By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Susan Wise Bauer
Narration by: John Lee
The Renaissance resurrects secular and religious belief as a test of human will; i.e. a test that persists today. “The History of the Renaissance World” is a whirlwind tour of 12th to 16th century humanist resurrection; i.e. the tour reveals a loose conspiracy of non-religious and religious believers. It is a battle of religions’ pagan and secular leaders during the Renaissance.
One may ask how a religious leader can be pagan but the author, Susan Wise Bauer, recounts the murder, rape, and mayhem of many Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist; not to mention, Shaman and Animist leaders who have been as pagan as any non-religious leader.
Each devout believer believes their religion and/or belief is the only religion and/or belief. An irony of that delusion is, if one accepts research done by Elaine Pagels on Christendom, organized religion is based on a lie. Her research implies God’s command to create a hierarchical human organization to interpret the word of God is a distortion of God’s word. Pagels’ book, “The Gnostic Gospels”, is based on a text of an ancient Christian community, older than the New Testament, which states religious belief comes from within and not from a hierarchical religious organization. It is no giant leap to believe all religious leaders, acting as God’s messengers, are subject to human motivations; i.e. motivations that tempt all human beings to sin. Human beings are motivated by money, power, and prestige.
Religious leaders are human beings. They can be greedy. They can desire and wield abusive power. They can covet adulation based on position rather than ability. Bauer’s book records some of the greed, abuse of power, and covetousness of religious and secular leaders during the Renaissance.
Subjection to the weaknesses of being human leads to the crimes of Renaissance wars. One may believe in God, or not, but Bauer’s history of the Renaissance illustrates God’s human messengers are not divine. Religious and secular leaders are as likely to distort or co-opt belief in religion for money, power, and prestige as for belief in God or humanity.
The death and destruction during the Renaissance is enormous but the development of a society of laws that protect individual rights grows with nationalist leaders that rise above human temptation; not from listening to human interpretations of God’s word. Wise secular and religious leaders are eventually compelled, if not convinced, by citizen’s rebellion, or (if a believer in God) direct individual communication from God, to ameliorate unfair practices.
The history of the Renaissance shows that many leaders fail but there is halting progress toward broader human understanding and freedom. King Charles VIII invades Naples to add to the French Kingdom but is forced out of Spain by resistance from Spain and Pope Alexander VI. Though King Charles VIII’s invasion fails, Italian culture spreads through Europe.
As a defender of France, Pope Alexander VI is recorded as a womanizer who tried to create a dynasty to unite Italy. In the duration of his long tenure, Alexander reformed much of the clergy by creating rules for the sale of Church property; he limited cardinals to one bishopric, and demanded stricter moral codes for the clergy. One is inclined to believe Alexander acted as a human, more than as messenger from God.
Perhaps the most brutal leader of all time is Genghis Khan. However, in his creation of the Mongol Empire, he is both tolerant and interested in learning the moral lessons of other religions. In the process of creating the largest land empire in history, Khan showed the world how to organize a nation based on a leader’s merit rather than relationship.
Bauer notes the roles of lesser known world powers like Ghana and Mali in Africa. Though tribal based, they were nations of power that became corrupted by success. Leaders were seduced by greed. Their power collapsed from rising discontent of poor and enslaved natives.
Another obscure vignette of Renaissance history is revealed in the consolidation of the Scandinavian countries by a woman named Elizabeth, the Electress consort of Brandenburg. As the daughter of the King of Denmark, this extraordinary woman manages to consolidate Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into one power. Bauer notes that the success of the merger of nations only lasts for one generation. (Elizabeth instituted a break with the Roman Catholic Church by receiving Protestant communion in public. She is influenced by Martin Luther’s sermons about the errant path of Roman Catholicism–according to an article posted in Wikipedia.)
Much of the progress of the Renaissance is associated with the Dark Ages’ preservation by Muslim scholars and culture. Muslims in Spain preserved much of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge that became the seed bed for Renaissance thinking. Jared Diamond, in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” notes that the flow of technology until the 1500s is largely from Muslim culture.
Saladin, one of the great leaders of the Muslim religion in the 12th century, practiced what Plato and Aristotle taught. Long after the famous Saladin’s death, 19th century revisionists recognized Saladin for his forbearance in combating Christian Crusaders. The Christian Crusaders slaughtered thousands of Muslims when they conquered Jerusalem in 1099 but when it is retaken by Saladin in the 12th century, he granted amnesty and free passage to the defeated Catholic army.
The Muslim religion’s leaders during the Renaissance are not uniformly pacific. The rise of the Muslim Ottoman Empire ends the Roman Empire in the sacking and murder of thousands of Christians in the capital city of Constantinople. Mehmed II and the Ottoman Army round-up twenty of the riches Christians in the city and behead them as a measure of his power and control. Bauer suggests power and wealth; not religion, are Mehmed’s motivation for invasion.
Bauer overwhelms the listener with the number of leaders and continents reported (with the obvious historical exception of North America). This twenty hour Renaissance’ journey, with John Lee’s excellent recitation, keeps the listener interested.
Inept religious and secular leaders continue to stir the pot of discontent. Some religious and secular leaders lead to peace; others to destruction. One hopes Pope Francis is a genuine peacemaker and that belligerent secular ideological leaders in America, Israel, Russia, France, and other parts of the world, ameliorate their differences.
Bauer reminds reader/listeners that organized religion and secular leaders are conspiratorial and subject to all the sins of humankind.