred waggons

You can get a good overall impression of the city from this illustration out of the Schedelsche Weltchronik (known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle), the world’s first printed encyclopaedia, printed and published in Nürnberg in 1493.


Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

By now I hope you will realise that the real historical Nürnberg in 1500 was radically different from your fairy tale description of a city in 1500. Having recovered from having read the paragraph reproduced above, I tried to persevere with your book but having come across several more equally dubious paragraphs in the next few pages, I must honestly say that I can’t be bothered. I have better things to do with my time. I can’t claim that this is a review of your book but I certainly won’t be recommending it to anybody, anytime soon.

No hard feelings











Filed under Autobiographical, Book Reviews, Uncategorized

19 responses to “An open letter to an author

  1. joe

    You’ve added Nurnberg to my “must visit” list. Looks like Yuval Harari believes that researching his historical statements was optional. Loved his statement “a three-story building was a skyscraper”. How could anyone who has ever visited Europe say that. The image below is an artists recreation of medieval Bologna.

  2. Edward Measure

    A very shallow commentary on a great book, that you, like most critics of your ilk, didn’t bother to read. Do you really think that Harari didn’t know that magnificent buildings were being built a couple of millennia before 1500? The only line in your targeted quote that is clearly wrong is “a three story building was a skyscraper.”

    Of course it’s only natural that deep thinkers like Harari will be scorned by narrow specialists like yourself, toiling away in your self-imposed scientific ghettos.

  3. Edward Measure

    Actually, I thought we were talking about those who review or reach broad conclusions about books they haven’t read.

    While it’s true that I don’t see very well, I’m not quite blind, and I do know a bit of science, if less about its history.

  4. SethDee

    While exhaustive detail isn’t required in popular books, when popular books make mistakes which could *easily* be corrected by having a conversation over a beer or coffee with a more specialised scholar or even making use of a library card, it’s appropriate to be annoyed. Elsewhere in Sapiens Harari claims that western Europe played no significant role in history until around 1500! It’s difficult to imagine how someone qualified and credentialed in the field of medieval history as Harari is can make the statements he does. Despite living in Israel, surrounded by religious sentiment on all sides he displays a bizarre inability to grasp what animates religious belief and concludes that to the enlightened such as himself, disputes about the temple mount are nothing more than fighting over rocks.

  5. John Kane

    For those readers who want a quick look at what Thoney is talking about, the book is available in PDF format at

    I would have to say that the first page of Section 4 is just a bit annoying. An ability to ignore civilizations, and scientific or technical progress in China, India and the Ancient Middle East is not a good start.

    I am reminded of one of my favourite opening sentences in a more-or -less scientific paper (Scientific American article) written by experts in their field. I do not have it to hand but from memory it said “Not even Jules Verne in 1860 could have imagined a city with a million inhabitants”.

    This was written in the late 1990s by two distinguished urban planners. Oh course, Verne did not need to imagine such a city. London had a population of roughly 1.1 million by 1820.

  6. Edward Measure

    @Lawrence Cox – Did you even read the reviews you cited? I read the three that weren’t paywalled, and even the most critical one admitted that he presented many stimulating ideas. The critiques were mainly quibbles of the “the Lion has fleas” variety.

    I have also read a dozen or so other reviews, by scholars, business men and others, almost all of whom agreed (with Bill Gates and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, for two) that Harari was immensely stimulating even when they sometimes disagreed with him.

    More to the point, I’ve read Harari, listened to his lectures, and thought and argued about his conclusions. The opinions of those who haven’t are just noise.


    Past the first chapter, Mr.Harari’s book is little more than a series of unsupported assertions. It is not necessary that such a book bristle with footnotes or end notes, but sweeping generalizations (which Mr.Harari presents as “conclusions”) must have some kind of support.

    What some have taken to be “deep thinking” is actually the lazy kind of soft-thought typical of a blinkered ideologue. One can almost hear the sound of the ax being ground. Mr.Harari has established a set of “conclusions” he wishes to reach and then applies fun-house mirrors to history to make them seem reasonable. His brisk and engaging style hides serious lapses in understanding and knowledge (that could have been easily remedied), and demonstrates a commitment to cosmesis rather than content.

  8. Edward Measure

    @Mr. Dilaura – While I have to give you props for your original and odd use of the word “cosmesis,” I’m afraid your logic lacks precision. You accuse Harari of making unsupported sweeping generalizations, but in fact he is careful to support his indeed sweeping conclusions with fact and logic, you don’t say anything to support your sweeping conclusions about his story, and instead offer only invective.

    “Physician, heal thyself.”

    • Niko H.

      @Edward Measure: you say ‘he is careful to support his [..] conclusions with fact and logic.’ . These ‘facts’ are in some cases proven to be forged results from published studies. Not to mention the logical flaws in his arguments. I don’t see how anyone who knows a bit about science can not be indignant about Harari’s behavior.

  9. Edward Measure

    @Niko H. You made an argument but present zero evidence. Cite a significant example, or since you claim multiple examples, cite them.

  10. Great case of being hoisted by one’s own petard. From the Guardian review:

    Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying “the exception proves the rule” (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases).

    Yes, one of my pet peeves is the mis-use of this phrase. But the correction is also wrong.

    One often hears that it means “the exception tests the rule”, together with the fact that “test” in German is “prüfen”, a cognate of “prove”, seen in English in “proving ground”. (This is test in the sense of “see if it works”; “see if I like it” is “probieren”.) True, but irrelevant. The saying in German is “die Ausnahme bestätigt die Regel”, which is “the exception confirms the rule”. OK, this could mean “prove”, especially if it is a sub-optimal translation from English (I’m not sure where the phrase originated). However, “the exception confirms the rule” is probably the real meaning, in the sense of “the exception confirms the existence of the rule”. Example: “Only officers are allowed to leave the base after 10pm.” This is obviously an exception, but where is the rule? The rule is obviously “Soldiers are not allowed to leave the base after 10pm”, but the rule has an exception for officers. So, the fact that the exception exists allows one to deduce the existence of the corresponding rule. Other examples: kids eat free, free parking on Sundays,

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