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.
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.
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.
Moving on, we come to the Market Place and the Frauenkirche built between 1352-1362.
The mechanical clock on the facade was built in 1509.
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.
You might like this house, it was the home of a local artisan, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1525), you might have heard of him?
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.
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