Some time ago, while reading a history of the Wars of the Roses, I saw that Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, died in 1492. By this time, Henry VII was on the throne, and he will soon be succeeded by his son, Henry VIII. The Wars of the Roses, which had occupied much of England’s 15th century, were over. Elizabeth Woodville, I thought, was the last medieval.
Not long after her death, Columbus took a little trip that changed the face of the known universe, with repercussions that rippled back across the old world changing trade routes and power centers for centuries to come.
So when I saw this title, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, it was the work of a moment to scoop it up. And one of the first insights I found was this: Life forms and cultures that had grown apart and developed in relative isolation over the centuries
had diverged so much that when they began to reestablish contact, they at first had difficulty recognizing each other as belonging to the same species or sharing the same moral community.
And that’s not the only passage relevant to our own times. I paraphrase: Expansion and resistance sparked civil strife across the globe, militarizing societies, training men in warfare, and nurturing arms industries, resulting in disrupted economies and entire peoples forced into predation.
Fernandez-Armesto’s narrative is not one of blame and shame. It is a story of the limits of human understanding when faced with the totally unexpected. We should be reminded of this every time we read or watch a piece of science fiction: when confronted with what appears to be alien, we will still tend to shoot and ask questions later, later being an undefined point on an infinite scale.
The scope is wider than can really be encompassed fully in one book – the story ranges from Western Europe to the Middle East, from Africa to China, from the New World to India. The cast of characters runs the gamut from Columbus to Savonarola to Mehmet II. Nevertheless, there is enough here to provide a varied luncheon for some interesting thought.